Three Mile Island, 30 Years Ago
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Arjun Mahkijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, looks back at the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown. The accident turned the public against nuclear power and Wall Street was reluctant to invest money in new plants. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that financing nukes may still be a risky business. (06:00)
Lessons learned from Exxon Valdez and Three Mile Island
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Decades after two of the country's seminal environmental events, the accidents at Three Mile Island and Valdez still color the country's energy and environment debates. Host Bruce Gellerman and Washington correspondent Jeff Young talk about what lessons apply to today's discussion of nuclear power and oil. (05:30)
EPA Eyes Mountaintop Removal Mining
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The Environmental Protection Agency has expressed concern that mining practices routinely approved by the Bush administration may seriously damage water quality. Environmentalists hoped this would lead to a moratorium on mountaintop removal but the EPA says it is merely examining permit applications more closely. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Ken Ward, a reporter for the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. (06:00)
Dueling Coal Ads
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The coal industry says clean coal technology is the answer to America’s energy crisis. Environmental groups say clean coal doesn't exist. Both groups are spending millions of dollars on television ads and youtube videos to make their point. Communications Professor John Carroll of Boston University tells host Bruce Gellerman who’s ahead in the campaign duel. (07:30)
Central Park Drilling/ Neal Rauch
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Our country’s appetite for fossil fuels has caused the oil industry to tap fuel sources in some unusual places. As Neil Rauch reports, New York City is not immune. (04:30)
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A small school of robotic fish will soon be released off the shores of northern Spain to search for water pollutants. Equipped with chemical sensors and artificial intelligence, the fish could be key in protecting their living counterparts from the harmful effects of ship leaks and dirty runoff. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with research scientist Luke Speller, leader of the SHOAL project. (07:00)
Alien Life on Earth
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Strange life forms don't have to be the domain of distant planets and old Star Trek episodes. Astro-biologist Paul Davies says life as we don't know it might already exist in our own backyard. Davies talks with host Bruce Gellerman about the possibility of life on Earth evolving more than once, and about why scientists should launch a "mission to Earth" to find alien life. (08:30)
Pig Frog in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia.
Host: Bruce Gellerman
Guests: John Carroll, Paul Davies, Arjun Makhijani, Luke Speller, Ken Ward
Reporters: Neil Rauch, Jeff Young
GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - this is Living on Earth.
GELLERMAN: I’m Bruce Gellerman.
We mark the anniversaries of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Three Mile Island meltdown.
MAHKIJANI: The abiding lesson that Three Mile Island taught Wall Street was that a group of NRC licensed reactor operators could turn a two billion dollar asset into a one billion dollar clean up job in about 90 minutes.
GELLERMAN: We’re looking back at the nation’s worst environmental disasters and ahead to our energy future - which is certain to include coal.
VOICE OVER: We can be energy independent. We can continue to use our most fuel cleanly and responsibly - we can, we will – clean coal: America’s power.
GELLERMAN: But anti-coal ads fight back.
VOICE OVER: So – don’t worry about climate change – leave that up to us. In reality there’s no such thing as clean coal.
GELLERMAN: These stories this week on Living on Earth! Don’t touch that dial.
[NEWSBREAK MUSIC: Boards Of Canada “Zoetrope” from “In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country” (Warp Records 2000)]
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, in for Steve Curwood.
Today we note the anniversaries of two of the worst environmental disasters in US history. Coming up - lessons from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, two decades on. But first - it was 30 years ago, March 28, 1979, at precisely 4AM that alarms went off at Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania – signaling the start of a nuclear nightmare. Roger Mattson was a Senior Engineer with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
MATTSON: We had a meltdown at Three Mile Island. Fifty percent of the core was destroyed, or molten and something on the order of twenty tons of uranium found its way by flowing in a molten state to the bottom head of the pressure vessel. That's a core melt down, no question about it.
GELLERMAN: This audio is from the documentary, "Meltdown at Three Mile Island”- The disaster put the kibosh on the US commercial nuclear power industry. Not a single atomic plant has been built since.
Arjun Makhijani is a nuclear engineer and president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.
MAKHIJANI: Well it was a series of errors that compounded each other. There was some design problems, then there were human problems and then there were mechanical malfunctions. And at Three Mile Island, due to a malfunction on the turbine side of the plant, the electric generating system shut down. So in that case what happens in the reactor is there’s a relief valve that relieves the over pressure – just like your pressure cooker. You know, your pressure cooker has a little relief valve on the top, the steam escapes from there. And that valve opened at Three Mile Island. And then after it has relieved the pressure, it’s supposed to close and this mechanical valve was stuck open even though the power to the valve had turned off and it should have shut. So the operator thought it was closed, but all of this water was escaping from the reactor.
GELLERMAN: Yeah, and the problem was confounded by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and state officials in Pennsylvania, they just kind of like added to the confusion. Nobody really knew who was speaking to the public, and the public didn’t know what was going on, and the media was there.
MAKHIJANI: Yeah, typically the companies said no radiation was released and some other – I think the state authorities said that some radiation had been released. And the state authorities were right, some radiation had been released. And then they released more radiation deliberately when they vented the plant. And then the public got very upset. There was a lot of confusion over whether people should be evacuated. So, yes, there was a lot of confusion and from the operators in the control room to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission people were shown to be very ill prepared for this kind of event.
GELLERMAN: So, are we safer today with the nuclear plants that are now operating?
MAKHIJANI: I don’t know. There’s no clean answer to that. I think a lot of the problem lies in what is going on in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. For the first fifteen years after the accident, I think the Commission had lessons learned. It was awake. It asked the licensees to incorporate changes into their reactors even if they incurred some costs and so on. In recent years, there’s been a greater relaxation. There’s a lot of self-inspection going on. The licensees can make a lot of determinations that I don’t think they should make. We all, you know, we were not far from a catastrophe at a reactor in Toledo, near Toledo, the Davis-Besse Reactor, where the head, the lid of the reactor vessel had almost corroded all the way through. The NRC inspectors had seen pictures of the corrosion before. They had – there was actually a bucket brigade to carry away the deposited boric acid, and yet they did not order the shut down on the power plant. This was as recently as 2002. So I’m not comfortable today that the NRC is as vigilant as it should be, and these reactors have become cash cows for their operators. I certainly don’t mind people making profit, but I think the re-licensing process and the vigilance should certainly be much greater than it is today.
GELLERMAN: You know there’s a generation of people in the United State who don’t even know about Three Mile Island, let alone remember it. And many of them are familiar with, you know, nuclear power plants from Homer Simpson.
MAKHIJANI: Yes, that’s right. This is the most common way to find out about nuclear power these days.
GELLERMAN: He was an operator of a nuclear power plant.
MAKHIJANI: That’s right, yeah. And so we essentially know nuclear power through a cartoon character. You know, I think the debate about nuclear power is and should be very serious. The nuclear power industry claims that they’re going to solve the climate crisis. But they’re a mature industry. They’ve had government-supplied insurance for fifty years. They still get government-supplied insurance. They say they’re very safe, but they cannot buy commercial insurance for their operations. If they want to build nuclear power plants, they should go to Wall Street, raise the money, but Wall Street regarded nuclear power plants as being too risky even before this current crisis. The same Wall Street that was doing sub prime mortgages and thought they were okay, thought this was even more risky and didn’t want to finance them. We could build ten times as much renewable electricity in the next ten years as could be built in terms of new nuclear power plants, so if we are really serious about low carbon electricity, we would be doing renewable electricity.
GELLERMAN: Arjun Makhijani is the president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. His most recent book is “Carbon Free and Nuclear Free: A Road Map for U.S. Energy Policy.”
Arjun Makhijani, thanks again.
MAKHIJANI: Thank you very much, Bruce.
Institute for Energy and Environmental Research
GELLERMAN: Well, almost exactly ten years to the day after the Three Mile Island melt down, on March 24th, 1989, the Exxon Valdez tanker went aground in Alaska spilling nearly eleven million gallons of crude into Prince William Sound.
Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent Jeff Young joins us to discuss the two environmental disasters. Hi Jeff!
YOUNG: Hi Bruce.
GELLERMAN: So here we are, thirty years after Three Mile Island and now there’s talk of a nuclear renaissance. Is that going to happen?
YOUNG: Well, you know, the melt down in question now is the economic melt down. The industry was predicting a dozen new reactors in the coming decade. Well, then the economy went south. Financing dried up. So analysts who look at the situation now say, we might see four, maybe eight, new reactors.
GELLERMAN: Hmm. But there are a lot more on the drawing boards, right?
YOUNG: In a paper sense, yes. But how many of those really get built is largely going to depend on the loan guarantees that the federal government is willing to put up for them. And I see another fight brewing in Congress over that – over whether to make more money available. Nuclear supporters here on Capitol Hill came very close to getting 50 billion dollars worth of loan guarantees in the economic stimulus bill, and they’re gonna try again as bills on energy and climate change take shape here in the coming months.
GELLERMAN: Well, lets switch gears and look at the other environmental disaster anniversary – lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez disaster. I guess, the first lesson was that single hull tankers, like the Exxon ship, are not such a great idea.
YOUNG: Yeah. In the wake of the Valdez spill, the U.S. and 150 other countries agreed to phase out the single hulled tankers by the year 2015. And already about 80 percent of the world’s tanker fleet has been replaced with double hulled craft. And we got a reminder just this month of why that matters. A double hulled tanker hit a sunken oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and there was no spill. However, there are still some companies that still use the single hulled tankers, and Bruce, you wanna take a guess as to which company uses the most of them?
GELLERMAN: Jeff, you gotta be kidding.
YOUNG: That’s right. It’s Exxon Mobile.
YOUNG: Bloomberg News Agency did some really good work looking at shipping records, and they found Exxon hired the most single hulled craft, by far. More than the next ten biggest companies combined.
GELLERMAN: So, why is Exxon still using them. Oh, let me guess – money?
YOUNG: Ding sing. Yeah. It’s about twenty percent cheaper. I called Robin Rorick, he’s a safety expert with the American Petroleum Institute to talk about this. And he says even with the single hulled tankers, overall safety is improving.
RORICK: There are plenty of single hulled tankers that are excellent tankers. It all depends on making sure that the tanker is seaworthy. The industry is certainly committed to making sure that they can operate in a manner that insures that the product can reach its destination. And to be quite frank – because any oil that reaches the environment is crude oil that can’t be sold.
YOUNG: Now maybe that’s, shall we say, crude motivation, but statistics back him up on that. The tanker industry has numbers that show that as the traffic went up over recent years, the number of major oil spills went down.
GELLERMAN: But aside from shipping, there’s another big part of the oil debate, and that’s off shore drilling.
YOUNG: Oh, absolutely. You recall that in the heat of the “drill, baby, drill” summer and four dollar a gallon gas, we lost the moratoria on offshore drilling. So the Obama administration is now in the midst of a review of what areas should be opened to oil, to gas and other energy development, like wind power or wave power. And we could get some preliminary reports from that review very soon, in just the next week or so. One of the first areas where we are likely to see an expansion of offshore drilling is in Alaska. There are leases for the far northern coast and a very controversial proposal to open part of the Bristol Bay of the Bering Sea.
GELLERMAN: Hmm. So how’s that playing with the folks up in Alaska?
YOUNG: Well, you know, petroleum is, of course, the state’s biggest industry, but fishing is also very important. And that’s something Keith Colburn came to Washington to remind Congress about. Colburn captains a crabbing boat in Bristol Bay. Maybe you saw him on television. He’s on the Discovery Channel program, “Deadliest Catch.” And when I caught up with him, Colburn was holding this big jar of dirty rocks.
COLBURN: Get this on the radio. Right there.
[SOUND OF JAR OPENNING]
YOUNG: Now, what’s in there?
COLBURN: These are rocks, cobbles, and a little bit of sand collected …
YOUNG: Oh man, I can smell it. That’s oil.
COLBURN: Yeah that is. That’s tar. That’s oil. That is – and that’s six inches below the surface in Prince William Sound. Eight percent of the oil was cleaned up. So, on the surface things look good. But below the surface, it’s completely different. I mean, not only in the inner tidal zones, but in the fisheries and fish stocks we still have, twenty years later, a lot of damage to the resources of that area. And the Bering Sea represents forty percent of the nation’s seafood products. Forty percent in one small area. And to put that at risk is a ludicrous idea.
YOUNG: Now next month the Interior Department which oversees offshore drilling is hosting four public hearings around the country on off shore energy. And one of those hearings, April 14th, is in Alaska, so people there will be able to share what lessons they think we should apply from the Valdez spill.
GELLERMAN: Well, not a happy anniversary by any stretch. Well, thanks a lot Jeff.
YOUNG: You’re welcome.
GELLERMAN: Jeff Young is Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent. And, by the way, Jeff has posted the schedule of those public hearings on our website at loe.org.
- Schedule of upcoming public hearings on offshore energy
- Information from Dept. of Interior on proposed oil and gas leases in Alaskan waters
- Statistics from the oil tanker industry on major oil spills over the years
[MUSIC: Dave Douglas “Dog Star” from Moonshine (Koch 2008)]
GELLERMAN: Just ahead – coal wars, in the ground and on the airwaves. Keep listening to Living on Earth!
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Fareed Haque & The Flat Earth Ensemble : “Fur Peace” from Flat Planet (Owl Studios 2009)]
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman.
Valley fill is the debris that’s dumped into rivers and streams from a method of extracting coal called “mountaintop removal”. It’s done largely in Kentucky and West Virginia, and it’s at the center of an intense political, legal, and scientific debate.
When the EPA recently announced it was going to review two mountain top removal permits, environmental groups cheered. Then, the very next day, when the agency issued a clarification, they jeered.
Ken Ward is a staff reporter with The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. His blog, “Coal Tattoo” chronicles the EPA controversy with the headline “EPA on Mountaintop Removal: What’s It All Mean?”
So, Ken Ward, what does it all mean?
WARD: [Laughs] Well, we don’t know yet, and I think that’s an important point for everyone to remember. What’s happened here is the Obama administration has begun an initiative where the staff at the Environmental Protection Agency are going to take a more active role in reviewing Clean Water Act permits for valley fills that are being issued by the Army Corps of Engineers. And, judging from the actions the EPA took on two permits, one in Kentucky and one in West Virginia, it’s kind of difficult to tell exactly where EPA is headed. But it’s very clear that they’re interested in the science that indicates that these mountain top removal mines are damaging the environment, and they want to do something to rein them in
GELLERMAN: Well, everybody jumped on it. I gotta tell you, you know, the Sierra Club, one of the directors there hailed it as a “new day for the EPA.” And then people for the Mining Association said you know, “hey, we’re talking about 77,000 jobs here.”
WARD: Well sure and I think its correct that in some ways it is a new day, because this is part of EPA’s job. The EPA is supposed to review these permits that the Corps is considering and determine whether or not, in EPA’s best judgment, they comply with the Clean Water Act. And for the last eight years under the Bush administration, those permits pretty much got a free pass, and unless environmentalists went to a federal judge and tried to do something about it. On the other hand there were some kind of unfortunate reports in the media, and most egregiously in blogs and press releases, from both the industry and from environmental advocates, which said that EPA had issued a moratorium or was halting these permits, and that’s just not what EPA did. And for some reason the folks at EPA felt compelled to issue a follow up press release saying that “oh, no, no, no, we’re not blocking any permits and we’re just reviewing them.” And really it wasn’t a change in EPA’s position. It was EPA trying to clarify some mischaracterizations that were out there about what EPA was doing.
GELLERMAN: So Ken, let’s talk about mountain top removal, really the core of the issue here – it’s really controversial. What is it?
WARD: In mountain top removal, mine operators take explosives and they literally blast the top off of mountains to expose low sulfur coal seams. And they remove the coal and then the stuff that’s left over, the rock and dirt, the stuff that used to be the mountain, they shove into the closest valley, burying whatever streams and life and forest happens to be there.
GELLERMAN: And that’s where the EPA’s interest come into play here. They’re concerned about the water quality of those streams that got waste dumped on them.
WARD: The EPA’s concerned about the water quality of the streams that are being buried and they’re also concerned about the emerging science showing that these valley fills are damaging water quality down stream from where the fills are. And they’re also concerned, under the National Environmental Policy Act, about broader environmental implications – the loss of rare forests, the damage to endangered species. And folks who live here in Appalachia, where most of this is done, are very concerned about the damage to the mountain culture and blasting and water quality and things like that that are bothersome and troublesome to people who live near these operations.
GELLERMAN: It was the specter of the EPA saying, hey maybe we’ll go after all these permits that really raised the industry’s ire.
WARD: Uh, yes. But it’s important to note that EPA never said the word moratorium. They never said the word hold. They never said the word halt. And, in fact, they haven’t halted any permits. All that the EPA has done is objected to the Corps issuing two specific permits, one in West Virginia, one Kentucky, and called for more and more detailed review of those. And Lisa Jackson has said that EPA will review all of these permits.
GELLERMAN: Well we’re talking about coal mining, but it seems to me, as you’re talking, that really what we’re discussing is a political minefield.
WARD: It is a political minefield. You know, Governor Joe Manchin here in West Virginia, immediately announced that he had asked for and has got a meeting with some folks at the White House to talk about this. The Coal Association and National Mining Association are putting out press releases, throwing out all sorts of wild numbers about how many jobs this is going to cost. And what’s really kind of unfortunate about all of that is that there seems to be an utter unwillingness by political leaders in this region and by the coal industry to have a reasonable conversation – and, in fact, by some in the environmental community – to have a reasonable conversation about how much damage is this practice doing? Is this something we should continue? And, if not, what else can we do? How much of this coal can be mined by underground mining methods. What other sorts of jobs can this region have. I wrote a post on our “Coal Tattoo” blog about the Obama administration’s proposal to increase the spending in Appalachia to clean up abandoned coalmines. And now the same sorts of guys that are out running bull dozers and heavy equipment in strip mines and are mining coal, they can do the same kind of work reclaiming abandoned mines. And it seems like that would be an economic boon for this region. But neither side seems to be focusing on that.
GELLERMAN: Ken Ward, is a staff reporter for the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. His blog is called “Coal Tattoo.”
Well, Ken, thanks a lot.
WARD: Great, thank you.
GELLERMAN: The controversy over coal is playing out not only in the courts and government agencies, but on television screens as well.
This commercial, by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity features a familiar voice to support its cause.
OBAMA: This is America. We figured out how to put a man on the moon in ten years. You can’t tell me we can’t figure out how to burn coal that we mine right here in the United States of America and make it work. We can do that.
GELLERMAN: That was candidate Barack Obama during the run up to the presidential election.
A coalition of anti-coal groups have countered with their own TV ads and joining me to referee the competing coal commercials is John Carroll. He teaches Mass Communication at Boston University. Hi John.
CARROLL: Hi Bruce.
GELLERMAN: You know there were the Mac computer versus the PC ads and there were duel cola ads, Pepsi versus Coke. Now there’s the coal ads that are doing combat on TV screens. Do commercial confrontations work in changing people’s minds?
CARROLL: It all depends. A lot of times they just cancel each other out. In this situation, what they’re trying to do is educate and persuade at the same time. They’re also talking to four different audiences basically. They’re talking to lawmakers. They’re talking to the general public. They’re talking to true believers. And they’re talking to the media. They want all of those as their audience and all of them to pay attention to the ads so that when this does come up on the radar screen for most Americans, they have a preconceived notion of what the sides are in this debate and who’s on firmer ground.
GELLERMAN: Let’s listen to one of the latest ones from the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.
VOICE OVER: In America, there’s an energy you can feel.
VOICE OVER: Energy created by American workers. And American jobs. Jobs that will get our economy back on it’s feet, and make us more competitive. Jobs powered by affordable energy, generated by our most abundant fuel. Coal. The source of America’s power.
CARROLL: Yeah, in hard economic times, obviously, you know appeal to jobs and the economy is going to be something that’s going to get people’s attention. And I think one of the things that you find in these ads, is a real sort of borrowing of the Obama message and the Obama sort of spirit of hope and change and I think that they’re trying to ride his coattails to some degree.
GELLERMAN: Well that’s interesting, John. You know there is one of these coal industry ads that really does take off on the Obama “yes, we can” message. Give this a listen.
VOICE OVER: I believe in the future.
VOICE OVER: In the future.
VOICE OVER: I believe in protecting the environment.
VOICE OVER: I believe in energy independence.
VOICE OVER: I believe that meeting a challenge
VOICE OVER: … brings out the best in us.
VOICE OVER: I believe.
VOICE OVER: I believe in technology.
VOICE OVER: I believe….
VOICE OVER: .. we will do this.
VOICE OVER: I believe.
VOICE OVER: We can be energy independent. We can continue to use our most abundant energy source cleanly and responsibly. We can. We will. Clean coal. America’s power.
GELLERMAN: So, John, what do you believe?
CARROLL: Well, I believe that this is a preemptive strike. From that stand point it’s very much in the Bush administration spirit, but what it’s using is the language of the Obama administration. And very much trying to steal the thunder of the environmentalists.
GELLERMAN: Well the environmentalists have formed a group called the Reality Coalition. It’s the Sierra Club, the Alliance for Climate Protection, the NRDC and the League of Conservation Voters among them. They produced some interesting ads. This one was directed by the Cohen brothers – you know, the guys that make the films. And it shows a slick salesman in a house, a kind of Leave it to Beaver house, and they have a spray can of clean coal air freshener.
VOICE OVER: Uh huh.
SALESMAN: Is regular clean clean enough for your family? Not when you can have clean coal clean.
SALESMAN: Clean coal harnesses the awesome power of the word “clean”
SALESMAN: To make it sound like the cleanest clean there is.
SALESMAN: Clean coal is supported by the coal industry, the most trusted name in coal.
GELLERMAN: And as he’s going around spraying this stuff it’s coming out black and the kids are coughing and turning, you know, sooty black.
CARROLL: Yeah, its very clever, it’s witty, it’s smart, it’s sort of post-modern Cohen brothers at their Cohen-est. But really, in a way, it could be counter productive. Those kinds of ads, as smart as they are, need a lot of exposure. Otherwise people don’t really get what they’re trying to say. And just by saying “clean coal is sponsored by the coal industry, the most trusted name is coal,” I mean, that’s a line that can easily backfire. In a way, the coal industry is doing a better job of putting forward a straightforward message, and I think that unless they spend a lot of money on these Cohen brother ads, I think that they might have the potential to backfire on them.
GELLERMAN: John, TV ads don’t come cheap. Neither to produce nor air. Do you know what they’re spending on these things?
CARROLL: Well, by one estimate the coal industry spent last year somewhere between 35 and 48 million on an overall marketing campaign, probably about 18 million of it, according to this estimate went for advertising, television advertising in particular. I don’t have any estimate from the environmentalists, the anti coal side. Their campaign has been characterized as a multi-million dollar campaign. It will be online, it will be print, it will be broadcast. The coal industry has said that the anti coal people have spent coincidentally about 48 million dollars on their campaign so far. That’s a convenient figure for them to bring up, and, you know, I would take that with a grain of coal, obviously. But I think that the issue here is this is not so much a David and Goliath as a Goliath and Goliath.
GELLERMAN: The Reality Coalition, this anti coal group has another advertisement. This one’s called smudge. And let’s listen to that one.
VOICE OVER: At Coal-ergy we view climate change as a very serious threat to our business. That’s why we’ve made it our primary goal to spend a large sum of money on an advertising effort to help bring out and complicate to truth about coal.
VOICE OVER: The fact is, coal isn’t dirty. We think it’s clean.
VOICE OVER: Smells good too. So don’t worry about climate change. Leave that up to us.
VOICE OVER: In reality, there’s no such thing as clean coal.
GELLERMAN: And the visuals are very important in this one – you really do have to pay attention. The guy is dressed up like a CEO and he’s got his boardroom and when he smells the coal, he gets a smudge on his noise like a clown.
CARROLL: Yeah, it’s a nice little spoof, but again, when you isolate some of the things that they say in there – they’re saying exactly the opposite of what they mean. And the other issue is this whole idea of there’s no such thing as clean coal – that’s an uphill battle. The truth of the matter is that there are four or five definitions of clean coal. And you have Barack Obama basically setting aside money in a stimulus bill to invest in clean coal research. Public events are contradicting this campaign day after day and so I think it’s an uphill battle for them, and they may have picked the wrong strategy here.
GELLERMAN: Well, John, thanks a lot. I really appreciate it.
CARROLL: My pleasure Bruce, thanks.
GELLERMAN: John Carroll’s an assistant professor of mass communication at the Boston University College of Communication.
[MUSIC: Quicksilver Messenger Service “Fresh Air” from Quicksilver Messenger Service (Capitol Records 1968)]
GELLERMAN: Exploring for energy requires companies to search far and wide - taking geologists to some of the most dangerous, distant places on earth.
Then there are places where oil drillers face hazards - a bit more familiar – but no less challenging as Neil Rauch reports.
[SOUNDS OF BREEZES, CHILDREN’S VOICES]
RAUCH: Central Park, the oasis of Manhattan. A break from the relentless onslaught of noise, traffic, and concrete of America's largest city. But some see a threat to this tranquil scene with the increasing commercialization of the park. It began several years ago when the Parks Department began accepting money from corporations, which, in turn, put up their signs and slogans inside the park. Just a few weeks ago, an agreement was reached with Coca Cola, making it the exclusive soft drink at the park's concession stands. But a far more serious threat is looming.
RAUCH: Beneath the bedrock of Central Park there may be oil, and this exploratory well is already in place in the middle of Sheep Meadow.
[SHEEP BLEAT AMIDST THE CLANKING]
NORDLINGER: That drill bores through the rock, and through this pipe the debris is removed
RAUCH: Jim Nordlinger is the project manager of this oilrig. He says modern drilling techniques and new technologies, including lasers and MRIs, will make the rig much less intrusive than in the past.
NORDLINGER: Everything we use today is smaller, more precise, more efficient. And we disguise this rig to look like one of the horses on the carousel.
RAUCH: Have you found any oil yet?
NORDLINGER: Uh, no, just a couple of old egg creams. But we're optimistic.
RAUCH: A consortium of oil companies are behind the push for drilling in Central Park. Steve Monroe is its chairman.
MONROE: Our geological studies show, without a doubt, that there are thousands of barrels of oil beneath Central Park. And that's vital for the energy needs of New York City.
RAUCH: But there have already been a couple of mishaps, and last week animal rescuers had to save several contaminated pigeons.
CROWD: [Chants] Let's not spoil Central Park for oil! Let's not spoil Central Park for oil!
RAUCH: Environmentalists are lining up against the plan. Anita Concialdi is with Animals Before People.
CONCIALDI: How can they even think of digging for oil here? This is beautiful, lush Central Park. Oil wells will destroy the last pristine environment of Manhattan. Drilling poses a real threat to the abundance of wildlife here. Squirrels, pigeons, rats!
RAUCH: But oil consortium chairman Steve Monroe says concerns about the environment of Central Park are misplaced.
MONROE: Look, there's not one iota of nature left in Manhattan. Even this park is manmade. It's already environmentally dead.
RAUCH: Still, nearby residents also have qualms about the plan. Richard Mann lives in a quarter billion dollar studio apartment on Central Park West.
MANN: You know, I would hate all the drilling and the noise and the horrible mayhem that it would cause here in the park. But most of all, the idea of the destruction of the beautiful Olmstead and Vaux architectural structure would just destroy me.
RAUCH: So you're against the idea of oil drilling in the park.
MANN: Oh, no, I own stock in Exxon.
RAUCH: Surprisingly, even some Democratic city councilmen are for the plan, including Al T. Cocker, who represents Manhattan's Lower Upper West Side, known as LUWIS.
COCKER: New York City should not have to depend on imported oil.
RAUCH: Because the Middle East is too volatile.
COCKER: The Middle East? I'm talking about Texas. They hate us even more.
RAUCH: Councilman Cocker, whose last campaign was completely financed by the oil industry, is also advocating a pipeline from Central Park to New York's harbor at the mouth of the Hudson River. He says that would actually be good for the environment.
[CHANTING IN THE BACKGROUND]
COCKER: Just like in Alaska. It'll attract caribou. They like to snuggle up against the pipeline to keep warm during the winter months.
RAUCH: There are no caribou in New York City.
COCKER: Well, there's always the homeless.
RAUCH: Al T. Cocker says the amount of oil under Central Park will provide all the power needs for the Big Apple for a full six weeks. For Living on Earth, I'm Neal Rauch in New York.
GELLERMAN: Just ahead - A fish R2D2 might enjoy in the sea. And searching for alien life on earth. Those stories coming up - on Living on Earth.
ANNOUNCER: Support for the Environmental Health Desk at Living on Earth comes from the Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman fund for coverage of population and the environment. And from Gilman Ordway for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: John Sneider/Joe Locke “Last Tango In Paris” from Nocturne For Ava (Origin Records 2009)]
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman.
To err is human…but it’s not divine. We need to set the record straight. In our last show about antibiotics in animal feed, we got it wrong when it was mentioned that 70 percent of the people who go to the hospital, will get some kind of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Not true. We should have said that 70 percent of the bacteria that cause infections in hospitals are resistant to at least one of the drugs used to treat them. Please forgive us.
[MUSIC: Jenny Scheinman “Processional” from Crossing The Field (Koch 2008)]
GELLERMAN: It sure looks like a fish. And it swims like a fish. But hook this guy on your line, and you’re in for a shock – literally and figuratively.
It’s robo-fish, a robotic carp. Robo-researchers at BMT Group in London are developing the fish-drone to monitor the seas for pollutants. Luke Speller manages the robo fish project. Hello Luke Speller.
SPELLER: Hi Bruce.
GELLERMAN: A robotic fish. How big is it and how does it work?
SPELLER: Well currently the fish is about half a meter in length, but we’re redeveloping it – it’s going to be much larger. So it’s going to be about one meter to one and a half meters long so it can survive in the port environments we’re going to be placing it in.
GELLERMAN: So, boy, that’s a big one. Not the one that got away – it’s like five, five and a half feet.
SPELLER: Yup. That’s a pretty good fish, I think you’d be quite happy if you caught it. But I don’t think you’d be happy if you caught this one, because I think it might break your line.
GELLERMAN: Well, how does it work?
SPELLER: Well it’s an E.U. based project. So we have lots of different companies which are taking part. So, firstly, we have the fish, of course, which are the base of it. And they’re being developed by Essex University in the United Kingdom. And they’ve developed these fish before and they’ve been on show in the London Aquarium as a kind of entertainment fish for people to come and look at. We thought, well, there’s gotta be something better we can do with this than just entertainment. And we thought that, you know, pollution’s a big problem in ports. So Tyndall in Ireland is going to be developing minute chemical sensors which are going to detect pollutants. We’re going to have people from France, Thales, who are working on underwater communication so the fish can all talk to each other. And then us at BMT are going to develop AI so all the fish can figure out what’s the best way to look for pollution.
GELLERMAN: AI meaning artificial intelligence.
SPELLER: Indeed, artificial intelligence.
GELLERMAN: So you’ve got basically aquatic drones.
SPELLER: Uh, yes, but I think what’s quite important is they’re not just drones. So each fish is going to be intelligent, so it will have – it will be able to react to the environment and it will know what’s around it. But what’s more important is that the whole shoal, all of the fish as a whole, will be much more intelligent than any individual fish.
GELLERMAN: Because they can talk to each other.
SPELLER: Exactly, they can talk to each other and together they can see the whole environment. It’s much like how people solve problems. They talk to each other and they learn more from that and they’re able to overcome their difficulties.
GELLERMAN: So … [Laughing] a fish language? I mean what are they going to be saying?
SPELLER: Well, they’ll be talking over ultrasonic communications, so it won’t be any sort of fish language that other fish can understand. But it will be – it will tell – it will give the other fish information about their whereabouts and what pollutions they’ve found. And then from that, they can all work together to try and firstly monitor the harbor for pollution. And especially if they find any pollution, they can all work together to find out what’s causing it. So, this could be an underwater pipe or ship that’s leaking something. And these fish will all work together to find where it’s coming from. Which is much better than the way they do it at the moment, because ports at the moment, what you have to do is you have to take samples of the water. And then these samples have to go back to labs. And this can take a long time; this could take hours to days. And before you’ve finished doing the sampling, the ship’s gone and it’s polluting the whole ocean along the way. But with this we can do it in real time and we can find that ship with these fish before it gets going to the next place and stop it and help save the environment.
GELLERMAN: And they swim autonomously. You don’t have to steer them.
SPELLER: No, you don’t have to steer them. They steer autonomously, they decide where they’re going to go, they avoid obstacles along the way. They do it all themselves.
GELLERMAN: And how do they see things? Do they have little TV cameras?
SPELLER: What they use sonar, much like a submarine would use to find out what’s near it, and that will help them avoid any local obstacles in the port. Because, of course, ports are very busy. There’s going to be ships, pipes, there’s loads of stuff going on and they’re gonna have to be avoiding everything.
GELLERMAN: And battery operated, then.
SPELLER: Yes they’ll be battery operated. So what they’ll do is they’ll go out from the, from the dock where they start, and they’ll go about they’re business. And when it’s time to come – when they’re battery goes low, they’ll come back to the dock and try and recharge.
GELLERMAN: How far can they swim?
SPELLER: They can swim out – they can swim out quite far. The communications got about a kilometer range. So each fish has to be at least within another kilometer of a fish. You don’t have to be within a kilometer of the base station because, of course, the fish can talk to each other and then relay the message back to the base station. So depending on how many fish you’ve got, depends on how far you can go.
GELLERMAN: So what kind of pollution are you going to be sampling? I mean there’s so many different things out there in the sea.
SPELLER: Yes, there is a wide array of pollutants, which are available for testing. What we’re going to do is we’re going to start; we’re looking at nitrates, phosphates, and petrochemicals. So we’re gonna start by looking at these, but what’s important to note is that it can be extended. So different ports have different shipments coming in. Some deal with minerals, some deal with oil. So these fish can be adapted to whatever the environment they’re going to be placed in.
GELLERMAN: How much do these robotic fish cost?
SPELLER: It’s about twenty thousand pounds per fish.
GELLERMAN: Even in today’s world, that’s a lot of money.
SPELLER: It’s quite expensive, but if you compare it to the alternatives, I don’t think it’s too bad.
GELLERMAN: Why make them look like a fish? Why don’t you just make a small submarine?
SPELLER: It’s a great question. Why, why, why have we chosen to use fish rather than a small submarine. There’s actually quite a few reasons for this. Firstly, these fish are almost silent. When you have a propeller, of course, it generates a lot of noise. These fish just use the motions of a normal fish, just undulating backwards and forwards. They won’t have any disturbance on the environment. Secondly, they’re very efficient. And thirdly, which is really important, is that these fish are really maneuverable. They can turn round in one tenth of their body length without reducing speed. Now a submarine would need something like ten times its body length to turn around like that.
GELLERMAN: I’m sure you’ve thought of this, but what happens if a fish higher up on the food chain decides to chomp on this carp for lunch?
SPELLER: Yes, we’ve seen lots of this, people asking about what happens if sharks attack. The fish we have actually placed them in a tank with a shark. And it came close, but it never actually attacked the fish and it sort of shied away. And we think this is cause what we have is a – the fish gives out an electromagnetic field. And this electromagnetic field is very very similar to the sort of electromagnetic field that the protection device divers use to propel sharks.
GELLERMAN: So when are you going to start tossing fish in the sea?
SPELLER: We’re hoping to start in about eighteen months. And then in about 24 months, so about two years, we’re gonna have them with some intelligence and doing some testing with that in the port of Gijon in Spain.
GELLERMAN: Luke Speller is manager of the Robo-fish project at BMT Group in London.
Click here for a link to a Youtube robofish video
[STAR TREK THEME SONG: Intro Star Trek Next Generation TV opening (from You Tube) “Space, the final frontier. These are the voyagers of the Star Ship Enterprise, its continuing mission to explore strange new worlds... to seek out new life, and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” ]
GELLERMAN: For scientists in search of alien life, space might NOT be the final frontier – no, you might find strange life forms conveniently located in your own backyard. In fact, aliens might be - right under our noses - maybe even IN our noses.
That according to Paul Davies. Davies is an astrobiologist at Arizona State University, and in a recent article in the journal Astrobiology he calls for a mission to planet earth in search of, what he calls, "weird life."
Professor Davies, welcome to Living on Earth.
DAVIES: Thank you.
GELLERMAN: So you’re calling on scientists to search for alien life. In your paper you call it weird life. What’s weird life?
DAVIES: Weird life is life as we don’t know it. All life on Earth that we currently know is the same life, it’s descended from a common ancestor. But, I don’t think we’ve looked carefully enough to see whether there could be another form of life right here on Earth. And what interests me is the issue – has life happened more than once?
GELLERMAN: It’s what you call the shadow biosphere – that is that there would be a second genesis, kind of like a second tree of life.
DAVIES: Exactly right. So Darwin had this idea that life forms a sort of tree, and I think we’re all familiar with that, that species branch and that you can look at all the different species on earth today and trace back when they would have been genetically identical in the far past. And there’s been this assumption for decades that the tree of life is single tree. But I’ve often wondered, could it be a forest. Could there have been many geneses of life either on Earth or somewhere else and come to Earth. And the first thought is, well, surely we would have noticed. But almost all life on Earth that we know, that is that belongs to our tree, is microbial. And you can’t tell by looking at microbes what they’re made of.
GELLERMAN: Yeah, you write that if you had one gram of dirt, there’d be a million microbes and we’ve only characterized one percent of them. So we really don’t – we don’t even know what’s in that gram.
DAVIES: Exactly right, yeah. We tend to notice the big things, the elephants and the oak trees and, of course, the people, but overwhelmingly, life on Earth is bacterial life or there’s another branch of microbes called Archaea. And they make up the lion share of all life. But most of these haven’t been characterized or catalogued and nobody really knows what’s out there. And I’m just saying let’s be open to the fact that there could be microbes from a different genesis of life from you and me.
GELLERMAN: Well all this really begs the question, what is life? What is life?
DAVIES: Well, you probably remember in high school all these definitions like reproduction and metabolism and response to stimulus and so on. Now the difficulty is that for every one of those properties, you can find something that we all agree is not living that shares them. So for, example, crystals and bush fires replicate. And then the flip side is we can find living things that don’t satisfy some of those definitions. So mules, for example, are certainly living, but they’re sterile, so they don’t reproduce. But some people turn the whole thing around and they say that any system that undergoes Darwinian evolution is by definition living. It doesn’t really matter too much for my purposes except the transition from nonliving to living should be a well defined thing. And the difficulty is that even the simplest known living cell is already so immensely complex it’s inconceivable it just sort of popped into existence ready made. It would have had to have come from some long series of simpler, earlier things. And we don’t know what those things are. And one of the fascinating aspects of this entire study is that if we go look, if we go out there to look for another form of life, weird life, we might find that, of course, but we might also find a living fossil, a precursor of familiar life.
GELLERMAN: Well here we are living on Earth, where would you boldly go where no one has boldly gone before to find weird, unknown life?
DAVIES: Well, there are two strategies here. One of these is that we could look somewhere that’s beyond the reach of known life because then it’s easier to identify. If anything’s living there and we know that known life can’t, well, then, by definition that’s going to be weird life. So my first thought is to look in areas that are just simply so hostile to known life that maybe weird life has got a toehold there. But the other scenario, which is actually I think more plausible is that weird life and known life are simply intermingled. That is that these weird or alien bugs are all around us because you can’t tell by looking what they are. And if you go and see microbiologists at work and ask them do they ever have any microbes they’re working with they’re having difficulty with, they can’t culture them, they can’t sequence them – well all the time. And what happens to these, well, they get thrown down the sink. So, it’s entirely likely that microbiologists have seen weird life but not recognized it for what it is because its not going to stand out saying “I am weird.” It’s not going to be wearing a uniform.
GELLERMAN: So how would you know something when you didn’t know what you were looking for?
DAVIES: That’s part of the difficulty. So you need to make an educated guess as to how weird life might differ. And so, all life uses molecules that have the same handedness. That is that DNA is always wound like a right-handed spiral staircase, a right-handed helix. And amino acids that make up the proteins in our bodies are all by some definition left handed. Now there’s nothing in the laws of chemistry that says something’s got to be left handed or right handed, but life has made one particular choice. But we can imagine that life would use all the same stuff, the same bases for DNA, the same amino acids for proteins, identical molecules, but the mirror images, called this mirror life, if you like. And then one way of identifying that is you make a soup, a nutrient medium of mirror molecules and you see if anything will grow in it.
GELLERMAN: You know that soup, I think I have some of that in my refrigerator from a few years ago, way in the back.
GELLERMAN: If we did find alien life on Earth, what do you think we might learn?
DAVIES: Oh I think this would be the most stupendous discovery in biology since Darwin, because it’s telling us what we would really like to know which is that life is not a stupendously improbable freak. It’s not just an accident of chemistry that’s occurred only once in the universe. It’s something that emerges naturally and relatively easily from the underlying laws of physics and chemistry. Now, the truth of the matter is that we don’t know. It could be that that’s it – we’re alone in the universe. Or it could be that it does emerge more or less automatically and readily in Earth like conditions and there’s no planet more Earth like than Earth itself. So, if it’s true that life pops up on Earth like planets around the universe, it should pop up many times here on Earth. So we would test that and if we found that yes, indeed there isn’t just one form of life on Earth, there’s two or maybe ten – who knows – we could say with confidence that we will find life all around the universe and with almost equal confidence that we are not alone. And that is a very very deep and profound conclusion. And we can do it without basically leaving our own planetary doorstep.
GELLERMAN: So Professor, why do you think the search for different life forms is so interesting to us earthlings?
DAVIES: I think we are curious because it touches on some of the deep issues. Go back 500 years when everybody’s thinking about the nature of life was based on religion. And so in Europe at that time, Giordano Bruno, while he lived somewhat earlier than that, was burned at the stake for, in part, suggesting that there are other inhabited worlds. Because the idea was that human beings and life on Earth was God’s special creation. And then after Darwinism, people accepted that this wasn’t so, that life is a natural phenomenon, that we have emerged from nature naturally. And then the question is, you know, are we freaks? Is this just an accident? And some people don’t like to think of themselves as freaks. They feel more comfortable with the idea of a biofriendly universe that brings forth life as part of its grand overarching scheme. So, I think the answer to this does touch on some very, very deep issues about what we think of ourselves and how we position ourselves in nature. It does matter.
GELLERMAN: Well Paul Davies, may you boldly go where no professor has gone before. I want to thank you very much.
DAVIES: Well it’s been my pleasure. Thank you for your interest.
GELLERMAN: Paul Davies is an earth bound astrobiologist at Arizona State University. One to beam up, Scotty.
[MUSIC: John Stetch: “Star Trek” from TV Trio (Brux Records 2008)]
GELLERMAN: On the next Living on Earth, silence used to be golden, but these days it’s even more precious and harder to find.
HEMPTON: The Earth is a solar-powered jukebox. The more sun that hits the surface of the Earth, basically, the louder it is.
GELLERMAN: In search of a single square inch of silence, next time on Living on Earth.
[PIG FROG CALL]
We leave you this week knee deep in a southern swamp.
[PIG FROG CALLS]
GELLERMAN: No, this isn’t a barnyard swine wadin’ in the water. This is the distress call of a pig frog, a common amphibian throughout the southern US.
Lang Elliott of NatureSound Studio recorded these grunts in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia. And by the way, no animals were harmed in the making of this recording!
[PIG FROG CALLS]
Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Mitra Taj and Jeff Young, with help from Sarah Calkins and Marilyn Govoni. Our interns are Lindsay Breslau, Phil DiMartino, Liz Gross and Christine Parrish. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at loe.org. Steve Curwood is our executive producer.
I’m Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening.
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