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

January 8, 2016

Air Date: January 8, 2016



Massive Natural Gas Disaster Hits Los Angeles

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Since October, a leaking underground natural gas storage facility near Los Angeles has released vast amounts of methane, its main ingredient, into the atmosphere, becoming one of the nation’s worst environmental accidents, as methane starts off 100 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Host Steve Curwood and Anthony Ingraffea, a civil and environmental engineer at Cornell University discuss the blowout, including. Professor Ingraffea's belief that this disaster may be a harbinger of what's ahead for these aging storage facilities. (12:35)

Renewable Energy Boosted in Federal Budget Compromise

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Republicans and Democrats passed a federal budget at the end of 2015 which lifted a 40-year-old ban on crude oil exports and extended renewable energy tax credits for 5 years. As host Steve Curwood hears from Harvard energy expert Joe Aldy, this compromise has implications for the climate. (09:30)

Cleaning Up A Coal-Fired Power Plant / Reid Frazier

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Coal-fired power plants must clean up their emissions to comply with expected EPA air rules. The Allegheny Front's Reid Frazier visits the Homer City Generating Station in Indiana County, Pennsylvania as they install upgrades to reduce toxic mercury emissions. (05:00)

Beyond the Headlines / Peter Dykstra

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In this week’s trip beyond the headlines, Peter Dykstra and host Steve Curwood discuss the armed takeover of a wildlife refuge facility in Oregon, debate a new ban on microbeads, and remember the implementation of the 55-mile per hour speed limit. (05:30)

Debunking the Myths About Hunger

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In their new book, World Hunger: 10 Myths, Frances Moore Lappé and coauthor Joseph Collins make the case that there’s plenty of food to go around, but it’s just not getting to those who need it most. Lappé and host Steve Curwood discuss how tackling inequality and expanding democracy can feed the world. (15:20)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood

GUESTS: Anthony Ingraffea, Joe Aldy, Frances Moore Lappé

REPORTERS: Reid Frazier, Peter Dykstra


CURWOOD: From Public Radio International, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. There’s a state of emergency in Southern California as a massive gas leak sickens residents and spews tons of global warming gases into the atmosphere – some say the problem of leaks proves natural gas is no bridge fuel.

INGRAFFEA: So, in the US, we should not be converting coal-fired electricity-generating plants to natural gas. We're going in the wrong direction. We're making climate change worse, not better.

CURWOOD: Also, the pleasures of taking on a project to clean up deadly emissions from a coal-fired power plant.

KOLLROSS: The timetable on this thing was really tight and the teamwork was incredible - I had my doubts we were going to make our deadline when we started this project but it surpassed any expectations and it was quite the joy to work on. Best project I’ve ever been on.

CURWOOD: Those stories and more this week, on Living on Earth. Stick around.

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Massive Natural Gas Disaster Hits Los Angeles

Southern California Gas Company’s Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility. (Photo: Scott L., Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

CURWOOD: From the University of Massachusetts Boston and PRI, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. California Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency to cope with a massive natural gas leak in the affluent Los Angeles suburb of Porter Ranch. When the disaster began in October, as many as two million pounds of natural gas were spewing into the air every day from the Southern California Gas Aliso Canyon storage field, and thousands of residents have been forced to evacuate. Those still in the area cite health effects from the volatile organic chemicals and mercaptans—those rotten-egg smelling compounds added to gas to help leak detection - and say it’s making them sick.

PORTER RANCH RESIDENT 1: Nauseous, and I wake up sneezing and coughing and headaches.

PORTER RANCH RESIDENT 2: A lot of bloody noses too…kids getting sick, pets.

MCMANN: I have terrible headaches. My daughter experienced stomach pain. My son’s got nose bleeds. It’s just really bad.

CURWOOD: While this leak is not as visible as the blowout of BP’s Macondo Well in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, for health and the climate, it could be an even worse disaster. Aliso Canyon is the largest underground gas storage facility in the western US, and uses old oil fields as reservoirs for high pressure natural gas. Anthony Ingraffea is a professor of Engineering at Cornell University. Welcome to Living on Earth.

INGRAFFEA: Good to be with you today, Steve.

CURWOOD: First, give me the big picture here. What's going on at this gas storage field there in Southern California, Aliso Canyon?

INGRAFFEA: There has been a major blowout. That's the oil and gas terminology of a well that was used, along with 100 others at that storage facility both to inject natural gas into a storage region about 9000 feet underground, and to extract the gas from that storage region so that it can go to customers. The blowout is the result of a failure of one of the - I'm using oil and gas terminology here - one of the strings of casing, steel pipe, that line that well. And when that casing failed, gas under very high pressure, roughly 2,700 pounds per inch or more, was able to escape and find its way directly into the rock formation surrounding the well, and it found a path through the rock formation, through cracks, faults, joints and is escaping not from the surface at the well head, but from the surface away from the well head, literally out in a field.

CURWOOD: How much gas is being released? How much has been released so far? Do the folks that operate this even know?

INGRAFFEA: Well, there have been various measurements made since late October when this leak was first discovered. It's releasing somewhere around 1,200 tons of natural gas per day, and that varies according to pressure variation and atmospheric conditions. There has been something like 120,000 tons of natural gas, which is mostly methane, released into the atmosphere. That's about one-quarter of the state of California's monthly methane emissions from all sources, or, if you want to put it on a national basis, that's about 15 percent of the hourly methane emissions in the entire oil and gas industry in the United States.

CURWOOD: How fair is it to say this is a methane disaster?

INGRAFFEA: It is a methane disaster. It is, in my opinion, a methane disaster that when the final count of dollars and lives impacted is assessed will be similar to what we had in the Macondo disaster in the Gulf of Mexico a few summers back. Luckily, at this point, no one has been killed. So in terms of deaths, it's insignificant compared to Macondo. But in terms of environmental impact on the daily lives of thousands of people and cost, we're talking about many, many, many billions, perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars when all is said and done here.

CURWOOD: Now, what exactly has SoCal Gas done to try to plug this leak, and how much more gas is likely to come out before they get the situation fixed?

INGRAFFEA: What SoCalGas did when they realized the magnitude of the problem was to call in experts, a company called Boots & Coots. They are a well-known safety and well rescue company that works all around the world to try to save wells that have blowouts and the first thing they tried to do was - again, using oil and gas terminology – kill the well, by pouring a high density liquid into the well in hopes that the pressure exerted by that column of high density liquid would overcome the pressure of the gas which is coming up the well and out into the geological formations. The problem is that the leak in the casing is occurring relatively shallow - it's only about 500 feet below the surface of a nearly 9,000 foot deep well. But the pressure at the bottom of a column of liquid 500 feet high was insufficient to overcome the roughly 2,700 pounds per square inch of gas pressure. And so, that column of liquid could not force the gas down below the breach in the casing to stop the flow into the atmosphere, so that failed. So they resorted to the next and current method which was used at the Macondo well, to drill a so-called relief well so that it intersects this leaking well not where it's leaking, but at its base 8,700 feet underground, or through the casing, the steel pipe there, and inject cement at the place where the gas is coming from. There are two of these relief wells being drilled, hopefully one of them works. There are many things that could go wrong. So there is no certainty here that a fix is guaranteed. So Southern California, SoCalGas, the people in Southern California, and the atmosphere of the planet is going to experience for another month or two of a large methane release.

CURWOOD: How many methane storage facilities are there like this around the country?

INGRAFFEA: Hundreds, some of them larger, many of them smaller. Each of them has tens to hundreds of wells of the type that we're talking about here. Most of the wells are repurposed, they were originally oil or gas wells. They were production wells, so they were repurposed at some point in their lives to be access wells to a storage reservoir. That is fundamentally the issue that we should be talking about here.

CURWOOD: And each of these facilities is just a crack in the so-called casing, this pipe that reaches down into the well, they're just one crack away from a disaster like this?

INGRAFFEA: Yes, it goes back into the history of oil and gas operations. The well we're talking about was drilled in 1953, 1954. So it's over 60 years old, and it was never designed to last that long. It was designed to produce oil for some decades, then be plugged and taken out of service. But in the 1970s it was repurposed, and since the 1970s it's been operating in its current mode, and as you can well imagine, as Paul Simon used to say, "Everything put together sooner or later falls apart." Especially if it’s underground. These are steel casings. They initially have some sort of corrosion inhibitor applied to them, but eventually after much use and flow of gases and liquids inside the casing, and exposure of the outside of the casing to natural gases and fluids, corrosion occurs. And I have no doubt given my professional experience that the casing in this case that ruptured experienced some corrosion. So, what we're seeing here is what the industry knows, an increasing rate of such problems. So you can call this the proverbial tip of the iceberg, since there are tens of thousands of such wells.

CURWOOD: It sounds counterintuitive if you think, hey, 400 or 500 feet down, not so hard to get to. But in this case…

INGRAFFEA: You can't put people down a well. The casing that's ruptured is seven inches in diameter. So you can conceivably, regularly - they should be regularly doing this - drop miniaturized cameras down that well-bore and inspect it. It's expensive. They have to take that well out of operation. And this particular well, it would actually be impossible because there's no longer a safety valve at the bottom of the well. So they can shut off gas pressure at the surface when the well was in regular operation, but they can no longer shut off the gas pressure 8,700 feet underground. When the final chapter of the accident is written, just like every other major accident involving a societal structure - an aircraft crash, a bridge failure, there was not any one thing. It's many things concatenated. I mean you look at all those concatenated things, you say what's the probability of that happening...pretty low, but then you multiply the number of wells by the probability of any one well failure and pretty soon you have what you have here - an occurrence.

CURWOOD: Professor, if you were in charge, what would you do to address this danger?

Anthony Ingraffea, Dwight C. Baum Professorship in Engineering, teaches civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University. (Photo: courtesy of Anthony Ingraffea)

INGRAFFEA: I would do the same thing that the federal government did with the aging aircraft problem 25 years ago. Every well of this type in operation in the United States must now experience federal regulation, uniform federal regulation across the country that mandates that each such well is inspected on an increasing frequency, proportional to its age, using the best available technology, down-hole cameras or whatever that means, so that every well has a safety record, and that every time an inspection is performed, a judgment is made, as to whether that well can continue in operation as is, whether it needs repair, and if it needs repair the repair is mandated over a very short period of time before the well can be put back into operation, or if it's determined that the well is no longer fit for service, it's taken out of service. So again, as technology changes and as we understand more about the operations of our planet, i.e. climate change, regulations should change accordingly. That's the rational thing to do.

CURWOOD: There's been a lot of talk about expanding natural gas production around the world to help address the threat of climate disruption, people saying the equivalence here compared say to coal means that natural gas is a better bet, a better bridge. Your assessment?

INGRAFFEA: That's an absolutely incorrect, unscientific assessment. All of the latest peer-reviewed scientific literature indicates that if the leakage of methane, natural gas, into the atmosphere worldwide is greater than about three percent of the total production of natural gas in the world, it's the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. Because when you burn methane, you get carbon dioxide, which we know is primary greenhouse gas, but when you don't burn it and leak it - as we're seeing it in Aliso Canyon - it's even worse, because methane is a much potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So all of thee scientific literature published in the last few years - and this question has only been addressed in the last few years - points to that roughly three percent cutoff. And again, all the peer-reviewed literature that's been published in the last few years shows that in the US alone, the leak rate is greater than three percent. So, in the US we should not be converting coal-fired electricity generating plants to natural gas. We're going in the wrong direction. We're making climate change worse, not better, and of course, when we look across the world, we like to pride ourselves as being the best at everything, and of course, our leak rate is "low", you can only surmise what the leak rate of methane would be in other countries where there is not such tight regulatory control. So, no, I do not in any way, means or form, ascribe to, believe, buy into the notion of natural gas being a bridge fuel or a down-ramp to a clean renewable energy future. It's scientific nonsense. People in the industry know it. People in the scientific community know it. Unfortunately, our political leaders have to make decisions based on something other than science.

CURWOOD: Anthony Ingraffea is the Dwight C. Baum Professor of Engineering at Cornell University. Tony, thanks so much for taking the time with us today.

INGRAFFEA: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: SoCalGas says it is working “as quickly as safety will allow to stop the leak”.

Related links:
- California Declares State of Emergency as Leak Becomes Methane Equivalent of Deepwater Horizon
- 2016: California's 'Staggering' Leak Could Spew Methane for Months
- Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations
- More about DOGGR and its regulation of wells in California
- California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency
- Updates on the blowout from SoCal Gas
- Methane Leaks in Natural-Gas Supply Chain Far Exceed Estimates, Study Says

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[MUSIC: Talli Wahyas, May You All Walk in Beauty, available on YouTube]

CURWOOD: Just ahead. How Congress managed to pass a spending bill to help green energy. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood, North London, Juice, Indirecto]

Renewable Energy Boosted in Federal Budget Compromise

For the first time in 40 years, US crude oil producers will be able to export their product abroad. (Photo: Jack Snell, Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. As it’s still early in 2016 we want to catch up on a couple of stories that we didn’t have time to pay attention to over the holiday period. Joining us to discuss some of the decisions that happened in the final Congressional session of 2015 is Joe Aldy, who teaches energy and environmental policy at the Kennedy School at Harvard University. Welcome back to Living on Earth, Joe.

ALDY: Thanks, Steve. It's good to be here.

CURWOOD: While we were covering the Paris climate summit, there were a couple of important deals on Capitol Hill involving oil, renewable energy. Talk to me about those.

ALDY: So, we saw at the end of the last Congress a large budget deal between Congress and the White House and I think there are a couple of key elements to it. First, we saw for renewable power, for wind and solar, five-year extensions of their tax credits. Wind gets a subsidy for every Kilowatt Hour of power it produces, and we subsidize solar as a function of its investment, and both of these were looking at the expiration of these tax credits, which are important in pushing out the deployment of these technologies. We've seen historically, especially for wind, that when the tax credit expires, investment for new wind facilities tends to drop off.

CURWOOD: And in the past, of course, this is on a year-to-year basis for wind, so the folks in the wind business haven't known what's going on.

ALDY: It's been a big challenge for those who are trying to develop new wind farms because the development timelines typically are on the order for several years, and when you have the policy on the books only for one to two years at a time, that is very difficult for planning and for financing. Now they have a five-year window that provides much more certainty than they've had really since the 1990s for project planning. As a result, I think we should see more and more wind deployment and certainly more and more solar deployment, and I think that's going to be a critical part of US power system implementing and complying with the Clean Power Plan that President Obama advanced in 2015.

CURWOOD: As I understand it, there was a grand bargain on Capitol Hill that in exchange for having some certainty on renewable tax credits, that oil exports would be permitted for the first time in 40 years. How did that work?

ALDY: Well, it seems rare these days that we can actually get a compromise between both the Republicans and the Democrats, but I think this is a good example of one, where President Obama and the Democrats had said they were not interested in supporting a lifting of the oil export ban, but they really wanted to extend renewables. And Republicans had been balking at extending the tax credits for wind and solar while they were trying to push for the lifting of the export ban. So I think we see here sort of a positive outcome where we are advancing our renewable interests by agreeing to lift the oil export ban. And to be honest, I think in the near term at least, lifting the oil export ban isn't going to have a meaningful impact on the US economy, on production. Low oil prices are probably having a negative effect right now on production regardless of whether a domestic oil driller could move that oil into a foreign market or not.

Energy experts say that the five year extension of renewable energy tax credits will help provide investor confidence in wind and solar power. (Photo: Brookhaven National Laboratory, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

CURWOOD: Now some have raised the concern that if we allow folks to export the oil that's being fracked, that this will encourage more fossil fuel development in the country. Your take?

ALDY: Well, I think if you look at the kind of analysis that have been done, they suggest that we would see an increase, maybe on the order of about 10 percent, maybe a little bit more, from current levels of US oil production. So it would be an increase here in the US, but I think there's a question of what's the right approach, the right instrument for addressing these environmental concerns. I personally think that if your concern is CO2 from fossil fuels, what we should do then is put a price on carbon, maybe enhance our fuel economy standards. That's a more effective way to address this concern than the rather blunt instrument of limiting the export of crude oil. If your concern is fracking and water, or fracking and local air quality, let's actually have good regulations on the books that address those, and then we should be able to prudently develop the resource without making our water dirty or impacting people's public health who live downwind from these sites.

CURWOOD: So, are there any surprises in the omnibus spending that the conservation crowd will be swallowing hard about?

ALDY: Well, I think overall, given where the negotiations were earlier in 2015, this was a pretty good outcome when we think about the environment, when we think about energy. There were very few policy riders. There were threats to keep the administration from implementing major regulations on water, major regulations on air. None of those survived. The EPA budget, where there were threats for it to be cut, was kept level. Honestly they could use more funds, at a minimum, to rise with inflation, but it's better than where it looked like they were going. The Department of Energy actually received more monies than they had the year before, much of that related to R & D, some even for zero carbon technologies like renewables and nuclear. So I think overall given where we were, say in the summer of 2015, it's a pretty good outcome when one looks like the energy agenda for progressives and for this White House.

Wind power develop is expected to expand with five years production credits. (Photo: David Clarke, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

CURWOOD: What made the difference, Joe? One thing that has changed on Capital Hill is the new Speaker of the House, Mr. Ryan, who was previously the budget maven. To what extent do you think his practical approach to things made the difference here?

ALDY: I think there's three things that mattered here. One, we already knew what the headline budget number was going to be. That was negotiated before the new speaker came in. So they were just arguing, not about the size of the pie, but arguing about how we were going to be allocating that pie. I think second it mattered that in the Senate, the majority leader made it very clear, "We not going to going to play games with the shutdown. We're going to govern." And so I think there was a sense of being pragmatic in the Senate, I think the new speaker also had a view to be pragmatic, and in the end you had a significant number of votes from both sides in the House as well as in the Senate to vote for this bill. So I think there's some signs of we can work together, we can each side identify victories, and recognize that this is part of what government is in America. It's not one side gets everything at once. We live in this kind of messy democracy where we have people of different views, but if they work together, they can actually find some common ground, they advance interests that are reflecting the variety of opinions I think in America and that's what we got here. It's maybe a positive sign after what is a frustrating long period of time of dysfunction in what we think about legislating in Washington, that maybe these two sides can actually work together on a few things.

CURWOOD: Joe, how optimistic are you that coming out of the Paris accord the US can meet the targets and continue to robustly expand our climate program?

ALDY: So I think that the actions that the Obama have taken in the last few years have really put the US on the right trajectory, whether it's when one looks at the fuel economy standard, the clean power plan, advancing appliance efficiency standards. They're looking at trying to address methane emissions from oil and gas drilling. I think all this can help move the US on the right trajectory and certainly will get the US to meet its 2020 goal, and it has US in the ballpark to reach its 2025 goal. Now there are some question marks. We know there are some legal challenges to the Clean Power Plan. We will need more investments in innovative technologies, I think we'll need more public policies to drive the deployment of those technologies, and that's going to be a key task I think for the next administration. But I think the important thing is we have the policies on the books now that will get us to our 2020 goal, on the road to the 2025 goal, and I think that was actually critical of the negotiations, that the US really came in with a much more credible position than it had in the past.

Joe Aldy teaches energy and environment at Harvard University Kennedy School of Government. (Photo: Harvard University)

In 2009, going to Copenhagen, the administration said, “We're going to cut our emissions in the range of 17 percent contingent on final Congressional action," which never came. Going into Paris, the United States said,” Here's how we're going to cut our emissions to 2025”, and they were able to lay out in their position how the current policies are going to help deliver on that, and how they really have been taking meaningful actions across the economy - transportation, power, residential energy use, etc. - to really lower US emissions. I think that's really helped build trust in the new negotiations, and I think the framework coming out of Paris is one that if we could make that progress, if we can demonstrate that progress, can do so in a transparent manner, and our major partners in this exercise do so as well, I think that makes it easier for us to ramp up our ambition over time.

CURWOOD: You sound excited about this. These are exciting times?

ALDY: I think so. I think we're actually seeing the technologies people use change, we're starting to see more of the attitudes of people change, and we're starting to see the recognition of the importance of the issue, but also a recognition of what we can do - each one of us - as well as what our governments can do to address this problem. So I am, I would say, cautiously optimistic. It's a tough challenge. This is a tough challenge technologically. It's a tough challenge politically, policy-wise, diplomatically. I mean it is a really tough issue to address, but I think we're making progress now in a way that we haven't really in the past two plus decades of the global effort to try to address climate change.

CURWOOD: Professor Joe Aldy is an energy and environment expert at the Kennedy School at Harvard University, a former member of the Obama White House. Joe, thanks so much for taking the time with me today.

ALDY: It's been my pleasure. Thanks, Steve.

Listen to the full conversation with Joe Aldy:

stream/download this segment as an MP3 file

Related links:
- Joe Aldy is a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School
- The budget bill will unleash wind and solar. Here’s what that means for the climate
- Appropriations for Fiscal Year 2016
- The Surprising Winner Of Congress’ Budget Deal
- How Badly Will US Exports of Crude Oil Hurt the Environment?

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[MUSIC: Libana/Susan Robbins, The Earth, the Air, the Fire, the Water, A Circle is Cast, Spinning Records]

Cleaning Up A Coal-Fired Power Plant

The Homer City Generating Station in Indiana County, Pennsylvania is installing pollution controls that will reduce dangerous emissions of sulfur dioxide and mercury by more than 90 percent. (Photo: Reid Frazier)

CURWOOD: Though it’s nothing like last winter so far, it’s turned cold in the north of the country with high demands on the US power system – and nearly 40 percent of that electricity still comes from coal. But coal produces greenhouse gases that lead to global warming, and other types of dangerous air pollution. So around the country, dozens of coal-fired power plants are racing to comply with new EPA rules to keep the neurotoxin mercury out of the air. The Allegheny Front’s Reid Frazier got an inside look at one of these plants in Pennsylvania.

FRAZIER: An hour east of Pittsburgh, the Homer City Generating Station rises like a Cathedral out of a valley in Indiana County. You can see its smokestacks and hourglass shaped cooling towers from miles around. Standing at the foot of one of those smokestacks, Todd Kollross barks out a few orders for a small group of visitors.

KOLLROSS: We are going on an active power plant and construction site, If I ask you guys to move, please do it. Don't argue with me, just do it.

Workers install new pollution controls at the Homer City coal-fired power plant. Photo: (Reid Frazier)

FRAZIER: Got it. Kollross is managing the construction project.to put new pollution controls at Homer City. Total cost: $750 million dollars. Why so expensive? James Shapiro is a vice president at GE Energy Financial Services, which owns the plant.

SHAPIRO: So when you ask how's it so expensive? Why's it so expensive? Just look at the size of this project.

FRAZIER: Yeah, the size of this project. Todd Kollross points to metal air ducts that will handle the exhaust for the new scrubber system. They’re just like the ductwork that pushes air around your house, but they’re so big your house actually could fit INSIDE these air ducts.

KOLLROSS: That guy down there weighs about 325,000 pounds, that one there weighs about 310,000 pounds.

FRAZIER: These ducts will handle airflow out of the plant’s boilers, which burn coal to create electricity. They’re big too - the size of small office buildings.  

A Coal Plant Cleans Up in Indiana County from The Allegheny Front on Vimeo.

KOLLROSS: it’s not like…take your furnace and put it on steroids you're trying to heat your house, we're trying to take care of two million homes.

FRAZIER: Two million homes - that’s how many buildings Homer City can power when it’s running at full capacity. Electricity streams out of the plant north to New York State and into the mid-Atlantic grid that powers Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Chicago.

The new equipment is needed because of clean air rules the Obama administration imposed on the coal industry. These include the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.

Though the Supreme Court sent the Mercury rule back to the EPA, it’s still the law of the land. It’s one reason why 200 old coal plants have decided to close. James Shapiro said Homer City faced a crossroads when the rules were first announced.

SHAPIRO: You know, You didn't have much choice. You basically you either put on the pollution controls or you stop running. 

FRAZIER: So what does it take to keep 100 thousand tons of pollution out of the air? To find our you’ve got to take a bit of a hike.

FRAZIER: We're climbing up six flights of stairs…

OUTSIDE VOICES: You feeling it? You okay? 

FRAZIER: We are heading into one of the scrubber units - or technically the novel integrated desulfurization units. Sulfur in the coal is a big cause of pollution. To take the sulfur out, Homer City is putting in thousands of air filters. Kollross takes me to a room where there are hundreds of holes in the floor.  

KOLLROSS: These hole is where all the bags are going to slide in…

FRAZIER: Inside each hole will go long tubes covered with fabric bags. They’re basically super-sized shop vac-filters.The way it works is simple high school chemistry. The coal exhaust is acidic - so the plant will spray it with an alkaline powder. The powder will absorb the pollution and particulates in the exhaust...and the filters - or bags - catch the powder.

KOLLROSS: And you’ve got 40,000 between the two units - 40,000 bags. All the particulate that we collect from the flue gas comes into these bags…

Todd Kollross is the project manager overseeing the installation of pollution controls at Homer City. (Photo: Reid Frazier)

FRAZIER: The pollution goes into the landfill, instead of our lungs. All told, more than 90 percent of the pollution that would have gone into the air will get taken out of the plant’s smokestacks. Kollross exits the building and reflects on the project.

KOLLROSS: The timetable on this thing was really tight and the teamwork was incredible. I had my doubts we were going to make our deadline when we started this project, but it surpassed any expectations and it was quite the joy to work on. Best project I’ve ever worked on.

FRAZIER: The plant is on schedule to meet its final deadline of April. There’s one small problem though -  those new filters don’t take out carbon dioxide, the main culprit in global warming. And the EPA plans to limit carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants. So just in case, Homer City is applying for permission to use cleaner-burning natural gas.

I’m Reid Frazier.

CURWOOD: Reid Frazier reports for the Allegheny Front. By the way, as Professor Tony Ingraffea explained earlier in the show, factor in the leaks that happen throughout the natural gas process, and it may not be such a clean fuel after all.

Related links:
- More about the regulations and Homer City Generating Station on Allegheny Front
- Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR)
- Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for Power Plants
- Sources of our nation's energy by year
- Over 12,000 MW of coal plants will retire in 2015
- FirstEnergy to Deactivate Two Coal-Fired Power Plants in Pennsylvania
- Health Effects of Exposures to Mercury
- Supreme Court Blocks Obama’s Limits on Power Plants
- Court ruling lets EPA enforce MATS rule despite Supreme Court rejection
- Health effects of fine particulate air pollution: lines that connect.
- Facility Emissions Reports for PA Plants

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Beyond the Headlines

Ammon Bundy (Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

CURWOOD: Let’s continue our analysis this week with Peter Dykstra of Environmental Health News, that’s EHN.org and the DailyClimate.org. He’s on the line now from Conyers Georgia, and has been looking beyond the headlines. Hi there, Peter.

DYKSTRA: Well, hi, Steve. You know, to me it's arguably one of the biggest cultural divides in the U.S. - certainly about land and the environment and the issues we talk about here. That standoff in Oregon: armed, very angry ranchers taking over a National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters over issues like grazing rights and federal control of lands. I don't think it's very well understood, nor has it been very well reported, so in a couple of minutes let's try and set a few things straight.

CURWOOD: Huh, sounds to me like it's the old Sagebrush Rebellion coming back again.

DYKSTRA: That's right, you're remembering back in the 1980s - with controversies like the Spotted Owl, the Endangered Species Act put some forest land off-limits for logging. And logging towns, logging communities were very upset about it. Therefore, Spotted Owl cookbooks . . . but you can go back even farther than that. Even though this isn't strictly environmental, in the first half of the century, the twentieth century, it was government agents, the Revenuers, trying to chase down illegal stills and moonshiners. But it was that same anti-government resentment.

CURWOOD: Yeah, but that movement had really cool cars, as I recall.

DYKSTRA: Hot-rodders, and that actually ended up being the seed for NASCAR.

CURWOOD: Why do you suppose that, as we record this, Peter, the federal government has made no move to get these people out of there? It's federal property.

DYKSTRA: Well, they're a little gun-shy - no pun intended - because of what happened in the 1990s, with federal overreactions like Waco and Ruby Ridge, where people died. And that just deepened the resentment, even though those were not strictly environmental things. But it's also not just the West - if you go to a fishing town like Gloucester, Massachusetts, perpetually upset over catch limits on dwindling fish stocks, or down in the Gulf of Mexico, the shrimp towns there upset over measures to limit turtle deaths in the shrimp industry. There are tons of examples like this and they literally go back a century.

CURWOOD: Or two, if you think of the Whiskey Rebellion, shortly after the Revolutionary War, people didn't like federal control over local issues.

DYKSTRA: Well, there you go, and the anger can't be dismissed. But it can't be coddled, either. We're way past the point where we can protect natural resources on the honor system.

CURWOOD: And I gotta say that if it were a bunch of people of my color - black people - who had a bunch of guns, holed up in a federal office saying that they weren't going to put up with anything more from the Feds - well, we know how long that would last.

DYKSTRA: And I don't think the media would be throwing around words like "activists" or "militia"; I think it would be a little more hard-edged than that. Another thing about all of this, there was a recent analysis by the FiveThirtyEight website, that says ranchers demanding free access to federal lands are already getting a 93% discount from the normal grazing fees at market rates.

CURWOOD: Go figure. Hey, what else do you have for us this week, Peter?

Plastic microbeads from hygiene products can have negative effects on the ocean, wildlife and other water environments. (Photo: MPCA Photo, Flicr CC BY-NC 2.0)

DYKSTRA: Well, something came out Congress - that's a headline in itself, Something Came Out of Congress! - both houses passed, and President Obama signed, an amendment to the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, that bans cosmetics containing microbeads as of 2018.

CURWOOD: There's been a continual - pardon the expression - food fight over any kind of regulations on Capitol Hill; so how come there's a bipartisan deal to do this?

DYKSTRA: Well, the bill passed both the House and Senate by acclamation. Nobody stood up to oppose it, and five co-sponsors were Republican congressmen, all from Great Lakes states, but including Fred Upton, the powerful chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee whose district hugs the shore of Lake Michigan. Also in the Senate, Rob Portman of Ohio, another Republican. And neither Upton nor Portman are big fans of the Obama administration's environmental initiatives. But recent reports on microbead threats to the Great Lakes, not just to saltwater, may have been the game-changer here.

CURWOOD: Hey, before you go, Peter, take us for a look back at history, please.

DYKSTRA: Well, we're gonna touch on something else where the government lays down the law and people just don't like it. Back to 1974, the month of January, '74, President Nixon signed a bill setting a nationwide fifty-five-mile-an-hour speed limit. We were still in the OPEC oil embargo, with long lines at the gas pump and skyrocketing prices. Gas went from about forty cents a gallon to a whopping sixty-five cents during the energy crisis. Can you imagine paying sixty-five cents a gallon for gas?

To save gas the United States imposed a federal 55mph speed limit starting during the 1974 Arab oil embargo. (Photo: Frankie Leon, Flickr CC by 2.0)

CURWOOD: [LAUGHS] But I remember people did not like it; I'm old enough to remember those gas lines and the price of oil going through the roof. It was twenty-nine cents a gallon, I think, before this happened.

DYKSTRA: Right, people didn't like it at all. Truckers said it cost them money, and it's probably true. But supporters say it saved thousands of lives and millions of barrels of imported oil. Sammy Hagar got a platinum record out of it all in 1984, Congress relaxed the nationwide 55-mile-an-hour speed limit in 1987, and abolished it outright in 1995 and we don't even remember the reasons why we had it in the first place.

CURWOOD: Yeah. Nor does anyone pay attention to a 55-mile-an-hour speed limit where it still is, these days, it seems like.

DYKSTRA: Right, and even now with ever-more-obvious threats from climate change, gas is relatively cheap, and we're responding by driving more miles and buying more gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks.

CURWOOD: Peter Dykstra is with Environmental Health News - that's EHN dot org - and the Daily Climate.org. Thanks so much, Peter, we'll talk to you soon.

DYKSTRA: All right, we’ll talk to you soon.

CURWOOD: And there’s more at our website LOE.org.

Related links:
- Read more about the Oregon takeover in the New Yorker
- The microbead ban
- The history behind the National Maximum Speed Law

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[MUSIC: Sammy Hagar, I Can’t Drive 55, VOA, Geffen Records]

CURWOOD: Coming up, debunking the myths about world hunger – it’s not inevitable. That's just ahead on Living on Earth. Stay tuned.

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[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Cindy Cashdollar/Marcia Ball/Johnny Nicholas, Something I Can’t Do, Slide Show, Silver Shot Recordings]

Debunking the Myths About Hunger

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States estimates that every day 800 million people do not get enough to eat. (Photo: USAID U.S. Agency for International Development, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. 800 million people. That many face chronic hunger today and every day, as reported by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Of course, humanity has faced famine for thousands of years, as rains failed and crops and animals died, as pests – or hungry neighbors - invaded, or rulers demanded more than could be produced. But we live in the 21st century now, a time of plenty and international bodies designed to relieve global suffering, yet hunger persists. Forty-five years ago, Frances Moore Lappé proposed a solution to the never-ending crisis of widespread hunger in her book Diet for a Small Planet. In her latest book "World Hunger: 10 Myths", she and co-author Joseph Collins link hunger to inequality, writing that democracy can feed the world. Frances Moore Lappé joins us now. Frankie, welcome back to Living on Earth.

MOORE: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: So, how should we really be counting hunger?

Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins teamed up to write World Hunger: 10 Myths, which asks why so many in our world still go hungry despite an abundance of food. (Photo: Small Planet Institute)

MOORE: Typically, what we hear and about all we hear is about the yearly count from the food and agricultural organization of the United Nations, and that count is based on calories alone, and to be among that 800 million roughly now, you have to have experienced hunger for more than a year. In other words, if you are calorie deficient for three months between harvests, but not over the year, your calories average out to adequacy, then you're not counted. The real point here is that this official count is about calories alone. And we live in a world in which calories and nutrition are parting ways. And if you look at it that way, then you have to look at the World Health Organization, for example, who tells us that two billion of us are deficient in at least one nutrient essential to health. For example, one out of five maternal deaths is related to iron deficiency. So we make the case that the world should be focused on what we call nutritional deprivation, and that includes both calorie and nutrient deficiency.

CURWOOD: In your book, you describe hunger as having emotional dimensions that often go unnoticed. Why is recognizing these as part of hunger important?

MOORE: Well, hunger, when you are hungry, you experience it in at least four basic human emotions - the emotion of anguish, of not being able to know how to choose between feeding your children today and paying the landlord for the land that you need to feed them tomorrow, or the grief of watching your children die. As we know now, half of all child deaths are linked to malnutrition. Another emotion is humiliation because often people are blamed for their own poverty. And finally, the emotion of fear, especially today as we see land grabbing throughout the world. By land grabs I mean people who have been on their land with customary rights to it for generations, suddenly have it taken away, often by a foreign corporation coming in. Basically as long we think of hunger in terms of quantities, we will miss asking ourselves when we have ever experienced these emotions - anguish, grief, humiliation, fear - and if we understand ourselves connected to those four emotions, then we see of course, hunger is about powerlessness, hunger is about people lacking voice in the most essential questions of their lives.

Lappé and Collins began working together in the 1970s and founded the California-based Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First) in 1975. (Photo: Small Planet Institute)

CURWOOD: Your book is titled, "World Hunger: 10 Myths". The first myth you list is too many people, too little food. Why do you see this notion of food scarcity as a fallacy?

MOORE: Well, the truth is today, there are 2,900 calories produced for every person on Earth, and I think that's enough to make most of us quite chubby, so scarcity is not an absolute reality. In fact, our highly increasingly concentrated food system ends up creating the experience of scarcity by depriving people of access to food and also by shrinking it. I'd like to say that that abundance of which I just spoke, that is only on the leftovers, Steve; that is what is left over after we feed about a third of all grain to livestock, after we feed most of our soy to livestock, it is after a tremendous amount of waste as well - direct waste - and if you look at that, you see how wasteful it is. For example, of all the feed that cattle consume, we eat in the flesh that we humans consume, only about three percent of those calories that were in the feed that the cattle got, right? So that is another way of seeing how grossly inefficient our food system is.

CURWOOD: Why in your view is population not a cause of hunger but really a parallel issue associated with inequality?

Women farmers in India, including those in the oppressed Dalit caste, are forming collectives that enable them to share seeds and engage in sustainable cultivation practices. (Photo: USAID U.S. Agency for International Development, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

MOORE: Yes, I'd like to say that hunger and continuing population growth are symptoms of the same problem, the democracy deficit, a lack of real say over our lives. That is what continues population growth. In that chapter we cite so much evidence where population has slowed, where women are gaining a voice over their lives, where women are gaining employment and education, so that if we want to bring population into balance with our Earth, we can't just rail against high fertility, we must address its roots and that is largely empowerment of women but also greater equity for all of us.

CURWOOD: Let's look to the global south for a moment. How can empowering small farmers, especially women in peasant economies, drive the shift towards greater food justice.

MOORE: Well, they are. They are driving the shift. Can I just take you to one village I visited not too long ago in rural India?


MOORE: It was life-changing for me because I sort of felt everything that I've been talking about all these decades, Steve, I saw it alive in these villages. As I sat with women who are the lowest caste, they're called the Dalit group. And a few decades ago, they described their lives as ‘dark’. They kept using that word. They said they lived day to day in fear of hunger, fear that they couldn't even get a few cups of grain to cook from their landlord for dinner, that sort of dependency, they were humiliated, they were often beaten by their husbands. So, it was ‘a dark time’, they said, and then, a couple of decades ago, they began to move away from their dependency on subsidized white rice and on chemical agriculture, and I think there was a small revolving loan involved in this, a minimal amount of help that would have been returned, and they moved in the direction of biodiversity. That means, I saw in the fields, I saw 20 crops in one field, with a full nutritional complement, from lentils to greens and oil seeds. And they meet every week, groups of women in their villages and they decide together how to best to use their lands and share them. And this is part of a wider movement in southern India so it involves maybe two million farmers now.

CURWOOD: Great story. The second myth you set out to debunk is the notion that climate change makes hunger inevitable. Well, given the enormous contribution that agriculture does make for climate disruption, explain how it's possible to reduce both carbon emissions and hunger.

MOORE: Yes, it's a very fine line we walked in writing this chapter. We do not want to underestimate the impact of climate change on farming, and we want to make sure that we don't give an inch of excuse for humanity to say, oh, well, we could never solve the hunger problem because of climate change. We stress how much now chemical agriculture in particular contributes to climate change. It's estimated that up to 29 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions are from the food system as a whole and most of that from agriculture, and we then make the case that as we move in the direction of what the women in India I just described are doing - agro-ecological farming - that actually the food system can contribute to the solution because organic farming or ecological farming can hold much more carbon than chemical farming does. And ecological farming releases from one-half to as little as one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions compared to chemical or industrial farming. So there's a real advantage in moving in this direction.

Agroecological practices like composting are helping small farmers worldwide keep their fields healthy. Here, a couple of farmers in Malawi show their compost material. (Photo: Find Your Feet, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: You also explore the myths that we need industrial agriculture - synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, pesticides - to feed the world, that organic and ecological farming can't do it. So, why is it that industrial agriculture, why isn't the Green Revolution the solution to world hunger?

MOORE: Well, what I want to clear up to listeners right away is the myth that somehow that ecological farming can't yield enough, can't supply enough food, and there are now multiple findings, one that came out in 2007 by researchers at the University of Michigan that said actually, if we move to organic farming, we could have enough food without adding new land to feed the current population and the population growth that is expected. But there are multiple studies that say the same thing, and it's particularly true, Steve, in the global south, yields are way below what is possible with this knowledge we have now. You see, the knowledge of agroecology is growing very fast. It's building on traditional understanding of working with the soil organisms but it's also advancing fast because it is building on the latest scientific findings. We now know that we can greatly increase yields in the global south. One study that looked at 55 countries projects of agroecology in the global south found that on average in these projects an 80 percent increase in yields using these methods like compost which most people know what that means now and keeping the soil covered with cover crops. So these are techniques that can be learned, that can be shared, and farmers can be supported as they're make this transition to this healthy path.

CURWOOD: Let's talk about the developed world and hunger. To what extent does the power to create a more just and sustainable food system rest on the diets of consumers in the developed part of the world, versus governments, corporations and NGOs?

MOORE: Well, you know that I began back with "Diet for a Small Planet" with this delight in realizing that actually what I eat every day ripples out and determines whether our land use, etc., is efficient or terribly inefficient. So, for example, three quarters of all agricultural land, including pasture, goes into livestock production but they return to us just 17 percent of our calories. So the more that we choose a meat centered diet, the more damage we do overall in terms of climate change or just creating waste and the kind of problems of dead zones in the waterways created by fertilizers. My strong sense is that we see ourselves more and more through this ecological lens of being all connected to one another in this journey. And that's why I'm so excited about what I see as a growing democracy movement in this country, that many in the environmental movement are stepping up, too. They're seeing those linkages, they're not separate. Democracy, environment and hunger are not separate issues.

CURWOOD: Frances Moore Lappé, why do you think humanity needs hunger? In other words, we have this in our society, in our civilization. It's really pervasive, it's been around for a long, long time. What purpose does it serve, do you think?

MOORE: Well, I like to remind us that actually we evolved as food sharers, that in our tribal origins where we spent most of our evolutionary time, the hunter who went out and was successful didn't just come home and share it with his family, that this was a village asset and food was shared. And we moved away from that toward unequal societies of top-down control. And we are now, I believe, just arising out of that primitive state to understand the capacities of human beings such as the Dalit women who were once considered the lowest caste, absolutely worth nothing, and they are now leaders in the world, so this notion of concentrated power is necessary for humans to survive and protect ourselves, that has been our undoing, that we've fallen for this mental trap.

Frances Moore Lappé is the author or coauthor of 18 books, including Diet for a Small Planet, which has sold more than three million copies. She is the founder of the Small Planet Institute, which she leads with her daughter, Anna Lappé. (Photo: Small Planet Institute)

CURWOOD: Frankie, at the end of your book, you discuss the idea that expanding freedom and democracy is ultimately the means of ending hunger. Elaborate on that for me please.

MOORE: Well, as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to reclaim freedom from the notion of freedom as this individual push away everybody else, just give me elbow room to realize that in fact, freedom means our capacity to develop ourselves, our capacity to unleash our natural gifts and that involves us with others, so I like to define freedom as the opportunity for all us to get the education we need, to have opportunities for working at a livable wage so we can support our families. This is real freedom, and I love to quote Franklin Delano Roosevelt on this when he said, "Necessitous men are not free men," and he also made very clear that we cannot have peace in our world, let me underscore, at a time when I see fear shooting up in our own country. We cannot have peace in the world as long as we have people who are poor and insecure. He understood that and that has been the framework that I have tried to build on in my own work, and that freedom is our capacity to realize our gifts and therefore connect with others and have the opportunity, all of us, to fulfill ourselves.

CURWOOD: Frances Moore Lappé is a prolific author, including "World Hunger: 10 Myths" and "Diet for a Small Planet". And co-leads the Small Planet Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Frankie, thanks for taking the time with us today.

MOORE: Thank you so much, Steve.

Related links:
- From untouchable to organic: Dalit women sow change in India
- FAO Hunger Map
- Frances Moore Lappé and coauthor Joseph Collins’ op-ed, “Rethinking hunger”
- Hunger and climate change
- About Frances Moore Lappé
- World Hunger: 10 Myths

Back to top

[MUSIC: Cindy Cashdollar/Jorma Kaukonen, Living on the Moment, Slide Show. Silver Shot Records]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation and brought to you with support from the University of Massachusetts Boston, in association with its School for the Environment, developing the next generation of environmental leaders. Our crew includes Naomi Arenberg, Bobby Bascomb, Emmett Fitzgerald, Lauren Hinkel, Helen Palmer, Adelaide Chen, Jenni Doering, John Duff, Amber Rodriguez, and Jennifer Marquis. Tom Tiger engineered our show, with help from Jeff Wade, Jake Rego and Noel Flatt. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE.org - and like us on our Facebook page - it’s PRI’s Living on Earth. And we tweet from @LivingOnEarth. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

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