Thursday, October 27, 2011

My encounter with polar bears in northern Canada

This little guy, an estimated 800 lbs., approached our tundra buggy. Maybe he could smell our lunch. Female bears can grow as large as 900 lbs., males up to 1,500. (Photo by Cynthia Linton)

I was looking a hungry polar bear in the eye from just four feet away – and he was looking back.

My feelings were a mix of awe, empathy -- and fear. I knew his huge claws could rip me open and his powerful jaw could crush my skull. But he looked so nice!

I was on the open-air back of a tundra buggy and safely out of reach above him, but still he took my breath away.

This polar bear encounter was in Churchill, Manitoba, on Hudson Bay, where polar bears congregate and wait for the ice to re-freeze in late autumn.

They had drifted south on ice floes and gone ashore when the ice all melted in late July. Polar bears eat fat-laden ringed seals and can only catch them from the ice, when the seals poke through from the sea to breathe. So no ice means no food.

Months without nourishment
These bears – we saw 18 in two days – must wait with nothing to eat for 4 months. They have loaded up on seal blubber to get them through their long fast. Pregnant mothers who retreat to dens to give birth must fast even longer – about 8 months, the longest known period without food for any mammal.

As ice now melts earlier and forms later, the bears of Hudson Bay have been showing signs of stress. Body weight is down and mothers are having fewer cubs.

Polar bear jail
Sometimes (several hundred times a year recently) bears wander into Churchill, likely in search of food. They’ve been known to kill people so their appearance is cause for alarm. The intruders used to be shot, but now are treated much more humanely. If shooting off noisy flares doesn’t drive them away, they’re tranquilized with darts and confined to “polar bear jail” until near the time the ice freezes in November. Then they’re tranquilized again and airlifted hanging from helicopters about 30 miles away.

If a mother with cubs is captured, she and the babies are released more quickly so she can care for her young. Mother polar bears nurse and protect their cubs for their first two years. They try to avoid the adult males who occasionally will attack and eat the young ones.

Last week, when I was in the tundra near the bay, male bears were lying around or slowly ambling, trying to conserve their energy and beat the heat (which was about 30 degrees F). There was no snow on the ground except for patches, as the temperature had, until that week, been too high for snow.

Studying the polar bear
It isn’t known exactly how many polar bears there are in the world. Estimates range from 20,000-25,000. But in the western Hudson Bay area, bears are tagged and tattooed in an effort to get an accurate count. The population there has dropped 25%, from 1,200 in 1987 to 900 in 2004, according to a Polar Bears International volunteer, who was with us on the tundra buggy.

Other research, to learn the impact of oil spills on the bears, was conducted in Churchill, according to our driver-guide. Bears were put in a pool with an oil slick. The idea was to learn if the oil would hurt the bears’ natural insulation, which helps them survive extreme cold. Within days several of the bears died, a totally unexpected result. It turns out they licked the oil off their fur and ingested it. The experiment stopped. (I was unable to verify what he told us, but it sounded plausible.)

The U.S. Geological Survey concluded in 2007 that with climate change and sea ice trends, two-thirds of the world’s polar bear population could disappear by mid-century. And they could be completely gone from Hudson Bay and Beaufort Sea.

That’s the reason I flew to Winnipeg and then on a charter plane to Churchill – and wore three layers of clothes, double socks and fur-lined boots for 3 days. I wanted to see polar bears in the wild while I could.

The bears we saw showed no aggression. They apparently hiss when annoyed and none we saw did that. Our bear (the one who approached the buggy and stood up to get closer to us) was one of the curious ones. Others gave us a glance and lumbered by or just stayed where they were and snoozed. When they are so nice it's easy to be sad about their uncertain future and it makes you want to reach out and pet them.

Not a good idea.

Some other polar bear facts:

*Their skin is black and absorbs heat through their fur.
*Their feet have hair on the bottom and their tiny ears are well-covered with fur, to protect them in the severe cold.
*The front paws grow up to 12 inches in diameter and are webbed to help them swim.
*Once in the water, however, bears can’t keep up with seals. They need get them on the ice.
*When born, cubs weight only 2 lbs.
*Polar bear cubs have a 50/50 chance of survival.
*It's against the law to feed the bears, no matter how hungry they may be.

Some of this information comes from Kieran Mulvaney‘s “The Great White Bear,” recommended reading for the trip.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

I had an intimate chat today with Sen. John Kerry in Chicago

Well, I guess I should mention there were about 25 other people from the environmental community at the meeting this morning. Kerry had come to talk about what we can do to help pass a good climate bill in Washington -- and prevent a bad one that would strip the EPA of power to regulate greenhouse gases.

The senator, who but for Ohio would have been president, and has become the leader on climate change, was in town to pitch Alexi Giannoulias, Democrat for Senate, as a friend to the environment and a much-needed vote to keep the Dems in charge of at least one chamber on Capitol Hill.

Kerry is clearly passionate about the need for a strong climate law and just as clearly distressed by the mood of the country and the lack of interest in doing something about "pollution," as he calls it. The Republicans branded "cap and trade" as "cap and tax" and destroyed all chances for the only effective way to bring in revenue to help companies and consumers cope with the change, and provide money for R&D to move the country forward.

It's so obvious, he said, that a strong climate bill would have multiple benefits -- creating jobs, preventing more and worse droughts and floods, improving health, preserving national security and reducing dependence on foreign oil. But a carbon tax won't do the job, he said. "It would have to be a big tax to influence behavior, and it has no target (to reduce CO2)." Utilities would likely just "write it into the cost of doing business."

On clean energy jobs, he said, we're falling behind many other countries. "We're on the margins. We're not doing nearly what we could be doing." While China is giving state subsidies to renewable energy "we're not even doing all we legally could," with incentives and grants.

And we're not going to catch up with "a bunch of Neanderthal flat-earthers" in the Congress.

"We're in a very strange place right now, and we've got to break out of it."

He expects an energy bill of some kind, but says it will be greatly watered down to perhaps a renewable portfolio standard and energy efficiency provision. "They'll cherry-pick the easy things," he said, and avoid the hard ones.

He gave a bill by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) to delay for two years the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases a good chance of passing. "I'm more than worried," he said. "It's going to be a very, very tough fight," one he said he would lead.

With so much money on the other side -- made worse by the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling (which he called unbelievably dangerous) -- the only way to get decent climate legislation is for the people to "rekindle the grassroots bite" that in the '70s helped pass the Clean Air Act, the establishment of the EPA and so many other environmental steps forward. "In the '70s we did teach-ins, and organized around them." Individual letters and phone calls are needed to counter the pressure on senators from the other side, he said. "Pre-printed cards have far less impact."

In the next two weeks, Kerry urged, environmentalists must work hard to get out the vote for candidates who will be on their side. Giannoulias put in an appearance at the end and the two men embraced -- both very tall, one distinguished-looking with a mop of thick gray hair, the other a fresh-faced hopeful in his 30s. They both said they hoped to serve together in the Senate.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Exelon turns from nukes, become major force in wind power

ComEd parent Exelon, a big player in the nuclear power industry, is turning toward wind. The company said today it will buy John Deere renewables, which will make it one of the largest wind operators in the U.S.

Deere Renewables has 735MW operating and 230MW more in development in Michigan.

Meanwhile, Exelon has pulled back its application to license a two-unit nuclear plant in Texas because of lower demand due to a slumping economy.

Exelon is committed to cutting its CO2 emissions by 15M metric tons by 2020, which is more than its total output in 2001.

(Source:, Green blog, NYT)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Chicago releases progress report on climate action plan

(Photo of Michigan Avenue from Flickr and photographer Lapstrake/Tom Gill)

I’ve noticed mostly hybrid buses up and down Michigan Avenue lately, and most of my rides are now on one of the 208 new hybrids the city bought over the past year or so. I wondered, though, what the buses looked like in other parts of the city. And now I know. The Chicago Climate Action Plan’s report has been released and it says hybrids make up just 13% of the bus fleet.

I don’t want to downplay the importance of buying these hybrids or of showcasing them in areas where tourists abound. We know the city had planned to buy more, but had to cut back the order because of budget problems. But too often the CCAP’s accomplishments have been happening under the radar – or if reported haven’t been put in context. So we don’t know how much, percentage-wise, CO2 emissions have been cut.

In an earlier post I outlined some of the raw figures Suzanne Malek-McKenna, head of the Environment Department, showed on a slide during a meeting in May. It was the first indication I’d seen of progress from the CCAP, which has a goal of cutting GHG emissions 25% (from 1990 levels) by 2020.

This 2-year progress report repeats some of those numbers and gives a bit more information, but again context is often missing and the report is written in such corporate terms it’s hard to separate the results from the process.

Energy efficiency is key
CCAP, which revealed its plans two years ago after many months of planning with the help of civic leaders, community groups, nonprofits, corporations and unions, clearly was going to focus most of its efforts on energy conservation. That made sense because 70% of emissions in Chicago came from energy use in buildings. Not a sexy topic or something you can see, like hybrid cars or windmills or shutting down coal plants.

But energy efficiency is something that can be done quickly, and the bonus is that it saves money. So quietly the city began working with its partners to weatherize buildings, both public and private.

In the past two years the city, often using federal grants, has worked with community organizations and others to weatherize 393 commercial and industrial buildings and 13,341 residential units, cutting their energy use by 21%. Steps taken including sealing air leaks, adding insulation, upgrading windows and improving heat and air conditioning systems.

Chicago now leads the country in the number of LEED certified buildings, with 134 – compared with 96 in Portland, 95 in San Francisco and 82 in New York. Looking at context again, Portland and San Francisco have much lower populations and may well lead percentage-wise, but any way you look at it we beat out the Big Apple.

Additionally, ComEd has worked with the city to get people to turn in old, inefficient appliances and lighting for more energy-efficient models. More than 2.4 million light bulbs have been changed out, making that the biggest saving in electricity and money, with air conditioners and refrigerators coming in a distant second and third.

There's more
A few other important findings in the report:

• The Park District uses 25% renewable energy at its facilities.
• Chicago has become a major hub for wind companies, with 14 now here, compared with just 4 at the end of 2008. The city’s manufacturing capabilities, proximity to areas with great potential in wind and extensive transportation networks all contribute to an environment for wind companies to settle here.
• Exelon and SunPower developed the largest urban solar power plant, with more than 32,000 panels.
• The Chicago Public Schools now purchase 20% of their electricity from alternative sources.

There’s quite a bit more. Click here to see the entire report. There’s more being done than we have been told about. I wonder why they don’t announce their accomplishments more. In the vacuum we are left to focus on two of the lingering problems: the filthy old coal plants inside city limits and the stunted recycling program.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Iceland a volcanic wonderland with all renewable energy

(Photo of Strokkurd geyser erupting, as it does every few minutes at Geysir Hot Springs Area in southern Iceland. Photo by Sabrina Linton)

I just got back from a trip to Iceland with my grandchildren Bryan and Sabrina. The pristine island nation is hauntingly beautiful in a volcano-y, geothermally, green-mossy sort of way. There's very little pollution. If all the world were like Iceland we wouldn’t have to worry about climate change.

Blessed with plenty of natural hydro and geothermal energy, the country derives virtually all of its electric power from renewable sources. It fuels 90% of its heating and 25% of its electricity with the geothermal power simmering below its surface and has 7 geothermal power plants, 6 of them currently operational. Hydroelectric power fuels the balance.

Iceland is in a race with France, Israel and others to change over to electric vehicles supported by a nationwide EV charging network. Northern Lights Energy Co. hopes to make Iceland the first country in the world to have a national electric charging grid, which is very possible because of the scarcity of roads. Iceland could service the entire island with 20 well-placed charging stations.

Iceland is also using hydrogen for power. There was a charging station at the harbor and the whale-watching boat we went on was powered by hydrogen.

The fruits and vegetables are mostly organic and livestock aren’t fed antibiotics, our guide told us. Much of what Icelanders eat comes out of the sea, with fishing as its main industry. (No runaway oil wells muddying the waters here.) Low-cost geothermal energy has led to a healthy greenhouse industry, where salad greens, tomatoes, bananas and such are grown indoors. We ate bananas there, assuming had been shipped a long, long way. Maybe not!

This tiny country with just over 300,000 people does have a huge advantage when it comes to pollution from power use. The don’t need much of it.

Of course there are disadvantages to living on a volcanic island. Eyjafjallajökull (I think I can finally pronounce it), the volcano that erupted several months ago, was lying dormant again – at least for now – but caused quite a bit of damage with its ash, which covered farms in the area, requiring evacuation of livestock. The real threat, however, is Vatnajökull, which in the past has followed its smaller sibling and would blow up Europe’s largest ice cap, likely causing deadly floods.

Iceland is one of the fastest growing tourist destinations in the world. Proximity of the Gulf Stream keeps it milder in winter than New York or Toronto. Yet in summer, despite its 24 hours of daylight, high temps are usually in the high 50s or low 60s. We had one warmer day, when it was unusually sunny and in the low 70s, nice enough to have dinner at a sidewalk café in Reykjavik. Another day when we went close to the huge Vatna glacier and rode in a boat among icebergs on a glacial lagoon, we nearly froze. But it was nice to beat the heat back home for a week!

(Sources: GEA International Market Report May 2010, Globetrotter Travel Guide to Iceland, The Daily Green, BBC)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Climate bill dead in the water; Next up, attack on EPA rules

(Photo of U.S. Capitol Building from Flickr and photographer wallyg)

You can kiss a climate bill goodbye, for 2010 and likely for the foreseeable future.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has read the tea leaves and seen the time and the votes aren’t there. So instead he is offering a pitiful oil spill response and energy efficiency bill. He thinks he can get 60 votes for that, but others aren’t even sure.

Gone is a price on carbon. Gone is a renewable electricity standard (RES) of 15%, which was scorned by enviros as far too weak when it passed out of Jeff Bingaman’s (D-N.M.) energy committee a year ago. Now it looks pretty good.

Without a price on carbon and an RES, clean energy won’t have the impetus needed to make a dent in the fossil fuel monopoly.

Reid’s bill, to be unveiled Monday, is expected to include:
• A spill response eliminating or raising the $75M liability cap, probably to $10B, plus some rig safety rules.
• HomeStar energy-efficiency retrofitting.
• Natural gas truck incentives.
• Funds for land and water conservation.

Now it’s up to the EPA
The only silver lining in this disastrous thunder cloud is that the EPA can begin regulating large sources of emissions, and states can continue their own programs.

But a new study by the World Resource Institute says those would only cut greenhouse gases 14% by 2020, instead of the 17% expected in the Kerry-Lieberman bill and promised by Obama at the world meeting in Copenhagen.

Republicans, and some Democratic Senators, are hoping to handcuff the EPA’s ability to regulate emissions under the Clean Air Act. If they succeed, emissions would be cut just 6-9%, the study says. And there’s no way – without additional measures – to come close to the 80% reduction needed by 2050.

Dem Sen. Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.) has a bill, which Reid promised to bring up for a vote, which would delay EPA action for two years. (It’s not like we’re in any hurry here.) Six other Dems are co-sponsoring that bill. In case any of them are supposed to represent you, they are Dorgan and Conrad of N.D., McCaskill (Mo.) Webb (Va.), Johnson (S.C.) and Nelson (Neb.)

A companion bill in the House is likely to be blocked by Dem leadership. And there’s always an Obama veto. So in all likelihood the EPA will be able to proceed in January, requiring new plants to use the best available technology to cut GHG.

There’s a GOP energy bill too
Just in case you thought Reid’s bill is as low as we could go, Republicans will offer an energy bill of their own that focuses (of course) on offshore drilling, lifting the deepwater drilling moratorium for those that meet new inspection criteria, making 37.5% revenue sharing with states immediate rather than waiting till 2017, setting up a more industry-friendly liability program, and reorganizing the former Minerals Management Service.

Nothing here about energy efficiency or natural gas vehicles.

Who wins, who loses?
So, despite the catastrophic Gulf spill and the sweltering heat, which should remind us of what’s in store, Big Oil and Coal have handily won this round.

There are a lot of losers:

Too bad, House of Representatives, which passed a decent bill last summer, that will now die.

Too bad, Sens. Kerry and Lieberman, who spent much of the past year-and-a-half trying to gain support for a mild but comprehensive climate bill.

Too bad, corporations, that want some certainty about regulations in the future.

Too bad, environmental groups, for all the resources spent pleading our case.

Too bad, clean energy businesses that won’t get a level playing field.

And too bad, world, that is waiting for the United States to lead, or at least not to drag everyone else down.

Too bad, you and me and our children and grandchildren.

It’s really, really too bad.

(Sources: Greenwire, E&E Daily, E&E News PM, The Hill)