Jim Motavalli

A Zero-Waste Olympics? Nice Try, But No Gold Medal

It’s easier to imagine a world without waste than it is to actually accomplish it. And that’s what the planners of the London Olympics are finding out—their vision doesn’t quite match the situation on the ground.

Keep reading... Show less

Ski Resorts Are Reinventing Themselves in the Face of Global Warming

Marshall Heaven of Greenwich, Connecticut got tired of waiting for the snow to fall, so he bought two Backyard Blizzard snowmakers and can now promise 15-foot drifts as early as late November .... Even though it's late January in Mason Township, Maine, Steve Crone of New England Dogsledding tethers his eager canines to a golf cart. "We'd rather have snow," he says with some embarrassment ... Fifteen-year-old Cameron Sonley of Peterborough, Ontario, where the winter was two degrees warmer than usual in the 2006-2007 season, complained last March that because of high temperatures he was only able to go snowboarding four or five times, instead of his usual dozen .... In Staten Island, New York, skaters have been thwarted for three straight years as pond ice failed to thicken ... Janisse Ray, an outdoor recreation enthusiast in Danville, Vermont, got so frustrated when the West River hadn't frozen by last January that she donned a wetsuit and floated downstream in an inner tube, holding aloft a sign that said "Where's winter?"

Where indeed? Since 1970, average winter temperatures in New England have increased 4.4 degrees Fahrenheit. In the U.S., 2006 was the warmest year on record, and 1998 is number two. The last eight five-year periods were the warmest since we began taking national records 112 years ago. During the past 25 to 30 years, says the National Climatic Data Center, the warming trend has accelerated, from just over a tenth of one degree Fahrenheit per decade to almost a third of a degree.

By the end of the century, temperatures in the Northeastern states are likely to rise by eight to 12 degrees Fahrenheit (at which time snow-covered days will have been reduced to half of what we traditionally experience). A 2007 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists on the Northeast predicted that, under some higher-emission scenarios, "Only western Maine is projected to retain a reliable ski season by the end of the century, and only northern New Hampshire would support a snowmobiling season longer than two months." Warmer weather and changing precipitation will result in a fundamental change to winter recreation and what the report called "the winter landscape."

Our Changing Climate

When Nat "King" Cole sang about "Jack Frost nipping at your nose" and "folks dressed up like Eskimos" in 1946, a white Christmas was standard fare in many parts of America. But with today's milder winters, Jack Frost is not such a regular visitor and hats and gloves are spending more time in the closet.

The Hood Museum at Dartmouth College recently mounted a major exhibit of Inuit clothing, tools and art -- materials adapted to one of the coldest places on Earth. But the once-stable climate there is changing. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment said in 2004 that Arctic temperatures are now rising at nearly twice the rate of the rest of the world (as much as 14 degrees Fahrenheit on average over the next 100 years), reducing sea ice and melting frozen soils. It's been widely reported that Alaska's polar bears are probably doomed by 2050, but the scale of this climatic shift will likely do much more -- completely changing the culture of the Arctic region.

Though there are still a few diehards, the overwhelming majority of scientists now believe that climate change is at least partly responsible for our steadily rising thermometers. Obviously, global warming science is complex and hardly monolithic -- some parts of the world continue to experience very cold temperatures and record snowfalls, just as the climate models say they will. You might even be reading this as a blizzard fulfills the promise of a white winter. But the overwhelming trend is clear: it's getting warmer, and winter is losing force, intensity and duration, changing America's ingrained habits in the process. If you've ever enjoyed ice skating, sledding, skiing, snowboarding or building a snowman, you should know that the future of these enshrined institutions is by no means guaranteed.

In the film Lucky Numbers, John Travolta plays a local weatherman who has it all, including a lucrative snowmobile franchise. Unfortunately, the winter season fails to deliver any snow, so the dealership goes bankrupt. That was fiction, but the Boston Globe recently reported on the real-life closing of Kingdom Cat, a dealership in northerly Island Pond, the "snowmobile capital of Vermont." After several years of little snow and 30 machines left in inventory, owner Bob Halpin decided to call it a day. "The winters have gotten progressively worse," he said. "We decided to cut our losses."

The closing of a northern Vermont snowmobile dealership is hardly an isolated incident. In 2006, major snowmobile manufacturer Polaris had 40 percent lower sales than in 2005. In the U.S., sales for the fiscal year ending last March 31 were down 12 percent from the previous year, reports the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association (ISMA) in Michigan. Total sales of 79,814 in 2006 contrasted sharply with the 170,325 sold in 1997.

"If it doesn't snow, people don't downhill ski, they don't cross-country ski and, guess what, they don't snowmobile either," says Ed Klem executive director of ISMA. Snowmaking isn't an option when the typical Upper Peninsula, Michigan snowmobiler covers 100 miles of trail in a day. "The lack of snow is the highest barrier to entry [into snowmobiling] because consumers don't want to spend $6,000 on a sled unless they're going to use it," Klem says. Many snowmobile manufacturers are saved by the fact that they also make all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), whose sales are steady.

Klem adds that snowmobile sales are, however, up two percent in still-frigid Canada, and have enjoyed double-digit growth for six years in Russia, where the sport is new, disposable income is abundant, and snow still covers the slopes.

Skiing Into Trouble

According to the Concord Monitor in a rather poetic editorial, last winter the New Hampshire woods were filled with "rain instead of snow, open water instead of frozen lakes, the chatter of red squirrels scolding and rustle of dry leaves replaced the icy 'pop' of freezing tree sap." The paper continued, "While black bears continued to rattle birdfeeders and geese and ducks were reported flying north over open water on some rivers, we all knew winter wouldn't remain a no-show so much as a late arrival."

Among the effects, the Monitor said, are native trees damaged and amphibians killed by early thaw-and-freeze cycles. "There may be reason for new concern if current trends for extreme winter temperature fluctuations continue," the paper said.

These changes are not without major effects on the state's economy. Cliff Brown, an associate professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, notes that the state had 65 downhill ski areas in the 1970s, but only 20 remain. New Hampshire winters warmed 3.8 degrees Fahrenheit in the 20th century, and snowmaking alone hasn't saved the day, especially for the low-lying family facilities. The surviving resorts, Brown says, are larger, tend to be corporate owned, and are located at higher elevations.

To stay in business, the resorts have also diversified from skiing. "They've been very successful at adapting to changing climate patterns, which means year-round activities," Brown says. "That's why you get the water parks, conference centers and condos. There are only so many good skiing days now. The resorts get 30 percent of their skiing revenue from just 10 percent of available days."

On a recent fall day, the lower slopes at Bromley Mountain in southern Vermont looked more like an amusement park than a ski area. It's now known as "Vermont's sun and fun park," with a "Thrill Zone" (alpine slide, miniature golf, climbing wall, bumper boats and an adrenaline-pumping zipline) helping generate revenues well into September.

To lure people in, they host bluegrass concerts, magic shows and even ventriloquists. Like most state ski resorts, Bromley has had to reinvent itself as a summer destination, and the strategy is working. Skiing attendance (which peaked in the mid-80s) is now at 120,000 annually, but an additional 55,000 to 70,000 come for fair weather fun.

"The last couple of years have not been good for skiing," says spokesman Peter Dee. "We usually try to be open by Thanksgiving, but now we're looking at the eighth or ninth of December." Snow guns can cover 85 percent of the mountain, but if temperatures stay above freezing even that option is not available.

Dee adds that snowmaking was once an "insurance policy" for ski areas, but now it's a necessity. At Bromley and other Vermont destinations, the snowmaking starts in late October and continues until late March. But snowmaking has limitations, because if skiers don't see snow in their backyards, they're likely to just stay at home. "If there's no snow in Westchester, New York, the perception is that there's also no snow in Vermont," Dee says. It's not surprising, then, that ski area websites devote so much space to reports from the slopes and offer detailed weather reports.

The Northwestern glaciers once described as "America's Alps" have lost 30 percent of their size in the last century. All of the North Cascades glaciers are receding. "As diehard skiers and snowboarders, we think winter is already too short," said Sustainable Summits, a group of lodge owners in a recent appeal to Congress to do something about global warming.

Analysts are worried about the fate of ski resorts at lower elevations, which stand to experience considerably less snow than their counterparts in, say, the Colorado mountains. Since it was announced in 2000, 184 ski areas around the country (collectively a $5 billion annual business) adopted the Environmental Charter to raise policymaker awareness of the "dependence of winter sports on natural ecosystems," to call for greenhouse gas reductions, and to support science-based solutions to climate change.

The ski areas acted on dire projections, including one for the Rocky Mountain West that showed up to 70 percent snowpack loss by 2050. In 2005, there was already a 78 percent drop in skier visits to the region. By 2085, a 2006 Colorado College report says, the county could lose 82 percent of its snowpack.

At Aspen Skiing Company, operators say temperatures have gone up so much that their snowmaking machines are operating at the limit -- another degree or two warmer and they'd be unable to produce it at all. "We often make snow within one degree, or one and a half degrees, of being able to," said former CEO Patrick O'Donnell. "If we can't make snow, we have a problem."

A study done by Aspen's town government, part of the Canary Initiative, predicted that Aspen's climate will eventually mirror that of Amarillo, Texas. In the short run, higher-elevation resorts such as those in the Rockies may experience greater snowfall, but longer droughts could cancel any positive effects.

To counter warming winters, Aspen has inaugurated environmental reforms -- using biodiesel fuel in its snow cats, running Coke machine compressors on motion detectors, using local ponds as thermal exchangers in place of air conditioning, contributing to the Aspen Valley Land Trust to preserve open space. In 2007, the company spent half its national advertising budget on a global warming call to action. The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) has launched a "Keep Winter Cool" campaign. "Stop Global Warming or the Snowman Gets It" is the catchy slogan.

Other resorts are taking similar measures. Last August, Jiminy Peak Resort in Massachusetts installed a 386-foot-tall, 1.5-megawatt wind turbine, becoming the first ski resort to make its own electricity. Tim and Diane Mueller, owners of Okemo Mountain in Vermont, Mount Sunapee in New Hampshire and Crested Butte Mountain in Colorado, are purchasing enough renewable wind energy credits through Sterling Planet to offset the annual electric use of all three of their resorts. And those electric bills are going up sharply, because snowmaking is so energy-intensive. It uses a lot of water, too, so resorts are now building their own reservoirs to avoid depleting naturally existing streams and lakes.

In Europe, vulnerable ski runs on Swiss and Austrian glaciers are being wrapped with $70,000-a-sheet strips of white fleece the size of football fields, and some ski areas are being "repurposed" as mountain biking destinations. The European Environmental Agency (EEA) and the UN have both reported that the Alps are the mountains most severely affected by global warming.

The EEA says that 75 percent of the Swiss Alps' glaciers will be gone by 2050. Turin, Italy hosted the Winter Olympics in 1996, but the ongoing loss of snow cover makes it an open question if it will ever host another. The Turin Olympic Organizing Committee launched its own climate initiatives which have continued after the games, but there are serious challenges.

The growing popularity of snowboarding has brought a whole new generation onto the slopes, and in some ways their presence is making up for the skiing reversals. But snowboarding is hurting, too. The Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia had to close its snowboarding park last year because it couldn't make enough snow for both the slopes and the park. The ski runs were the first priority, and some nights it just didn't get cold enough (40 degrees Fahrenheit or below) to make snow.

When it fails to snow, it's not just ski resorts that suffer. Bob McKnight is chairman and CEO of Quiksilver, which makes sports-related clothes and equipment (including skis and snowboards, through its 2005 purchase of the French Rossignol brand).

"There's no question that our near-term progress has been dramatically affected by a very tough winter for the snow business," he said in a conference call last March. "I think that anyone in the snow industry can tell you that this was, both here in the U.S. and, to a larger extent, in Europe, the worst season in the past several decades. The lack of snow kept many resorts closed and greatly reduced the number of skier days, undercutting the consumer's drive to purchase new equipment." Worldwide, McKnight said, there has been a five to 15 percent decline in snowboard sales, a 10 to 20 percent decline in alpine skis and a 20 to 30 percent decline in cross-country skis.

Given all this, it's not surprising that environmentally themed mountain sportswear company Patagonia is making changes. "We're getting into the surf market because it's never going to snow again, and the waves are going to get bigger and bigger," says Yvon Chouinard, the company's owner. The first Patagonia watersports shop, selling Earth-friendly surfboards and (non-petroleum) wetsuits, opened in California last year. The Sap's not Flowing

Northern New England's climate was once ideal for maple sugaring, but as temperatures rise the industry is inexorably migrating north. Over the past four decades, the traditional mid-February to April maple sugaring season has slowly gotten shorter. According to a University of Vermont study, it now starts a week early and ends 10 days early, with a net loss of three production days. And tappers are getting worried. Tom McCrumm of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association is just one long-time tapper who worries that, by 2100, there may no longer be a maple sugar industry in New England.

Maple sugaring depends on a delicately balanced freeze-thaw cycle. For sap to form, tappers say, trees have to absorb water from the soil on cold nights when temperatures dip below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. When it warms up during the day, the sap flows and can be caught by sugar tappers who bore holes in the trees. When the cold nights fail to materialize the trees begin to form buds, and the sap turns bitter and unusable for syrup.

Last January, Massachusetts experienced 70-degree days, which sent trees into an early bud cycle and resulted in half the syrup yield. Things are likely to get much worse in northern New England, with a six to 10-degree Fahrenheit rise predicted over the next century.

Canada's maple syrup production has tripled since the 1970s. The University of Vermont's Proctor Maple Research Center says that the U.S. produced 80 percent of the world's maple syrup up through the 1940s, but now produces only 15 percent. Today, Canada, not Vermont, is the world leader, with 85 percent of the world's syrup (7.4 million gallons in 2006).

There are factors other than climate involved; Canada heavily subsidizes its maple sugar industry, for instance. According to Tim Perkins of the Proctor Center, Canadian tappers can get very low-cost leases to produce maple syrup on government-owned land in Quebec, an option not readily available in the U.S. Canadians have also benefited from more moderate snowfalls, which makes it easier to get to the trees to harvest sap.

The shorter tapping season has not yet impacted U.S. production, which is holding at 400,000 to 500,000 gallons a year. Perkins says that more efficient production methods -- particularly tubing-based systems replacing the more labor-intensive buckets -- has allowed Vermont producers to hold their own against what would otherwise be a climate-related loss.

Richard Lockerby, who grew up on a farm near Grafton, Vermont and now lives in Chester, has been making maple syrup his whole life. Since he got serious about it in 1990 he's won a wall full of prizes, including the "World's Best Maple Syrup" award in 1995. In a good year, Lockerby produces 325 gallons of syrup, but 2006 was not a good year and he made only 120 gallons. The freeze-thaw balance needed for making syrup was off, first because temperatures were too warm and then too cold. "By the time the snow was starting to melt, it was already very late for sugaring," he says.

In 2007, Vermont went through a very long summer, which helped ski areas bring in seasonal tourists but may augur another slow year for syrup. "The dryness affects the maple trees, because if they don't take moisture in they can't let it out later as sap," Lockerby says.

Jim Ameden's family has been making maple syrup in Vermont for so long that nobody can remember when the business began. Today, he operates a spacious and well-appointed sugarhouse in Londonderry, Vermont with his wife, Josie. Although the Amedens, who double as organic hay farmers, managed a respectable 300-gallon production year in 2006, their long-term outlook is decidedly gloomy thanks to global warming predictions.

Jim Ameden says he's experiencing the shorter -- and earlier -- season in his own business. "It used to be the middle of March to the end of April, but for the past six to eight years we've gotten started in February and ended before April," he says. "Losing two or three days may not sound significant, but it is when there are only 15 or 16 days for us to do our boiling."

Even more ominously, Jim Ameden says he's noticed the gradual dieback of indigenous maple trees, and the appearance in their place of oak saplings, a onetime rarity in his corner of Vermont. "The maples are moving further north, so I think Canada will end up making even more of the syrup," he says.

Josie Ameden enjoys the family enterprise, but she's concluded it's probably on borrowed time. "I think maple syrup making will be gone in Vermont," she says. "Sugaring will become a thing of the past." The family's emerging environmental convictions led them to buy a Toyota Prius hybrid car.

The changing climate calls into question the viability of the entire industry. "As we lessen the number of freeze-thaw cycles, and shorten the production period, we're going to have increasing difficulty in keeping yields up enough to sustain a commercial industry," Perkins says. And he adds that the syrup economy is bigger than the tappers themselves: Syrup-making equipment is also made in Vermont, and the industry provides a great deal of seasonal employment, as well as encouraging tourism.

The long-term picture is not encouraging, even for Canada. Jay Malcolm, a University of Toronto climate change expert, says that Canada's maple sugar boom may not last because sugar maple trees could move northward too quickly. Maple sugar production, he told a UN conference on global warming, could be "significantly reduced" in Canada as a result over the next 35 to 40 years. And even as conditions are briefly ideal for maple sugar, they will start to become untenable for key species such as Atlantic salmon, soft-shelled clams, deep-sea scallops and blue mussels.

***

The warming changes already visible are, to cite a particularly apt cliché, "the tip of the iceberg." In the next few decades, global warming will be shaped by many different factors, with relatively unpredictable results. But the scientific consensus is near-unanimous that the loss of predictable and comforting winter patterns will be a major consequence. Nostalgia for snowy winters past and "the way it was" (see companion story) will be a major growth industry, even as skiing, skating, snowmen-building and maple syrup-making gradually recede in our collective memory.

Is Fear About Climate Change Causing a Nuclear Renaissance?

Sitting in the belly of the beast -- Dominion's 2,000-megawatt Millstone nuclear power plant in Waterford, Connecticut -- the company's chief nuclear officer, Dave Christian, seems an unlikely environmentalist. But he says concern about climate change is what got him involved in the peaceful pursuit of the atom in the first place.

"I started studying climate science in the 1970s after reading a book [published in 1974] entitled Technology, Society and Man by Richard C. Dorf," Christian says. "It was a very thoughtful study of the feedback mechanisms that go into global warming."

Dominion is the kind of big power player that has long had an antagonistic relationship with the environmental movement. In addition to Millstone Units 2 and 3 (Unit 1 was shut down in 1998), the $45 billion company operates two nukes in Virginia, owns 7,900 miles of interstate natural gas pipelines, 6,000 miles of electrical transmission lines and 965 billion cubic feet of underground natural gas storage.

The case for Dominion as a friend of the Earth is based on a few simple facts: It generates 45 percent of Connecticut's electricity and 30 percent of Virginia's without taking a huge toll in smokestack-emitted global warming gas.

In fact, there are no smokestacks, because (aside from the occasional release of radioactive material) the only thing nuclear power plants vent is steam. What's more, in contrast to the modest current capacity of wind and solar power, nukes can produce very large amounts of electricity -- enough to counter global warming by taking highly polluting coal-burning plants offline even as electricity demand increases.

Nuclear advocates will be the first to tell you that their U.S. plants avoid the emission of almost 700 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. Worldwide, it's two billion metric tons. Given this reality, some prominent environmentalists have signaled a cautious détente with the nuclear power industry.

While stopping short of endorsing the Bush Administration's push for hundreds of new nukes in the U.S., they say that nuclear power merits reconsideration. But they're being met by equally powerful arguments from the scientific community that nuclear power has never been and never will be a solution to global warming.

The Big Push

As worldwide emissions soar, people wait for a white knight. Newsweek columnist Robert J. Samuelson wrote recently, "We Americans want it all: endless and secure energy supplies; low prices; no pollution; less global warming; no new power plants (or oil and gas drilling, either) near people or pristine places. This is a wonderful wish list, whose only shortcoming is the minor inconvenience of massive inconsistency."

Growing awareness of this inconsistency makes it difficult to dismiss the technology out of hand.

Nuclear power has already won some powerful allies in the environmental community. Fred Krupp of Environmental Defense says, "We should all keep an open mind about nuclear power." Jared Diamond, best-selling author of Collapse, says, "To deal with our energy problems we need everything available to us, including nuclear power," which should be "done carefully, like they do in France, where there have been no accidents."

To which Stewart Brand, another apostate green who founded The Whole Earth Catalog and Whole Earth Review, adds, "The only technology ready to fill the gap and stop the carbon dioxide loading of the atmosphere is nuclear power." James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia theory about the planet's self-regulating systems, has called for, to quote The Independent, "a massive and immediate expansion of nuclear power." Actor Paul Newman visited New York's Indian Point plant and praised its climate role. In many cases, these environmentalists see nuclear as only a temporary fix.

There's no questioning the credentials of these environmental leaders, but other nuclear cheerleaders are suspect. For instance, Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore has been widely quoted supporting nukes, but he left Greenpeace many years ago, turned 180 degrees, and has supported many anti-environmental initiatives. He is now the co-chair (with former Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Christine Todd Whitman) of an industry-funded initiative called the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition. Not all the newspapers and magazines printing his commentaries have noted that he's on the payroll.

The industry is moving ahead with its attempt to revive commercial nuclear power, but it's unlikely to happen quickly. Dave Christian of Dominion says that although 30 new nuclear power plant licenses are pending, the first of these probably won't be online until 2015 or 2016. "The success of the industry moving forward depends on how these first units work out," he says.

Christian acknowledges that the chance of some of those license applications succeeding is only five percent. "They're taking a leap of faith," he says. It may be that the funding issue alone derails the nuclear push: A Standard and Poor's report last year priced nuclear at $1,500 per kilowatt -- twice the cost of a new coal plant. And cost overruns, it said, "are highly probable." The base price for a plant is $3 billion today.

Most of the proposed new nuclear stations are in the Southeast, and (partly to minimize local antagonism) most are on the site of existing units.

Targeting the South

Entergy Nuclear operates New York's Indian Point as well as nine other stations. At a recent press conference, Steve Melancon of Entergy stood in front of a PowerPoint map of the U.S. dotted with proposed new plants: in New York, North Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Virginia.

According to Melancon, Entergy, in conjunction with eight other utilities, has settled on two existing locations to apply for combined construction and operating licenses: Grand Gulf, near Port Gibson, Mississippi and Bellefonte, near Scottsboro, Alabama. Actual operations would not begin until at least 2014.

It's not surprising that Port Gibson (spared by Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War because it was "too beautiful to burn") is 80 percent African-American, rural and something less than affluent, with a third of the population living below the poverty line. And it's also not surprising that some city residents welcome the revenue it brings to an otherwise impoverished community.

Moft Headley II, who is both a former Port Gibson county supervisor and the father of a current one, says that the Grand Gulf nuclear plant has been a "good neighbor" that has "made it possible for the county to do some positive things it otherwise couldn't have done," including fixing up a building on Main Street and constructing a new library. "We're hoping we get the new plant," says Headley, "because the few industries we had around here have all dried up. We don't worry about safety too much because we've never had any plant accidents."

Jared Diamond, best-selling author of Collapse, says, "To deal with our energy problems we need everything available to us, including nuclear power," There's no constant in nuclear plant sitings. Scottsboro, Alabama, site of the famous 1931 "Scottsboro Boys" case is today an almost exclusively white community with a median family income of $42,000.

It has never tasted revenues from nuclear power, and local officials seem primed by the prospects of 400 permanent jobs and 2,000 construction positions. "Many of us grew up watching that plant get built, so we're excited about finally seeing it operate," Goodrich Rogers, president of the Jackson County Economic Development Authority, told Greenwire.

The Cost of Nukes

There are 103 operating nuclear reactors in 31 states, capable of producing 100 gigawatts, or some 20 percent of U.S. power needs. Dominion's Christian says many of these plants are aging, and if we let them retire after 60 years, they'd have to be replaced with an annual input of 3.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas or 200 million tons of coal. Replacing nukes is also an issue for the activists who want to shut down the two reactors at the Indian Point nuclear power station in New York. Of similar size to Millstone, Indian Point generates 2,000 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power two million homes.

Calling for a shutdown, increasingly vocal Westchester County residents hired a consultant to prepare a feasibility study, and Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) commissioned a National Academy of Sciences report on the subject, which was released last year. It concluded that replacing Indian Point was feasible, in part by "repowering" existing coal or fuel-oil plants to run on cleaner fuels such as natural gas. But it could cost $3 billion, says Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano.

Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore has been widely quoted supporting nukes, but he left Greenpeace many years ago, turned 180 degrees, and has supported many anti-environmental initiatives. Meanwhile, Indian Point has hardly been making a good case for its continued existence. After a transformer fire early last spring forced it to shut down for the second time in a week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) downgraded its safety assessment.

Is nuclear power cheap? The industry likes to cite a figure of 1.72 cents per kilowatt-hour, cheaper than climate-aggravating coal. But Michael Levi, a fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations, calls this "a specious claim" because it "ignores the capital costs." Including these expenses, an influential Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) report entitled "The Future of Nuclear Power" prices nuclear at 6.7 cents per kilowatt-hour, markedly more expensive than coal at 4.2 cents.

The MIT report, released in 2003, says that nuclear power "is not now cost competitive with coal and natural gas," but it concludes that nukes "could be one option for reducing carbon emissions." However, the industry's "stagnation and decline" makes that unlikely.

Taking the Scare Out

To get the public to accept a major expansion of nuclear power, the industry will have to convince Americans terrified by the specter of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and intentional terrorism-related sabotage. Don Miley, a pro-nuclear spokesman for the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), stood on a hotel patio in downtown Idaho City and, before an audience of horrified reporters, knowingly exposed himself to radiation. Miley was exposing himself to Coleman lantern mantles, "Fiesta" dinnerware, and an old "Exit" sign -- all made with radioactive materials.

It was cheap theatrics, but each item set off a Geiger counter. On average, Miley said, Americans receive 360 millirems of naturally occurring radiation per year, just from the sun, rocks and soil. If you're an airline pilot, it goes up to about 1,000 millirems. A smoker gets 1,300 with or without a frequent flyer card. In 14 years working at INL, close to a nuclear reactor, Miley says he's been dosed with only 13 millirems of extra radiation. In one trip to the dentist, he adds, he took in 150 millirems.

Hours later, the delegation was taken inside INL's Advanced Test Reactor, the largest of its kind in the world, and looked down into 20 feet of cool, rippling water, below which lay highly radioactive nuclear fuel rods that could kill in an instant. When Miley was asked if he'd take a swim in this deceptively attractive cooling pond, he offered to don his trunks.

Back in Connecticut, Dominion spokesman Pete Hyde stopped at a padlock-protected fence and pointed across to an unassuming concrete bunker. This was the site of Millstone's dry-cask nuclear storage, what the company calls an "interim measure" until long-delayed federal storage options are available.

The steel-reinforced bunker has five-foot-thick walls. Some 32 highly radioactive spent fuel rods are loaded into a 40-ton steel canister and stored horizontally in the bunker. As many as 135 of these canisters can be stored on site, so Millstone is not likely to run out of storage space soon.

The obvious question, however, is whether these on-site storage facilities are vulnerable to determined terrorist attacks. Hyde says computer simulations show no breach of the fuel (and only an inch of movement in the concrete) when an engine from a commercial airliner hits the bunker at 600 miles per hour.

That may sound reassuring, but a federal National Academies of Science report released in 2005 argued that a high-temperature fire caused by the loss of cooling water in a spent fuel pool could release large amounts of radiation. The report found that dry cask storage of the type found at Millstone is safer, in part because the fuel rods are stored separately.

Meanwhile, plans to relocate America's nuclear plant waste to a secure federal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada are slowly inching forward. The facility is designed to house 77,000 tons of nuclear waste, including the 50,000 tons already waiting for storage at reactor sites in dozens of states. The project director, Edward Sproat, said that a 2017 start date is now unlikely, and that the waste facility may never be built without increased Congressional funding.

The current plan is to transport the waste to Yucca Mountain, stored in reinforced casks, by truck and rail through 43 states. The watchdog group Public Citizen says this plan would put the waste "within half a mile of 50 million people." And it adds that "more waste would be shipped in the first year alone than has been shipped in the U.S. in the past three decades."

These facts led an increasingly skeptical Atlanta Constitution to write, "[W]orldwide, it would take some 2,000 new nuclear power plants, at a cost of over $1 trillion, to make a dent in greenhouse gas emissions. Those plants would require a new Yucca Mountain-sized repository every few years to store the tidal wave of highly radioactive nuclear waste. With no answer to its radioactive nuclear waste, it is clear that nuclear energy will not be the answer to global warming."

Federal Incentives

The renaissance of nuclear power benefits from significant federal incentives. Vice President Cheney's energy task force in 2001 called for the construction of 1,300 to 1,900 new power plants, many of them nukes, and since then the Bush administration has done what it can to stimulate new construction and licensing.

The administration's energy legislation, enacted in 2005, contains billions of federal dollars for nuclear tax breaks and loan guarantees. A Public Citizen analysis says these incentives add up to $10.1 billion, including $5.7 billion in production tax credits ($18 per megawatt-hour of new generation, up to 6,000 megawatts). The loan guarantees mean that the public could subsidize as much as 80 percent of new reactor costs, the group said.

"There is a tsunami of new nuclear plant applications," says Dr. Harold McFarlane, president of the American Nuclear Society. The revival is coming after so many years of inactivity that McFarlane notes there are now fewer than 200 nuclear-qualified welders in the U.S.

Still, the industry is forging ahead, aided by an administration determined to streamline the licensing process. Hoping to avoid the debacle, common in the nuclear-phobic 1970s, of fully built plants unable to begin operations, the industry is now seeking to receive both construction and operating permits before it puts the first spade in the ground.

The Mixed Picture

Around the world, the nuclear picture is mixed. Six U.S. reactors have closed since 1996, and seven in Canada are unlikely to operate again. Although a large 10,000-megawatt plant is slated to begin construction in India next year, other countries -- including Germany and Sweden -- have been working on formal phase-outs of the technology. But even there the future is uncertain.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called the phase-out of the country's 17 plants (which produce a third of German electricity) by 2020 "disastrous," and some are worried that replacing the nukes with coal or natural gas plants could make it difficult to meet the provisions of the Kyoto Treaty.

The Netherlands, Belgium and Spain have agreed not to build any more plants. (Switzerland, by contrast, failed to renew its nuclear ban in a 2003 referendum.) Nuclear programs in Eastern Europe, South Korea and Japan have slowed pace, but in other countries the technology is going strong. France has 59 reactors generating more than three quarters of the country's power. Pakistan, Egypt, Finland and Iran each hope to build nuclear power plants, and China plans to increase nuclear capacity.

Nuclear power supplied about 17 percent of the world's needs in 2002. According to researchers at MIT, global energy demand could grow by 75 percent by 2020. Anti-nuclear activists are deeply worried that public apathy in the 18 years since the devastating Chernobyl meltdown will allow the emergence of a dangerous and radioactive new world.

An Unacceptable Risk?

In spite of its obvious benefits, nuclear power may simply be too risky. Opponents of the nuclear renaissance point to a host of serious concerns. "They're proposing a replay of a demonstrated failure," says Paul Gunter, director of the reactor watchdog project at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS). "The financial risks have only gotten worse, and our concerns about safety issues are heightened now that these plants are known terrorist targets."

Alex Matthiessen, director of Hudson Riverkeeper, declares, "In the post-9/11 era, nuclear power plants pose an unacceptable risk." He points out that NRC studies conclude that a serious accident at one of Indian Point's two working reactors could cause 50,000 early fatalities.

Al Qaeda operatives have, by their own admission, considered attacking nuclear facilities. And according to Riverkeeper, only 19 percent of Indian Point guards think they can protect the facility from a conventional assault, let alone a suicidal mission.

Riverkeeper says that the proposed evacuation plans for the area are woefully inadequate, and the site is vulnerable to an airborne attack. Plant operator Entergy refutes these charges, and says that the 3.5-foot steel-reinforced concrete containment structures protecting the reactor and other radioactive materials are "among the strongest structures built by man."

The U.S. nuclear industry has avoided serious accidents since the near-catastrophic accident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island plant in 1979. But there have been near-misses. In March 2002, workers repairing a cracked nozzle at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Ohio discovered a football-sized cavity in the reactor. Because of corrosion, all that was holding back the 2,400-pounds per square inch (psi) pressure of the core was a bulging stainless steel liner approximately 3/16th of an inch thick. If the liner had failed, a loss-of-coolant accident similar to Three Mile Island would have occurred.

Millstone also had its share of troubles before Dominion bought it in 2001. In the mid-1990s, the four nuclear power plants run by then-owner Northeast Utilities were cited for more than 100 safety violations in two years. In late 2000, Millstone reported two lost fuel rods. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) says, "The [NRC] must stop allowing plant owners to conduct fewer inspections and to defer inspections for economic reasons."

More recently, in July of 2006, the Forsmark nuclear reactor 1 on Sweden's east coast experienced a short circuit and went into emergency shutdown. Two of four emergency-cooling diesel engines did not start as expected, disabling control room operations -- and thus human control -- for a critical 23 minutes. According to the German magazine Der Spiegel, "For critics, the incident shows yet again how vulnerable nuclear power plants are to a failure in electricity systems."

In early April of this year, operators of the Vogtle Nuclear Plant near Augusta, Georgia received low marks for their response to a simulated nuclear accident. The NRC judged that the emergency director had "overdiagnosed" the problem (a pump shaft breakage that caused metal parts to fall into the reactor coolant system) and gave the plant a "poor" grade.

Nuclear defenders point out that these are the problems of aging Generation II plants, and the new Generation IV units will have many safety and efficiency advantages. Pebble bed reactors, for instance, are now in the planning stages in China and South Africa, and supporters say a meltdown is nearly impossible with that design. Pebble beds simplify waste storage and can be built quickly, they say, without the crippling cost overruns.

Economists question if the technology is cost-effective. The U.S. Energy Information Administration has stated that even if next-generation nuclear plants can be built efficiently, their costs are likely to be two to four times greater than building natural gas, coal or wind plants.

Both the Congressional Budget Office and the private firm Standard and Poor's concluded that investing in loans to build nuclear power plants is an unwise risk. A host of insurance analysts have come to the same conclusion. The last American nuclear power plant to go online, the Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar, fired up in 1996 after 23 years of construction and billions of dollars of over-budget spending.

A Renaissance under Fire

In its 2003 study, "The Future of Nuclear Power," MIT researchers concluded that some 1,000 to 1,500 new reactors would have to be built worldwide by 2025 in order to put a serious dent in global warming. There are only 400 atomic power plants online now, and any major expansion would meet a host of economic, political, security and NIMBY ("not-in-my-backyard") challenges.

Because of planned plant retirements, the industry will have to work hard simply to keep up current nuclear capacity, let alone ramp it up to offset global warming. Current projections by the U.S. Energy Information Industry show very little nuclear growth by 2030.

The uranium supply is also an issue. On the spot market, uranium prices have soared as existing reactors have worked through supplies from mothballed plants. Demand is projected to exceed supply and push prices higher. The shortfall in uranium mining can be at least partly made up in uranium enrichment (an outgrowth of atomic bomb development), but capacity is limited there, too.

Uranium enrichment also aggravates both global warming and ozone depletion. The single remaining uranium enrichment plant in the U.S., Paducah Gaseous Diffusion in Kentucky, emits highly destructive chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), used to dissipate heat generated by the compressors. And the plant is fired by two large, extremely dirty coal power plants.

Although nukes avoid the smokestack problem, the nuclear process is not emission-free. The cycle from uranium mining to milling and processing, as well as waste storage and transportation, all involve greenhouse gas emissions.

In his book Insurmountable Risks: The Dangers of Using Nuclear Power to Combat Global Climate Change (IEER Press), Brice Smith admits that, when compared to fossil fuels, nuclear power emits far lower levels of greenhouse gases, even when mining, enrichment and fuel fabrication are taken into account.

But to effectively challenge the global warming problem, he says, a new reactor would have to come online somewhere in the world every 15 days on average between 2010 and 2050. Even with this growth, he calculates that the proportion of electricity coming from nuclear sources would grow only slightly, from 16 to 20 percent over the period.

Also, says Smith, a huge nuclear expansion would increase the dangers of nuclear proliferation. The world's capacity to enrich uranium would have to go up dramatically by a factor of 2.5 to six. A dozen new enrichment plants would produce thousands of tons of highly deadly plutonium each year. And just one percent of that capacity would be enough to support the construction of 210 nuclear weapons per year.

NIRS argues that, in the next 60 years, the industry is capable of building only half the 1,500 new reactors needed to significantly offset global warming, and that the enormous construction costs -- estimated in the many trillions of dollars -- would be much more effectively spent on renewable energy projects.

"Even under an ambitious deployment scenario, new plants could not make a substantial contribution to reducing U.S. global warming emissions for at least two decades," says the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Is Big Energy Hijacking Hydrogen?

Whether or not hydrogen becomes "the people's energy" depends to a large extent on how it is generated and transported in the current, early stages of development. This sustainable gas can be generated locally via renewables like wind, biomass or solar power, but it could also be a new product for our large-scale, centralized oil and nuclear power industries. Mike Nicklas, chairperson of the American Solar Energy Society (ACES), warns that even though the Bush administration is publicly supporting hydrogen development through its new FreedomCAR program, its vision does not support clean energy technologies for hydrogen production.

"'Clean' in this case means coal, nuclear and natural gas," says Nicklas, who attended the federal National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap Workshop last April. Fossil fuel and nuclear industry representatives dominated the session on hydrogen production, Nicklas observes. "We're now at the point of making a transition to an entirely new energy paradigm, and we don't need to be continuing the carbon era by other means." Nicklas says that ACES is working with other groups, including Worldwatch and the World Resources Institute, to promote truly renewable hydrogen generation.

In what could be a parallel to its purchase of many solar companies, the oil industry is buying in to hydrogen: Shell established Shell Renewables in 1997 and Shell Hydrogen in 2000, BP/Amoco is investing $500 million in renewables over three years, and ChevronTexaco has purchased a 20 percent stake in Energy Conversion Devices, a Detroit-based photovoltaic, battery and fuel-cell company.

Large utilities are also interested in generating hydrogen from what they call "clean coal," coupled with a scheme to "sequester," or isolate the resulting carbon dioxide emissions to prevent them from entering the atmosphere. According to one scenario, coal would react with steam and oxygen before combustion to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide, with the carbon dioxide liquefied and stored underground in deep aquifers or other geological formations.

Going Nuclear

At the annual meeting of the World Nuclear Association in London last September, the group's director general, John Ritch, touted what he called the "hydrogen-nuclear economy." He envisions "an entirely clean energy global economy, with nuclear power supplying not only electricity and clean water, but also energizing transport of all kinds."

There are 400 conventional nuclear plants in the world, generating a sixth of global electricity. While these plants produce no emissions of carbon dioxide, the major global warming gas, they have created an intractable radioactive waste crisis and an ongoing safety debate that has made it extremely difficult to license any new facilities.

Some scientists see the need for large-scale hydrogen production as a way to jumpstart the moribund nuclear industry. Speaking at the International Youth Nuclear Congress in South Korea last April, Dr. Leon Walters, former director of engineering at Argonne National Laboratory, estimated that nuclear powernow just seven percent of U.S. power productioncould leap to 50 percent if it were harnessed to produce hydrogen for transportation. He estimates that a transition to a hydrogen-nuclear economy would take 30 years.

General Atomics held a workshop last May on producing hydrogen from both conventional nuclear fission and as-yet unproven nuclear fusion. L.M. Wagner of Boeing said at the forum that hydrogen could be profitably produced in off-peak hours from fusion reactors. Nuclear fusion, if it were feasible, would produce no radioactive waste or bomb-grade materials, but no practical process for a fusion reactor has yet been demonstrated, despite hundreds of millions of dollars in funding over the past 50 years.

Joan Ogden, a Princeton research scientist, says that the frontrunner for nuclear hydrogen production is a thermochemical heat process. "This is a difficult technology that is much further from commercialization than many other hydrogen production options," Ogden says. A recent analysis by Ogden's Princeton colleague, Robert Williams, found that thermochemical nuclear hydrogen would be an expensive and complicated procedure when compared to other methods.

Environmentalists have reacted with dismay to the attempt to nuclearize hydrogen production. "Nuclear-generated hydrogen is like a nicotine patch that causes cancer," says Dan Becker, energy program director for the Sierra Club. "This certainly explains one level of the Bush administration's sudden interest. But if we're looking to hydrogen to free us from old forms of energy, why would we suddenly go nuclear, with all the well-known problems?"

The federal Roadmap workshop that Nicklas attended did indeed give a prominent role to nuclear-generated hydrogen, and included representatives from General Atomics, Savannah River Technology Center and Entergy Nuclear. With funding from industry and the federal Department of Energy (DOE), participants projected that they could have a pilot plant for producing hydrogen from nuclear power in place by 2010.

DOE's hydrogen production scenario is bizarrely tilted toward nuclear power, echoing the emphasis of Vice President Dick Cheney's closed-door sessions for the 2001 National Energy Policy. The policy directs the Secretary of Energy to vastly expand the nation's nuclear generating capacity, and to "develop next generation technology including hydrogen and fusion." A paper prepared by DOE energy scientist Samuel Rosenbloom, "Hydrogen Development Program: A Perspective," is stridently pro-nuke, describing renewable production as "high risk" and "long term." The proposed goal: "Nuclear-driven hydrogen production demonstration by 2006," coinciding with the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein's relativity theory.

Speaking anonymously, a high-ranking official in DOE's Office of Hydrogen, Fuel Cells and Infrastructure Technologies said that hydrogen should be generated from "diverse feedstocks [including reformation of fossil fuels, nuclear and electrolysis of water using renewable sources], with some more suited to certain regions than others." The official said that many DOE scientists had concluded that nuclear generation of hydrogen "is the way to go," but added, "I personally don't think that they've addressed the waste issue in a way that alleviates the fears of the public."

A Level Playing Field

Thomas Jackson, president of Milford, Connecticut-based Avalence, which is working on residential hydrogen electrolyzers (essentially, a home-based hydrogen station), worries that federal incentives will go to the nuclear industry and strongly influence what would otherwise be a free market for new technologies. "There needs to be a level playing field that includes all the different approaches," Jackson says.

Similarly skeptical is C. E. "Sandy" Thomas, president of Virginia-based H2Gen, which is moving rapidly to develop natural gas steam reformation technology to install hydrogen pumps at gas stations around the country by 2004. Thomas, an advocate of direct, renewable-generated hydrogen since his days as an advisor to Ford's fuel-cell efforts, is very dubious about nuclear fusion, which he notes has yet to reach the break-even point of energy production. Even if a breakthrough did occur, he says, "engineers would still have to design, build and test reactors that could produce a net increase in energy at an affordable cost." Thomas' vision calls for localized hydrogen production. "Make the hydrogen where people want it," he says, "at filling stations, at fleet operators' garages and even at home. Through economies of mass production, that could be the least costly way to make hydrogen in the long run."

Obviously, the world's dominant energy industries will not happily go out of business or voluntarily cede market share to renewables, though there is growing evidence that, at least in the long term, solar and wind power could be harnessed to produce a decentralized, completely zero-emission energy loop. Thomas, who champions steam reformation of natural gas as an interim step, advocates a truly spectacular zero emissions end game, in which the fuel is produced from a combination of regionally appropriate photovoltaic collectors, wind generators or biomass. "Imagine," he says, "a motor vehicle fuel so clean-burning that you could drink the effluent from the tailpipe, with urban smog a distant memory."

Even the most ardent environmentalists admit that this vision is still many years down the road, and that short-term solutions (probably a mix of steam reformation of natural gas or electrolysis of water) will be needed to make the transition from fossil fuels. But if hydrogen is captured by today's big energy interests, the dream of zero emissions and local control will almost certainly never be realized. "A fair question to ask is whether the hydrogen future will be driven by big energy companies or done over their dead bodies," says Jason Mark, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' clean vehicle program. "We don't want to wake up in the middle of the night and find that our dream of a clean hydrogen revolution has become a nightmare."

Jim Motavalli is the editor of E Magazine.

Heavy Metal Harm

The late singer-songwriter Laura Nyro loved to eat tuna fish. An avid environmentalist, she was shocked to hear that her favorite food was contaminated with the toxic heavy metal mercury, and she expressed her anger in a song. "I'm young enough, I'm old enough in the city machine/ Where industries fill the fish full of mercury (it's tax free)."

Nyro was right to worry about eating fish, and right about industrial mercury use. Forty states have issued advisories about eating fish that may have high levels of mercury in their tissues. As recently as last July, Massachusetts public health officials warned young women and children under 12 to stop eating "most" fish caught in state rivers and lakes, and to avoid certain seafood. Tuna was on the list, as was swordfish.

Mercury is a persistent heavy metal, processed into a liquid from mined cinnabar, that accumulates in water and in the tissues of humans, fish and animals. It was declared a hazardous air pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1971.

According to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, long-term human exposure to mercury in either organic or inorganic form "can permanently damage the brain, kidneys, and developing fetuses." A potent neurotoxin, mercury is slowly being phased out of many commercial uses, including consumer thermometers, but it is still used in many industrial processes and is in such products as fluorescent lights, home and appliance thermostats, and even toys.

Ask most people about mercury in the environment and they're apt to think of broken thermometers. But the truth is that industry, in the form of coal-fired power plants, electric arc furnaces (which melt and recycle the steel from old cars) and municipal waste incinerators are the major sources. In landfills and in water, bacterial contamination turns mercury into its most toxic form, methyl mercury.

Mercury also gets into the environment in pharmaceutical products, and through ritual religious uses, especially in Latin American Santeria. Mercury sells for less than $2 a pound on the wholesale market, and even when it is "recycled," it may still end up in the environment.

Progress is being made to end some of mercury's more visible uses, but the campaign is far from over. Five states have laws that either put some restrictions on mercury use, sale or disposal or require labeling of products containing it. Similar bills are pending in 15 state legislatures.

"Despite state and local bans, thousands of retailers still sell mercury thermometers to consumers who aren't aware of the risks," says Felice Stadler, policy coordinator of the National Wildlife Federation's Clean the Rain campaign.

"Just one seventieth of a teaspoon of atmospheric mercury can contaminate a 20-acre lake for a year," says Michael Bender, executive director of the Vermont-based Mercury Policy Project. "We have to take mercury permanently out of commerce. It's not that difficult to containerize it and store it indefinitely. An ideal solution would be the kind of 'producer responsibility' laws they have in Europe, which make companies responsible for their waste."

U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) has proposed legislation that would create a task force to address the mercury problem on a national scale. Under her bill, the Mercury Reduction and Disposal Act, S.351, the sale of thermometers containing the metal would be banned nationally, and the mercury inside them would be stockpiled and treated similarly to nuclear waste. Stadler says, "Enacting a nationwide ban on sales is essential."

In response to a campaign led by Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), five drugstore chains, including CVS, Rite-Aid, Walgreens, Wal-Mart and Eckerd, have agreed to stop selling mercury thermometers. These companies represent 71 percent of chain pharmacies, but mercury thermometers are still on sale at Kroger, Medicine Shoppe, Publix and Fred's stores.

"It's appalling that there are retailers that continue to sell potentially dangerous mercury devices to their customers, especially when safe alternatives exist in the marketplace," says Jamie Harvie, mercury coordinator of HCWH.

Eight states and a number of cities have banned or restricted the sale of mercury thermometers, and 600 hospitals and clinics have agreed to get mercury out of their waste streams.

But mercury thermometers are only one, very visible part of the problem. Because mercury has many uses and applications, the movement to get it out of the atmosphere must take a multi-pronged approach. Some of the campaigns have made more headway than others, but all have acquired a new urgency as the dangers of mercury become better known.

Fish Filled With Mercury

According to a 2001 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study, one of 10 American women of childbearing age is at risk for having a baby born with neurological problems due to in utero mercury exposure. Statistically, that means 375,000 babies are at risk every year. Nearly six million women who might be considering having a child already have mercury levels above EPA safety guidelines.

As recounted in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the CDC study was based on a national survey of mercury in blood and hair, while previous studies were estimates based on per capita fish consumption.

"New studies show that far more women are at risk of exposure to methyl mercury than previously thought," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

She urges the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to monitor commercial seafood and to remove unsafe fish from the market.

A federal General Accounting Office (GAO) report, commissioned by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) in 1999, concludes that the FDA has failed in its efforts to protect the public from mercury-tainted seafood. The report faulted the FDA's Hazard Analysis Critical Point regulations for not providing proper guidance to the fishing industry about safeguarding the public.

A joint report by the Mercury Policy Project and California Communities Against Toxics in 2000 charged that the FDA had stopped mercury monitoring for tuna, shark and swordfish, despite the fact that the FDA's previous testing found more than one part per million (considered the "action level") of mercury in more than half the swordfish it evaluated. Some 33 percent of shark tissue studied by the FDA was found to exceed the action level for mercury, as was four percent of tuna. In 2001, the FDA finally recommended that women of childbearing age not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish. Tuna was not mentioned.

"The GAO report shows that mercury pollution threatens both sportfish and seafood," says Eric Uram of the Sierra Club's Midwestern office. "Consumers need to watch what fish they eat, no matter where it comes from -- the restaurant, store, lake or seashore."

A 2001 study that looked specifically at the New England states gave them a mixed report card for their efforts to reduce mercury levels in the environment, and warn the public about the risks. The New England Zero Mercury Campaign praised the states for developing health-based advisories about mercury in fish, but it urged them to do more to "effectively communicate these health warnings to women who may become pregnant and families with young children.Strategically targeted and culturally sensitive outreach and education is needed to prevent dangerous mercury exposure from fish, especially from commonly eaten seafood."

Prenatal mercury exposure, said the New England report, "can hurt children's ability to remember, pay attention, talk, draw, run and play, and increase the number of children who have trouble keeping up in school or require special education, according to the National Academy of Sciences." According to Dr. Ted Schettler of Physicians for Social Responsibility, "Relatively small amounts of contaminated fish eaten often, or larger amounts eaten occasionally, can harm developing fetal brains during windows of vulnerability. The fetus is extremely sensitive to mercury."

Switching Off Auto Mercury

What do the high-intensity headlights, anti-lock brake systems, global positioning screens and trunk- or hood-mounted light switches on your car have in common? They all may contain highly toxic mercury. The Clean Car Campaign, a coalition of several environmental groups, is trying to persuade the auto industry to not only stop all uses of mercury, but also to take responsibility for the heavy metal already installed in hundreds of millions of on-the-road vehicles.

The industry has agreed to phase out most uses of mercury switches by the end of the 2001 model year, but it is not surprisingly balking at the monumental effort needed to remove existing switches, many of which it says would prove difficult to locate. (At presstime, the state of Maine passed landmark legislation requiring carmakers to pay for a mercury auto switch recovery program that will take at least 90 pounds of the metal out of the environment every year.)

According to the Mercury Policy Project's Michael Bender, the auto industry installed 10 tons of mercury in car switches in 1995, although that amount was dramatically reduced by the 2001 model year. Mercury light switches are now used in only a few General Motors vehicles. Most European and Japanese auto manufacturers stopped installing mercury convenience light switches in the mid-1990s. But even as the switches are being phased out, many domestic and foreign companies are equipping their cars with headlights, brake components and navigational systems containing mercury.

The EPA, in a report to Congress in 1997, estimated that 158 tons of the metal are released into the atmosphere annually from manmade sources in the U.S.

"The auto industry is not the major source, but it's definitely a significant source," says Bender, who points to coal- fired power plants and waste combustors as the prime culprits nationally for mercury release.

Charles Griffith, the auto project director of Michigan's Ecology Center, a member of the Clean Car Campaign, says that the mercury in auto switches is released into the atmosphere when steel recovered from scrapped automobiles is melted down in electric arc furnaces (EAFs). A study produced jointly by the Ecology Center, the Buffalo-based Great Lakes United and the University of Tennessee Center for Clean Products and Clean Technologies estimates that 15.6 metric tons of mercury are released annually by EAFs, more than all other manufacturing sources combined.

Bob Kainz, a senior manager for pollution prevention and life cycle programs at DaimlerChrysler, says that only two of the company's 2001 products, the Jeep Cherokee and Wrangler, still had mercury switches in their ABS brake systems, and that both models will be free of the heavy metal when they're redesigned over the next few years.

"There are better ways of handling this problem than going after the carmakers," Kainz says. "Eighty-seven percent of the mercury going out into the atmosphere is coming from utility boilers, waste combustors, coal-fired power plants, cement plants and medical incinerators."

Kainz adds that DaimlerChrysler's records do not consistently identify which cars or trucks actually have mercury switches. The auto industry, through such trade groups as the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, has lobbied against the laws, arguing that it is phasing out mercury on its own.

Greg Dana, vice president for environmental affairs of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, says that General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler began removing mercury from their products in 1995 under an agreement with the state of Michigan. The mercury switches in existing cars, he says, should be removed when the car is at the end of its life.

"The recyclers are already taking out the gasoline, oil, and air-conditioner refrigerant," Dana says. "It's a simple add-on for them to rip out the mercury switches."

The auto trade groups support legislation requiring recyclers to remove the switches as part of the dismantling process, but this has produced a fierce reaction from junkyard operators and scrap steel dealers. Both the Automotive Recyclers Association (ARA) and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries say they have little financial incentive to take on the task, with each switch containing only a gram of the metal and mercury trading at less than $2 a pound.

According to ARA Vice President Bill Steinkuller, "The auto manufacturers engineered the vehicles to include mercury switches, produced the product and profited from it. From our point of view, it defies logic that they now want to deny any responsibility for the mercury and put the onus on the dismantlers."

The auto industry and the recyclers are fighting a war of words over mercury, but there is some chance of reconciliation.

"We're not trying to pick a fight with the manufacturers," Steinkuller says. "If we get beyond the rhetoric, we can probably get together and handle this problem."

Unfortunately, ARA's proposed solution -- in which the carmakers foot the bill for a nationwide program of mercury collection and storage -- is precisely the kind of high-cost program the auto industry is trying to avoid.

Chewing on Mercury

Anita Vasquez Tibau was a young college dance major 20 years ago when she suddenly found herself unable to breathe.

"I could hardly walk," she told Dr. L.A. McKeown in an article for WebMD Medical News. "I couldn't do anything. I was using my inhaler every half hour."

These problems plagued Tibau for 20 years until, in 2000, a blood test showed she was highly sensitive to mercury. After Tibau had a dentist remove all 13 of her mercury fillings, her health improved dramatically. She no longer uses any asthma medicine, and she reports much higher energy levels and an increased attention span.

The American Dental Association (ADA) reports that 76 percent of dentists use dental amalgam -- a mixture of metals, including silver, dissolved with mercury. The ADA denies that there are any safety problems with dental amalgam.

"Studies have failed to find any link between amalgam restorations and any medical disorder," the association says. But it concedes that "a very small number of people" are allergic to the fillings. "Fewer than 100 cases have ever been reported," says the ADA. "Symptoms of amalgam allergy are very similar to a typical skin allergy."

The ADA defended its position in court last year after Consumers for Dental Choice sued the ADA and the California Dental Association, claiming that both groups were misleading the public about the mercury content of what they call "silver fillings." But the ADA says it has never tried to hide the mercury connection.

A paper prepared by Consumers for Dental Choice and DAMS, another anti- amalgam advocacy group, charges that every amalgam filling releases 10 micrograms of mercury into the body daily, which is two-thirds of the excretable mercury level. The report also charges that mercury can cross the placental barrier into the tissue of a developing fetus, and it implicates the metal in kidney impairment, loss of immune function, antibiotic resistance and lowered fertility.

Boyd Haley, chairman of the chemistry department at the University of Kentucky, has been an expert witness before Congress on the mercury issue.

"They place this stuff in people's mouths and it's toxic before it goes in, and it's toxic when it is placed in your tooth, so how does it suddenly become safe?" Haley asks.

Many dentists, under pressure on the mercury issue, have switched to alternatives. According to Richard Epstein, a Connecticut-based dentist, "While I believe that the studies disparaging silver amalgam are seriously flawed, the alternatives are effective enough to warrant switching. I now use gold and composite materials."

Dentists have also been under fire for releasing unused amalgam into the waste stream, where it can enter the aquatic food chain. Some have invested in disposable amalgam traps, which catch the metal before it goes down the drain. Recaptured amalgam can be shipped to groups like Dental Recycling North America, which recovers 90 to 95 percent of the mercury in the fillings.

Congresswoman Diane Watson (D-CA) introduced legislation last year that would ban all mercury-based dental amalgam in five years. The New York State Dental Association has fought a proposed bill that would, among other things, require dentists to use mercury containment traps, file an annual amalgam report, and no longer use the fillings for pregnant or under-15-year-old patients. The association claims the legislation is "misguided" and "would detrimentally alter the practice of dentistry."

From the Smokestack

According to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), dirty power plants, especially those that burn coal (which contains mercury naturally), are the single largest source of mercury emissions, resulting in an estimated 40 tons a year. Eighty-five percent of all mercury pollution in the U.S. is released either by coal plants or municipal and medical waste incinerators burning mercury-tainted trash. Only the incinerator emissions are regulated.

In 2000, a NAS report urged that mercury releases from power plants be drastically curtailed. Before leaving office, the Clinton Administration announced that it would develop new, stricter standards, to be proposed in 2003 and finalized in 2004. Then-EPA Administrator Carol Browner noted, "The greatest source of mercury emissions is power plants, and they have never been required to control these emissions before now."

Upon taking office, the Bush Administration signaled that it might reverse campaign promises about power plant carbon dioxide and mercury emissions. The move came after heavy industry pressure from the Utility Air Regulatory Group, which represents 50 large power plants.

Environmentalists loudly protested the administration's proposed reversal.

"Countless studies have documented that mercury emissions from U.S. sources, including coal-fired electric utilities, contaminate lakes and streams, the fish within those water bodies, and the people and wildlife who eat the fish," said National Wildlife Federation Senior Scientist Mike Murray.

In April 2001, the Bush Administration again changed course, attempting to quash an Edison Electric Institute lawsuit aimed at the Clinton-era mercury rules. Environmentalists were cautiously optimistic, but Bush's EPA is likely to phase in smaller mercury reductions over a longer period of time.

In model legislation created by the Mercury Policy Project, coal- burning electric utilities would be required to reduce their mercury releases 95 percent by 2008, but the Bush Administration is likely to impose a much weaker standard.

Groundbreaking legislation is instead coming from the states, including Vermont, which passed the Mercury Reduction Act in 1998. That bill requires manufacturers of "mercury-added" products to label them as such when sold to the public. The legislation also banned trash disposal of products containing mercury.

Vermont's bill prompted a lawsuit by fluorescent lamp manufacturers, who claimed an undue financial burden and argued that their First Amendment right not to disclose information had been violated. The lawsuit was later thrown out by two federal appeals courts.

Several other states intend to model legislation on Vermont's law. In 2001, Massachusetts unveiled strict new final standards for power plant emissions, becoming the first state in the nation to regulate mercury releases. The state's power plants will be required to phase in 50 to 75 percent nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emission reductions by 2008.

"From a national perspective, this mandatory reduction of four major pollutants from the state's oldest and dirtiest power plants is a very important precedent," says Cindy Luppi, organizing director of Clean Water Action.

One final irony is that U.S. campaigners may be very successful in removing mercury from domestic commerce, only to see the deadly neurotoxin "recycled" to ready buyers overseas. That was exactly the case last year, when HoltraChem, a mercury-based chlor-alkali plant in Maine, shut down. Some 130 tons of mercury were sold to a broker, which resold it for use in India.

Madhumita Dutta, coordinator of the Indian group Toxics Link, calls this kind of transaction "toxic trade." Vehement protests in both India and the U.S. succeeded in at least temporarily stopping the deal, but there is an estimated 3.5 to five million pounds of mercury on-site at 11 other American chlor-alkali plants.

For environmentalists, the battle against mercury has many fronts. It's not just in thermometers, but also in pharmaceutical products and vaccines (in the form of thimerosal, a preservative), and it is in car parts, too. As soon as legislation is passed to take it out of some consumer products, it pops up in others.

A worrisome new use is in high-tech gadgetry, like global positioning screens and high-density auto headlights. Mercury pours out of smokestacks and arc furnaces and, according to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, tons of it (stored in foliage and ground litter) goes up in smoke during wildfires. It's an elusive enemy, but one well worth fighting.

Jim Motavalli wrote this for E/The Environmental Magazine, where this article originally appeared. To subscribe to E, call (815) 734-1242. Yearly subscriptions are $20.

Getting Out of Gridlock

Jerry Nichols, a British-born musician, nurse and beer-brewer who lives in suburban Connecticut, has a long morning commute that can double if traffic is bad. His solution is unique to him: Zen-like detachment. "I simply tune it out," he says. "The traffic can be swirling around me, people can be yelling, honking their horns, and I hardly even hear it."

We need coping mechanisms like these, because commuting times are getting longer for many Americans. Tracy, California, a former farming community, is about 60 miles east of San Francisco. Because housing prices in San Francisco are some of the highest in the nation, Tracy has been absorbed into the city's suburban commuter corridor. For the tradeoff of a four-bedroom house for $800 a month, Tracy's commuters travel an average of 58 miles one-way to work.

In other news, the pregnant women of Atlanta are increasingly having their babies in the car because of traffic jams on the way to the hospital. In a city with expansive suburbs and average 34-mile-a-day commutes, many mothers-to-be just can't get to a medical center fast enough.

It can't go on like this, can it? In the new millennium, when the futurists said we'd all be wafting to work in sky cars, we're decidedly earthbound. According to Katie Alvord's book Divorce Your Car, a third of the average city's land is devoted to serving the car, including roads, service stations and the parking lot at Wal-Mart. In 1970, Americans drove a trillion miles per year; it's been more than two trillion a year since the mid-1990s. There are more than 220 million registered automobiles in the U.S. alone, and their numbers will soon overtake the human population.

As cities sprawl farther into distant suburbs, an hour a day in the car has become the national norm. The average family takes 10 car trips a day, mostly for shopping, socializing or recreation. For every 10 travel miles, nine are taken in a car. As Alvord puts it, this isn't love, it's addiction.

Despite the fact that the national interstate highway system is fully built, governments spend $200 million every day constructing, fixing and improving roads in the U.S. What do we get for our money? The National Transportation Board predicts that delays caused by congestion will increase by 5.6 billion hours in the period between 1995 and 2015, wasting an unnecessary 7.3 billion gallons of fuel. Seventy percent of all daily peak-hour travel on interstates now occurs under stop-and-go conditions, and a measurable "rush hour" will soon be a thing of the past.

Highway Robbery

One of the major barriers to the fledgling automobile industry at the turn of the century was the poor state of the roads. One of the first highway lobbying groups was the League of American Wheelmen, which founded "good roads" associations around the country and, in 1891, began lobbying state legislatures.

Many of the early roads and parkways built in America were private and funded by tolls. One such early road was the 45-mile Long Island Motor Parkway, built in 1908 and entirely financed by the racing enthusiast William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. Unfortunately, the toll collection plan fell short of expectations, and he was forced to give up his road in 1938 to three county governments in lieu of back taxes.

The Federal Aid Roads Act of 1916 encouraged coast-to-coast construction of paved roads, usually financed by gasoline taxes (a symbiotic relationship if ever there was one). By 1930, the annual budget for federal road projects was $750 million. After 1939, with a push from President Franklin Roosevelt, limited-access interstates began to make rural areas accessible. Among the first passengers on the superhighways were returning World War II veterans, who were financing their new suburban dream homes with federal loans. They didn't call the movement away from the cities "sprawl" back then, but that's what it was.

There wasn't necessarily anything sinister about all this. Highways were seen by many as just one aspect of the technological progress that would make life easier for all. In his book 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, David Gelernter argues that the General Motors (GM) Futurama exhibit, which took fair-goers through the imagined world of 1960, complete with a 14-lane Express Motorway that would crisscross the nation at 100 miles per hour (with car spacing controlled by "radio beams"), was wildly popular precisely because of the freedom and mobility the interstate highways promised.

Some modern historians, Gelernter says, suggest "that the Futurama exhibit was the launchpad of an evil GM scheme to foist highways on an unwilling public -- and that is absurd." At the same time, however, there were vigorous protests against new highways in many cities, precisely because some people could see beyond the glitter to the roads' ultimate impact on neighborhoods and urban life in general.

If private cars were going to dominate American transportation after World War II, they needed newer and better roads to run on. GM also stands behind the creation of the National Highway Users Conference, otherwise known as the highway lobby, which became the most powerful pressure group in Washington. GM promotional films from the immediate postwar years proclaim interstate highways to be the realization of "the American dream of freedom on wheels."

GM President Charles Wilson, who became Secretary of Defense in 1953, used his position to proclaim that a new road system was vital to U.S. security needs. He was assisted by newly appointed Federal Highway Administrator Francis DuPont, whose family was then the largest GM shareholder. Acting on a bill introduced by Senator Albert Gore, Sr., Congress approved the $25 billion Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. "The greatest public works program in the history of the world," as Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks called it, was on, and with it were planted the seeds of our current gridlock. In 1956, 72 percent of American families owned a car; by 1970, when the national road network comprised 30,000 miles, 82 percent owned cars, and 28 percent had two or more.

Suburbanizing America

As the highways expanded, they carried Americans farther and farther from the city. Today, 50 years after ground was struck for Levittown, the influential planned community on Long Island, the process it heralded has become known as sprawl, a seemingly endless stretch of mini-malls and housing developments, reached almost exclusively by private cars. Since the mid-1950s, for instance, the city of Phoenix, Arizona has grown from 17 to well over 400 square miles, and its traffic tie-ups are nightmarish.

The new suburbs didn't have to be as car-oriented as they turned out to be. For this, we can at least partly blame "master builders" like Robert Moses, who had an elitist attitude towards any form of transportation designed to move the sweating hordes. On Long Island alone, Moses built 11 expressways, but he fought off any attempt to incorporate mass-transit rights of way into them. Biographer Robert Caro writes that in 1952, Moses was informed by the General Electric Urban Traffic Division that it had "costed out" installing rapid transit lines on highway center medians and that "if provision for tracks was made in the original highway design their cost would be one-tenth of providing them later. Moses' reply? ‘The cost of acquiring additional width and building for rapid transit would be prohibitive and hundreds of families would be dislocated.'" The bridges on Moses' parkways were deliberately made too low to allow passage by chartered buses.

Moses' legacy can be seen in the combined lobbying efforts of such current and former groups as the American Association of Highway Builders of the North Atlantic States, the American Association of State Highway Officials, the American Concrete Paving Association, the American Road Builders Association, and the American Automobile Association (AAA) -- and those are just the groups with "American" in the title. AAA -- which most people think of as an apolitical group that aids stranded travelers and provides good maps -- is also a lobbyist for highways and against clean air legislation.

The highway lobby is very much still with us today. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, for example, represents all 50 state highway departments and has a $14 million annual budget. The Washington, D.C.-based American Highway Users Alliance has a staff of 12 and a $2 million annual budget. Formerly the Highway Users Federation, it was created in 1932 by GM, "on the not unreasonable assumption that healthy GM auto sales required plenty of roads." Funding comes from member organizations like the American Trucking Association (itself a $35 million lobbying group), the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, and the American Petroleum Institute.

It's not surprising, then, that the Highway Users Alliance sees the solution to America's congestion problem as building more roads, especially interstate interchanges. "Our overstressed road system needs additional capacity at key points," the Alliance opines in a report entitled "Unclogging America's Arteries: Prescriptions for Healthier Highways." If we remove strategic bottlenecks, the report said, "Emissions of smog-causing volatile organic compounds would drop by 44 percent, while carbon monoxide would be reduced by 45 percent." In other words, not only can we build out of congestion, but we can build out of pollution, too.

But if we got into this mess, we can get out of it, too, and there are innovative solutions -- some of them growing out of advanced technology -- for getting Americans off the road and out of relentless gridlock.

Taking Transit

The best way to reduce traffic congestion, obviously, is to get people out of their cars and into alternative forms of transportation. And that is starting to happen. Last year, the Washington Post bannered an encouraging headline: "Mass Transit Popularity Surges in U.S." It seems that the number of people riding trains and buses is the highest it's been in 40 years. Ridership is actually rising faster than automobile use. At least until September 11 forced a drastic and probably temporary decline in use, Washington, D.C.'s Red and Orange lines were running at near capacity, and planners worried that platforms would be too small to accommodate all the new riders.

That is good news, but it masks a grim little secret: all the forms of alternative transit together, including trains, buses, bicycles and that old standby the human leg, account for a tiny share of American transportation use. "Let's not break out the champagne," said William Fay, president of the American Highway Users Alliance, in the Post story. "Highway growth is the real success. By real numbers, far more people are driving cars than taking transit."

Unfortunately, the Highway Users have a point. The transit numbers, although improving, only look good until they're compared to auto use. According to Department of Transportation data compiled in 1995 as part of the "National Personal Transportation Survey," America's 100 million households make one billion trips a day. But of that, 900 million trips were by car, 65 million by foot and bicycle, and just 19 million by transit. (The rest are school bus rides and "other.") Transit is just two percent of the total.

In one passenger mile, rail generates .01 grams of hydrocarbons, a bus .20 and a car 2.09. The figures for carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide are just as dramatic. So how can we get transit use up? The answer may lie in new technologies that are making trains, buses and ferries faster and more competitive with the commuter car. The Acela Express, for example, now travels at 150 miles per hour between Boston and Washington, D.C. As in an airplane, there are first, business and coach classes, with the former offering wide seats, personal audio programming, plug-ins for laptop computers, at-seat dinner service on china plates with microbrewed beer and gourmet coffee, and even hand-delivered hot towels.

Portland, Oregon now offers light rail links to just about everywhere, following a 1997 decision not to build an urban beltway, and to limit highway construction to less than 40 miles over the next 40 years. The result is that from 1990 to 1996, transit ridership grew 20 percent faster in the metropolitan region than did vehicle miles traveled.

In Sydney, Australia, graceful ferryboats come in past the famous Opera House, depositing hundreds of commuters on the dock right downtown. Sydney's ferry services are so extensive that a color-coded route map looks like a guide to London's Underground. Other cities, including Seattle and Vancouver, have made ferries an integral part of their daily commute, and fast catamaran boats have cut travel times.

A growing number of clean electric and electric-hybrid buses ply the public roads from Santa Barbara to Miami Beach, and some travel in dedicated roadways devoid of competing traffic, offering an attractive alternative to many commuters.

The Pricing is Right

Only in America would commuters desperate to gain entrance to the congestion-free High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes on freeways actually construct dummies to fake a traveling companion. As Robert D. Putnam documents in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, we've become a nation of solitary travelers -- a phenomenon fundamentally incompatible with mass transit. "Over the last two or three decades," Putnam writes, "driving alone has become overwhelmingly the dominant mode of travel to work for most Americans….The fraction of all commuters who carpool has been cut in half since the mid-1970s, and [declined to] only seven or eight percent by 2000. The bottom line: By the end of the 1990s, 80 to 90 percent of all Americans drove to work alone, up from 64 percent as recently as 1980."

One of the best methods of combating this distressing pattern may be through toll pricing. Removing existing tolls, which is often very popular politically, "is usually a mistake, because it encourages more driving," says Janine Bauer of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign in New York. She adds that people often consider mature highways to be "paid for," when actually the public continues to spend inordinate amounts of money on maintenance and improvements. As annoying as they are, tolls serve an important function. Through what's called "congestion pricing" -- varying toll amounts by time of day -- they can help reduce gridlock at peak travel times. And the revenue tolls generate can be diverted to worthy transit alternatives, which is beginning to happen in some states.

Congestion pricing is popular with libertarian critics of light rail transit systems. John Charles, environmental policy director of the Cascade Policy Institute in Oregon, believes that variable toll pricing will ease traffic conditions in ways that adding mass transit capacity cannot. "When you pay the premium, you get a premium result," he says. "There's no need to pass judgment, but if you drive a lot, you should pay for it with a user fee. Our studies show it's only necessary to reduce traffic load a tiny amount to make it free-flowing again."

In a report entitled "Curbing Gridlock: Peak-Period Fees to Relieve Traffic Congestion," the National Academy of Sciences praised congestion pricing as a potentially powerful persuader that could induce commuters to carpool, use mass transit, telecommute, alter their travel times and combine some trips. There have been feasibility studies and pilot programs galore, with federal funding, in such varied locations as Boulder, Houston, Minneapolis and Lee County, Florida. In San Francisco, where traveling in groups of three not only allows HOV travel but entitles drivers to skip the toll on the Bay Bridge, commuters -- mostly strangers to each other -- connect in parking lots at dawn and fill cars up for the ride into the city.

Critics, like California Assemblyman Bill Lockyer, say that congestion pricing on public highways is elitist, penalizing economically disadvantaged drivers. Lockyer is especially incensed that California has allowed private companies to build for-profit toll roads (known as "Lexus Lanes") on public land alongside major congested highways in the state. The new highways, such as 91 Express Lanes in Orange County near Los Angeles, allow drivers to pay for the privilege of getting to work faster.

The Lexus Lanes are controversial, but so are their more popular parent, the HOV lane. HOV lanes are a "road rage" magnet, provoking angry reactions similar to those of motorists who encounter jammed supermarket parking lots with blocks of unused handicap spaces.

Almost any attempt to relieve congestion by expanding highways is doomed by data that suggest 20 to 50 percent of the new road capacity is immediately filled by opportunistic motorists who had previously been kept at home by the awful traffic. Adding a HOV lane to existing interstates, as many cities have done, provides only temporary relief, according to researcher John Holtzclaw. And because HOV lanes allow traffic to move faster, 10 to 25 percent more emissions are created in them.

The Electronic Commute

Another way to reduce congestion and emissions is through the vastly promising field of telecommuting, which is exploding across America and beginning to affect travel patterns. In 1999, 19.6 million Americans took advantage of the new digital workplace, up from just four million in 1990. In 2000, the "Telework America 2000" report concluded that telecommuting was growing at a rate of more than 20 percent a year. In a survey, Modern Office Technology magazine found that 95 percent of its readers did at least some overtime work at home, and 40 percent of all home computers are purchased to meet that need.

Jack Nilles, author of Managing Telework, runs a management consulting company from his home in California. "The annual growth rate of telecommuting is something like 20 percent," he says. "I'd expect to see 40 million people telecommuting by 2030, and after that I give up forecasting." Nilles may be a bit optimistic, but there's no doubt that the effect of even modest increases is great. He projects that Southern California could reduce daily trip generation by five to 10 percent. An Arthur D. Little study concluded that if only 12 percent of the U.S. workforce telecommuted a single day a week, it would result in 1.6 million fewer car accidents annually and 1,100 fewer traffic-related deaths.

According to a federal Department of Transportation projection, vehicle miles saved through telecommuting could triple between 1997 and 2002, from 10 billion to 35 billion. At the upper end, that means saving 1.6 billion gallons of gasoline (worth nearly $3 billion to consumers). Seen in terms of time savings, it means 110 hours for the average telecommuter over the course of a year. Companies are beginning not only to encourage telecommuting, but have come up with novel ways of promoting it. At the insurance company Aetna, where two percent of the workforce stays home, telecommuters are assigned "office buddies" so they can stay in touch with home base. Ten percent of Sun Microsystems' 40,000 employees are permanently "unassigned," and are allowed to work anywhere there's space, including at home. The telecommuting stars are mainly large companies, because corporations with more than 100 employees are feeling pressured by state law to reduce their commuter populations.

An array of state statutes, prompted by the federal Clean Air Act, encourages trip reduction (Arizona, Illinois, New Jersey and Washington) or telecommuting for state employees (Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Minnesota and Oregon). In Arizona, for instance, state employees can get 100 percent reimbursement for taking public transit or van pools, and can also get paid back for what's known as "telecommuting connectivity," or setting up a home office.

The whole business of work is changing, with vast implications for the rush hour commute. Remember the old Who song "Goin' Mobile"? That seems to be what is happening to jobs in the American suburbs, reports Neil Strother of ZDNet. He writes that large U.S. firms with more than 1,000 employees host nearly one million remote offices around the world. The average large company supports 96 such offices, a number that will jump to 153 by 2004.

These developments don't quite add up to wholesale abandonment of the central office tower in favor of the "electronic cottages" that futurist Alvin Toffler imagined. But work is definitely changing. And so is shopping. Online shopping takes a huge number of cars off the road, though the environmental benefit of fewer visits to malls may be offset by new mileage for diesel trucks working overtime to make deliveries. The big shopping services also create a new and significant waste stream of cardboard boxes and styrofoam packing peanuts.

If there's one lesson to be learned from America's current state of gridlock, it's that you can't build out of congestion. If that were possible, Los Angeles would be a traveler's paradise today. Don Chen, director of Smart Growth America, points to a University of California study showing that a one percent increase in lane miles will generate a just under one percent increase in traffic congestion within five years. "If people see a free-flowing road, they'll use it," says Chen. "This has been well-documented in dozens of surveys going back 50 years." Despite the best efforts of the highway lobby, we've got to forget about paving over our problems and apply new solutions.

Jim Motavalli is editor of E Magazine and author of the "Breaking Gridlock: Working Toward Transportation That Works," (Sierra Club Books, 2001) from which this piece was excerpted.

Cars From Coconuts

The northern Brazilian state of Pará, set in the largest contiguous tropical rainforest in the world, is four times the size of Germany but has a tiny fraction of that industrialized country's economic activity. That's why defenders of the rainforest say it's important to build a sustainable economy in Brazil's rural areas, where a quarter of the country's 167 million people live.

It starts with coconuts. There's a well-established market for coconut milk and meat in Pará state, but coconut shells traditionally have been discarded or burned, adding to the pall of smoke already hanging over rainforest land cleared for subsistence agriculture. In a small way, that situation is changing as the unlikely partnership between a tiny Brazilian nonprofit group and one of the world's biggest auto giants, DaimlerChrysler, is getting those coconut shells out of the waste stream.

In the small community of Praia Grande on idyllic Marajó Island off Brazil's northern coast, 10 workers are employed by the modest, low-tech factory that processes the coconut fiber, turning it into headrests and seat padding for Mercedes cars and trucks. There are eight facilities like the one on Marajó Island, and together they keep 900 farm families at work gathering the coconut husks.

The coconut project began in 1991, with the creation of Program Pobreze e Meio Ambiente na Amazônia (POEMA), which uses sustainable agriculture to protect the rainforest from short-term subsistence farming.

The German connection was established early on. Willi Hoss, a former Green Party member of the German Parliament and an unofficial ambassador for the Federal University of Pará, approached the Brazilian subsidiary of DaimlerChrysler (then Daimler-Benz) for financial and technical support. A German-born sociology professor at the university, Dr. Thomas Mitschein, became POEMA's director in 1992, and he launched the coconut project as well as a series of clean water and sustainable agriculture projects around Pará state. "We saw that 11 percent of the Brazilian rainforest had become altered or degraded, and our challenge was to come up with ways to rebuild those altered areas while also creating livelihoods for the people here," says Mitschein. "It was a big challenge. But the development model then being followed was a scenario for destruction."

According to Enrique Vascos, who heads the Praia Grande smallholder association, coconut yields have more than doubled since the farmers began planting a variety of soil-enriching field crops (including limes, bananas and a variety of palms) to supplement what had been a coconut monoculture. In addition, says Vascos, a POEMA-sponsored wind- and solar-operated clean water system has eliminated the parasites that used to plague the children of the community.

The initial coconut operation is decidedly low-tech. The husks are soaked in water to loosen the fibers, then hand-fed into a grinder powered by a small electric motor. The fibers are twisted into ropes and sprayed with natural latex, which increases their elasticity. DaimlerChrysler helped pay for a $3.5 million semi-automated plant in Ananindeua that creates the headrests, sun visors, interior panels and other parts made from the fiber base for Brazilian-made Mercedes cars and trucks. By the end of 2001, the plant will be able to manufacture 30 metric tons of coconut products per month; it's enough work to provide income for more than 5,000 people.

DaimlerChrysler is now simply a customer of POEMATEC, the for-profit arm of POEMA, which is also in negotiations to become a supplier to Honda and Volkswagen. The Brazil operation mirrors a similar program in South Africa, where DaimlerChrysler is working with local farm workers to process sisal leaves, which are combined with recycled cotton to make material for use in rear parcel shelves for Mercedes-Benz C-Class cars.

Ford is also getting involved in sustainable development, though in a completely different way. The company's Rouge Plant, a 15 million-square-foot symbol of the industrial age, was built by Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan in 1917. Now his great-grandson, William Clay Ford, Jr., is overseeing a $2 billion redevelopment of the site as a model of sustainability. It will even have a grass roof.

"This factory roof will have four inches of water running through it," says William McDonough, the environmental architect who is piloting the project for Ford. "The water will flow through living systems, get polished by plants, then flow back into the Rouge River. How many industrial plants can say that they produce oxygen?"

The emerging site includes porous parking areas that absorb water rather than run it off into storm drains. "We want to restore the Rouge River, not just reduce the pollution flowing into it," McDonough says. Where the company's coke ovens once stood, Ford is practicing phytoremediation, or the use of native plantings to heal contaminated soil and groundwater. The plan also includes more use of day lighting and natural ventilation, and the planting of more than 1,500 trees. "Greenscreens," or trellises covered with thick, flowering vines, will help shade the plant, and fuel cells will help power it. Plant operations will also be cleaned up, especially the paint shop, which is the center of toxic emissions at most automobile manufacturing sites.

William Clay Ford, Jr. describes the Rouge restoration as "a multi-tiered, 20-year project." The plan, he says, is to transform the venerable plant into "a very human place to be with incredibly interesting environmental attributes. Over time, it will become a model for closed-loop manufacturing. We hope it becomes the most-studied manufacturing plant in the world, just as it was back in its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s."

Neither Ford nor DaimlerChrysler could be described in 2001 as models of sustainability. These are, after all, companies that produce sport-utility vehicles by the millions and fight against clean car legislation. But if these two projects are any evidence, they're making progress.

Scorched Earth Policy

When environmental leaders talk about the Bush Administration's team -- Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Christine Todd Whitman and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham -- the operative word is "scary."

About Norton, an extremist advocate of private property rights during a long public career, Endangered Species Coalition Executive Director Brock Evans says, "This is the scariest nomination for Secretary of Interior I have witnessed in 20 years. The implications for just about every place, every value, every resource protection that Americans have fought for over two decades are frightening." Mark Helm, a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth, calls the new administration a nightmare. By choosing people like Gale Norton, Bush is calling for a war on the environment."

Joan Mulhern, legislative counsel for the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, is also aghast at the prospect of four years of Gale Norton at Interior. "Her appointment is very troubling," she says. "And we believe she will take extreme positions across the board against public lands and in favor of private property rights. There will be significant loss of protection."

Although these and many other environmental groups mounted determined campaigns against their nominations (Greenpeace even unfurled an anti-Norton banner at the Interior Department, leading to three arrests), all of Bush's environmental picks sailed through to confirmation. The combination of Norton, Abraham and Whitman in key positions is likely to mean that environmentalists will spend the next four years fighting a rear-guard action against regulatory rollbacks and struggling to gather congressional support against bad policies, including proposed oil drilling in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Blood for Oil

The battle over ANWR drilling will be a key one, as it's obviously a top priority for the oil-friendly Bush Administration and the only environmental issue discussed during the Presidential debates. No less than four top Bush aides have close oil ties, as does the President himself, and they speak of opening up the 1.5-million-acre refuge with near-religious fervor. But environmentalists will not surrender "America's Serengeti" without an intense fight that will recall many similar encounters, such as the confrontation over unhindered logging in the days of Reagan-era Interior Secretary James Watt, and the environmental rollbacks that were part of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America."

"Clearly, destroying one of the most spectacular places on the planet is too high a price to pay for politics as usual," said the Sierra Club in a report last year. But that destruction has long been on the Republican agenda, and never more so than in the Bush Administration. Both Bush and Interior Secretary Norton have used California's electricity crisis as a justification for drilling in Alaska, even though the region's oil could not actually start flowing until 2007 and most electric plants in California are fueled by natural gas. During her confirmation hearings, Norton claimed that ANWR held "the largest energy reserves ever found in the United States," and that it could be extracted in what she called "an environmentally responsible way" by drilling only in "the dead of winter."

But Adam Kolton, Arctic campaign director of the Alaska Wilderness League, says that drilling in any season is extremely damaging to ANWR. "Winter seismic vehicle tracks from exploratory tests done 15 years ago are still visible," he says. "The arctic tundra has still not recovered."

Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski, a Republican who has led the fight for ANWR drilling, waves away such concerns. He says drilling poses no danger to the migratory birds, caribou, wolverines, musk oxen, polar and grizzly bears living in the refuge. But a look 60 miles to the west, to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, proves otherwise. With its pipelines, roads, drilling pads, wells, waste pits and airstrips, the ruined tundra of the oil fields covers 800 square miles.

According to the Alaska Wilderness League, 95 percent of Alaska's Arctic Slope is already open for exploration. Contradicting Norton, the group says that little

recoverable oil lies beneath the refuge's coastal plain. A 1987 report prepared for the drilling-friendly Reagan Administration projected an only one-in-five chance of discovering economically viable oil there. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, at best the Arctic Refuge contains 3.2 billion barrels of oil, which is only six month's supply at current consumption rates.

Melanie Griffin, the Sierra Club's director of land protection programs, suggests increasing investment in renewable energy and conservation technologies as an alternative to oil drilling. "But in this political climate," she says, "there's not a lot of support for that."

And why is that, you may ask? If we were less dependent on foreign oil, wouldn't we be less susceptible to economic damage from price increases? To understand why that argument falls on deaf ears in Congress, just follow the money. Senators voting to remove the Alaska oil ban in 1995 received 5.3 times more money from oil and gas political action committees than did senators who voted against lifting the ban, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP).

Alaska's Murkowski was the Senate's leading recipient of energy and natural resource money in the 1997 to 1998 election cycle. Big oil and auto companies contributed $33.5 million overall to political candidates during that period. The oil industry alone gave $22 million, more than any other energy or natural resource sector, CRP reports. Of that total, 76 percent went to Republican candidates considered friendly to industry interests. Big oil was particularly generous to Alaskan Congressman Don Young, who was helped to victory with $119,708. Young is an outspoken critic of environmental initiatives.

Bush himself raised a huge percentage of his campaign cash from oil and gas interests, including a record $21.3 million at a single fundraiser hosted by Kenneth Lay, chief executive of Enron, the largest natural gas dealer in the U.S. The industry's allocations followed the pattern of the 1997 to 1998 election cycle, when 76 percent of the $22 million donated by oil interests went to Republican candidates.

Vice President Dick Cheney was plucked directly into the campaign from the helm of the Texas-based oil services giant Halliburton, Inc., which helped rebuild Iraq's petroleum industry after the Persian Gulf War. Cheney, who is likely to have considerable influence in the Bush Administration, is hostile toward energy conservation in general and tax subsidies for clean vehicles in particular. Speaking at a recreational vehicle plant in Washington State during the campaign, Cheney made points with the audience by declaring, "You have a solar panel on your house, you get tax relief. If you drive a solar-powered car, you get tax relief. It's goofy."

Bush himself is clueless on such matters. During a Los Angeles stop in the early days of the 2000 Presidential campaign, Bush listened to the complaints of a man who rode two slow buses to work every day and wanted transit improvements. "My hope is that you will be able to find good enough work, so you'll be able to afford a car," replied a helpful Bush.

The auto industry has a direct pipeline to the Bush Administration in the person of Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card, Jr. From 1993 to 1998, Card was the president of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, "where he oversaw the lobbying against tighter fuel-economy and air pollution regulations for automobiles," as The New York Times described it. From there, it was on to a vice presidency at General Motors.

National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, a former Chevron board member, has an oil tanker named after her. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, defeated last November as U.S. Senator from Michigan, twice co-sponsored bills calling for drilling in the Arctic Refuge. He consistently opposed raising Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards for the auto industry, voted against $62 million for solar and other renewables in the Energy Department budget and, of course, also tried to abolish the Energy Department itself.

The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) reported itself "stunned" by Abraham's appointment, since he was the group's number one target for defeat in 2000. In the Senate, Abraham's lifetime LCV environmental voting record was five percent. According to the group, he accepted more campaign contributions from polluting industries and interests than any other congressional candidate, more than $700,000.

Gale Norton: Polluters' Most Valuable Player

Interior Secretary Gale Norton is a former protégé of James Watt, the fierce foe of the environment who held the job under President Ronald Reagan. According to "Gale Ann Norton: An Environmental Profile," a comprehensive report prepared by six major green groups, Norton began her career as a moderate but has moved steadily to the right, embracing extreme libertarian views. Norton has claimed that corporations have a "right to pollute," and embraced the Confederacy's view of state sovereignty. During her career as Colorado's attorney general in the 1990s, she slashed the environmental budget by a third and argued that the Endangered Species Act is unconstitutional. Despite her assurance during the confirmation hearings that she would uphold the law, she showed a marked inability to do so while serving in Colorado. Norton "sat out fights when a corporate power plant broke air pollution laws 19,000 times, a refinery leaked toxins into a creek and a logging mill conducted illegal midnight burns," according to the Denver Post.

Norton was also accused of abandoning her prosecutorial responsibilities in the landmark Summitville case. In 1992, a Southern Colorado gold mine discharged cyanide into the Alamosa River, killing every living thing within a 17-mile stretch, then it promptly declared bankruptcy. The attorney general's office allegedly did nothing while the EPA stepped in and launched a $20 million cleanup. "It's hard for me to understand what the state attorney's office did there," says Mark Hughes, a Denver-based attorney

representing the Sierra Club. During the confirmation hearings, Norton took credit for "millions and millions of dollars" recovered from the mine operator, but this was due to federal prosecutors who pursued criminal charges.

Norton is a major proponent of "takings" laws that have the effect of providing compensation to property owners affected by environmental rulings, and she supported a 1994 Colorado law allowing "self policing" of the state's polluting industries. During her term as associate solicitor in the Reagan-era Interior Department, she drafted an early call for ANWR drilling. Norton is a founder, along with right-wing activist Grover Norquist, of the greenwashing group Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, which advocates what it calls "free-market environmentalism." The council's members are mining groups, auto companies, property rights advocates and chemical industries. Republicans for Environmental Protection, a group that actually does advocate for the environment, has called Norton's council "a green scam."

Lisa Wade Raasch, communications director at the League of Conservation Voters, points out that after leaving state employ in 1998, Norton registered as a lobbyist on behalf of NL Industries, a lead paint manufacturer (once known as National Lead Company). NL has been a defendant in 75 lawsuits involving toxic waste sites and 12 involving lead poisoning of children. "She worked to help NL escape liability for its products," Raasch says.

Christine Todd Whitman: Industry's Friend

Many environmental groups pronounced themselves "cautiously optimistic" about former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman's appointment as EPA Secretary, particularly since she's amassed a very public record of support for anti-sprawl and "Smart Growth" initiatives, coupled with $1 billion in state spending on open space protection. "In the scheme of things, we're happy with her nomination," says Brian Keane of the Conservation Law Foundation.

But Jeff Tittel, who's had a chance to study Whitman up close as director of the Sierra Club's New Jersey chapter, describes her as "a pro-choice Gale Norton." Environmentalists, he says, are more comfortable with Whitman than some of President Bush's other appointments because she is a Northeastern governor and pro-choice on abortion. "People assume that means she's decent on the environment, but her record is actually much worse than people realize," Tittel says. "New Jersey, historically, because of all of our environmental problems, has had regulations that were stronger than those on the federal level. But instead of introducing new laws, Whitman has tried to weaken or eliminate the programs that were already in place. You might expect this in Texas, but New Jersey deserves better."

According to The Nation, during Whitman's two terms as governor, "fines of air and water polluters plummeted 70 percent…Moreover, she decapitated the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) staff by 738 employees in her first three years in office, cut the remaining staff's work week by five hours, eliminated fines of polluters as a source of DEP revenue and made large cuts in the DEP's budget." In addition, the Office of Environmental Prosecutor, a highly effective post, was abolished.

In 1992, New Jersey Republican Assemblyman Robert Shinn, Jr., at the behest of industry, introduced a bill to remove a raft of chemicals from the state's list of hazardous substances. The legislation failed, but Whitman rewarded Shinn by appointing him head of the DEP, where he proceeded on his own to remove 2,000 of 2,900 from the list. He also excluded from coverage any supplies weighing less than 500 pounds, meaning 55-gallon drums of highly toxic substances would not have to be reported. This is perhaps what Whitman meant when, in her 1996 budget address, she spoke of "moving our DEP away from command-and-control and towards cooperation."

A 1997 survey of New Jersey DEP staff by the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) drew some scathing comments: "Governor Whitman has systematically weakened virtually all DEP programs and policies," one worker wrote. "Housing, agriculture and chemical industries now dictate environmental policy and enforcement at NJ DEP." One administrator added, "Governor Whitman caters to industry." Another said, "We often bend over backwards to find creative ways to avoid penalizing people."

Tittel says that Whitman is adept at painting green camouflage on anti-environmental legislation. "Here's a classic Christie thing," he says. "In 1996, she proposed legislation that would change how the state measures discharges, allowing a 500 percent increase in toxins going into our waterways. When the rule came out, she signed it and then took school kids on a canoeing trip, telling them how the law would mean cleaner water for New Jersey. She puts a green face on everything with hikes and photo-ops, but she has no technical understanding of the issues."

Whitman's shaky knowledge of environmental science was underscored when, in a New York Times interview, she confused the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (global warming) with the holes in the Earth's ozone layer caused by the release of chloroflourocarbons (CFCs). Whitman, USA Today editorialized, needs to "fill in that troubling knowledge gap quickly."

If there's any reason for optimism about Whitman's term at EPA, it's in the area of preserving open space. Keith Schneider of the Michigan Land Use Institute says that Whitman "set the standard in the GOP for responding to voter concerns about sprawl." Some New Jerseyans complain, however, that Whitman's anti sprawl spending—$100 million a year for 10 years to preserve a million acres—has come at the expense of new park facilities for the state's disadvantaged. Insensitivity to New Jersey's minority residents is a charge that has dogged Whitman since she was photographed personally patting down a black crime suspect.

The Big Rollback

How will the environment fare under President George W. Bush? John Bianchi, a spokesman for the National Audubon Society, offers wishful thinking when he says, "We would hope that the Bush Administration would embrace the traditional Republican conservationist approach, which is part of a long tradition that started with Teddy Roosevelt." Bianchi also noted that the EPA was created under President Richard Nixon, who also signed the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act into law.

By bringing in James Watt to head the Interior Department, Ronald Reagan brought that tradition to an abrupt end. George Bush Sr., says Bianchi, "was pretty neutral on the environment. He didn't introduce any sweeping legislation, but he didn't spearhead an assault on environmental protection either. And that's in step with the feelings of the American people, 98 percent of whom favor protection for unique areas and preservation of existing laws."

George W. Bush's environmental role model, apparently, is Ronald Reagan, not his own father. From its first day in office, the Bush Administration made it clear that it would seek to undo Clinton-era environmental regulations. In its sights is the blizzard of executive orders and proclamations issued in the final days of Clinton's term that, among many other things, created new national monuments, imposed bans and restrictions on snowmobiles and Jet Skis in national parks and established 60 million acres of roadless areas on national forest land.

When the Bush Administration was only hours old, Chief of Staff Card sent a memo to every agency head seeking to stop or delay publication of Clinton's last-minute rules in the Federal Register. Bush appointees including Norton and Whitman, as well as Bush himself, announced their intention to "review" many of Clinton's directives. They'll undoubtedly have help from Attorney General John Ashcroft, a far-right conservative with a zero rating from the League of Conservation Voters who proclaimed himself a "private environmentalist." His environmentalism "has been very private indeed," says Joan Mulhern of Earthjustice, "so private it's impossible to find evidence of it in his voting record [in the Senate]."

How effective will the Bush Administration's tactics be? According to Leslie Jones, staff attorney at the Wilderness Society, "It's very difficult to make generalizations. The monument designations are Presidential proclamations made under the federal Antiquities Act and therefore very difficult to repeal or rescind. But they will chip away at them. The Forest Service's roadless area plan is already a final rule published in the Federal Register, so changing it requires a whole process of going back through the rule-making with notices and comments all over again." Soon after taking office, Bush reversed himself on a campaign pledge to impose mandatory restrictions on global warming gasses, a decision that would have significantly impacted the coal industry. Bush changed his position after heavy lobbying from the coal and electric power industries. Efforts to undermine Clinton-era environmental policies were also underway, though some of these were technical policy shifts that take place under the media's radar. In just his first few months in office, Bush also repealed rules that required mining companies not to endanger public health or damage the environment, began a rollback of National Forest protections, withdrew standards for arsenic in drinking water and signed a bill overturning the Clinton-era rule requiring workplaces to address the problem of repetitive stress syndrome (which affects more than 1.8 million workers, most of them women).

Few environmentalists doubt that the attack on environmental regulations and policies will be relentless in the Bush years, and that in areas where the law can't be changed, non-enforcement (as in Norton's Colorado and Whitman's New Jersey) will be rife. For the environmental community, this is the naked face of compassionate conservatism.

Jim Motavalli is editor of E. Research assistance by Brian Howard and Roxanne Khamsi.

Busting Big Oil

Here's the scenario: Sticker shock at the gas pumps, with prices nearly doubling overnight. Long lines at the few stations that are open. Crude cardboard signs reading "out of gas" blocking incoming traffic at the ones that are closed. Huge sales on "full-sized" vehicles. Long waiting lists for econoboxes.

Nineteen seventy three? Nineteen seventy nine? How about 2007? The "high" prices that motorists are now paying could be a harbinger of a much more serious crisis in oil production and delivery. In the near term, gasoline prices are expected to recede from $2 per gallon, largely because the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has agreed to production increases. The posturing calls in Congress for rollbacks in federal fuel taxes will die out, as will the ad hoc consumer protests.

The price hikes have been very good for Big Oil business: Comparing 1999 profits to 1998, Arco showed a 165 percent increase; Texaco a 36 percent rise; Shell a 38 percent jump; Phillips up 46 percent; and BP/Amoco gaining 35 percent. ExxonMobil might have made money too, if it wasn't busy merging. As the Institute for Local Self-Reliance points out, oil companies are both very profitable and publicly subsidized, to the tune of $3 to $11 billion annually. Taxpayers for Common Sense has detailed $200 million a year just in tax writeoffs for exploration costs (and another $100 million for going after hard-to-get oil).

Rising prices are annoyances, but have to be seen in perspective. Even with the recent round of hikes, Americans still pay the lowest oil prices in the world, while using the most energy per capita. Because of our insatiable appetite for oil, the oil-rich United States has become a major importer, dependent upon OPEC and its allies for 56 percent of the supply. (At the height of the energy crisis in 1975, we managed to reduce that dependence to 35 percent.)

In the U.S., transportation gobbles up 65 percent of the oil supply, and because of automotive population growth and the growing appetite for sport-utility vehicles, demand has been steadily rising since 1998. Americans currently take twice as many car trips as Europeans, and walk or bicycle only a fifth as often. If the trend continues, by 2010 we could be importing two-thirds of our oil.

A recent editorial cartoon shows a shopper's eyes popping at the prospect of $1.65 per gallon gasoline, while lugging such groceries as $9.87 a gallon beer, $48 a gallon maple syrup and $4.52 a gallon spring water. If it were sold by the barrel, Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey ice cream would cost $1,105.44, according to petroleum researcher John S. Herold, Inc. High prices don't shock Europeans, who routinely pay more than $4 a gallon for gasoline, even though they buy oil at the same per barrel prices. The difference is high European gas taxes, which are used in many cases to support alternative fuels and an excellent public transportation system.

The auto industry is gratified that high gasoline prices have affected neither the upward spiral of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) nor Americans' taste for large, heavy and thirsty sport-utility vehicles (SUVs). The biggest-selling car in America today is not a car at all, but the Ford Explorer SUV. Even with an environmentalist like William Clay Ford, Jr. in the chairman's seat, Ford isn't likely to steer an anti-SUV course. Vehicles like the Ford Excursion and the Lincoln Navigator are its profit center, earning the company as much as $15,000 each. From just one Wayne, Michigan factory making sport-utility vehicles, Ford earns the majority of its profits, approximately $3.7 billion a year.

The combination of consumer affluence (and apparent willingness to pay high oil prices) with runaway sales of profitable SUVs means heady times for both the oil and auto industries. What executive wouldn't rejoice at the sight of citizen's movements to repeal oil taxes? There's even a handy foreign scapegoat, OPEC. Too coincidental? Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy Project, sees the sinister forces of market manipulation and collusion at work.

"There are a number of things coming into play to make oil prices go way up," Hauter says. "The simplistic way of looking at this is that it's just the oil-producing nations doing this to the United States. But you had better believe that the oil industry also had a hand in this. The oil-producing nations are very, very dependent on the oil industry for capital investment and new technology for drilling, and with just a few exceptions, the oil companies have extremely close relationships with the nations that produce oil -- countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Mexico. The rise in oil prices is also going to help the domestic agenda of the oil companies that drill in the United States. They're going to be able to leverage these high oil prices to do things like change policy to drill in the Arctic and to reduce environmental regulations."

Drilling the Wilderness

Indeed, as Hauter predicts, the pressure to exploit Alaskan wilderness areas is growing. "Some members of Congress are using the oil price hike as an excuse to renew their calls for drilling the Arctic Refuge," says the Sierra Club in a report entitled Crude Behavior: The Oil Industry's Influence Over Our Nation's Energy Policy. "Clearly, destroying one of the most spectacular places on the planet is too high a price to pay for politics as usual."

Congress voted to remove the ban on North Slope oil exports in 1995, under the banner of relieving America's currently dismal dependence on imported oil. In early March, Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski (R-AK) stepped onto the Senate floor and proclaimed that we were in the midst of a new oil crisis. His solution: S2214, a bill to mandate oil drilling in the 1.5-million-acre Arctic Refuge, popularly known as "America's Serengeti."

Murkowski says his bill poses no danger to the migratory birds, caribou, wolverines, musk oxen, polar and grizzly bears that live in the Refuge, but a look 60 miles to the west, to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, proves him wrong. With its pipelines, roads, drilling pads, wells, waste pits and airstrips, the ruined tundra of the oil fields covers 800 square miles. According to the Alaska Wilderness League, 95 percent of Alaska's Arctic Slope is already open for exploration, and "the odds are little if any recoverable oil lies beneath the last five percent, the Arctic Refuge coastal plain." A 1987 report prepared for the drilling-friendly Reagan Administration projected an only one-in-five chance of discovering economically viable oil there.

Melanie Griffin, the Sierra Club's director of land protection programs, says the oil development threatens the refuge's permafrost, which supports tiny cottongrass plants that are a critical summer food for the 129,000-strong Porcupine River caribou herd. "The oil companies call what they want to do 'a footprint,'" says Griffin, "and show off pictures of caribou grazing near their pipelines. But what they want to do is a massive industrial development, and this would be a major disruption of the caribou migration."

Follow the Money

As an alternative to drilling in wildlife refuges, Griffin suggests increasing investment in renewable energy and conservation technologies. "But in this political climate," she says, "there's not a lot of support for that."

And why is that, you may ask? If we were less dependent on foreign oil, wouldn't we be less susceptible to economic damage from price increases? To understand why that argument falls on deaf ears in Congress, just follow the money. Senators voting to remove the Alaska oil ban in 1995 received 5.3 times more money from oil and gas political action committees than did Senators who voted against lifting the ban, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP).

Alaska's Murkowski was the Senate's leading recipient of energy and natural resource money in the 1997/1998 election cycle. Big oil and auto companies contributed $33.5 million overall to political candidates in the period. The oil industry alone gave $22 million, more than any other energy or natural resource sector, CRP reports. Of that total, 76 percent went to Republican candidates considered friendly to industry interests. Big oil was particularly generous to Alaskan Congressman Don Young, who was helped to victory with $119,708. Young heads an important natural resources committee and is an outspoken critic of environmental initiatives.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, at best the Arctic Refuge contains 3.2 billion barrels of oil, which is only six month's supply at current consumption rates. It's perhaps more than a drop in the bucket, but even this transgression against a national treasure would do little to assert American energy independence. There's considerable evidence that we're stretching the world's oil resources to the limits and beyond.

The End of Cheap Oil

As Scientific American observed in a 1998 special report, "The End of Cheap Oil" may be at hand. Demand, the magazine says, could soon start to exceed supply, a problem exacerbated by the concentration of most remaining large reserves in a few Middle Eastern countries. What's more, some experts say, the size of many countries' oil reserves has been systematically exaggerated for political and economic reasons. Colin Campbell, a co-author of the Scientific American piece, said in an e-mail message that he expects conventional oil, excluding difficult-to-extract sources like polar and deepwater deposits, to peak around 2005, with all oil reaching a production peak in 2010.

We've grown accustomed to a steady, seemingly inexhaustible supply of inexpensive petroleum, but the history of oil drilling -- indeed, the history of any use for what was once called "rock oil" -- is surprisingly brief. As late as the 1850s, people scratched out a bare existence by soaking up surface oil from springs around Oil Creek in Pennsylvania. The few barrels they produced were used to make patent medicines. An enterprising Yale chemistry professor named Benjamin Silliman, Jr. was the first person to figure out that oil supplies could be reached by drilling (as was then done for salt), and he hit his first strike in 1859. Only a little more than 100 years after "the light of the age" was first proclaimed, we've used up half the world's known oil supply.

"The question is not whether, but when, world crude productivity will start to decline, ushering in the permanent oil shock era," says oil analyst L.F. Ivanhoe. The World Resources Institute (WRI) predicted in a 1996 study called "Oil as a Finite Resource" that world production could peak as early as 2007, at the low end, or 2014, at the high end. This is not just wishful thinking by environmentalists. John F. Bookout, a former president and CEO of Shell Oil whose comments are cited in the WRI report, is in basic agreement with Ivanhoe and WRI, projecting that production will peak at 75 million barrels a day "around the year 2010."

Energy Investor magazine is even more pessimistic. "The next oil crunch will not be temporary," the magazine writes. "Our analysis of the discovery and production of oil fields around the world suggests that within the next decade, the supply of conventional oil will be unable to keep up with demand."

Ivanhoe, a geologist who spent 12 years at Occidental Petroleum and is now coordinator of the M. King Hubbert Center for Petroleum Supply Studies at the Colorado School of Mines, explains that the critical milestone for world oil consumption "is not when it's all gone, but when it's half gone. That's the peak of production, and it could occur anywhere between 2005 and 2015. The Norwegians, for instance, say that their oil will top out in 2005, and after 2010 it drops off into infinity."

However, some environmentalists, including car industry critics like Ralph Nader and Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, aren't convinced that the end of big oil is nigh. There's some support for that position as well. The U.S. Geological Survey, for instance, reported in late March that the world's oil and gas reserves are probably 20 percent higher than previously believed. "There is still an abundance of oil and gas in the world," says Thomas Ahlbrandt, the survey's petroleum assessment project chief.

The oil companies themselves seem complacent. ExxonMobil claimed in 1999 that "the world has ample supplies of fossil fuel," adding that "as improved technologies [are] brought to bear, resources once considered impractical can become economic." Those technologies include the use of tools like virtual reality to find previously unknown deposits of oil. The industry can also take heart in a theory, advanced in The Wall Street Journal, speculating that known oil reserves remain relatively stable because oil is actually a renewable resource, continuously produced by the extremely hot temperatures and high pressures under the surface of the Earth.

But the usually optimistic environmental writer Gregg Easterbrook has been doing the math and thinks the wells will indeed come up dry soon. The world has used up 800 billion barrels of oil, he wrote in The Los Angeles Times, with between 1,000 and 1,600 billion barrels remaining in production-feasible reserves. At the current rate of consumption, it would take 60 years to use up the remaining supply. But, Easterbrook says, "world consumption is not standing still, but increasing. Current global petroleum use, already a mind-bending 71 billion barrels a day, is rising at almost two percent a year."

Oil consumption in the Third World is skyrocketing. In Taiwan, for instance, oil imports in 1997 were up 70 percent. In China, they rose 37.5 percent in 1996. "We're either going to have to find huge new deposits soon -- which is essentially impossible -- or we're going to see sharply rising prices, shortages and economic disruption," wrote oil analyst Richard Reese a year before that actually began to happen.

Advancing Alternatives

Even if the world isn't running out of oil just yet, there are many other reasons to end the 100-year reign of fossil fuels. Oil is an environmental nightmare for many different reasons. According to the Environment News Service, for instance, about 706 million gallons of it end up in the ocean every year, "from used engine oil being poured down the drain, runoff from city streets, air pollution particles and offshore oil drilling." Thirty-seven million gallons spill from oil tankers alone, and 15 million more from oil drilling rigs. The 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, which spilled 11 million gallons into Alaska's pristine Prince William Sound, is permanently imprinted in the public consciousness.

And then there's global climate change. Every second, American cars and trucks add 60,000 pounds of the global warming gas carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, two thirds of total U.S. emissions. Every gallon of gasoline burned up in an automobile engine adds another 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, containing five pounds of pure carbon.

If the U.S. were to actually sign on to the international agreement on global warming hammered out in Kyoto, Japan in 1997, it would have to reduce the greenhouse gases it emits to seven percent below 1990 levels by 2012. That would be a near-impossible goal even if our automobile population was stable; instead, since 1969, the U.S. vehicle population has grown six times faster than the human population, 2.5 times faster than the number of households and double the rate of new drivers. Despite being only five percent of the world's population, Americans own 34 percent of the planet's cars and drive an estimated two trillion miles annually.

Rising affluence in countries like India and China have made auto ownership an increasingly affordable dream, which could swell the world's car population past any manageable limits. There are now 600 million cars in the world, but in 2020 there may be 4.5 billion, a clearly unsustainable number if they're producing emissions and global warming gas at current levels.

Because of all these factors: global warming, supply shocks and impending clean air regulations, the industry is taking its first small steps toward diversification. As they announce their intention to become "energy companies" instead of oil companies, it's easy to be reminded of the transformation of tobacco-based corporations like RJ Reynolds, which would just as soon sell crackers as cigarettes. It's not surprising that U.S. Tobacco is now just UST.

The Holland-based Shell Group launched a division called Shell International Renewables in 1997, exploring such areas as solar power and biomass. Shell Hydrogen, another division, is working with DaimlerChrysler on a gasoline processor for the fuel-cell cars the German company plans to introduce in 2004.

Fuel cells, of course, are a very promising technology for ending fossil-fuel dependence. They're a kind of externally fueled chemical battery that produces electricity without combustion. Fuel cells run on hydrogen, but that fuel can be extracted from a tank of gasoline or methanol using an on-board chemical factory called a "reformer." It's the technology that's favored by the oil companies -- for obvious reasons -- but running fossil fuels through a reformer creates more emissions and global warming gas than does powering the cell on direct hydrogen gas. DaimlerChrysler's NECAR (New Car) III, for instance, a fuel-cell car with a reformer, produces levels of the global warming gas carbon dioxide in levels roughly equivalent to that of an efficient diesel engine.

If oil companies do become "energy companies," hydrogen will probably be one of the technologies in their portfolios. "The efficiency of fuel cells -- a technology we're supporting -- is very promising," says ExxonMobil, adding that "hydrocarbons will still be the most efficient and practical sources for powering [them]."

Fuel cells are on the horizon, but excellent opportunities exist right now to greatly lessen fossil-fuel dependence. One important approach would be raising the stagnant federally mandated Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards to 45 miles per gallon (mpg) for cars (it's now 27.5 mpg) and 34 mpg for light trucks (from 20.7 mpg). According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) such a move, easily achievable by the world's automakers, would save two million barrels of oil per day.

Equally huge fuel savings could be achieved if motorists switched from behemoth SUVs to fuel-efficient cars. Last December, Honda introduced its two-passenger Insight hybrid car, which achieves 70 mpg through its revolutionary combination of both gas and electric drivetrains, as well as a super-light 1,800-pound body structure. Toyota will be marketing its very fuel-efficient four-passenger hybrid car, the Prius, in the U.S. this summer. The ultra-modern Prius is already a hit in technology-friendly Japan.

But will Americans buy small cars like these, even when the complicated technology is subsidized by their manufacturers and available for a modest $19,000 to $23,000? It's too early to tell how the hybrids will do, but John Bradley, an ACEEE senior research associate, says that "even though the media has been showing angry people pumping expensive gas into their sport-futility vehicles, it hasn't changed people's car-buying habits or caused them to drive any less. Car sales are on pace to exceed last year's record numbers, and they're buying mostly trucks and SUVs."

To be fair to consumers, they've been given very little incentive to save energy. Bradley notes that not only has Congress refused to raise CAFE standards, it has also virtually defunded the 77 innovative Clean Cities programs across the country, which together receive what one congressional staffer called "chump change," $17 million.

We'd conserve far more if we invested in renewable energy research, a priority in the Carter administration that has been languishing ever since. Unfortunately, President Clinton's budget for energy conservation, solar and renewables was slashed 20 percent by Congress in 1999 and 2000. "I don't think anyone really believes that we can become more energy independent unless we develop more alternative fuels," said a frustrated President Clinton at a press conference in March. In the last two years, The Sierra Club reports, Congress cut $7.4 billion from the administration's efforts to reduce energy consumption, even though the programs could have saved $70 for every $1 invested. This included cuts in funding for home energy conservation, a real issue as home heating oil prices started to rise last winter.

It's possible that it will take another major energy crisis for us to get serious about saving energy, says Joan Ogden, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Princeton University. "Otherwise, gas prices are a weak economic lever," she says. "If the gasoline bill doubles, costing a few dollars more per week, it's not a big problem." Waiting in gas lines, or not being able to find gas at all, that gets people's attention.

Ogden, who's been a consultant to Ford and other companies, does believe that oil production is peaking in many parts of the world, and even with major technological improvements it will get more and more expensive to extract the remaining oil. "The oil companies are looking at this problem," Ogden says. "There are strategic thinkers there, and they're serious about fuel cells. The tone is changing dramatically." Shell's chairman, Mark-Moody Stuart, says, "We need to have a dialogue on responsibility with our shareholders," and the company runs ads about saving the rainforest. "Greenwashing," yes, but indicative perhaps of a tiny change in thinking.

The pace of change will have to accelerate. Cheap oil never really was cheap, and we just can't pay the bill, environmental or financial, to keep it flowing for another 100 years.

Jim Motavalli is the editor of E, The Environmental Magazine, where this article first appeared.

BRAND NEW STORIES

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.