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

April 16, 2004

Air Date: April 16, 2004



Energy Task Force Under Scrutiny / Jeff Young

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The U.S. Supreme Court will soon hear arguments about whether records from Vice President Cheney's held-behind-closed-doors Energy Task Force are to be made public. Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent Jeff Young fills us in on the dispute and what's at stake for energy policy and open government. (12:47)

Fueling the Future

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Energy specialist Arjun Makhijani says that the Bush administration currently has no comprehensive energy strategy at a time when the U.S. needs one most. He talks to host Steve Curwood about the future of energy supply and production, and why he finds most promise in wind as an energy source. (16:00)

Emerging Science Note/Short-term Memory Box / Jennifer Chu

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Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on a study that provides a neurological explanation for the old adage “out of sight, out of mind.” (01:20)

The Big “Hhhmmm”

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Host Steve Curwood talks with John Cramer, a physicist at the University of Washington in Seattle. Professor Cramer put together some NASA data and simulated the sound of the Big Bang. (03:00)

Urban Eco-village / Alan Weisman

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In the center of Los Angeles, where natural ecology is a thing forsaken, one neighborhood discourages cars, grows its food, and even tries to get off the grid. Alan Weisman reports. (12:45)

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Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Arjun Makhijani, John CramerREPORTERS: Jeff Young, Alan WeismanNOTE: Jennifer Chu


CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Soon after he took office, Vice President Dick Cheney headed up a task force to set energy policy for the Bush administration. Its members called for more coal, oil and nuclear power, but to this day, no one knows who they are. And citing executive privileges, the White House refuses to name names. Now the matter is headed for the Supreme Court.

EASTMAN: This politically motivated attack to try to come up with some piece of "gotcha," but at the risk of threatening that very tenuous separation of powers structural protection of our liberties, I think is a very dangerous thing. And I'm glad to see that the White House is fighting it on principled grounds.

BOOKBINDER: These are claims of an imperial presidency the likes of which we haven’t seen since the worst days of Watergate.

CURWOOD: The Energy Task Force under fire and more this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.


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

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Energy Task Force Under Scrutiny

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Many of the biggest environmental conflicts and controversies in the Bush administration have come over energy policy. And much of the administration’s energy policy has its roots in Vice President Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force. The task force was a secretive series of meetings among top officials, industry executives and a few other outside groups early in the Bush presidency.

Its report set the stage for changes in the Clean Air Act enforcement, a push for more oil and gas from public lands, and a revival of the nuclear power industry. Environmental advocates and government watchdog groups have waged a long legal battle to learn more about the Energy Task Force – who was on it and how they arrived at their recommendations. That legal battle goes before the U.S. Supreme Court this month.

Our Washington correspondent Jeff Young joins us now to talk about the dispute and what’s at stake for energy, the environment, and the laws that require government to operate in the open. Jeff, welcome.

YOUNG: Thank you

CURWOOD: Jeff, this case is going to the Supreme Court. It drew a lot of flack over a duck hunting trip of all things. Some said that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia should have recused himself from hearing about the Energy Task Force because he went hunting with Mr. Cheney. That sure put a lot of attention on this.

YOUNG: It did. Scalia eventually refused to recuse himself from hearing this, so now the groups who are bringing this suit – the Sierra Club and a conservative watchdog group called Judicial Watch – they’re focusing instead on the argument they’re going to take to the court. They say the vice president broke the law that requires open meetings. It’s called the Federal Advisory Committee Act and it basically says if people from outside government join an advisory committee, then that committee has to obey certain rules on public participation. That would mean the task force records should be more open and that the meetings of the task force back in early 2001 should also have been more open to more points of view on energy policy. But the justices are going to consider only a narrow part of this argument.

CURWOOD: And what’s that narrow piece, Jeff?

YOUNG: Well, the justices are going to decide whether the district judge who’s hearing this case should even be allowed to have access to these task force records. So what you have here is the administration not just saying the public can’t have these records, but also saying the judge can’t have them to decide if the public should have them. Now, as you can imagine, this is a great frustration for the groups who are bringing this lawsuit. David Bookbinder is legal director for Sierra Club’s Washington office.

BOOKBINDER: These are claims of an imperial presidency the likes of which we haven’t seen since the worst days of Watergate.

YOUNG: So, if the justices decide the judge should be able to look at these papers, then the case will go back to circuit court, and that will decide whether the rest of us get to see those papers.

CURWOOD: So even if that happens, it sounds like that’s going to take a long time.

YOUNG: Years, in all likelihood, even if the groups bringing the suit win in the Supreme Court. And, in any event, no records will be released until well after the election. And Bookbinder says that’s the White House’s real motivation here, to delay the release of potentially politically embarrassing material.

CURWOOD: What does the vice president himself say about his motivation here?

YOUNG: Well, to me he says nothing. Both the vice president’s press office and the press office for the Department of Justice, which argued a lot of these cases, they both declined interview requests. But in past, when the administration has talked about this, they’ve said, look, this is about principle. It’s about defending the powers of the Executive Branch within this balance of powers in our system. And he’s not alone in that thinking. Many people who follow this legal school of thought called “original intent,” about what the framers intended when they wrote the constitution. They support the vice president on this. John Eastman is a law professor at Chapman University in Orange, California

EASTMAN: Well, I agree with the vice president’s point of view and also with Alexander Hamilton’s. He was the one that initially wrote that we had created an executive that could operate with secrecy and dispatch. This politically motivated attack to try and uncover some piece of "gotcha," but at the risk of threatening that very tenuous separation of powers structural protection of our liberties, I think is a very dangerous thing. And I’m glad to see that the White House is fighting it on principled grounds.

YOUNG: So, that’s the principle at stake. And then, also, as a practical matter, Eastman says you need people who are participating in these committees, these task forces, to be able to speak very openly. And if they know that everyone out there is going to be looking at every word they say, then they’re not going to be very frank in the advice that they give. And that’s going to be harmful in the long run.

CURWOOD: Jeff, explain to us what’s going on with the other cases that are going on against the Cheney task force. This one that’s in front of the Supreme Court is not the only one.

YOUNG: Right. Well, members of Congress wanted to know more about what had happened in the task force. And so the General Accounting Office brought suit – that one was thrown out. But there’s another lawsuit that’s making a quite a bit of progress in federal district court. And again it’s the group Judicial Watch, this time partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council. And they’re using the Freedom of Information Act to go after records from the federal agencies involved in the task force – we’re talking about Department of Energy, EPA, Commerce – lot’s of branches of government. And they’ve had some success there. They won release of some documents back in 2002. And this month, on April Fool’s Day, a D.C. district judge ordered still more records to be released.

CURWOOD: Jeff, this is really interesting, because here you have a very conservative group, Judicial Watch, paired up with NRDC and Sierra Club, environmental groups that are considered pretty liberal. Interesting to see NRDC and Judicial Watch working together here.

YOUNG: Yeah, talk about your political odd couples here. Judicial Watch, you might recall, went after the Clinton administration pretty fiercely, even representing Paula Jones who had filed a sexual harassment suit against President Clinton. But the Judicial Watch motto is "because no one is above the law" and Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton tells me “we’re going to stick to that.” It’s about the law, it’s not about partisan considerations. And he even supports the administration’s energy policy.

FITTON: You know, I may have voted for Dick Cheney, or I may have voted for George Bush, but I consider it kind of being like the cop who pulls over the mayor. You know, I voted for you, Mr. Mayor – now here’s your ticket, and show up in court. And this is the equivalent here.

YOUNG: And Fitton says there are lots of Republicans on Capitol Hill who would rather this whole issue would just go away, that the administration would drop this fight, release the documents, just be done with it. Because they think, politically, it’s just too costly to have them constantly taking hits about being secretive.

CURWOOD: Yeah, Jeff, I mean, what’s your take on this? Why does the administration persist in arguing this and taking all this heat?

YOUNG: It’s perplexing. Professor Eastman – we heard from him earlier – he says it’s a sign of virtue that the administration is willing to take all this heat in order to defend the separation of powers and the Executive Branch’s power. Not surprisingly, the Sierra Club’s lawyer, Mr. Bookbinder, he has a very different take on this.

BOOKBINDER: That’s the $64 question, and the only way we can think about it is that whatever the information is, whatever the documents are, that this may be explosive. And that the White House is willing to take political hit after political hit and media hit after media hit over this rather than let that information ever see the light of day.

CURWOOD: Now Jeff, what do we already know that happened in the task force? The documents that weren’t shrouded by the White House executive privilege, that were out of the agencies?

YOUNG: Right, well that Freedom of Information Act suit did win thousands of pages of documents. Many of them were heavily redacted, or blacked out. But you still do get a sense of the scope of the task force talks, and you see very clearly the origins of many of the most controversial actions that the Bush administration has taken when it comes to energy policy and environmental regulation.

CURWOOD: What do you have in mind?

YOUNG: Well, New Source Review is mentioned over and over in these papers. That’s a pretty complex part of the Clean Air Act that has to do with when coal fired power plants have to install fairly costly pollution control technology. And in these papers you see some of the most powerful people in the power industry asking for changes in New Source Review. And the Bush administration later did redefine New Source Review to favor the power industry.

But the item that environmentalists point to as probably the most extreme example of direct influence from the industry is an executive order that was written by the American Petroleum Institute. It had to do with having public agencies give energy issues a priority in their decision-making. And the NRDC’s lawyer, Sharon Buccino, says that went very quickly from the Petroleum Institute to the president.

BUCCINO: You have that recommendation being made in the Energy Task Force report, which is released May 17, 2001. And then the very next day you have President Bush issuing the executive order, the text of which is very similar to what had been submitted by the American Petroleum Institute.

CURWOOD: So, what do the environmental advocates and Judicial Watch want to learn more about? What do they suspect is still in there to be learned?

YOUNG: You know, it’s a little murky. You can’t know what’s unknown in there. But speculation focuses on exactly who met with whom. You know, how much access did people like Ken Lay from Enron, for example, have directly to the vice president and his staff. Things like that.

But what a lot of people find more intriguing is not about the domestic energy scene, but foreign energy. Among the documents that were won in that open records lawsuit is a series of maps that show oil fields in Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq. And they came from the Commerce Department. It includes lists of countries and companies that have contracts to produce oil from those oil fields.

And then, another record related to the task force was discovered by New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer. And this one directs the National Security Council members to cooperate with the task force as it considers, and I’m quoting here, "operational policies toward rogue states" and, quote, "actions regarding the capture of new and existing oil and gas fields."

CURWOOD: Well, that could be kind of hot and raise some eyebrows, given the controversy about the motivation for war in Iraq.

YOUNG: Yeah, for sure. And some critics immediately seized on this as evidence that this was a war about oil, and the war was being discussed way back in early 2001. Now we should stress that this is very speculative. It’s based on incomplete information. But for Fitton, the guy from Judicial Watch – who supports the war, by the way – it’s the administration’s secrecy that is fueling all that speculation.

FITTON: So, I don’t necessarily think it was the reason for war, that the Energy Task Force was a kind of war council. But because of the secrecy of the administration, people draw different conclusions. And they have been taken by many in the media and around the world as proof that the administration invaded Iraq for oil. I didn’t see it that way but people draw their own conclusions and I’m not in the position to debate them much because I’m not the administration.

CURWOOD: So Jeff, what happens in this Supreme Court case that’s coming up shortly? What are the odds that this will set some sort of important precedent?

YOUNG: Well, if Vice President Cheney loses at the Supreme Court, this would not set precedent. It would mean the justices are reaffirming the power of the open meetings law, and just sending the case back to the lower court where they’ve got to slog through arguments over the case’s merits. Professor Eastman – we heard from him earlier – he supports Cheney on this, and he says that would be bad.

EASTMAN: If the president gives in to this and leaves the executive weakened as a result, that balance of power that is the hallmark of our constitutional system is altered, and perhaps with grave consequences far beyond the particular consequences at issue in this case.

YOUNG: Now, if the justices agree with Vice President Cheney, then it likely means that the justices have something they want to say about open meetings law and the balance of powers. And the Sierra Club’s Bookbinder says that could be a major precedent-setting event and, from his point of view, not a good one.

BOOKBINDER: That would be a very unfortunate direction for us, for other litigants under Federal Advisory Committee Act, and for the future of open government in the United States.

YOUNG: So, we will learn more with oral arguments at the Supreme Court on April 27th, and then a decision expected by the end of July.

CURWOOD: Jeff Young is Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent. Thank you, Jeff.

YOUNG: You’re welcome.

CURWOOD: Our coverage of energy policy continues in just a minute. We’ll talk with an analyst who takes stock of the world’s untapped energy supplies – from oil and gas, to wind and solar. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Download "Toooly Hooof" III (Nettwerk Records, 1997)]

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Fueling the Future

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. This week, we’re focusing on the nation’s energy policy and politics. So far, we’ve talked mostly about the politics and the controversy over the secret records of the White House Energy Task Force led by Vice President Dick Cheney.

Now we turn our attention to the future of energy production and use in the United States. Joining me is Arjun Makhijani. He’s president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Maryland. Arjun, what kind of policy came out of the task force led by the vice president?

MAKHIJANI: Well, you know, the Bush administration, actually, I think, did one service, whether you agree with the content of the Energy Task Force work or not. It’s that they, for the first time since the Carter administration, they put energy policy in the center of the national agenda. But really nothing much other than lawsuits have come out of that Energy Task Force because we still don’t have an energy policy. The Bush administration has tried to get an energy bill passed, but it’s been too controversial, too divisive to get anything done.

CURWOOD: Well, but surely the administration does, in fact, have a de facto, if not explicit, de jure policy. What is the operating policy of the administration at this point?

MAKHIJANI: Well, the operating policy is to leave it to the oil and coal companies, and they’ll supply whatever energy is demanded. And, as a result, oil imports are going up and the use of coal is going up. And what the government is doing is relaxing the standards for air pollution to allow the suppliers of energy to generate as much and use whatever fuel they find convenient. They’re also relaxing the vigilance in regard to re-licensing of nuclear power plants, and we may actually see new nuclear power plants for the first time ordered since 1978.

CURWOOD: All right, now talk to me a bit about the supplies for the non-renewable energy. First, tell me about natural gas.

MAKHIJANI: Well, we consume an enormous amount of natural gas. Most of it is domestically produced and some of it comes from Canada. So, natural gas, for the moment, actually happens to be in fairly tight supply because in the last few years more and more of the electric power plants that have been built have been using natural gas as a fuel. A few years back, natural gas was quite cheap. It’s still fairly cheap but natural gas prices have approximately two and a half times or tripled in the last couple of years. So these power plants that use natural gas, actually, are now producing fairly expensive electricity and have pushed the natural gas supply against a very tight demand.

CURWOOD: What about what’s in the ground? Is there plenty of it around for us to use for the years ahead or is it something that might go away fairly soon?

MAKHIJANI: Well, there is a fair amount of natural gas in the ground, actually more than oil, both in North America and around the world, according to current estimates. However, some of it is like oil, it’s in remote areas like Alaska and the northern territories of Canada. And there’s some available in the continental United States, but a lot of it is being produced in environmentally unsound ways.

There’s been particular attention to the environmental damage from what is called coal bed methane, where you have large reservoirs of methane, or natural gas, associated with coal. And then it’s being pumped out of there along with pumping out very, very vast quantities of water that are just discharged onto the surface, causing a fair amount of damage. And so, right now, natural gas production is being pushed in the United States in fairly environmentally damaging ways from new sources.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about oil, and particularly about oil supplies. Recently, I heard that some of the large companies are having to restate their reserves to say that they have less oil than they thought, to be able to refine and sell to customers. Just how much oil is there out there?

MAKHIJANI: There’s actually, in my opinion, a lot of oil in the world. This doesn’t mean oil is a limitless resource – it’s not. There are about a trillion barrels of proven oil reserves in the world, and there’s a lot more there in areas that have yet to be explored.

For instance, the proven reserves in Iraq are estimated to be about a 100 billion barrels, but most of Iraq hasn’t been explored yet, and it’s geologically known to be favorable in terms of oil. And there’s probably another hundred billion there. It’s the same in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has about 250 or 260 billion barrels of proven reserves but, really, the pools of oil in Saudi Arabia are so vast that all that oil is being produced from only three pools in a very limited area. And most of Saudi Arabia hasn’t even been explored because it’s so expensive.

And so, I think there’s actually quite a lot of oil in the world, unlike many other environmentalists. We have a very big problem that’s somewhat different. I think we’re going to run out of the capacity of Mother Earth to take carbon dioxide from oil burning a lot before we run out of liquid fuels.

There are, of course, some oil reserves in the United States but the U.S. is one of the places where there does not appear to be, at least economically, recoverable large, new sources of oil. The Alaska National Wildlife Refuge has, probably, quite a bit of oil but it’s not enough to make a significant dent in the U.S. consumption scene.

CURWOOD: So, be clear. How much oil is there?

MAKHIJANI: Well, it could produce a million or a million and a half barrels a day. But oil consumption in the United States is increasing at about two percent, which is 400,000 barrels a day every year. So, just the growth in oil consumption would swallow up the additional production from Alaska in a year or two.

Now, there’s where oil profits, I think, have been very central to dictating the debate. Because, while it won’t make much security difference in terms of imports, even if the reserves are only five billion barrels, and you make five dollars of profit per barrel, that’s still 25 billion dollars of profits. And that’s a lot of money.

CURWOOD: Just briefly, speak to me about central Asia oil and the politics that are involved, perhaps, with getting that oil.

MAKHIJANI: What is going on now in central Asia is actually very dangerous because all of the five nuclear weapons states who are permanent members of the Security Council have their eyes on the oil and gas in the region. The United States, France and Britain as part of the European Union, and the rest of the European Union, China. And Russia actually doesn’t need the oil, it’s an oil exporter, but it’s interested in controlling the oil because it doesn’t want people – states – from outside the region to control those resources.

And so, there is actually the old version of the great game, what was called the great game in the 19th century, for control of central Asia that is going on now. But all of the five states that are supposed to be looking after world security as members of the Security Council are actually competing with each other for control of central Asian oil. And they’re all nuclear armed, so I think it’s more of a touchy situation than most people realize.

CURWOOD: I’d like us to turn to coal now. As I understand it, there’s plenty of coal here in the United States, that there’s more than adequate supply for hundreds of years. And we get half of our electricity from this. The coal industry has said let’s use our asset, and that they can clean up coal so that we’ll be burning clean coal in the future. What do you think of that assessment?

MAKHIJANI: Well, you know, we do rely on coal a lot. And I think we’re going to continue to rely on coal to some extent for some time. The energy system is a big economic ship that is very difficult to turn around in a short time. I mean, nuclear energy contributes much less than coal but, you know, a lot of people would like to see those power plants shut down. But you can actually not do that overnight. It would collapse the electricity grid in Illinois, for instance, or in parts of the south of the United States.

It’s going to be difficult to reduce coal consumption even though coal is a primary contributor to greenhouse gas emissions from the United States and in other countries – in China and Russia and India, for instance. Some aspects of coal use can be cleaned up. You can install sulfur dioxide scrubbers, and that has been done. But it’s very difficult to actually clean up some of the problems associated with coal mining, like mercury and so on, and the damage that is done to sensitive environments as, for instance, in the Appalachians and so on.

I do think that coal does carry a security value for the United States. I think that it should not be completely eliminated from the energy scene but reduced significantly. Because it is a kind of hedge against the many security issues associated with the import of energy.

CURWOOD: What about nuclear power? It doesn’t add to global warming, and there are new technologies that people say are much safer than what we’ve had in the past.

MAKHIJANI: The issue with nuclear energy is that Main Street doesn’t like nuclear energy, and Wall Street doesn’t like nuclear energy. The bankers just don’t want to finance new nuclear plants because they’re too risky and too expensive. Not too risky, necessarily, in technical terms – they’re too financially risky.

The administration has – and the Clinton administration before it, also – relaxed the rules for extending the licensing of existing power plants. And I believe that’s also a kind of sleeping risk because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is relaxing its safety vigilance, and it’s re-licensing these power plants for 20 more years beyond their licensed life without actually doing thorough inspections for leaks, for cracks, for system stresses.

As a result, those companies that own nuclear power plants, and have kind of written off the capital cost to the consumers, are now making money hand over fist. It’s true that nuclear power plants don’t emit carbon dioxide and this is big advantage. However, there are other ways to deal with getting rid of carbon dioxide emissions.

CURWOOD: Arjun, let’s talk about renewable energy now. What would you say the role of wind should be in a national energy strategy here in the U.S.?

MAKHIJANI: Well, let’s look at the size of the resource. Just in the Midwest and the windy belt – North Dakota south to Texas – the total amount of wind energy available is about two and a half times the total electricity generation in the U.S. Or, if you want to compare it to oil, it’s about as much as all the oil production in all the members of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. So it’s a very, very, vast resource that I think could be central to addressing many of the energy policy and environmental issues that we have today.

CURWOOD: Well, if there’s this much wind, as much wind in this country as all of the oil that OPEC pumps, and it’s cost effective – why don’t we have it? Why don’t we have a wind industry here like is growing in Europe?

MAKHIJANI: Well, I think there are a couple of reasons. One of the central reasons is that, you know, the windy areas are in North Dakota and South Dakota and in the panhandle of Texas and so on. You actually have to collect that wind electricity with a transmission infrastructure and build a grid that’s good enough and strong enough. You know, one of the things that we learned in the California energy crisis or in the Northeast, is that we have bottlenecks in electricity grids in the United States. And unless we address the transmission issues, we’re actually not going to be able to harvest this wind energy and bring it to the consumers because it is dispersed. It can be done.

CURWOOD: How much would all this cost?

MAKHIJANI: Well, you know, it would cost a lot of money. It depends on how much wind energy you want to harvest. The question is – would you see, would Steve Curwood see a difference in his electricity bill if we did this? And the answer to that is no. If we harvested wind energy properly and built the transmission lines, the final consumer cost would not change.

CURWOOD: What interest is there in wind energy development in the Bush administration?

MAKHIJANI: Well, they’ve had some. They have asked to continue the kind of a tax subsidy to wind energy called the production tax credit that was in the energy bill and now is in some other legislation. We don’t lobby so I don’t remember the name of the legislation. But they have tried to include the previous sort of tax credits for wind energy. But they haven’t gone out to bat in new ways, in the really big way for wind energy that I think it deserves. When you look at the Cheney energy plan, there was some discussion of wind energy but the transmission infrastructure as it was proposed in the energy plan was not really linked to the development of wind energy compared to its potential. The infrastructural questions were mostly related to the interests of existing electricity generators who depend on coal and gas and nuclear, and towards oil.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you about solar energy. You’re very excited about wind energy, but not terribly excited about solar. Why?

MAKHIJANI: Well, it’s not that I’m not excited about solar energy. It’s that solar energy is still pretty expensive and it needs different kinds of policies and has different kind of potential. A little bit of solar energy can actually be married to wind energy in desertic areas like Arizona and semi-desertic areas like New Mexico because sometimes when the wind doesn’t blow you can complement it with sunshine. But you can’t do that very much because solar cells are still very expensive.

At present, we have extremely pressing environmental and security problems associated with our present energy system. And these problems are on the time scale of five years and ten years. And we need large scale efficiency improvements and large scale deployment of new energy sources that will alleviate these problems with oil and natural gas and coal and nuclear. And the only other large energy source that’s out there that can do that is wind. And so I think the potential of wind can be realized in the short term, and solar energy can become a very good partner to wind energy but it’s going to take more time.

CURWOOD: Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Maryland. Thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

MAKHIJANI: Thank you so much, Steve, for asking me.

[MUSIC: Frifot “We Sold Our Homesteads” SUMMERSONG (Caprice Records – 1999)]

Related link:
Institute for Energy & Environmental Research

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Emerging Science Note/Short-term Memory Box

CURWOOD: Just ahead: greening the city of the angels. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Chu.


CHU: Short-term memory can be a slippery fish. Since the 1960s, scientists have shown that the old adage “out of sight, out of mind” does, in fact, have a neurological basis. While our brains can register a staggering amount of what we see at any given moment, most of these visual details evaporate as soon as we close our eyes. The reason we can’t hold many images in mind is simple enough: our visual short-term memory is extremely limited and there’s a threshold for the amount of information we can store in our brain’s short-term memory box.

Little is known about how or why this is the case but researchers at Vanderbilt University now say they’ve solved the first part of this riddle. According to their study, one particular region of the brain, the posterior parietal cortex, is solely responsible for our limited visual recall powers. Moreover, they say we can actually quantify its limits. Researchers scanned the brains of 17 participants who were shown scenes containing one to eight colored objects. After a delay of just over a second, the subjects were asked about the scene they had viewed.

While the subjects were good at remembering all of the objects in scenes with four or fewer objects, their memories fumbled when asked to describe scenes containing more than four objects. The brain scans revealed that activity in the posterior parietal cortex increased as participants recalled up to four objects, and then leveled off as more objects were shown. Scientists suggest these results may represent how much visual information the mind can absorb. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Jennifer Chu.

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: Aveda - an Earth-conscious beauty company committed to preserving natural resources and finding more sustainable ways of doing business. Information available at Aveda.com; The Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving Math and Science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12; The Annenberg Foundation; and, The Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families, and their communities. On the web at wkkf.org. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: Frifot “The Glutton” SUMMERSONG (Caprice Records – 1999)]

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The Big “Hhhmmm”

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. Some thirteen billion years ago – okay, so maybe it was fourteen billion years ago – a tiny point rapidly expanded to create our universe. Scientists call it the Big Bang. John Cramer, a physicist at the University of Washington in Seattle, wrote a newspaper column about a project that mapped radiation leftover from the Big Bang. And that got an 11-year-old boy wondering what it sounded like. So Professor Cramer set out to simulate the sound of the Big Bang. Professor Cramer, how did you go about re-creating something that happened billions of years ago?

CRAMER: Well, there’ve been some recent measurements by NASA satellites of radiation that was released about 300,000 years after the Big Bang. And what one finds, if you look very closely at this radiation on a small angle scale, is that it has a structure that represents temperature being high or low in certain places in the sky. And the people who measured this characterize it in terms of frequencies, essentially sound frequencies, that were present in the early Big Bang. And I took those and used them in a computer program to make the sound that you hear.

CURWOOD: Let’s give it a listen.



CURWOOD: What are we actually hearing?

CRAMER: You’re hearing frequency-shifted sound waves from the Big Bang that were measured by a NASA satellite, moved very far up in frequency so that the human ear can hear them. You’re also hearing the sound waves dropping in frequency as the universe expands. And you’re hearing the sound get more intense as the cosmic microwave background becomes stronger and stronger, and then falling off as it becomes weaker and weaker over the first 700,000 years of the universe.

CURWOOD: Now, how possible is it to give us the sound of the actual moment of the Big Bang?

CRAMER: The instant of the Big Bang something rather spectacular was going on, namely a process called inflation where the universe was expanding much, much faster than the speed of light. That stopped after, I don’t know, picoseconds or less, and then the Big Bang proceeded to expand at a much more leisurely pace. We don’t have any data that represents that inflation period when there must have been something that really sounded more like a bang.

CURWOOD: What’s next on you’re agenda?

CRAMER: Well, this is not what I do for a living. I do relativistic heavy ion physics at RHIC.


CRAMER: Yeah, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven. And we have some very interesting data coming out of our gold-gold collisions there that seem to have destroyed most of the theories that existed before the machine ran, and we’re trying to understand what’s going on.

CURWOOD: Sounds pretty physical to me.

CRAMER: Yeah, right [LAUGHS].We bash gold nuclei together at nearly the speed of light and we make a fireball that looks something like the first microsecond of the Big Bang, so perhaps there’s some connection between this and the sound file.

CURWOOD: John Cramer is a physicist at the University of Washington in Seattle. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

CRAMER: Thank you.

Related links:
- mp3 | RealAudio)
– Listen to a longer version of this interview - (mp3 | RealAudio)
John Cramer’s “Analog” column
- NASA mission on cosmic background radiation

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Urban Eco-village

CURWOOD: When you hear the word "eco-village," images of lush green countryside dotted with organic gardens may come to mind. Or you may picture geodesic domes, their roofs glistening with solar panels. Well, among the 60 or so sustainable settlements in the United States that belong to the global eco-village network, there are some like that. But the place where reporter Alan Weisman takes us today isn't one of them. Instead of a pastoral paradise, we're headed to a poor, urban neighborhood in Los Angeles.


WEISMAN: This is Vermont Avenue in Central Los Angeles, one of those 30-mile long gashes of relentless commerciality that criss-cross the city. There's a Subway shop, an Auto Zone, an English Korean karaoke bar, El Café Don Quixote, whose menus also come in English and Korean, and a babble of storefronts where money can be sent to Guatemala or received from the Philippines. There are Chinese groceries, computer outlets and, of course, McDonald's.

MAN 1: You can mount it to the back, to the bottom….

MAN 2: To the bottom of where?

MAN 1: To the boiler.

WEISMAN: A block away, four men atop an aging 40-unit apartment building install a homegrown solar water heater made from 60 feet of copper tubing coiled inside a black box.

MAN 1: Is water coming out?

MAN 2: It’s coming out of the pump…

MAN 1: It should be going through the coils…

MAN 2: Is it warm?...Woooo!

WEISMAN: The building is home to a community that grandly calls itself “Los Angeles Eco-village.” It's a pretty bold claim. On this decaying residential street called Bimini Place, you might not notice anything special. Yet each week people from as far away as Japan visit this 1920s structure whose once peeling Spanish-style facade now sports a bright coat of environmentally friendly water-based yellow paint.

ARKIN: So, welcome everyone. Welcome to Eco-village. I know you’ve had a little bit of a flight and then I gave them troublesome bus directions…

WEISMAN: Our tour guide is Eco-village founder, Lois Arkin, a former LA probation officer. Arkin is a trim, vigorous woman in her early 60s who’s lived across the street for years. Back in the 1980s, she worked on city plans for a sustainable neighborhood in the hills above Pasadena. But it never got past the endless meetings stage.

ARKIN: Well, we're going to have a solar ecological urban village with a community land trust, limited equity housing cooperatives. Of course, no one ever knew what we were talking about...

WEISMAN: Then, in 1992, LA exploded in flames, following the acquittal of four white policemen who had been videotaped clubbing a black man named Rodney King.

ARKIN: Our committee began to have a conversation about what are we doing developing this new, sexy, solar urban village when neighborhoods like this are just so sick, and so dysfunctional. And so, we began to think about how we're going to retrofit our existing neighborhoods to make them healthy.

WEISMAN: But her concept of sustainable living, Arkin learned, meant little to people of different ethnic groups so frightened they wouldn't look at each other. So she started small. She asked people to introduce themselves when they saw a neighbor they didn't know and ask their name.

ARKIN: Just in the period of six months, you have like 25 people calling out to 25 or 50 more by name and waving and saying, "hi," and particularly the children...

WEISMAN: Next, she tore out her front lawn and got local school kids to help her plant vegetables. Soon, to their parents' amazement, children starting bringing home fresh produce.

ARKIN: And so the parents would start eating these fresh vegetables, or see their kids eating the vegetables. "Oh, my kids never ate vegetables before. Maybe we should have a little garden, too." And so, we started having these little micro-gardens all over the neighborhood...

WEISMAN: With her neighbors and other Los Angelinos intrigued by the idea of an eco-village, Lois Arkin formed a non-profit coop and bought this building with low interest loans. They lowered rents for people already living here and began to renovate.

New residents had to agree to really be neighbors and to produce minimal waste and pollution. Since they lived within ten minutes of 26 bus lines and two subway stops, they were offered rent breaks for doing the unthinkable in LA – living without a car.

ARKIN: So, Mara, would you like to join us?

MARA: Yes, I’m coming to join you right now.

ARKIN: Oh great. This is Mara, everyone.

MARA: Hello. How are you? Nice to meet you.

ARKIN: And her daughter, Egshell (phoentic). And she lives in Eco-village now, about five months.

WEISMAN: Outside, Lois explains that Eco-village now owns a second apartment building and rents several nearby homes. You wouldn't call this an urban oasis. But there's a succession of tiny front yard gardens and fruit trees – persimmons, plums, guava, apples, lemons, peaches, figs – that add up to a lot of food growing here.


MEN TALKING: This is cabbage…that’s broccoli.

WEISMAN: Joe Linton directs a key Eco-village campaign, redesigning neighborhood streets to slow traffic. They’ve won a $600,000 grant from the city to build micro-parks that flare out from curbs, narrowing roads and eliminating some parking. The idea is to persuade cars to drive and park elsewhere. Their project has become a pilot for all Los Angeles.

LINTON: The plan is to do 20 to 30 of these streets over the next 30 years. And so the thought is that these neighborhoods should really have an orientation toward pedestrians and not toward the cars.


WEISMAN: Over on busy Vermont Avenue, they've got the city to invest in ornamental bike racks and cork trees. And they promised storekeepers three new pedestrian shoppers for every parking space they get rid of. They've had no takers yet. But they've convinced L.A. to close one of their streets to vehicles.

ARKIN: The other thing I want to point out on this block is that we believe that there is a creek, Sacatela Creek, from some of the research we've done that runs down this block, White House Place. And we have a plan to bring Sacatela Creek above ground and make it an integrated ecosystem once again, again as a gift to the school.

WEISMAN: This was more than just a wetland. This shabby neighborhood was once a famous spa known as Bimini Hot Springs. The apartment buildings were hotels for guests who came to take the waters alongside Hollywood starlets. But the baths were segregated.

After World War II, the LA civil rights movement ignited right here. But after the courts integrated the baths, most whites stayed away. The Hot Springs went into decline and finally closed. Today, the capped spring lies buried beneath an auto repair shop. Some day, Lois vows, they'll resurrect it.

ARKIN: Bimini means sacred site of healing. And so, what a wonderful thing it would be to, of course, have baths restored and accessible, financially, to people of all income levels and of all ethnic groups.


CULHANE: Welcome to the Los Angeles Eco-village solar demonstration unit where electricity is a commodity that we produce ourselves and produce for all of the modern high-technological things that people normally associate with a consumptive lifestyle, but here we use in a pro-sumer kind of way. And I’ll just turn off the electric guitar for a second…

WEISMAN: When Iraqi-American T.H. Culhane moved here, the first thing he asked was if they could cut him off the power grid. He then started putting solar panels on the roof to run his guitar and lights.

CULHANE: And then, when I got four more solar panels last month, which meant I made the decision a couple of weeks ago to get the microwave and the refrigerator freezer. And now, I have a completely, I think, normal, modern lifestyle.

WEISMAN: There's even solar-powered air conditioning.


WEISMAN: His TV runs off a generator hooked to a stationary bike so he doesn't become a couch potato. But Culhane wasn't satisfied with merely severing ties with the electric company. Not only did he build an odorless composting toilet inside his apartment, but...

CULHANE: Now, when I take a shower, as soon as the shower water goes on [SOUND OF WATER], I turn the pump on [SOUND OF PUMP], and the bathtub doesn't fill because it's pumping into the bushes right out in the front yard.

WEISMAN: T.H. Culhane is a Ph.D. candidate in Urban Planning at UCLA. He used to live in Beverly Hills. Now, he takes his bicycle on a city bus to commute to class.

CULHANE: When I found it was possible to move in here, I put myself on the waiting list and proved to them that I walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

WEISMAN: He majors in sustainable development for poor countries like Guatemala, where he's been working. But there's also plenty to sustain close to home.


WEISMAN: This is 59th and Compton, South Central L.A., a part of the city known for gangs, drive-by shootings, and just plain danger. T.H. Culhane once taught high school down here. And he stayed in touch with his former students.

CULHANE: How’s it going? Give me a hug, Al.

WEISMAN: In his home sound studio, Alvaro Silva and his friend Ramon Navarro have been mixing a rap song by Alvaro's brother, Bernardo.


SILVA: You're in Solar South Central. And, this is my studio that's being run with solar power. And, everything from the bathroom, here and here, all these rooms, solar power all the outlets here.

CULHANE: How are we doing? Is the battery holding out?

SILVA: Well, I just got to change the batteries. Well, money – money is a problem right now.

[MUSIC IN BACKGROUND: “I’m making a dramatic change in my life…”]

WEISMAN: Money is always a problem in South Central. But Alvaro and Ramon go up to Eco-village frequently. And they think renewable energy is the answer.

SILVA: Here is a Aztec calendar. That's to give me a reminder that we're the people of the sun. We come from the sun, and we worship the sun. So, that's an example that our ancestors were able to use the sun.

NAVARRO: We wanted to use a better way without, you know, polluting the air. You know, we live in the city. And the city is always, you know, full of pollution and everything. So, you know, we’re like – why we don't build something where we won't destroy the atmosphere, and we can use it as much as we want without burning fuel.

WEISMAN: Alvaro's family has put in mango trees, a compost bin and an earthworm farm. But their latest project sits in the driveway – a 1988 Ford Escort Pony, its original motor gone.

SILVA: Low-rider cars are the same thing as electrical cars. But instead of an electrical motor, they have electric shocks, and makes it pump, makes it jump up and down. It's the same process you use for electrical motor.

WEISMAN: And they've been waiting for T.H. to come down for the first test of the new engine.


CULHANE: Wooh! All right! Gentlemen, we have an electric car.


ARKIN: Good morning.

MALE: Good morning. What’s happening?

ARKIN: Well, we’re having a little brunch in the street trying to demonstrate that we can slow our traffic down on our street and invite our neighbors to come join us who often times don’t have time to get out of their cars.

MALE: That’s probably not a good idea.

ARKIN: Thank you.

WEISMAN: It's a bright Sunday morning at Eco-village. A long table, complete with tablecloth, has been set in the middle of the intersection of Bimini and White House Place. About a dozen Eco-villagers, and several guests, are partaking in fruit, oatmeal, coffee, and a big batch of scrambled eggs. Several cars must pick their way carefully around them.

MALE DRIVER: Hey, how are you?

WOMAN: Hey, want a banana?

MALE DRIVER: Thank you, thank you.

WEISMAN: Some drivers actually do stop and join them. It's their Korean neighbor Mr. San who has the auto repair shop.

ARKIN: This city, more than any other city on the planet, is responsible for the state of the planet. So we have shaped the values, the unsustainable values, of people worldwide. So, we have a particular responsibility to change that here, to really reshape what it is that they write music about, scripts about…

WEISMAN: So, as breakfast ends, they sing.


MAN SINGING: Imagine there’s no cars, it’s easy if you try, nothing to honk or curse at…

WEISMAN: From Eco-village in Los Angeles, I'm Alan Weisman.

SINGING: Above us, clear blue skies. Imagine all the people walking down the streets. Imagine no more freeways…


Related link:
Los Angeles Eco-village

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week – One woman’s fight to free her community in Louisiana from the dangers of living next to an oil refinery.

RICHARD: Even myself, I had gotten to the point where we don’t want to go to sleep because of previous accidents. We wanted to be ready to go, ready to run, ready to move, and it became a matter of survival.

CURWOOD: Escape from Old Diamond, next time on Living on Earth. And between now and then you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org.


CURWOOD: It’s not easy to record sound in a windy setting, but Scott Smallwood does a pretty good job. Listen as he captures the ambience of a nightwalk near Wendover Air Force base in Utah. Scrap metal, plastic and other pieces of trash get blown in and around a chain link fence and the desert brush.

[EARTH EAR: Scott Smallwood “Night walk” DESERT WINDS: 6 WINDBLOWN SOUND PIECES AND OTHER WORKS (Deep Listening – 2002)]


CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. You can find us at livingonearth.org. Our staff includes Nathan Marcy, Susan Shepherd, and Tom Simon. Our engineers are Paul Wabrek and Nal Tero. Al Avery runs our website. Our intern is Christopher Bolick. Special thanks to Ernie Silver and Carl Lindemann. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes form the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm – organic yogurt, cultured soy, and smoothies. Ten percent of their profits are donated to support environmental causes and family farms. Learn more at Stonyfield.com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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