• picture
  • picture
PRI's Environmental News Magazine

January 26, 2001

Air Date: January 26, 2001


(stream/download) as an MP3 file


Campaign Finance and the Environment

(stream / mp3)


Mexican Environment

(stream / mp3)


Technology Update

(stream / mp3)


Red Tide Mystery

(stream / mp3)


Winter Beach

(stream / mp3)


The Living on Earth Almanac

(stream / mp3)


Thai Healers

(stream / mp3)


Health Update

(stream / mp3)


California Energy

(stream / mp3)


Kaiser Aluminum

(stream / mp3)


The Rink

(stream / mp3)


Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Back to top


Campaign Finance and the Environment

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Environmental protection is at stake in what could become a major showdown of the new Bush presidency. Arizona Republican Senator John McCain is pushing his campaign finance reform bill over the objections of the White House. And one of Senator McCain's cheerleaders in this effort is Arlie Schardt. A former campaign aide to Al Gore, Mr. Schardt now heads perhaps the most influential environmental public relations firm in Washington, Environmental Media Services. Senator McCain's bill would ban political party slush funds called soft money, and, in Mr. Schardt's eyes, that makes it the most important piece of environmental legislation on Capitol Hill.

SCHARDT: I don't think that we'll ever see any really meaningful progress in environmental protection unless we have campaign finance reform. The public's well-being is undermined and, in many cases, seriously hurt by the fact that most members of Congress listen first to their big fat cat donors, and the environmental and public health consumer groups and so on have to try to use just the power of persuasion. And apparently, the power of dollars is more persuasive than the power of logic.

CURWOOD: Let's get specific here. Point to some examples where campaign contributions, this so-called soft money, has an impact on our environment.

SCHARDT: I think one of the areas that's really worth focusing on, because it's so much in the news right now, is energy, the battle over energy prices and energy supplies and so on. The oil industry, as you know, makes enormous contributions to federal officials. And among the results of that, for example, the ban on exporting Alaskan oil was lifted five years ago. And the result of it, according to the General Accounting Office, was that -- this is a quote -- "Lifting the export ban raised the relative prices of Alaskan North Slope and comparable California oil from between 98 cents and $1.30 higher per barrel than the price would have been had the ban not been lifted." I think another dramatic example is, Congress has refused to require improved standards for fuel efficiency in our cars. Fuel economy for the U.S. auto fleet, in spite of all the new technology that's on the market now, is currently at the lowest level since it was in 1980. I think another example is the failure to date to make any progress in the Kyoto Protocol. By the way, the members of the Global Climate Coalition, which is primarily all the major energy interests, they gave $63 million in political contributions just from 1989 through 1999. That's an average of more than $50,000 per member of Congress.

CURWOOD: What other areas do you think that campaign contributions influence environmental policy?

SCHARDT: Well, last year, there was an effort by about 53 members of Congress, both parties, sponsoring legislation that would have allowed new pesticides to be used on foods that are largely consumed by children, without sufficient testing. And that legislation also would have weakened children's health protections under the Food Quality Protection Act. And the agribusiness lobby, at that point, had given millions and millions and millions of dollars to the members of Congress. Including, for example, the lead sponsor of that legislation was Charles Stenholm, and he received 35 times more money than the average member of Congress from agribusiness. In that case, fortunately, the legislation eventually got tied up in committees and did not see the light of day. But last year, agribusiness gave $54 million in campaign contributions. And we saw an instant result of that, even in the opening day of the Bush administration. We've seen President Bush freeze the new Clinton administration restrictions on runoff from factory farms and on testing for bacteria in hotdog plants. It was just in the New York Times the other day. Archer Daniels Midland alone, a giant agribusiness corporation, gave $100,000 to the Bush inaugural committee last month.

CURWOOD: Campaign finance: Is this a Democratic issue, a Republican issue?

SCHARDT: It's clearly bipartisan. It's absolutely bipartisan. Because big industries, the polluting industries, give well-documented millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars in soft money and in campaign contributions to candidates from both parties. And of course, the sponsors are Republican Senator McCain and a Democratic Senator, Russ Feingold from Wisconsin.

CURWOOD: I understand you've approached a number of environmental advocacy groups about getting activated around the issue of money and politics.


CURWOOD: They don't talk much about campaign finance reform. Why not?

SCHARDT: Well, the kinds of answers that I got were kind of mixed. Some of the CEOs said that their groups were already so overloaded with issues that they couldn't take on another one. Others said that it would be too expensive to do it, and their budget wouldn't allow it. A few thought that the idea sounded too, quote, "political." But I think it's starting, to some extent now, Steve. I just noticed, for example, on the Sierra Club Web site, in a release that they put out on the correlation between air pollution and the failure of fuel economy and so on, they had a paragraph that in boldface type was headed, "Long-Term Solution: Reform Campaign Finance." And that's where they pointed out that in the '97-'98 election cycle alone, big oil and automotive lobbies gave out thirty-three and a half million dollars in political contributions.

CURWOOD: Arlie Schardt founded and directs Environmental Media Services in Washington. Thanks for taking this time with us today.

SCHARDT: It's a pleasure. Thank you for having me, Steve.

Back to top


Mexican Environment

CURWOOD: George W. Bush isn't the only new president in North America. Last month, Vicente Fox took office as Mexico's head of state after campaigning as a reformer on an anti-corruption platform. Mr. Fox has already done what Mr. Bush has not: elevate the environment to full Cabinet rank. On a more controversial note, some environmental and human rights activists had hoped Mr. Fox would move to overturn the conviction of two anti-logging activists who say they've been framed on drug and weapons charges. Living on Earth's Diane Toomey asked Victor Lichtinger, Mexico's new Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, about some issues facing the new administration, including the logging case.

LICHTINGER: Well, we have been discussing that with President Fox and different actors in the government. And certainly, the position right now is that they were tried two times, there was a revision of the trial, and it seems that they are guilty of what they were trialed. However, there is also evidence of torture that has been produced by the Commission of Human Rights here in Mexico. So I wouldn't doubt that we would again review the possibility of doing something in that regard.

TOOMEY: President Fox campaigned on issues of globalization and free trade for Mexico. How do you see these economic policies being reconciled with environmental protection?

LICHTINGER: Sometimes, when the environmental policy is not ready to be flexible and to adapt to new conditions of trade, you can have problems in environmental degradation. What we are trying is to cooperate and to work with the Ministry of Trade, with the Minister of Economy. We must make sure that trade is positive for growth, for economic opportunities. But at the same that does not create problems for the environment or for too much exploitation of natural resources.

TOOMEY: Let's talk about tourism and the environment. When many Americans think of Mexico, I think they think of resort destinations like Cancun. You've recently made some very strong statements about how development has hurt, even devastated, these kinds of areas. What's going to change under the new administration?

LICHTINGER: In Mexico the problem has been that tourism has come without any planning. And we are going to start now a policy of regulating and promoting that tourism should protect the environment. The most important instrument that we have is ecological zoning, which is a process by which by consensus we try to have a zoning map, and the areas that can be developed by tourism and the densities of tourism. In Mexico, actually, poverty is much more guilty than growth in causing environmental degradation, because of the density of population. We don't have those areas like you might have in the United States, where you can declare it a national park and nobody lives there. In Mexico, when we declare a natural protected area, we declare it with the people that live there, so we need to give them alternatives to have an earning.

TOOMEY: There are Mexican laws, of course, on the books that protect the environment, but I believe that in Mexico part of the problem comes from a lack of enforcement of these laws. And, of course, enforcement, I think, is a particular problem when it comes to protection of natural spaces. I'm thinking in particular of the monarch butterfly habitats.

LICHTINGER: Yes, for sure. There has been a problem there with illegal logging. As much as you can have inspectors making sure that nobody cuts, you cannot have one inspector beside each tree. But with new technologies and with being efficient in using the small amount of human resources that we have, I think we can do much better in these coming years.

TOOMEY: Are there plans, is there money to hire more enforcement officers to address problems like this?

LICHTINGER: This year we don't have more money. We will try now with the new administration to be able to reassign some money for that. But the next administration will be able to put the priorities much more clearly in what we think is more important.

TOOMEY: I understand your office is placing an emphasis on environmental education, and that even soap operas, telenovelas, I believe they're called?


TOOMEY: -- will be used for this purpose. If you could talk to me a little bit about your outreach plans.

LICHTINGER: We have done a lot of programs to try to educate people, but those, if they can just, as programs that come out of government, people don't listen to them. So what we are trying is to be creative and innovative. For example, soap operas is one way. And they have an incredible influence in the Mexican mind, in the culture. The same goes for music, for soccer players. We are trying to include them in our programs of education. We are trying to make sure that those people that people look up to are with us in trying to educate and making sure that people understand that each of us can contribute with our daily life.

TOOMEY: Thank you for joining me today.

LICHTINGER: Thank you very much.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth's Diane Toomey speaking with Victor Lichtinger, Mexico's Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Coming up: A walk on a winter beach leads to some unexpectedly cool finds. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this environmental technology update with Cynthia Graber.

(Music up and under)

Back to top


Technology Update

GRABER: You've heard of the search to turn lead into gold. How about turning pollution into diamonds? This is just what Australian scientists have done. They've developed a device that shoots microwaves at car exhaust. It heats up the exhaust to such high temperatures that molecular bonds break. When the mixture cools, the molecules regroup and turn into less harmful substances. A car's pollution may be reduced by up to 70 percent. But scientists noticed that with the microwave technology, tiny carbon particles would fly out of a car's tailpipe. So they created another device to catch the carbon before it left the car. This one attracts the carbon particles, transforms them into liquid form, then sprays them onto a glass surface. The hardened liquid carbon is actually an industrial-grade diamond, which could be used in applications such as compact discs and coating for lenses. That's this week's technology update. I'm Cynthia Graber.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Back to top


Red Tide Mystery

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. At first, the experts had no clues. Something was killing fish last year in the creeks upstream from Delaware's great inland bays. Five million fish to be, well, somewhat exact. But recently, scientists did find the culprit. Bruce Schimmel reports on how they unraveled the mystery.


SCHIMMEL: One Friday afternoon in early August, Bill Winkler played hooky from his souvenir shop near Rehoboth Beach to do some surfing.

WINKLER: We paddled out, and as soon as I jumped in the water I saw this foamy, like brown stuff. And I thought "What the heck?" I said. And as I went out a little bit further, I was the first one in the water, I noticed that the water was reddish brown, more red than brown. It looked like a reddish brown tea.

SCHIMMEL: The spry 52-year-old was surprised by the brown foam, because the water near Rehoboth Bay is known to be among the clearest on the Delaware coast. So Winkler filled a bottle with a sample and took it to a state lab for analysis. But the scientists there found nothing unusual. Kevin Donnelly is director of Delaware's Division of Water Resources. His lab, he says, was looking for the wrong thing.

DONNELLY: This past summer, we've had the worst record, the highest number of fish kills that we've had in 20 years. Almost twice the number that we've ever had. We were looking for pfisteria. We were looking at low dissolved oxygen as a problem.

SCHIMMEL: Low levels of oxygen and pfisteria, a toxin-producing microorganism, are problems in Delaware's bays, exacerbated by pollution from leaking septic systems and agricultural runoff, among other things. But the lab didn't find any pfisteria in this sample. Winkler wasn't satisfied. He feared his surf water was laced with a toxin known to cause massive fish kills off the coast of Florida. But the algal bloom, known as red tide, had never been found this far north. Winkler persisted, and sent his sample to Daniel Baden, director of the Center for Marine Science at the University of North Carolina.

BADEN: I think we went in objectively thinking it's something poisonous in the water, and we did find it.

SCHIMMEL: But weeks had passed since Winkler collected his sample, and Baden needed a fresh one to pin down if the algae producing the poison was the same one responsible for Florida's red tides. Fortunately, just as Baden's lab called for more, a friend of Winkler's, another surfer, happened upon a fish kill in a small cove inside the bay. The sample contained brevetoxin. But it also held the culprit which produced it. Baden's colleague, marine cell biologist Carmello Tomas, took a look. This was his reaction:

TOMAS: Astounding to see all these little green things that were swimming through our microscope fields.

SCHIMMEL: Tomas had been tracking these particular little green things, called chattonella for several years. Chattonella has been implicated in fish kills in Norway and Japan. But scientists hadn't been able to confirm what kind of toxin it produces. Tomas had seen chattonella in the waters of several eastern states, though never in such a concentration. He was at a loss to explain the density he found here.

TOMAS: The number of cells per liter in other states normally has been very, very low. Whereas the Delaware situation here is one which was inordinately high, to the point of having ten million cells per liter or more at the highest concentrations. Those concentrations are really alarming.

SCHIMMEL: The density of chattonella from this inland bay sample was 100,000 times greater than he'd seen before. Tomas could now confirm that chattonella produces red tide toxin. What's more, unlike Florida, where red tides affect only open waters along the coast, here was a bloom in an inland waterway.

TOMAS: This organism can occur in areas where we had never previously thought that they existed before. So there should be some kind of surveillance.

SCHIMMEL: Finding brevetoxin in inland waters, such as bays and estuaries, says Tomas, is like finding a poison in your back yard. Since these areas are close to where people live and play, this heightens the need for algal bloom monitoring. Although brevetoxin isn't known to be fatal in humans, the spray from affected waters can cause a skin irritation, burning eyes, and respiratory problems. In addition, people can become sick from eating shellfish tainted with breve. And the highest concentration of shellfish beds are found in inland waters. The state of Delaware is developing a plan to detect chattonella blooms, and, if necessary, close off shellfish beds. But even the best monitoring plan, Tomas says, can only do so much.

TOMAS: In many cases, we really can't control these large-scale events like blooms in open bays.

SCHIMMEL: But, he says, we can reduce their frequency and duration by reducing the amount of pollution runoff.

TOMAS: That is, increasing the water quality or making the water quality better, so that the essential materials that these blooms feed on is not being provided to them in excess.

SCHIMMEL: Tomas cannot say if pollution caused this particular outbreak. But pollution will certainly exacerbate and prolong harmful algal blooms. For Living on Earth, this is Bruce Schimmel in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

CURWOOD: The thought of a windswept, snow-lined beach may send a shiver down the spine of many northerners at this time of year. But the beach is the place to be. Creatures you would never spot on a summer stroll on the hot, crowded sand suddenly appear undisturbed and unfettered by the presence of a solitary human. For commentator Sy Montgomery, it's a naturalist's paradise.


Back to top


Winter Beach

MONTGOMERY: At first you notice what's not here. The summer crowds, the heat, the scent of suntan oil. The burrowing crabs called beach fleas are hibernating deep in the sand. The cormorants and terns have flown south. But the winter beach is far from empty. Migrations bring surprises, and storms wash up wonders on the tides.

(Crashing surf)

MONTGOMERY: Here in New England, residents of Martha's Vineyard woke one day to find the shellfish fairy had come. More than 100 bushels of sweet bay scallops had literally blown out of the water onto their doorsteps. Storms give us a glimpse of life in the deep sea. You might see a big orange starfish, its five arms bordered in gold. Or a purple sunstar, a starfish with ten arms.

Along the seaweed line, you might find a sea cucumber. Not a vegetable, but an animal. It's a relative of the starfish and looks like a miniature football. It moves as a starfish does, by pulling itself along the ocean floor with sucker-tipped tubes on its underside.

Or perhaps you'll find a spiral string of flat, quarter-sized, purse-shaped beige objects that look like shells. These are the eggs of the whelk snail. And inside them grow hundreds of baby snails, perfect miniatures of the eight-inch adults, complete with conch-like shells.

Another mystery is a single, black, leathery rectangle with a set of inward-curving hooks at each end. We call it a mermaid's purse, but it's really the egg case of the skate fish, a flattened member of the shark family.

More wonders lurk offshore, so bring your field glasses. Immature loons who breed on northern lakes winter at sea. On a calm day, you may hear the dark bird's eerie call rolling off the surf. You might also spot a tundra creature at the beach, a snowy owl. This uncanny creatures hunts by day, and you might spot one sitting stone still on the beach, eyes fixed on the horizon, searching for its next meal.

Here along the Atlantic coast, winter's the time to spot one of the rarest mammals on earth, the right whale. These giants summer in Canada's Bay of Fundy and show up here in New England only in winter, sometimes shockingly close to shore. The right whale looks like a huge black rock sprinkled with white barnacles. But this rock moves. It opens an enormous mouth hung with baleen, comb-like plates attached to the upper jaw. At the tip of Cape Cod, beachcombers have seen a 50-foot whale surface only 20 feet away. But it's also a thrill to view these whales from a distance. Look for a V-shaped spout on the horizon. The V means this leviathan has not one blowhole, but two.

You may not see a rare whale on your walk on the winter beach, or a snowy owl, or even a starfish. But any trip to the beach is really a visit to the rich border of two worlds, land and sea. And in the silvery light of winter, each illuminates the other anew.

CURWOOD: Beachcomber and Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery is author of Journey of the Pink Dolphins.

MONTGOMERY: Seal, there's a seal! I can't believe it! His hip came right up over there. (Surf crashes) I mean, I'm either having a really vivid hallucination or that was a seal at pretty close range.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; the Ford Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation;

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. When we return: Traditional medicine makes a comeback in Thailand. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood

Back to top


The Living on Earth Almanac

(Music up and under: horse race trumpet)

CURWOOD: And they're off!

(High squeaks; fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: Roach rage pulls out of the pack and takes the lead. But wait, it's Priscilla, Queen of the Drains on the inside, and Guns and Roaches in hot pursuit. Okay, so it's not the Kentucky Derby, but each January thousands of fans gather in Brisbane to cheer on their favorite skulking scurriers in the annual Australia Day World Championship Race of the Cockroaches. One lucky Aussie gets to kick off the contest by dumping a bucket of the arthropods into the center of a five-meter track. The first roach to reach the edge of the circle wins $500. Cockroaches might seem unlikely thoroughbreds, but anyone who's ever chased one through the kitchen knows cockroaches rank among the world's quickest insects. A cockroach could actually outrun a cheetah if it grew to a cheetah's size. That's partly because roaches move their six legs in unison, which also explains why they can start or stop at the blink of an eye.

(Drumroll; shooting sound)

CURWOOD: Now if you can't move quite fast enough to make it to Australia for this month's cockroach race, just hang on. The Department of Entomology at Purdue University hosts its very own, very popular sprint each spring in Indiana. And for this week that's the Living on Earth Almanac. And hey, hey where's my shoe?

(Crunch! Music up and under: La Cucaracha)

Back to top


Thai Healers

CURWOOD: For thousands of years, residents of Thailand used medicinal remedies based on herbs and plants that grew wild in their forests. But soon after the Second World War, the Thai government discouraged this form of healing in favor of a more Western approach to medicine that included pharmaceuticals. Some so-called folk doctors were even arrested. But as Anne Marie Ruff reports, traditional healing is making a comeback in Thailand, and now it has government support.

(Water pours; ambient conversation)

RUFF: A solar heater brews medicinal tea at a small clinic in northern Thailand, where the future of the country's health system is taking a cue from its past. At this clinic, patients can choose to be treated by Western-style doctors or traditional Thai healers. Traditional healers offer herbal medicines that they mix themselves. Massage and herbal sauna are also offered. Ratana Sabuathong works at the clinic. She explains the reason the Thai government is now allowing traditional medicine here is simple: it's cheap.

Sabuathong: [Speaks in Thai]
TRANSLATOR: If you come here, this is more than 100 baht for the medicine. But if you go to the Western-style clinic it will be about 3 to 400 baht.

RUFF: That is the equivalent of about eight to ten dollars, compared to about two-fifty for traditional medicine. This economic incentive is making an impression on the Thai government. In the last year, five traditional herbal remedies have been added to the government's list of essential drugs. That means they can now be prescribed in government hospitals and covered by insurance. A new government program is training and licensing traditional healers. There are even plans for a hospital that will use only traditional medicine. Ratana Sabuathong thinks this is just the beginning.

Sabuathong: [Speaks in Thai]

RUFF: She says: I think there will be more places like this, because lots of people come to see our clinic, to see how to do their own.

Nowhere is the economic rationale for traditional medicine more obvious than in the case of Thailand's one million people with HIV and AIDS. Treating them all with anti-retroviral, or ARV, drugs, would cost nearly $10 billion a year. Even government-produced generic versions of these drugs are beyond the reach of many. Dr. Krisana is the director of research and development for Thailand's government pharmaceutical organization. She has led a government effort to research which traditional herbal medicines might help AIDS patients.

KRISANA: I am doing this for poor people, very, very poor, who cannot afford at all and who cannot get the free job from the commons, so that they will have alternative. They have another choice.

RUFF: These herbal cocktails cost about $25 a month, several times less than even generic ARV drugs. While herbal remedies don't attack the AIDS virus itself as ARV drugs do, they are believed to boost the immune system and treat secondary infections without severe side effects. Dr. Krisana says the results of clinical trials have been promising.

KRISANA: The quality of life of the herbal product users are more than ARV drug users, because they don't have any elements. They don't have fever, they don't have diarrhea. So the quality of life is just perfect.

RUFF: The political about-face toward traditional medicine could provide a new conservation imperative, both for Thailand's traditional knowledge and its biodiversity. New legislation calls for areas rich in medicinal plants to be set aside as preserves, with strict regulations on how they can be used. But critics charge the government's policy is only skin deep. They fear policy makers are aiming to substitute herbal remedies for expensive pharmaceuticals without understanding that traditional medicine is more than just pills. Massage, sauna, diet, and even spiritual beliefs are all brought to bear by traditional healers.

(Local music; ambient voices)

RUFF: In a hill tribe village, musicians perform a blessing ceremony for visitors. The government may have new respect for the healers here, but critics say the drive to legalize traditional medicine will likely exclude practitioners in minority villages such as this one. Because many hill tribe people cannot speak Thai, they're unable to complete the necessary paperwork to be licensed.

(Nung Peng speaks in Hmong)

RUFF: Nung Peng and her husband Jong Jeur are somewhere between 110 and 115 years old, as near as they can figure. She says for many years she was the herbalist here in her ethnic Hmong village in the mountains of northern Thailand. She treated people for malaria, smallpox, and other illnesses. Her medicines came from the plants in the surrounding forests. But now she is too old to venture into the forest to find plants to relieve the pain in her arthritic knees, and the herbalists who have come after her don't have as much knowledge as she does. For Nung Peng the new legitimacy of traditional medicine has come too late. Without anyone skilled enough to find herbs for her, she has had to settle for Western medicine to treat her arthritis.

NUNG PENG: [speaks in Hmong]

RUFF: She says: Western medicine works more quickly than herbal medicine, but it only works on the surface. It doesn't treat the disease deeply, like our herbal medicine.

But Nung Peng's six surviving children may reap the benefits of the government's change of heart.

(Local music, voices)

RUFF: For Living on Earth, this is Anne Marie Ruff in northern Thailand.

(Music and voices continue, up and under)

CURWOOD: Just ahead: the environmental impact of California's energy deregulation debacle. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.

(Music up and under)

Back to top


Health Update

TOOMEY: University of Wisconsin researchers have cracked the genetic code of a deadly strain of e. coli. E. coli 0157:H7, as it's affectionately known, is a bacterium that causes about 75,000 cases of food-borne illness each year in the U.S. Turns out this strain of toxic e. coli has 1,300 more genes than its harmless e. coli cousin. And a good chunk of those genes once belonged to other types of bacteria. Scientists think invading viruses transported the foreign genes from other microorganisms. The extra genes may help explain why this particular e. coli infection is so hard to treat. They may produce additional toxins or help the bacterium withstand the body's defense against infection, fever. Now that they have this blueprint, researchers hope to develop a more sensitive diagnostic test and vaccine for the disease. And that's this week's health update. I'm Diane Toomey.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

You can hear our program any time on our Web site. The address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And while you're online, send your comments to us at letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can reach our listener line at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. CDs, tapes, and transcripts are $15.

(Music up and under)

Back to top


California Energy

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In California's power crunch, folks caught by stalled elevators and darkened traffic lights aren't the only casualties. Small green power companies that sell a mix of traditional and renewable sources, such as wind and solar energy, are shutting down, too, even though the renewable energy they broker is now cheaper than what's being offered by the major suppliers. Daniel Kammen directs the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab at the University of California at Berkeley. He says the problems come from the tangled economics of buying and selling in California's deregulated electric power market.

KAMMEN: The bids are rolling bids. They happen every day, every hour. And you're bidding for what you're going to sell in the market 24 hours hence. Now that's a bad thing in general, but it's critical for some of these independent power producers. If you're a big producer like Southern Energy Company, and you've got billions of dollars to play with, you can afford to buy and sell in this market that's going through these fluctuations. But if you're a small power producer, one of these new green IPPs, independent power producers, then you might be providing your customers with some energy from photovoltaics, which you control. But you might have to buy some gas on the market to make up the rest. Well, to buy that gas you need to make up your total mix, so you can supply your customers. You've got to buy that on this roller coaster market. Little startups don't have the kind of cash to suddenly pay 40 cents a kilowatt hour, one hour, for the rates.

CURWOOD: So, is this the end of the line for renewable energy companies in California, this utility crisis? Or is there a chance these firms could come back?

KAMMEN: No, I think that it's not the end at all. In fact, the companies that were really solidly green, the ones that are almost entirely based on clean energy and are generating new customers all the time, they're going to make it through this fine. So at some level, there's a weeding out effect. But the problem is that this crisis, instead of just weeding out some, should have just provided a huge incentive for many more companies to get involved in the market. And if we had any sound energy policy to help them out, we could have seen renewable energy generation in the state go from less than a percent, where it is now, to ten, 15, 20 percent. And this crisis is an opportunity to have pushed that forward, and that's what we haven't stepped up to do.

CURWOOD: There is new legislation in California that makes it easier to get a power plant online, up and running. How do these new regulations affect the cleanliness of the energy that's going to be produced? Is it tilted toward what you call brown, or more polluting, forms of power? Or tilted more toward the green side?

KAMMEN: Unfortunately, the crisis is being used as a way to tilt it toward not only brown but black power. What's going on is that environmental regulations, the siting requirements, the requirements to do environmental quality analysis, all those things are being bypassed because legislators are saying we've got to have more capacity, we've got to find new generating facilities, we've got to get them online. And that's a problem both in the immediate term -- it does, it takes away the green market, so it pollutes things in the short term. But every time you put a power plant in, you're stuck with that decision for decades. Because power plants are expensive. When you put them in you want to get the full lifetime out of them. So every bit of brown power we install now hurts the market for green power down the road.

CURWOOD: What do you see as environmentally appropriate solutions to the California energy crisis? How can California get out of this mess?

KAMMEN: The problem right now is that we have a deficit of power being generated in the state. So what the state and what cities, municipalities around the state should be doing is getting federal money, state money, and bond measures to install renewable energy generation facilities in their areas. And the neat thing about those technologies is that they're small and modular, meaning you can install exactly how much you want, unlike big, fossil fuel power plants where you've got to almost take them as they come, often in big sizes. And you can put them in fast. And they would cost some now, but we could pay for it now; the economy is still quite strong. We can put them in, generate energy that was controlled by the municipalities, sell it to the utilities just like these out of state robber barons are doing, and help that to alleviate the crisis in the short term. The neat long-term feature is that, one, we've generated larger markets for green power that will make more people buy and install green power. But also, the municipalities around the state would then have power plants which they could then use for base load power. Also, they could sell the power when the price peaks. In the late afternoon when everyone comes home and turns on their appliances, their air conditioners and things, the price of power can almost double, even before the current crisis. The cities would then be in the position to be generating power and gathering those revenues. And that would be a neat short-term and long-term solution that no one is pushing hard enough for.

CURWOOD: Daniel Kammen is Associate Professor of Energy and Society in the Energy Resources Group at UC-Berkeley. Thank you for joining us.

KAMMEN: Thanks a lot.

Back to top


Kaiser Aluminum

CURWOOD: Turmoil in California's energy market is having unexpected consequences elsewhere. Along the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, for instance, government dams produce cheap electricity for big industrial users, including aluminum makers. But with electricity prices skyrocketing, some of these plants are halting operations and reselling their federally-subsidized power at a hefty profit. Nathan Johnson reports from Spokane, Washington.

STROM: This is the smelter coming up here on the left. You can see the power lines coming into here.

(An engine revs up)

JOHNSON: Larry Strom is 42. He's worked inside this Kaiser Aluminum plant his entire adult life.

STROM: I was an Operator A in the pot rooms. I regulated voltage and amperage to make aluminum.

JOHNSON: Kaiser buys this power for less than two-and-a-half cents per kilowatt hour. And since December, they've been selling it for ten or 20 times that amount. It's simply more profitable to sell the electricity than use it to make aluminum.

STROM: I work in a department where there was 300-plus people. We're not making aluminum right now, so those people are basically gone, laid off.

JOHNSON: Kaiser is actually paying these laid off workers a full salary. But as of now they've only guaranteed this till the end of the month. Still, Peter Forsyth, a vice president with Kaiser, says these power sales are a good deal for everybody.

FORSYTH: We can provide a benefit to the region by supplying energy that we would have otherwise used to make aluminum, and the price for the energy is high enough that we were able to continue to pay our people for not working.

JOHNSON: What's at stake here is hundreds of millions of dollars. Kaiser has already made more selling electricity in the last two months than they've earned producing aluminum in the last five years.

FORSYTH: We've publicly announced sales in December and January, in the high 40s and the mid 50 million dollars per month.

JOHNSON: And Kaiser is not alone. Throughout Oregon and Montana, other plants are doing essentially the same thing. This is what's happened. The companies signed contracts with the government five years ago to buy electricity at a fixed price through next October. But now, because the value of this power has increased, they're selling it back at a profit.

BELL: That power costs a fraction of a penny a kilowatt hour to produce. Basically it's a scam.

JOHNSON: Kevin Bell, an energy consultant in Seattle, has studied electricity markets for advocacy groups like Trout Unlimited and American Rivers. He says aluminum companies got a sweetheart deal when they negotiated these contracts with the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency that supplies hydroelectricity from the Columbia River.

BELL: The initial terms of that contract were secret, but it turns out that one of those terms is the right of the aluminum companies to resell the power if they decide not to use it. It was a special right that no other Bonneville customer has ever had, and that no other customer was offered.

JOHNSON: Ed Mosey, a spokesman for Bonneville, says they had to sign those deals. Out of state producers were undercutting Bonneville's prices. Meanwhile, federal law restricted them from lowering their own prices.

MOSEY: We literally, at that time, were caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, we had to hold onto our customers, and on the other hand, our rates were higher than market rates. So, we're almost in a beggar position.

(Music and billiards)

JOHNSON: Back in Spokane, Kaiser's workers have mixed feelings about the energy sales. At a popular pool hall near the plant, workers say, on the one hand, they support the decision, but, on the other, they have no faith the company will use the windfall to preserve jobs. And they don't trust Charles Hurwitz, the CEO of Kaiser's parent company, Maxxam. Mr. Hurwitz has ignited controversy with his involvement in the S&L industry and logging in California's redwood forests.

GOODWIN: Before he stepped in, we were making a pound of metal, like we always did, for Mr. Kaiser.

JOHNSON: Steven Goodwin has worked 31 years for Kaiser. He's still bitter over Kaiser's ten-month lockout of its employees last year: an attempt, many believe, to break the union.

GOODWIN: This guy is addicted to making his $50 million cachings, if not $500 million. Now, I'm going to speculate this guy might not even try to reopen this plant like they've told us they're going to do.

JOHNSON: Kaiser says it will reopen the plant if it's economical. And this will depend mainly on how much their electricity bills are in the future, since nearly one third the cost of aluminum is electricity. To stay competitive with producers overseas, Kaiser has relied for decades on cheap power generated at the Grand Coulee Dam, the largest block of concrete in North America, located two hours west of Spokane.

(Woody Guthrie: "Now the greatest wonder in Uncle Sam's fair land, it's the King Columbia River and big Grand Coulee Dam. She heads up the Canadian mountains where the rippling waters blind, comin' rumblin' down the canyon just to meet the salty tide...")

JOHNSON: Inside the visitor's center, perched above the south shore of the Columbia River, the history of Grand Coulee Dam is celebrated in a series of short films.

(Music and voice-over: "A legion of men was mobilized, over 7,000 strong at the peak. Not since the ancient pyramids of Egypt had such a monumental task ever been undertaken...")

JOHNSON: World War II brought aluminum companies to the Midwest. The federal government gave them virtually free hydropower. In return, they supplied raw material to aircraft makers on the West Coast.

(Guthrie: "Now in Washington and Oregon you hear the factories hum, making chrome, making maganese and light aluminum. And the roaring flying fortress wings her way for Uncle Sam, it's the fall King Columbia by the great Grand Coulee Dam...")

JOHNSON: Over the last half-century the Pacific Northwest has changed. Some say this preferential treatment doesn't make sense in the new economy.

BELL: You can take a company like Microsoft. Microsoft employs probably five times as many people as the entire regional aluminum industry. And they use maybe a thousandth as much electricity, total.

JOHNSON: Energy consultant Kevin Bell.

BELL: We would be far better off just shutting down the aluminum companies, telling them to leave, writing every aluminum worker in the region a paycheck for the rest of their working careers, and keeping the electricity.

(Rumbling train)

JOHNSON: In downtown Spokane, freight trains still rumble through the city, but their cargo is more likely to be VCRs and designer clothes, not aluminum. Americans aren't using any less of this metal, it's just coming from farther away. Aluminum smelters are now built in Canada, Brazil, and Madagascar, where, not surprisingly, governments have constructed large hydroelectric dams to supply the power.

(Guthrie: "On up the river at Grand Coulie Dam, mightiest thing ever built by a man...")

JOHNSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Nathan Johnson in Spokane.

(Guthrie: "Let's roll on, Columbia, roll on. Roll on, Columbia, roll on. Roll on, Columbia, roll on. Your power is turning darkness to dawn. Roll on, Columbia, roll on...")

Back to top


The Rink

CURWOOD: There's nothing like going with the weather when it comes to recreation. In Florida, that means backyard pools are popular. And in Canada's Ontario, backyard ice skating rinks are the vogue. Bob Carty sent us this audio postcard from one such frozen round at his neighborhood outside Ottawa.

(Skating, children's voices)

CARTY: You okay? What happened there?

CHILD 1: I plunged into a snowbank head first when I was skating too fast.

CHILD 2: He just couldn't stop somehow, and he just slammed into a snowbank.

CARTY: Are you okay?

CHILD 1: Uh huh.

CHILD 2: Don't try to skate backwards when you haven't even tried it yet, or practice. That's pretty much it. A bruise map is kind of like a map where it shows you where all your bruises are. Those kind of things.

WOMAN: When I was a kid, I remember the boys used to play hockey in my friend's backyard. And my brothers, I have three brothers, they would use me and other little sisters as goal posts. (Laughs) I learned how to skate with a kitchen chair. It had metal legs, and my creepy older brother tried to get me to lick the steel, but no, I didn't do it.

(Music up and under)

CARTY: How to make a backyard rink, by Howard Purchase of Mount Pearl, Newfoundland. "All you need is snow, water, patience, and a cold day. When planning a rink, make sure your hose can reach the area where you are putting the rink. To start, pack the snow solid with a shovel or a rented roller, or have some children run around on it for a while. They love it, and it gets the job done. There are two ways to make a backyard rink: with plastic and without plastic."

MAN: The first year we started the rink, and tried to do the whole thing the traditional methods. You'd be out here, you'd be stomping down the snow, you'd put slush and you'd try to have just banks of snow on the sides. I was lucky that year because we had good conditions. Last year was a bad winter for making rinks. We didn't have any snow at the start. So what I was doing, I was out in the front yard, and I was shoveling all the snow off of the driveway. And wheelbarrowing it to the back. (Laughs) That wasn't enough snow, so then I started shoveling the front street. And then I started shoveling the neighbor's driveways. But it wasn't going anywhere. And so I finally broke down and started to introduce technology.

WOMAN: Jiffy Rink, priced $24.99. Instant skating rink the size of approximately ten feet by 20 feet. It's a big bag. And you fill it up with water, and then after it freezes over, after 24 hours it freezes over, there's that top piece you pull off. You just pull it right off and there you go, there's your rink.

MAN: This year I was planning to buy these bags again. And then my wife was on the Internet, and found out that there are companies out there that will sell you plastic sheets as liners for your rinks. And so we went and we ordered them on the Internet.


MAN: Why do I sweep? What you're trying to do is you have as flat a surface as possible when you put the flood down. Any little bit of snow, any little chip of ice or something like that, it's going to spoil that. I know it's sad. (Laughs) It's a pretty sad statement. But it's about perfection. (Sweeps) Making the perfect rink. (Sweeps)

(Music up and under)

MAN: I tell people I think my deepest thoughts at six in the morning, out there with a half-inch hose. And I suppose there is a certain satisfaction in making flat ice.

WOMAN: It's pathetic. (Laughs) He'll go out there. He's got the hose and he just drags it along slowly, like a snake.

(Water runs)

WOMAN: You know it's great, because if we had to go pee, we didn't have to walk down from the park. We could just scoot in the back door. And then we'd scoot back out and we'd be skating again. It would only take a couple minutes.

(Skating, children yelling)

CURWOOD: Our audio postcard of the backyard skating rink was produced by Bob Carty.

(Music up and under: "Crack your door and I come out, friend. Keith, have you checked out Ketchel's pond? He calls up Tommy Teller. Tom said the pond, it froze right over. So get your nets and lace your skates and get the hot chocolate for your mom to make...")

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week: In Idaho residents are up in arms over Bill Clinton's last-minute order to ban more roadbuilding in national forests.

TIM BERNHARD: How would the people back in Pennsylvania and Kentucky feel if we wanted to go back there and promote roadless areas? Which I think it would be a great deal for me to take my grandkids back East and see this Daniel Boone site.

Back to top


CURWOOD: The war of the roads next week on Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Stephanie Pindyck, Maggie Villiger, Nathan Johnson, Jennifer Chu, and James Curwood, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, and Mylisa Muniz. Our interns are Merav Bushlin and Dawn Robinson. Alison Dean composed our themes. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor. Diane Toomey is our science editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; the Ford Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

(Music up and under)


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.