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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

October 7, 2011

Air Date: October 7, 2011



Keystone Pipeline Oil for Export

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The proposed Keystone Pipeline would carry oil from the tar sands of Canada to refineries in Texas. The project has been touted as a way to reduce American dependence on foreign oil. But Steve Kretzmann of Oil Change International tells host Bruce Gellerman about a new study from his group that suggests the bulk of the oil would actually be for export. LOE called Valero Energy Corporation for a response. Spokesman Bill Day says the study is misleading and the refined oil isn’t set for export. (07:00)

Rooftop Solar Installation Booming / Ingrid Lobet

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The cost of solar panels has dropped significantly. Thanks to that and to new financing the rooftop solar business is going gangbusters. Ingrid Lobet has the story. (06:15)

Supreme Court Environment Docket

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The Supreme Court will hear two low-profile, high-impact environmental cases in this new session. Richard Lazarus, a law professor at Harvard University, tells host Bruce Gellerman that he thinks the signs so far do not bode well for the Environmental Protection Agency. One case the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear alleges state-owned, foreign oil companies conspire to fix the price of gasoline. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with William Gotfryd, one of the attorneys who tried to get the case on the Court’s docket. (08:10)

Eager Beavers Engineer Ecosystems

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Farms faced with drought and shrinking water tables may soon have a natural solution: The Beaver Solution. A new group of trappers run by Spokane, Washington’s Lands Council, promotes beaver benefits and when that doesn’t work, perform beaver relocations. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with program director Amanda Parish. (05:10)

Leave It to Beaver / Mark Seth Lender

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Pablo Picasso once said creativity is a sum of destructions. Salt Marsh Diary writer Mark Seth Lender observes that nature is a sum of creations and destructions, as exemplified in the American Beaver. (03:30)

Cool Fix: Recycling the Ocean's Plastic / Raphaella Bennin

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A household cleaning and personal care products company is calling attention to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by making a laundry detergent bottle from the ocean’s garbage. Raphaella Bennin reports. (01:50)

Christo: Over the River / Bruce Gellerman

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The environmental artist Christo's latest project, Over the River, would suspend miles of shimmering fabric above the Arkansas River. But, as host Bruce Gellerman reports, the project is not through the woods yet. It still needs federal approval. (13:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Steve Kretzmann, Bill Day, Richard Lazarus, William Gotfryd, Amanda Parish, Christo
REPORTERS: Ingrid Lobet, Mark Seth Lender
SCIENCE NOTE: Raphaella Bennin


GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline is supposed to help make the US energy secure. But a new report follows the flow of oil and money from the tar sands of Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries and finds - that’s not the case.

KRETZMANN: It turns out that much of this oil that's coming down from Canada is going to be destined for export. They get to import the oil from Canada - tax-free - and they get to turn around and export the oil abroad - tax-free.

GELLERMAN: Also, forget the economic slowdown - solar power is booming, especially rooftop solar.

BISHOP: We're extremely busy. We've hired 350 people so far this year, and we're hiring for 55 different positions right now: installers, electricians, marketing positions, sales, accounting, everything.

GELLERMAN: Solar energy's bright future and more this week, on Living on Earth. Stick around!


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ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, and Stonyfield Farm.

Keystone Pipeline Oil for Export

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would carry crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta Canada 17 hundred miles to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Critics say the crude is dirty and will speed up climate change; that extracting it from the northern boreal forest is destructive, and the potential for pipeline leaks, disastrous.

But supporters of the seven billion dollar project say we need the oil, that it will enhance US energy security, and make us less dependent on petroleum from unfriendly nations. Now, however, comes a new report that refutes this claim. The environmental organization Oil Change International’s report is called “Exporting Energy Security.” Steven Kretzmann is the group’s Executive Director.

KRETZMANN: It turns out when you look at the pipeline that is being built - the Keystone XL pipeline - it turns out that much of this oil that is coming down from Canada is going to be destined for export. And what we did was a little bit of sleuthing, and we went back to TransCanada’s original declarations to the Canadian regulators and we found out that they’re shipping to a certain number of refiners on the Gulf Coast, and when you look at the top one there, that’s Valero.

Valero is configuring their refineries to be able to produce 50 percent diesel. There’s really not that much of a market for diesel in the United States. I mean, there is a glut of diesel in the United States; there is a much better price to be had for that in Europe and Latin America. If they’re configuring those refineries for 90 percent diesel, and the heavy sour crude that’s coming down from Canada is much more easily refined into diesel, it makes sense that they’re going to be using the majority of that to be shipped overseas.

GELLERMAN: So lets follow the flow. It starts in Canada at the tar sands, it gets transported via this proposed pipeline, it comes into the United States - does it get taxed there?

KRETZMANN: No! See, that’s the wonderful, interesting thing. It comes in via something called a "foreign trade zone," which is what the refineries are located in, and that foreign trade zone means they get to import the oil from Canada tax-free, and get to turn around and export the oil abroad tax-free, once again.

GELLERMAN: So where does the energy security come through that the companies say we’re supposed to derive from this pipeline?

KRETZMANN: We really … it doesn’t seem like there is really any increase in energy security from this pipeline. There is increased profits for the oil industry because of this pipeline, and the tar sands producers desperately need an export outlet for their product.

There’s actually a huge glut of tar sands oil in the Midwest United States. This is going to allow that glut of oil to drain, and much more oil to be shipped overseas, more oil to be produced in Canada, more very dirty, carbon-intensive tar sands oil to be produced, and it’s going to make them a lot more profit, and worsen climate change in the process.

GELLERMAN: So okay, we won’t get a new source of oil, and we won’t be making money in terms of taxes from the transportation of the pipeline, but will it create jobs? They say, lots of jobs - I think, upwards of 20,000 or more!

KRETZMANN: Yeah, that’s an absurdly optimistic number on their part. The State Department’s impact study of jobs actually had it coming in at about one quarter of what TransCanada’s impact was. They said about 6,000 jobs - the State Department did. And again, these are not long-term jobs - there’s a boom-bust cycle associated with the industry. There will be some jobs during construction, for sure, but then most of them will go away.

And, you know, a pipeline is a pretty self-sufficient thing. There may be more jobs involved in cleanup when the inevitable spills happen, but it’s really not a good job creating device. It’s just ... you can create a lot of jobs by digging a giant hole in the ground all the way to China, but is that a good idea? I don’t think so.

GELLERMAN: Now because this pipeline would cross the US/Canadian border, the State Department has to sign off on it. And they’ve said that it will have no significant environmental impact. And the EPA actually has chimed in, while it has no authority in this regard, it has actually gone head-to-head with the State Department and it’s not usual, typical, that that happens - where two governmental agencies are at odds with each other.

KRETZMANN: Yeah, well, unfortunately there seems to be something a little fishy going on at the State Department. It seems that one of Hillary Clinton’s top campaign aids has been hired by TransCanada - the pipeline firm - and has been, sort of, directly working behind the scenes with State Department staff using his connections to actually try to grease the way forward for the Keystone XL pipeline.

GELLERMAN: President Obama has the final say on this, though, right?

KRETZMANN: Sure. But I think all of us feel like this thing is really a key litmus test of the President’s commitment to the environmental community and environmental issues in general. And, if he wants environmentalists to step up during his reelection campaign, this is a minimum bar that he has to clear in terms of rejecting this pipeline.

GELLERMANN: Well, Mr. Kretzmann, thank you so very much.

KRETZMANN: Thank you very much for having me.

GELLERMANN: Steve Kretzmann is Executive Director of Oil Change International.

Well, of the six companies that have so far committed to buying oil from the Keystone XL pipeline, only one is based in the United States. That’s Valero Energy Corporation of San Antonio, Texas. Company spokesman Bill Day says Kretzmann’s report is wrong.

This map shows the three main oil sands in Alberta, Canada. (Photo: Norman Einstein, Wikipedia Creative Commons)

DAY: This is not an export-dedicated pipeline, which is one of the things that opponents have been saying. This is a supply pipeline to get crude oil to a refinery that has actually been in place for over a hundred years, and has been processing heavy grades of crude oil for many years, before the Keystone XL pipeline was ever even heard of.

GELLERMAN: But what percent of the oil that will be shipped through this proposed pipeline would be used by your company domestically, as opposed to being exported?

DAY: Unfortunately there is absolutely no way to know that, because that oil coming down from the Keystone XL pipeline to our Port Arthur refinery is one source of crude oil for the plant, but it’s not the only source. So it’s going to get mixed in with oil from other places, but there's no way of knowing which particular barrel of oil was the source of which particular barrel of gasoline or diesel. Anybody who says they know, does not know.

GELLERMAN: The flow of oil is driven by global demands, not domestic need. If you’ve got more money from another market, you’d be more likely to sell it there than here.

DAY: Well, it’s actually driven by both global and domestic needs. The United States remains the largest consumer of petroleum and petroleum products, so this is the biggest and most lucrative market. But demand for gasoline has been fairly flat here with the economic downturn. So, in order to keep the refineries running at full steam, it helps to have some place else to send those products.

GELLERMAN: Bill Day is Executive Director of Media Relations for Valero Energy Corporation. Mr. Day, thanks a lot.

DAY: I appreciate the opportunity.

Related links:
- Oil Change International
- Dirty Energy Money

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[MUSIC: Ceu’ “Comadi” from Vagarosa (Six Degrees records 2009).]

Rooftop Solar Installation Booming

More homeowners are opting for solar financing deals that put panels on the roof for nearly no money down. They don’t own them, but get guaranteed lower bills for 20 years. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

GELLERMAN: Recent reports of solar companies going bankrupt and stories about alleged federal loan scandals have cast long shadows on the entire solar industry. But the sun is far from setting on photovoltaics. In fact, in 2010 - solar panels that could generate 17 gigawatts of energy - that's equal to about 17 nuclear power plants - were sold worldwide.

And this year, the US industry expects to double its production, and companies are growing fast to meet the demand for roof top panels. Living On Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports.


LOBET: As the sun begins its ascent on a recent morning, a crew of six prepares to install solar panels on a gently sloping roof in LA's San Fernando Valley. Their company, Verengo Solar Plus, has crews out on nine other roofs this morning. But CEO Randy Bishop says he has enough business for two more.

BISHOP: We're extremely busy. We've hired 350 people so far this year and we're hiring for 55 different positions right now. Installers, electricians, guys that are up on the roofs, call center positions, underwriting positions, marketing positions, sales positions...

LOBET: There aren't many companies in the United States who hired 350 people this year. The reasons solar is different are simple: three years ago Congress passed and President Bush signed a change that allows homeowners to get back 30 percent of the cost of a solar system from the government. And then, the moment solar supporters had waited 30 years for:

BISHOP: Solar panel prices have gone - in the last three years - from four dollars and 20 cents a watt, down to a dollar and 20 cents a watt, roughly. So it is a huge difference. It used to be more than half of the system cost when we would install one, and it is now down to less than a quarter.

LOBET: That puts people in the rooftop business in an enviable position. Their cost of merchandise is down 70 percent. - that's pure profit. And then there was a third breakthrough: in San Francisco, another company, SunRun, figured out it could buy solar systems, put them on homeowners’ roofs, and sell them back the electricity. Lynn Jurich is cofounder and president.

This roof in Woodland Hills in Los Angeles just went solar. The homeowners paid little for the system, installed by Verengo Solar Plus and financed by SunRun.
(Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

JURICH: SunRun will actually buy the panels for you. So we're really just becoming another utility provider. So now you don't have to pay $20,000 dollars out of pocket, and then wait to get that tax credit at the end. You’re really able to get the system for $0, to a couple thousand dollars up front.

LOBET: Sunrun owns the panels and the power. The homeowner pays them every month, but less than what they were paying their old power company.

JURICH: A typical customer would be a family with a few children, they’re paying somewhere around $180 dollars a month for their electric bill. So, now once they switch over with SunRun, the bill now is about $170 to $175 dollars. But the real benefit is that these are 20 year contracts, so you get to lock that price in.

LOBET: SunRun tripled its size last year, and has expanded to 9 states, including New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Colorado, Arizona and Hawaii. Millions of people live in places where solar now pencils out. And Jurich says it’s power that can be brought online quickly.

JURICH: If the United States is going to make a decision today to say: let's build a new nuclear plant or a coal plant, it actually takes ten to 15 years to get those up and running. At which point, solar power is going to be more affordable, and it can actually be commissioned much sooner, and built in just a year time frame.

LOBET: And SunRun is by no means the only company that offers to finance and maintain solar systems for homeowners. Another major player is SolarCity, whose green vans and radio ads are becoming ubiquitous in some cities.

[RADIO AD: MUSIC BEHIND "It’s remarkable, you save energy, you save money, you help change the world. Visit our savings calculator at SolarCity dot com or call 877-988-SOLAR ....."]

LOBET: In a vote of confidence for the business model and the company, this summer, Google put 280 million dollars into SolarCity's installations. Of course, solar still doesn't make sense for everyone. In parts of the country where electrical rates are low - like much of the Midwest - or in places with mild temperatures, it’s still not worth it. Roberta Gamble is an energy expert at Frost and Sullivan.

GAMBLE: Well, they don't work for me, for example, because I don't have air conditioning. I live by the coast, and don't really have any hot summers, so don’t spend a lot of electricity during summer months. So, I wouldn’t save any money.
LOBET: But Gamble says the growth in solar has been impressive, and she expects it to continue, in large part because of this 'solar service' model.

GAMBLE: If you can do that, and actually pay less per month, I think it's a great solution.

[SOUND OF CONSTRUCTION/WORKERS: "A little bit more to your right…" PIPE CLANGING]

LOBET: For electricians, as for so many construction workers, the Great Recession meant work simply dried up in 2008-2009.

GRISWOLD: My name is Mark Griswold, and I am an electrical foreman for Verengo Solar. I actually owned my own business for over twenty years, and because of the economy, my phone quit ringing. I had to get a job.

LOBET: The solar ramp up has made him hopeful.
GRISWOLD: I think it is the way to go. I personally think it should have been done a long time ago, but as long as the economy is the way it is, it's the place to be, and I feel blessed to be in the business.

LOBET: After decades of hopes and predictions that the solar moment was just around the next corner, the moment has finally arrived. Economics may still shift. Congress could repeal tax credits, or the price of solar silicon could shoot back up. But there's no denying residential solar has reached a long awaited milestone: it's affordable. For Living On Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet.


Related links:
- Map of Solar Financial Incentives for Homeowners
- SunRun
- Verengo Solar Plus
- SolarCity

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[MUSIC: The Youngbloods “Sunlight” from Ride The Wind (Warner Bros 2006 ).]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead - here's a switch - ranchers who are eager for beavers. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: George Benson: “All Clear” from Beyond The Blue Horizon (CTI Records 1971).]

Supreme Court Environment Docket

The justices of the United States Supreme Court. Top row (left to right): Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, Associate Justice Samuel Alito, and Associate Justice Elena Kagan. Bottom row (left to right): Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, and Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. (Photo: United States Federal Government)

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. The question, “What’s a navigable river?” doesn’t seem like such a tough one - it's a river used for business or transportation.

But it turns out it's not that simple, and it’s going to take the Supreme Court to come up with an answer. The nation’s highest court has agreed to hear two environmental cases this session - one about ownership of rivers in Montana, the other to settle a dispute in Idaho over whether a landowner can challenge the EPA’s authority.

The cases involve thorny constitutional issues, which Richard Lazarus is practiced in handling. He’s argued environmental cases before the Supreme Court, and teaches at Harvard Law School. Professor Lazarus says, in the Montana case, a hydroelectric utility claims the state has no right charging the company for use of a riverbed.

LAZARUS: Today, it seems sort of odd, but one of the most essential attributes of state sovereignty is ownership of the beds of navigable waters. It’s so important, that every state, when it became part of the Union, that’s one thing the Supreme Court guaranteed them under the "equal footing" doctrine. There was nothing more important than the beds of navigable waters. The navigable waters were the highways of commerce - you couldn’t have transportation, you couldn’t have the power provided by those water bodies, without the navigable waters.

GELLERMAN: As I understand it, there are 10 hydroelectric dam on these rivers in Montana, and the owners of those rivers are saying, “Hey! It’s not navigable!”

LAZARUS: Right. What the owners are saying is, "We’ve been dong this for 100 years plus and you never said you owned these beds before. And now you’re claiming you own them, and we owe you tens of millions of dollars back rent, and we’re going to owe you millions of dollars of rent in the future.

In this area for instance: the Great Falls Reach of the Upper Missouri River - if you look at that, it doesn’t look very navigable. But the Montana courts said, and the state of Montana says: "you don’t do this piece by piece. You look to the river as a whole, and it’s quite navigable on one side of that reach, it’s quite navigable on the other side of that reach, so you should call the whole thing navigable."

And what the utilities are saying - the hydroelectric facilities are saying - is: "No, no, not so fast. You do this segment by segment."

GELLERMAN: This puts the judges in a strange situation. I mean, they've got to figure out really what’s navigable, right?

LAZARUS: Well, they don’t have to decide whether, in fact, these beds are navigable. What the court will say is whether or not the lower courts applied the right test of navigability, and whether you apply that test to the river as a whole, or segment by segment, and whether you look to the condition of the river at the time of statehood, or whether you look to the condition of the river now. All the court will answer are those very broad legal issues. And then it will send it back to the lower courts to actually apply those tests to the facts.

GELLERMAN: I’m reminded what John Paul Getty, the oilman, once said: “The meek shall inherit the earth, but not the mineral rights.” And the question is now: who owns the rights to underneath the river?

The Supreme Court will hear a case about who owns rivers in Montana. Above is a stretch of the upper Missouri River in Montana.
Credit: (Bureau of Land Management)

LAZARUS: Well, that’s right and in this case it’s rent, and other cases it can be mineral rights. Absolutely. These are very valuable pieces of real estate. My expectation in this case is, the court will probably be fairly sympathetic to the hydroelectric facilities' argument.

GELLERMAN: So lets move on to Idaho and a case there where a couple known as the Sacketts owns a small piece of undeveloped land - less than an acre - and they fill it in. And the EPA says, you’ve violated the Clean Water Act, and then they order them to clean it up and restore it. The question here is whether they have a right to a hearing before the EPA can enforce their rules.

LAZARUS: The Sackett couple would like to have immediately brought a suit to challenge the legality of that order. But under settled law, you can’t challenge an administrative and compliance order submitted by EPA.

GELLERMAN: So the EPA says you’ve gotta do it, you’ve gotta do it. And then you can sue us later.

LAZARUS: Well, right. What it means is: you either gotta do it, or if you don’t do it, and we bring a lawsuit against you, you can challenge us then, but if we’re found to be right, you may well have to pay penalties to failing to comply with the order.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, I think they can be really stiff, like $37,500 dollars a day!

LAZARUS: That’s right. And so, most people when they receive an order, they far prefer to say, "Wait a second. If we think we’re not liable, let us challenge the order; don’t put us in this predicament of guessing whether or not you’re right. We’d like to challenge it right away."

GELLERMAN: What are the implications of this case?

LAZARUS: Well, the implications of that case would be a lot of bad news for EPA. And that is, EPA has long relied on the Clean Water Act - in this case - but on all the environmental statutes, it has relied on the fact that it has enormous leverage over people when they send them administrative compliance orders. It requires them to come to EPA and negotiate, and often settle these things fairly quickly.

But if they lose that, EPA may lose what has been a very important tool in the enforcement arsenal. No one had expected the Supreme Court to grant review in this case. When the Supreme Court grants review unexpectedly - when there is no disagreement in the lower courts on an issue - that tends to mean that they’ve taken it to reverse.

GELLERMAN: The Supreme Court refused to hear a bunch of environmental cases. Why is that?

LAZARUS: Yeah, the Supreme Court every year refuses to hear hundreds and hundreds and indeed thousands of cases. It only hears about one to two percent of the cases for which it receives requests for review. And it chooses only those cases which present a legal issue, which a) at least four justices - that’s how many it takes to grant review - believe is important, and no less significantly, that they think the time is right.

And they want to see an issue which is important not for newspaper headlines, but important because it comes up over and over again and it’s time for the Supreme Court to resolve it. And the one thing the Justices agree about is that if they decide not to hear a case, they are saying nothing at all - zero - about whether the decision below was right or wrong.

GELLERMAN: Well, Professor Lazarus, thanks so much!

LAZARUS: Yup - you’re welcome!

GELLERMAN: Richard Lazarus is a professor of Environmental Constitutional Law at Harvard University. Well, among the cases the Supreme Court refused to put on its calendar this session is Fast Break Foods v Saudi Arabian Oil Company. In their brief, Fast Break and other gasoline retailers charge state-owned, foreign oil companies – like Saudi Oil - conspired to fix the price of gas. William Gotfryd was one of the attorneys representing the retailers.

GOTFRYD: Well, there are some important issues, not only from an economic standpoint, but from a legal standpoint about how far foreign interests who are conspiring can come on to American soil and continue their conspiracy, and that's really at the heart of the case.

A stretch of the upper Missouri River in Montana. The Supreme Court will decide whether Montana rivers are navigable to settle who owns the rivers.
Credit: (Bureau of Land Management)

GELLERMAN: Well, you were charging that these Russian, Venezuelan, and Saudi Arabian oil subsidiaries are basically colluding - price fixing.

GOTFRYD: Yeah, not a great shock - everybody knows it, nobody's doing much about it.

GELLERMAN: Well, the Supreme Court turned you down.

GOTFRYD: It sure did!

GELLERMAN: They didn’t give you an answer though, right?

GOTFRYD: Uh, no.

GELLERMAN: But you lost out in the lower courts too.

GOTFRYD: Well, that tends to be the case - if you lose in the lower courts, you tend to be disfavored in getting it reversed as you go up the chain.

GELLERMAN: Well, what was the lower court ruling?

GOTFRYD: Well, the lower court ruling was essentially that the issue about whether or not you can attack foreign subsidiaries of national companies is a political question, which is resigned into the political branches of the government. And specifically they looked at the executive branch - the President - with its treaty powers, and said basically this is a presidential issue.

GELLERMAN: So what happens now?

GOTFRYD: Well, that’s an excellent question. I’m not quite sure the American people and more specifically Congress is aware how deeply the tentacles of foreign companies like the OPEC member national oil companies are reaching into the United States commerce directly, and apparently are allowed to price fix on American shores.

Whether or not the people are aware of this, and Congress is aware of it ... I hope they do become aware of it, and decide to take action.

GELLERMAN: Now, I’m reading the OPEC mission statement, and it says, and I’m quoting: “The mission is to coordinate and unify the petroleum policies of its member countries, and to ensure the stabilities of oil markets in order to secure an efficient, economic, and regular supply of petroleum to consumers, a steady income to producers, and a fair return on the capital for those investing in the petroleum industry.”

GOTFRYD: Yup, sounds like price fixing to me!

GELLERMAN: Now, if these companies were American companies, you think they would be allowed to do what you charge they do?

GOTFRYD: Absolutely not! There would be people doing a long time in jail for what they do.

GELLERMAN: Well, the Supreme Court says they’re not going to listen to you, so is there any legal standing you can find? Are you going to pursue this at all?

GOTFRYD: I think we’ll just to have to see how the situation develops. And since my interest is in fair and open trade that’s protected from cartel activities, I’m hoping that Congress decides to wake up and do something serious.

GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Gotfryd thanks so very much. I really appreciate it.

GOTFRYD: My pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Chicago attorney William Gotfryd.

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[MUSIC: Boukman Eksperyans “Zombie” from La Revolte Des Zombies (Bacchanilism Records 2009).]

Eager Beavers Engineer Ecosystems

Parish and another member of the Solution on a trap-and-relocate. (The Lands Council)

GELLERMAN: For the past few weeks, Living on Earth has been reporting on the efforts to remove dams around the country. Well, this week, we talk about building them. On a tributary of the Spokane River in Washington state, new dams have gone up - helping to raise the water table, remove pollution and pesticides, attract fish and wildlife, and they cost: nothing.

Because we’re not building the dams, beavers are! Amanda Parrish has been busy with the new dams - busy as a, well, you know! She’s director of the Beaver Solution - a program run by Spokane's Lands Council to protect beavers, and promote their engineering talents. We caught up with Amanda Parrish while she was knee deep at work.


PARRISH: So, I'm walking around here by a dam on California Creek. Luckily, I’ve got these waterproof boots.

Beavers are mostly monogamous. The Lands Council takes special care to trap and move entire families together. (The Lands Council)

GELLERMAN: What’s the beaver dam look like - the one that you’re in front of?

PARRISH: It’s sort of a U-shaped dam, going from bank to bank. It’s about four feet tall, maybe four and a half by, about 30 feet wide. This went up in a matter of weeks, not just one week. We were here about a month and a half ago, and didn’t see any sign of beaver dams, and upon returning last week, there’s this new dam!

GELLERMAN: So, how does the Beaver Solution work?

PARRISH: Well, there’s two main components of the program. One is wetland restoration and using beavers as an agent of that restoration, and the other is resolving the human and beaver conflict. Generally, a private property owner contacts us regarding a nuisance beaver on their property.

So we can go out and assess the problem and offer beaver management strategies. For instance, if losing trees is the problem, we offer tree protection. If flooding land is the problem, we can install pond-leveling devices to lower the level of that pond. But in some instances, none of these solutions or strategies really appeal to the landowner, in which case, we can offer to relocate the family of beaver.

I’ve spoken to a farmer here in Washington who is interested in getting beaver on his property. He used to live in Wyoming, and he had a series of beaver dams on his property - he would notch them maybe twice a year, it would flood his grazing pastures, and the beaver would patch up that dam in the next day. So he said it was just the greatest irrigation system he’s ever had.

Parish releases a family of Beavers, which can have as many as ten members. (The Lands Council)

GELLERMAN: So how do you trap a beaver?

PARRISH: I didn’t go to school to learn how to be an animal trapper, but it’s easier than I thought it would be, originally. We use what are known as suitcase traps, and they look like a Samsonite suitcase.

And we use four traps, you know - set all four traps each night. The traps are baited with food from the trapping site, but what really attracts them is the beaver lure, which is the scents used for marking territory.

And then we check the traps every morning around 8 or 9 am, pick up the beaver that we have from that day, take them to a temporary holding facility. And then go back out that afternoon, and repeat that process. Every year, we have more people interested in using beaver. Whether it’s because they like bird watching and they know that beaver ponds are good for that, or because they want habitat improvement or water storage.

GELLERMAN: So what are the other benefits from beaver dams?

PARRISH: The dam creates a wetland, and wetlands, as a lot of us know, offer a lot of environmental benefits. If there is a heavy sediment load in the creek from erosion, a beaver dam backs up a lot of that sediment. If there are any pollutants in the stream, like excess phosphorus or nitrogen or heavy metals, those bind to sediments, and that's then stored behind the beaver dam. So again, the water flowing out is not only clearer because of less sediment, but it’s got less pollutants in it.

GELLERMAN: The beaver as an irrigation engineer.

PARRISH: Yeah, exactly. You know, and one of the things that they’re often called is ecosystem engineers, which is really true. If you’ve been around beaver dams, you can see how, other than human beings, they’re truly one of the only animals that impacts the ecosystem so greatly.

Beavers have a large broad tail that’s useful in dam construction and can sound a loud alarm when slapped against the water. (The Lands Council)

GELLERMAN: Why do beavers build dams in the first place? What’s in it for the beaver?

PARRISH: There are two main reasons that beaver build dams. One is: they want to control and regulate the level of water so that the entrance to their home - their lodge - is always underwater. So that keeps them safe from predators - having this underwater entrance.

The second reason that they build dams is because they don’t hibernate and they need to store food over the winter. So they have a food cache in their pond, so they need water that’s deep enough where it won’t freeze over.

I was also going to say that the sound of running water is what triggers beaver to want to build dams, and actually, there was research done at one point where there was just a boombox playing the sound of a babbling creek, and eventually the beavers started trying to dam the boombox.

GELLERMAN: Oh really? They’re kind of hardwired to… [Laughing.]

PARRISH: Yeah, they’re hardwired to stop that sound of running water.

GELLERMAN: Well Amanda Parrish, thank you so much!

PARRISH: You’re welcome.

GELLERMAN: Amanda Parrish is the director of the Beaver Solution. It’s a program run by Spokane’s Lands Council, it’s a non-profit conservation group.

The Lands Council is changing peoples’ minds about an animal that many considered a large pest.

Related links:
- Learn more about the Beaver Solution
- Visit the Beaver Believers on Facebook

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[MUSIC: Captain Beefheart “When I See Mommy, I Feel Like A Mummy” from Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner bros 1978).]

Leave It to Beaver

(Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

GELLERMAN: Among those awed by the engineering skill of the North American beaver is environmental writer Mark Seth Lender. Here’s an essay of his we liked so much, we’re replaying it:

LENDER: The pond is still as polished stone, a duotone, tannic brown and gray. And quiet. A quiet made of fine rain. Slow churning of earthworm. Purr of woodpecker on a dead tree across to the other shore. Hush of river rolling over the dam of crossed sticks, which holds all this, this space, this wetted openness.

Toward me now comes the Engineer. Fast as a blur he comes, the V of his wake deep and sure, nose lifted just above the water. Thick fur, wet but warm, covers him all but where he sees and breathes and hears, and the pad of his paw. He has no gills, no fins, no scales. When he dives he holds his breath. Where water flows he must stop it. Wherever it goes he will find it. He is drawn by the sound and by the feel and perhaps, even the scent. Now closer, as close to me as curiosity demands, till the flat of his tail waves goodbye and smooth as a silk scarf, he disappears, under water.

Taming of the liquid force is the lifework of the American Beaver. It is the product of both forethought and design and an agile mind. First, a survey must be made. Noting where the bank is high and the river narrow he will begin there. He needs no protractor. no T square. Lacking transit and plumb bob he proceeds by rack of eye alone, yet what he builds endures. With saplings and small lumber, in a weave that seems random but is not, with mud, with stones, layer by layer the dam is raised until all water will be conquered.

In the finishing of a pond a beaver takes many trees. Teeth are his adze and ax and he works in the round. Carefully. His lodge laid of branches is the keep where his family shelters, and their safety is his purpose. High in the leafy tops, predators may lurk in the form of eagles. Low down, cougar and coyote may hide behind the trunks. To hold the standing woods at a distance is not unwise in a beaver’s nearsighted eyes.

Among the beaver’s works trout and minnow swim and great blue herons fish for them. Wood ducks in Kandinsky colors. Kingfishers, querulous lovers. Painted turtle, drifting ark. Dragonflies hunting, near dark; Late returning red-shouldered hawk... all this is here from what the beaver clears. Much depends upon the engineer.

GELLERMAN: Mark Seth Lender's latest book is called “Salt Marsh Diary.” There are some of his photographs on our website - LOE.org.

Related link:
To order a copy of Mark Seth Lender’s book “Salt Marsh Diary – A Year on the Connecticut Coast,” one of Mark’s photos, and support Living on Earth, go to

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[MUSIC: Andrew Bird “Natural Disaster” from Noble Beast (Wegawam Music 2008).]

GELLERMAN: Coming up: Christo’s latest environmental artwork: "Over the River" isn’t through the woods just yet. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change, and the Sierra Club, helping city-bound kids explore and enjoy wild places they'll later strive to protect. Online at sierraclub.org/livingonearth. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Various Artists/The Defenders: “Daisy” from Guitar Mania Vol. 23 (Sam Sam Music 2010).]

GELLERMAN: Coming up: Christo’s latest environmental artwork: "Over the River" isn’t through the woods just yet. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change, and the Sierra Club, helping city-bound kids explore and enjoy wild places they'll later strive to protect. Online at sierraclub.org/livingonearth. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Various Artists/The Defenders: “Daisy” from Guitar Mania Vol. 23 (Sam Sam Music 2010).]

Cool Fix: Recycling the Ocean's Plastic

A man canoes through an ocean of plastic. (Photo: “Bagtheplanet”)

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.

From time to time, we feature cool fixes for a hot planet - new ideas that can help us beat the heat from climate change. One that could help a little bit makes use of a big pile of plastic. Living on Earth’s Raphaella Bennin tells us more.


BENNIN: A home cleaning and personal care products company wants to scrub the great outdoors, or at least part of it. It plans to collect plastic from a massive trash pile in the Pacific Ocean and recycle it into a laundry detergent bottle.

The bottle on the left is method’s new recycled bottle. The other two bottles hold plastic at different stages of the recycling process. (Photo: Leslie Guevarra, GreenBiz.com)

The company, Method, produces soap, detergent, and multi-purpose sprays. It already makes its spray bottles and pump canisters from 100 percent recycled materials. Now, Method is teaming up with Envision Plastics to make a container with 25 percent recycled trash from the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”

The garbage patch sits in the North Pacific Gyre – a system of currents that swirl the ocean’s waters. Discarded fishing nets, plastic bottles, and waste dumped by cruise ships twist together in the middle of the ocean, over an area some scientists say is the size of Texas. Some of that trash washes up on the shores of Hawaii and California.

Method knows its cleaning efforts won’t rid the ocean of this great garbage vortex, but the company hopes that its message in a bottle will increase awareness of the problem, and encourage more people to recycle. That’s this week’s Cool Fix for a Hot Planet. I’m Raphaella Bennin.

GELLERMAN: And if you have a cool fix for a hot planet - we'd love to hear it. If we use your idea on the air, we'll send you a shiny electric blue Living on Earth tire gauge. Keeping your tires properly inflated can save you hundreds of dollars a year in fuel costs, and make the going a lot smoother. Call our listener line at 800-218-9988, that's 800-218-9988. Or go to our Facebook page, it PRI's Living on Earth.

Related link:
Adam Lowry, Chief Co-founder of method, blogs about the plan to recycle plastic from the Pacific Ocean.

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[MUSIC: Breakstra “How Do You really Feel” from Hit The Floor (Ubiquity Records 2005).]

Christo: Over the River

Over The River Life-Sized Test, four life-size prototype tests were conducted in 1997, 1998 and 1999 on private property near the Colorado/Utah border. (Photo: Wolfgang Volz, © Christo 1999)


GELLERMAN: The headwaters of the Arkansas River begin as a trickle high in the Colorado Rockies and rapidly the flow turns into a white water torrent that runs 15 hundred miles east through four states.

Bruce Gellerman and Christo look at photos of his project. (Photo: Yulia Govorushko)

Rafting the Arkansas is said to be about the best in the nation. The fly-fishing is fast and furious, and it turns out it’s also the perfect place, says the artist known simply as Christo, to create an enormous, environmental work of art.

CHRISTO: Look at that. See how the river curve? All that will be fabric. Marvelous, marvelous, unbelievable, beautiful.

GELLERMAN: Christo traveled 15 thousand miles and visited 89 rivers before choosing this stretch of the Arkansas near Canyon City, Colorado. It’s a 20-year-long artwork-in-progress. Christo envisions suspending 8 sections of shimmering, translucent fabric panels over miles of the Arkansas, for the project he calls: Over the River.

CHRISTO: I was not aware of that famous song - "Over the river to the woods ... Dah dah dah dah dah dah!" I like very much the title. It’s exactly what is the project - over the river because nothing is over, is over.

GELLERMAN: Christo says Over the River will be temporary – the installation will exist for just two weeks.

CHRISTO: The proposal is to suspend a fabric panel - minimum eight feet above the water, some occasion is ten, 15 feet above the water, - and that span of 42 miles, which will span 5.9 miles of fabric panels in many locations. The project will take you one and a half hours on the road. To see the project inside - the project is above you - take about four and a half hours.

GELLERMAN: To create his artistic statement, Christo had to create an environmental impact statement. It runs 17 hundred pages and cost several million dollars to produce. But even if it’s approved by federal officials, Over the River won’t be entirely through the woods. A group known as ROAR – Rags over the Arkansas River - has filed a lawsuit to prevent the project they charge would be like quote: “hanging pornography in a church.”

(Photo: Andre Gellerman)


GELLERMAN: Christo acknowledges his project is audacious, but he welcomes the controversy, as I learned when I met him in the four-story SOHO brownstone in New York City that serves as his studio, gallery, and home.

CHRISTO: I work alone in my studio. Ask some artists at 76, can tell you that…

GELLERMAN: At 76, his face is deeply worn, black glasses set off his white and wild hair. Christo is short, wispy thin, wears worn jeans and a threadbare shirt with French cuffs tied with tiny pieces of string. The artist is passionate and pugnacious and quickly establishes the guidelines for our interview:

CHRISTO: I will answer all your questions, but I will not talk about politics, religion and other artists.

GELELRMAN: Well, that’s fair enough.

CHRISTO: Because all my time I reserve for myself. Only talk about myself - Jeanne-Claude and myself - that’s all.


GELLERMAN: To understand Christo, you must know about the love of his life, Jeanne-Claude.

CHRISTO: They were a cosmic couple born on the exact same day and year - he Bulgarian, she French. They met in Paris, fell in love and married. But her parents disapproved of the eccentric, impoverished artist who wrapped small objects in paper and fabric.

So Christo and Jeanne-Claude emigrated to the United States and for half a century they collaborated - sharing a vision for transforming landscapes into vast works of art, using islands, coastlines, famous buildings and bridges as their canvas. Christo, the artist, Jeanne-Claude, project manager.
One of their major early works was Running Fence. In this film documentary, Jeanne-Claude stands by the sea describing Christo’s vision:


JEANNE-CLAUDE: What he wants to do is that have the 18 feet fence, you know, go until you can’t see it anymore.

MAN: Until he can't see it any more.

JEANNE-CLAUDE: Right. So, I hope it doesn’t take until Hawaii to do that! (laughing)

GELLERMAN: Running Fence was erected in 1976. It consisted of two thousand, 18-foot high sheets of white nylon. They ran 24 and a half miles along the northern coast of California, then plunged into the Pacific Ocean.

[MOVIE CLIP: JEANNE-CLAUDE: And it would be nice that they start early in the morning when they open in the fog, and when the sunshine comes up, it's there! Like a miracle! That would be great!]

GELLERMAN: Jeanne-Claude died two years ago, but her influence – firey hot as her bright red hair - still burns within Christo.

CHRISTO: Jeanne-Claude and myself, when the project is realized, we like to stay with our baby. Each project is like a child of ours…us. Each project is some period of our life. But Jeanne-Claude was saying, always, I should use her name, if I really like to have the preferable one, is always the next one. (Laughs).
Anyway, for all our projects, we like to have the very articulate and very not misleading title. When the project is called Running Fence, its fence was running. When it’s Valley Curtain, it’s curtain in valley. When it’s Umbrella, it’s umbrellas.

GELLERMAN: Umbrellas consisted of three thousand giant blue and yellow umbrellas set in California and Japan. It took 17 years from concept to completion, and cost 26 million dollars. For Valley Curtain, they hung a giant orange nylon sheet between two Colorado Mountains.

For Wrapped Reichstag, they used nine-miles of rope to tie a shroud of woven plastic around the German parliament building. It took an act of Parliament to get the project approved. Christo recalls each project down to the size of every anchor, nut and bolt. And remembers the exact moment that inspired his latest project: Over the River.

He tells me it was back in 1985, when he and Jeanne Claude were supervising workmen as they wrapped the Pont-Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris, in beige fabric.

CHRISTO: Jeanne-Claude and myself were standing, the fabric was floating, was moving with the wind, like that, like that, like that. And we saw the fabric suspended way above the water. Now that image stayed in our mind. And only in 1992, Over the River was born.

GELLERMAN: But did Jeanne-Claude say to you: "Lets do something," or did you say it to Jeanne-Claude?

CHRISTO: No, no, no. We remembered that image.

GELLERMAN: So one piece of art gave birth to another piece of art?

CHRISTO: No, not piece of art. In a moment of execution of one piece of art. But this is not, first of all, a piece of art.

GELLERMAN: This is not a piece of art?

CHRISTO: No, the fabric suspended over the water to come to the wrapping of the bridge was not a piece of art, like the oil paint on the pallet of the artist is not a piece of art. It’s material for the piece of art. We use cloth. And the fabric is the principal element to translate this temporary character - nomadic character - of the work.

All our wrapped projects, they’re like living objects. You know, the fabric is not cemented. The fabric is a full motion - moving with the wind all of the time. And it’s not something like stays static. And what would Jeanne-Claude and myself we like to do is to borrow that space, and create gentle disturbances for a few days.

We have that tenderness and love for something will be gone forever - like our life - we know that will be gone. Like our childhoods - we know that will be gone. And something we’ll miss tomorrow forever.

Christo’s rendition of his Over the River project. (Photo: Wolfgang Volz, © Christo)

GELLERMAN: So, are you sad or are you happy when they are over?

CHRISTO: No, no! That is the aesthetical decision - of course we are very happy. The very bottom of all project, Jeanne-Claude and myself we are absolutely involved with the freedom.

GELLERMAN: The freedom?

CHRISTO: Freedom. Absolutely, artistic freedom is the supreme part of our existence. This project, it is only because myself and Jeanne-Claude would like to have them, not because public like to have them, or some corporate executive, or some foundation, or some.…the world can live perfectly without our Valley Curtain, or without Surrounded Island, without the Reichstag.

They are totally irresponsible. All our projects - they’re irrational, totally useless, and the world can live without them. But, in some way, they cannot be bought. Nobody can own this project. Nobody can charge tickets for this project. Nobody can ... even myself, I do not own this project. We do not accept any sponsor, any grants. All our work is copyrighted, trademarked. Nobody can commercialize anything.
We are ferociously involved with keeping absolutely our freedom outside of any possession.

GELLERMAN: But it means that since you’re not funded by a foundation or companies or you can’t sell tickets, it means…

CHRISTO: How we pay for everything?

GELLERMAN: You’re a starving artist?

CHRISTO: Is not inexpensive venture. This is a very complex operation, and the money come to pay the services of many, many people - hundreds of people working on sometime: lawyers to construction workers…

(Photo: Andre Gellerman)

GELLERMAN: ...to environmental scientists, engineers, and more lawyers. Over the River could cost upwards of 50 million dollars. Christo pays for his projects entirely by himself. He sells small pieces from his early works, preliminary drawings of projects in the works, and books chronicling the creation of his iconic masterworks. At a public hearing in Colorado before her death in 2009, Jeanne-Claude was asked about the price tag for Over the River.


MAN: How much will the project cost?

JEANNE-CLAUDE: It is very much like bringing up a child. It will cost us whatever it has to cost.

MAN: Is there an estimate?

JEANNE-CLAUDE: No - ask your mother if she had an estimate on you!


CHRISTO: We do not know what is the project when we start. This is why we don't do commissions. The project develop his identity to the permitting process.

GELLERMAN: So, is the process part of the art?

CHRISTO: Absolutely! Imagine I can tell you absolutely the most vivid and most powerful genesis of the work is in permitting process.

MAN: But I’m asking you to explain - to sell it to a public entity - why they should allow it to happen?


Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971-95 (Photo: Wolfgang Volz)

CHRISTO: No, I can't tell you. I can't tell you. No, I’m an American citizen. I’m a taxpayer…


GELLERMAN: Members of the organization ROAR - Rags over the Arkansas River - say Christo’s plan to span 42 miles of river with 5.9 miles of suspended sheets of fabric will create an eyesore that will disrupt emergency vehicles, discourage tourists, permanently harm the river banks and endanger bighorn sheep that live along the Arkansas. For Christo these concerns are all part of the creative process.

CHRISTO: Any artist, he hope that the work create discussion. That people think about the work. We’re the only artists in the world who our work was discussed before the work exist!


CHRISTO: For years and years, thousand people think awful the work will be, how beautiful the work will be. They argue.

(Photo: Anya Gellerman)

GELLERMAN: So, you’re not discouraged by the controversy that Over the River’s caused.

CHRISTO: I’m not masochistic, No. I love to have less problem. But this it's never, never, never possible.

GELLERMAN: But you like mixing it up. You like the argument. You like...

CHRISTO: No, but that is the soul, but that is the soul, the blood of these projects. This is why you are here. Because, usually, the art world is a very small club - like a private club. And of course, imagine what pleasure we have to talk to ranchers, to the politicians, to Senators, to the Japanese rice field farmers, to a variety of people that usually you don’t talk to these people.

You know, it’s very, very important to see how the project really creates that chemistry of things and builds this dynamic. This is not theater, is not spectacle, is not make-believe. This is coming to the real things, I tell you.

The real things: the real wind, the real weather, the real sun, the real dry, the real things - no make-believe. I love the things I do. I am enjoying every minute of the work I do - from the little drawings, to flying, discussing and I scream, I’m emotional, but it’s… I will never retire. Jeanne-Claude always saying: an artist don't retire, they simply die.

GELLERMAN: Is Over the River going to happen?

CHRISTO: I believe. I believe the sensibility in the government - decision makers. I’m big believer.

GELLERMAN: Before saying goodbye, Christo gives me a book about Over the River. And I take out a photograph of my family taken in New York’s Central Park. It was back in 2005. We went there to see Christo’s last project: The Gates: 75-hundred fabric saffron sheets flapping in the wind, winding through meadows and walkways.

(Photo: Nataly Govorushko)

CHRISTO: Yeah, I will sign that for you.

GELLERMAN: And then, with a special wax pen and a flourish, the artist signs his name: Christo.



[MUSIC: Bill Frisell “Give Me A Holler” from Nashville (Nonesuch Records 1997).]

GELLERMAN: Sometime over the next few weeks, the Bureau of Land Management is expected to finally decide if Over the River gets the go-ahead. If it does, Christo plan to suspend huge panels of shimmering silver fabric along a 42-mile stretch in the Arkansas River could happen in August 2014.

Related links:
- Christo’s Website
- Rags Over the Arkansas River

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[MUSIC: Bill Frisell “Give Me A Holler” from Nashville (Nonesuch Records 1997).]

GELLERMAN: On the next Living on Earth: It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, and increasingly it’s boisterous environmentalists that derail mega projects.

HANCE: Governments are acting too slow. Corporations are acting too slow and so I think people are saying we need to stand up and start doing something. And I have seen some projects that have been thrown out due to large-scale protests.

GELLERMAN: People power versus massive projects, that's next time on Living on Earth.

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Smith, and Ike Sriskandarajah, with help from Sarah Calkins, Gabriela Romanow and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Raphaella Bennin and Jack Rodolico. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org – and while you're online, check out our sister program, Planet Harmony. Planet Harmony welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at my planet harmony dot com. And don’t forget to check out the Living on Earth facebook page. It’s PRI’s Living on Earth. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!

ANNOUNCER 1: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science. And Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield invites you to just eat organic for a day. Details at justeatorganic.com. Support also comes from you, our listeners; the Go Forward Fund; and Pax World Mutual and Exchange-Traded Funds, integrating environmental, social, and governance factors into investment analysis and decision making. On the web at paxworld.com. Pax World, for tomorrow.

ANNOUNCER 2: PRI, Public Radio International.


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