Enron and the Energy Plan
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Democratic Representative Henry Waxman from California says Enron had easy access to the White House Energy Task Force and it shows. According to Representative Waxman, the Bush admistration’s National Energy Plan advances 17 policies Enron advocated. Host Steve Curwood talks to Representative Waxman about his report on this issue. (06:30)
OMB/ Anna Solomon-Greenbaum
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The Bush White House is giving an obscure but powerful office unprecedented power to influence federal regulations. Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports on what it could mean for the environment and public health. (05:10)
Health Note: Healthy Drinking/ Diane Toomey
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Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on a new finding that moderate drinking may ward off some forms of dementia. (01:15)
Almanac: Giant Waves
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This week, facts about the biggest wave ever surfed in Hawaii. (01:30)
National Academy of Sciences
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The National Academy of Sciences provides influential scientific information and advice to the federal government. Daniel Greenberg, journalist and author of the book Science, Money and Politics, discusses the background of NAS and its role in the nation’s health and science policy with host Steve Curwood. (06:20)
Austin Mold/ Janet Heimlich
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Mold is an increasing problem in schools across the country. Many students and staff are complaining of health problems and it’s costing school districts a lot of money to remove the mold. Janet Heimlich reports on a school district in Austin, Texas that’s struggling to pay for testing and mold removal at three schools. (06:45)
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New developments in stories we’ve been following recently. (03:00)
Business Note: Solar-powered Gas Stations/ Jennifer Chu
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Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on an effort in Orlando, Florida to power gasoline stations with energy from the sun. (01:15)
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Animals in the wild have a wealth of natural remedies at their disposal. The question is whether they know how to use them when they’re feeling ill. Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey talks with Cindy Engel, author of the book Wild Health: How Animals Keep Themselves Well and What We Can Learn from Them. (07:45)
Bird Songs/ Nancy Cohen
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Birds sing to communicate to each other. And mostly, it’s the males who do most of the singing. In Massachusetts, a biologist is studying the song of the Chestnut-sided Warbler to find out how and why the male attracts females. Nancy Cohen reports. (07:30)
HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Janet Heimlich, Nancy Cohen
GUESTS: Henry Waxman, Daniel Greenberg, Cindy Engel
UPDATES: Diane Toomey, Jennifer Chu
[INTRO THEME MUSIC]
CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, it's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Taking a cue from his Republican predecessors, President Bush looks to the Executive Office of Management and Budget to boost control over federal departments and agencies. Some critics worry the trend may short-circuit environmental and public health regulation.
O'DONNELL: It's really shifting the power from an agency like the EPA, that deals primarily with protection of public health and environment, to this office of OMB, which is designed mainly to save money for business groups.
CURWOOD: And how the Enron scandal may affect the energy bill. Also, what boy birds are really telling girl birds with those sweet songs.
BYERS: I'm better than the other males, I'm better than my neighbor, I'm stronger, I'm healthier, I have better genes for you to pass to your offspring. I'm strong, I'm sexy, come mate with me.
CURWOOD: What birds really say, and more, this week on Living on Earth. But first, this.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. One of the top items on the legislative agenda for the Bush administration for this session of Congress is its energy bill, but that legislation may become a flashpoint in the unfolding Enron scandal. The bill was developed after Vice President Dick Cheney met repeatedly behind closed doors with the leadership of Enron and others. The White House has declined repeated requests from the General Accounting Office to provide records of those meetings. Joining me now is Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, from California. He says many policies in the administration's energy bill are identical to positions that Enron had advocated in congressional testimony and in other public statements.
WAXMAN: In the energy proposal by the Bush Administration, we found 17 provisions that Enron had lobbied for. They wanted provisions to promote expansion of natural gas pipelines which Enron both owns and leases for natural gas trading business. They wanted support for Enron to expand drilling for natural gas and oil, including provisions to reduce royalties on drilling on public lands and weaken environmental protections. They wanted tax breaks, worth $2.4 billion, to encourage deregulation of the electricity utility industry, which is, of course, this long-time Enron goal. And they had provisions to facilitate the re-licensing of hydro-electric facilities, which would benefit Enron's subsidiary, Portland General, the owner of several hydro-electric facilities.
CURWOOD: White House spokesman Ari Fleischer has said what was put in the president's energy plan was put in to help address an energy shortage in America, and not at the request of any one company or any one person. It was done because, quote, it's the right policy for the country. There must have been plenty of other companies who were pleased when the task force energy plan came out. How good is this plan for business? How good is it for consumers?
WAXMAN: I'm sure that some of the provisions that we know Enron wanted would have benefited other energy producers as well, but when you look at the cumulative contributions from the coal, oil, gas, nuclear and electric utility industries, they gave almost $70 million in campaign contributions in the 2000 election cycle. The same industries received almost $34 billion in tax breaks and subsidies in HR-4, which was the Republican sponsored bill that passed the House. So, if you look at campaign contributions as a form of investment in the legislative process, the rate of return on this investment is an astounding 47,400 percent.
CURWOOD: The White House spokesman, Mr. Fleischer, has also said that there are plenty of points in the White House energy plan that Enron would not have supported Congress in. He points, for instance, to the fact that the Bush Administration does not include carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas, in its pollution strategy, while Enron would have wanted to trade carbon credits internationally. How do you respond to some of his rebuttals?
WAXMAN: Well, I think we ought to be able to see what they ask for. Maybe they didn't like that provision, maybe they did like that provision. We don't know what they asked for, because they're withholding that information.
CURWOOD: But you said, ìWe don't know what Enron wanted in terms of this,î but you yourself went to the public record and other testimony. It's pretty clear that Enron did want to have carbon trading, and the White House said no. So Enron clearly didn't get everything that it was looking for in this task force.
WAXMAN: Well, maybe that's right, maybe that's right, but I don't know all the facts. The Energy Task Force operated secretly, and the General Accounting Office, at our request, asked the vice president to make available to it all of the workings of that task force. But the vice president said no, he won't make any of it available to the GAO. You have to wonder, why is he taking that position? It seems to me he's either taking that position because he's trying to establish the precedent that they can operate in this administration secretly, without any accountability, without any transparency, without the Congress of the United States being able to exercise its oversight responsibilities into their actions. If that's the case, I think they have a weak argument, and, if they go to court, which, I expect, is likely to happen, because I think the GAO is going to be forced to file a lawsuit, to get the records and information about the Energy Task force, I don't think they'll prevail.
The other reason that you would think they're so secretive about all this is that they have something to hide. Now, I don't know whether they do or not, but when people go out of their way not to make routine information available to an organization like the General Accounting Office, you have to wonder what's going on.
CURWOOD: Congressman Henry Waxman is a Democrat from California. He sits on the House Energy Committee and is the ranking minority member of the Committee on Government and Reform. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today, Representative Waxman.
WAXMAN: Thank you for your interest.
CURWOOD: In years past, the Office of Management and Budget has helped presidents gain more control over the conduct of federal departments and agencies. President Ronald Reagan effectively used OMB to rein in social spending programs, for example. Now President Bush is turning to OMB to provide a check on agency-driven environmental regulations. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum explains how this obscure, but powerful, office is becoming a key arbiter in federal management of the environment.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The Office of Management and Budget, or OMB, deals with the nitty gritty, often tedious, work of government. It writes the federal budget, and keeps an eye on how that money's spent at federal agencies. It's the sort of fine print that can make even the most dedicated policy wonk weary. But the OMB is also responsible for reviewing new federal regulations. It makes sure the agency developing a regulation has fully analyzed its costs and benefits, and backed it up with sound science. In the past, the OMB influenced regulations in the works. But under the Bush Administration, the OMB has started opening up existing regulations for review and it's asked the public to suggest regulations that should be changed or eliminated. The OMB received 71 comments, and created a high priority list of 23 regulations to review. More than half were environmental, and all but two of these came from the Mercatus Center, a think tank whose main purpose is to systematically review and comment on federal regulations. Susan Dudley helped author the center's comments to the OMB.
DUDLEY: We covered a broad range of issues, from drinking water to air quality to wetlands to snowmobiles.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Dudley says regulations have a place, but only after the market has failed. She says John Graham, who heads the OMB's regulatory wing, understands this. And she says he's taking his job seriously, so much so--
DUDLEY: -- well, he may put us out of a job, if he makes the agencies do solid analysis that look at all the consequences, so that regulations really are based on good science, a balancing of benefits and costs, then we may have nothing left to comment on.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: That's what worries environmental activists like Frank O'Donnell. O'Donnell heads the Clean Air Trust. He says the public should understand the Mercatus Center has an agenda. Some of its biggest donors include energy mogul David Koch, as well as the now notorious Enron Corporation. The center's influence on the OMB, says O'Donnell, threatens the firewall between regulators and the regulated.
O'DONNELL: This office at the White House actually may be functioning as a conduit for the polluters and think tanks that the polluters underwrite, who want to undue these federal health and safety rules.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: O'Donnell says the OMB has instituted several new policies, including something called ìprompt letters.î These letters are just what they sound like; a way for the OMB to direct an agency to take a second look at a regulation, or to create a new one. O'Donnell says this type of sway is unprecedented.
O'DONNELL: It's really shifting the power from an agency like the EPA, that deals primarily with protection of public health and environment, to this office of OMB which is designed mainly to save money for business groups.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: John Graham who heads OMB's regulatory department says saving money for business groups means saving money for consumers. So, keeping regulations in check protects the public interest. The Clinton OMB, he says, fell short in this arena.
GRAHAM: There were exactly zero rules returned by the previous administration to agencies, due to poor quality analysis. In my first six months in the job, I have returned 17 rules to agencies. So we're trying to send a clear signal to the agencies that regulations are okay, but they need to be supported by sound science and economics.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Graham says the new, proactive OMB won't automatically oppose any and all regulation. He points to rules on arsenic and diesel exhaust, which the White House directed the EPA to review.
GRAHAM: And there were a lot of people feeling that we were going to make decisions that would be harmful to the public health interest. But, in fact, what Administrator Whitman did is she used in-depth analysis of scientific information, in both cases to make the case that these regulations adopted in the previous administration should actually be retained. And weíve supported Administrator Whitman in both of those cases.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: But many rules did get changed or eliminated in the past year, and if history provides any clues, it may help to look back at the Reagan Administration, whose OMB made steep cuts to the EPA's budget, and also blocked the EPA from banning asbestos, and tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the agency from phasing out leaded gasoline and issuing stronger emissions standards for cars and trucks. During that time, the OMB's director of regulatory policy was Wendy Graham, who now heads the Mercatus Center, that's pushing the current OMB's regulatory review process. For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum in Washington.
CURWOOD: Coming up, city schools in Austin, Texas, confront a clear and present danger: indoor air pollution. First, this Environmental Health Note from Diane Toomey.
TOOMEY: It's known that light to moderate alcohol consumption can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. But vascular disease is also associated with cognitive impairment and dementia. So researchers in the Netherlands wanted to see if moderate drinking might also protect against these conditions. Over the course of six years, they followed 8,000 people aged 55 or older who showed no signs of dementia. Turns out, almost 200 of these people developed various forms of dementia, and the average alcohol consumption of this group was about one-third of one drink a day. Then researchers turned to the people who did not develop dementia. When they took into account age, smoking habits, weight and other factors, they found that light to moderate drinking--in this case, one to three drinks a day--reduced the risk of dementia by about 40 percent. What's more, when researchers looked at the risk of developing vascular dementia--that is, dementia caused when areas of the brain are deprived of oxygen due to strokes--moderate alcohol consumption reduced that risk by a full 70 percent. But the researchers also note there was no protective effect against dementia in people who consumed more than three drinks a day. That's this week's Health Note, I'm Diane Toomey.
CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.
[CUTAWAY 1 MUSIC: Afro Celt Sound System, "Riding the Waves", VOLUME 2: RELEASE (RealWorld - 1999)]
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
[MUSIC: Dick Dale & the Del Tones, ìThe Victorî, REVENGE OF THE SURF INSTRUMENTALS (MCA ñ 1995)]
CURWOOD: On January 28th, 1998, a storm off the coast of Japan created a once-in-a- lifetime experience for one lucky Hawaiian surfer dude. That's the day when 45 year old Ken Bradshaw rode the biggest wave ever recorded being surfed. The storm had stirred up such huge wages that officials of an international big wave surfing contest had to cancel the event, being held on the North Shore of Oahu. The Coast Guard labeled the waters "Condition Black", and told everyone to stay away from the ocean. But that didn't stop a few veteran kahunas like Ken Bradshaw, known in the surfing world as ìKen Kong.î Ken and his cohorts rode out on jet skis a few miles, to the spot where 60 foot ocean waves were already breaking. A film crew flew out to capture the action and, at times, their helicopter was actually flying lower than the crest of the waves. And then, at just the right moment, Ken Kong caught an 85 foot monster cruncher. He rode down the side of the wave, clearing the crashing white water where the wave was breaking and miraculously avoided a wipe-out. But the man who rode that biggest wave remains modest. As he told Surfer magazine that day, "I just knew I caught a really big wave and I was trying to get out of its way." And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.
CURWOOD: Every day, it seems, science and technology challenge the limits of public policy: cloning, stem cell research, energy efficiency for cars. And there with the answers for the makers of public policy in the U.S. is, most often, the National Academy of Sciences. The National Academy of Sciences is arguably the nation's most influential body of science advisors, though few of us know just how the Academy is chosen and how it works. But one man who does is Washington journalist Daniel Greenberg, who has recently written "Science, Money and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion". He joins us now. Welcome to Living on Earth, Mr. Greenberg.
GREENBERG: Thank you, glad to be with you.
CURWOOD: So, let's start at the beginning. Just who makes up the National Academy of Sciences?
GREENBERG: Well, that's sort of a mysterious subject. The academy is a pretty transparent organization today, compared to what it used to be. It used to operate pretty much behind closed doors. It consists now of something close to 2,000 members--that's the Academy of Sciences. Every year they elect about 70 more to replace retirees and people who have died. The members elect the new members. On what basis they choose them it's very hard to say, but the generally understood basis is that these are people who have made original contributions to basic science.
CURWOOD: Why was it formed?
GREENBERG: It was formed by President Lincoln, in 1863, to provide scientific and technical advice to the federal government, and it has existed ever since then with that mandate in its charter. Itís chartered by the Congress. Today, there are many, many other organizations that provide scientific and technical advice to the federal government: the Rand Corporation for example, many universities, but the National Academy of Science considers itself to be the premier think tank, the special institution that advises the federal government.
CURWOOD: How are topics for research chosen?
GREENBERG: Most of its money and most of its activities are for work that's brought to it by the federal government by federal agencies, and just about every federal agency finds that the National Academy of Sciences is a very useful organization. That's one track on which they operate. The other is, the academy, on its own, using its own funds--it has some endowment funds and it gets some money from private foundations--will take up particular subjects, such as the need for science advice in the State Department. They recently issued a report about technology education, saying that the schools should stress this, all the way from kindergarten through graduate school; that American young people don't know enough about the role of technology in society.
CURWOOD: Now, let's look at one specific issue that the National Academy of Sciences is weighing in on. President George Bush came into office and was not terribly pleased with some of President Clinton's regulations. One of those was a new standard for arsenic in drinking water. So Mr. Bush asked the Academy of Sciences to review the science behind the arsenic standards. How did the academy deal with this request?
GREENBERG: The Academy went back and reviewed the original study, and then it looked to see if there was any additional data that might be taken into consideration, and what it essentially did was reaffirm the original finding: that the parts per billion of arsenic in the water should be lowered substantially. I don't think the administration was particularly happy with this finding, but it would have been in a very embarrassing position if it decided to ignore what the academy was saying. And I think that, basically, it came around to the academy position.
CURWOOD: How did the academy report end up influencing the president's decision about arsenic?
GREENBERG: That's difficult to say, but the academy has a quality and a tool that I don't think gets sufficient recognition. And that is the power of embarrassment. Here you have the best scientists, who have no stake in the issue--these aren't people who own waterworks or are concerned with the economics of water or anything of the sort. They're simply saying such and such a level of arsenic in the water supply poses health problems. The academy doesn't conduct any research of its own. What it simply does is goes back to research that's already been conducted, does a literature search, looks at what other scientists have found along the way, and they will say, the weight of evidence is such and such, and establishes that a particular level of arsenic in the water will be injurious to the health of the American people.
Now, a president kind of ignores that at his peril, because he can be so easily attacked as a very vulnerable flank, once the academy has stated its opinion, particularly on a health issue, but also on many other issues.
CURWOOD: Tell me about the history of the National Academy of Sciences and accusations of bias by its committees.
GREENBERG: There were many accusations, I recall, back in the sixties and seventies, about bias on committees: that they were loaded with people from industry, that they really didn't look for diversity of opinions or expertise but were just trying to fulfill the expectations of people who were seeking studies. The academy responded to that, I think, by introducing a great deal of openness into its operations. It announces beforehand who are the members of the committees. They are required to reveal conflicts of interest. It publishes a vast amount. You can go on the web and find thousands of academy documents.
But I think that, by and large, the academy today is regarded as a very useful tool of government. If a scientific or technical issue comes up that has deep political significance to it, well, like stem cell research, cloning and things of that sort, they just produced on cloning the other day, people pay attention to it because they figure it's informed, it's fair, it's objective. They don't have any particular axe to grind except the furtherance of scientific research. And it's a trustworthy institution.
CURWOOD: Daniel Greenberg covers science and politics, recently wrote a book entitled, ìScience, Money and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosionî. Thanks for speaking with me today.
GREENBERG: Thank you very much.
[MUSIC: XTC, "The Wheel and the Maypole," HOMEGROWN (TVT-2001)]
CURWOOD: Molds are a type of fungus, and out in nature molds play an important role in breaking down dead and decaying matter. But if they get inside buildings, mold toxins and reproductive spores can lead to serious illnesses, including sinus infections and asthma attacks. In Texas, the Austin Independent School District has been hard hit by mold, and its removal is running into the millions of dollars. Janet Heimlich reports.
HEIMLICH: Robin Sykes' daughter, Caroline, is in the fourth grade at Patton Elementary School in Southwest Austin. Ms. Sykes says Caroline has been getting occasional headaches since the first grade, but they were never very bad.
SYKES: Near last spring, though, I noticed the headaches began to become more severe. She complained about them practically every afternoon. And the only thing that would make them go away was to take Motrin and lie down for a couple of hours. So I became concerned.
(Photo: Janet Heimlich)
[SCHOOL AMBIENT SOUNDS]
HEIMLICH: As you walk down the halls of Patton Elementary School, you notice that some classrooms have been sealed off from the public. Their doors are locked, and plastic sheeting hangs in the doorways. Inside, the rooms have been gutted.
[SOUND OF KEYS, DOOR OPENING]
LAUDERDALE: You can see they've done a little bit in here.
HEIMLICH: Jerry Lauderdale is an indoor air quality consultant hired by the school district to oversee testing in mold removal. The room he is standing in looks like it's under construction. Its sheetrock has been removed from the walls, revealing metal studs with insulation in between. At the base of the walls, a couple of feet of insulation has also been removed. Mr. Lauderdale says it was here that crews found several inches of mold.
LAUDERDALE: Kind of black, splotchy areas of mold growth on the surface of the sheetrock right behind that base trim, in many areas.
BLACK: I can remember, ten years ago, when you went into a school and there was concern about an indoor quality complaint, it was often hard to find the cause. You really had to search very significantly whether it might be a chemical exposure, pesticide exposure. Now when you go in, you can literally see the mold growth.
HEIMLICH: Ms. Black says more schools are being affected now because shrinking budgets make it harder for schools to keep up maintenance and hire good contractors. Some say schools built in the last 20 or 30 years are particularly vulnerable to mold because they're poorly ventilated and have flat roofs which are prone to leaks. Also, numerous schools are lined with sheetrock, which mold likes to feed on. Now, schools are struggling to pay to have the mold removed or rebuild their facilities. Dr. Edward Fuentes is the deputy superintendent who oversees construction and maintenance for the Austin Independent School District. Dr. Fuentes says his district is looking at a bill of about $18 million, to pay for testing and mold removal at three schools.
FUENTES: What's happening is that we have to take the money out of our regular operating funds to fund this stuff, and if you want to pay teachers well enough to keep them, you want to add programs or others, that's competing.
HEIMLICH: To pay to remove mold and fix leaks in some 90 schools, the Austin School District has introduced a $49 million bond measure. It will be voted on February 2nd. But despite the financial pains, the problem has brought to light the possible health effects of indoor mold. It's known that people who are allergic to outdoor mold suffer with sinus congestion, watery itchy eyes, and other symptoms. But when mold gets inside a building, it can affect even those who have no known allergy to mold. Dr. David Straus is a professor of microbiology and immunology at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock.
STRAUS: What's different about being inside of a building, of course, as opposed to outside, is that as these organisms grow in the building, their concentrations increase. It's really just like them living in a box.
HEIMLICH: In 1998, Dr. Straus completed a study of 48 Texas schools with mold problems. He interviewed the staff before and after mold was removed. Dr. Straus says after the mold was gone complaints of health problems dropped significantly.
STRAUS: There was an absolute correlation between the presence of these organisms in the building and the phenomenon we refer to as sick building syndrome.
HEIMLICH: Dr. Straus says some molds are more toxic than others. It's still unproven whether these molds cause such serious ailments as bleeding lungs and memory loss. At Patton Elementary School researchers found a number of different kind of toxic molds. Last year, administrators and others doubted mold was making people sick, but today you'll find few skeptics at Patton.
Robin Sykes, whose daughter was having bad headaches, says Caroline got better when summer came around and she was away from school. Teacher Michael Massed says before mold was found in his classroom and he and his third graders were moved to a different space, he had had a persistent cough and nasal drip.
MASSED: I still really couldn't quite bring myself to say yes, it's because of the mold, but since I've moved out here I have clearly felt a lot better. I haven't been to the doctor once. So now I'm thinking, while it's still unscientific, I have to think that it had something to do with being removed from that environment.
HEIMLICH: Mr. Massed says he hopes the bond measure to renovate Austin schools will pass. That way, the district will have enough money to pay for both important educational programs and a safer environment. For Living on Earth, I'm Janet Heimlich in Austin.
CURWOOD: And you're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: Time now to follow up on some of the news stories we've been tracking lately. After a long bout with a massive outbreak of foot and mouth disease in British livestock, the U.K. is now officially free of the disease. James Hughes, First Secretary of Agriculture and Trade at the British Embassy in Washington, says British beef will now be allowed back into the international food market.
HUGHES: This means that it's another step forward. It means that we can look to, hopefully in the next few weeks or so, beginning to resume exports, and it means that the industry can start to return to a little bit of normality.
CURWOOD: Mr. Hughes promises there will be a great deal more regulation of animal movement in Great Britain to prevent the spread of any future foot and mouth outbreaks.
Last week, we highlighted the role of the Federal Bureau of Land Management in energy production on public lands. This week, the Bureau announced that it is considering allowing drilling of eight natural gas wells on Upper Missouri Breaks' national monument in Montana, which was designated a monument by President Clinton. The exploration companies say that these types of wells can be drilled with minimal environmental impact. Bob Decker, the executive director of the Montana Wilderness Association, disagrees.
DECKER: Where has development in this kind of undeveloped, scenic, historically valuable public land occurred without significant environmental impacts? We always challenge the industry to prove it, and they haven't yet.
CURWOOD: Mr. Decker says this region is a last remnant of the wild Missouri River system, and remains much the same as Lewis & Clark saw it, more than 200 years ago.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton has announced that the new federal budget would boost spending on the National Wildlife Refuge system by 18 percent, the largest dollar increase ever.
NORTON: The $56 million increase will include $30 million for refuge maintenance, and that will allow us to do a number of things to enhance the ability of visitors to come to refuges, that will take care of some of the problems that have long been neglected.
CURWOOD: Some examples of these improvements are, to give better access for the disabled, as well as boardwalk and trail maintenance. Secretary Norton says this will help visitors and also prevent visitors from disturbing wildlife by wandering off the trail. And that's this week's follow-up on the news from Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: Just ahead, animal pharmacists. First, this environmental Business Note from Jennifer Chu.
CHU: Some Florida gasoline stations will soon get some extra mileage out of the state's sunshine. The international oil company British Petroleum is installing solar canopies in 40 of its gas stations in the Orlando area. These solar panels will be set up over each gas pump island, and can generate up to 20 kilowatts of electricity a day. That's enough to power the lights and pumps, or about 15 percent of the station's total energy needs. The drawback is that the energy can't be stored for nighttime use.
The solar project is part of BP's $100 million expansion in central Florida. It's part of a plan that also includes the introduction of a low sulfur fuel at these solar driven stations. The new fuel contains 65 percent less sulfur than the average premium gasoline, which is equivalent to taking more than 1600 cars off the road on any given day. But the less polluting fuel comes with a cost. Consumers should expect to pay as much as 25 cents a gallon more for the low sulfur gasoline. So far, BP has retrofitted 14 of its 40 Orlando stations. That's this week's Business Note. I'm Jennifer Chu.
CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.
[CUTAWAY 2 MUSIC: Hooverphonic, "Waves", THE MAGNIFICENT TREE (SONY/EPIC - 2000)]
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Zoopharmacognasy. Maybe you've never heard the word before, but perhaps you've seen it in action. It happens when your cat or dog starts eating grass when he's feeling ill, or when a sick cow starts to lick clay to get rid of toxins in her body. Zoopharmacognasy is the study of animal self-medication, and it's the subject of a new book called "Wild Health: How Animals Keep Themselves Well and What We Can Learn From Them". Living on Earth's Science Editor Diane Toomey spoke with the book's author, Cindy Engel.
TOOMEY: Professor Engel, you give many examples in your book of how animals appear to be medicating themselves in the wild, and I'd like you to read a little portion of the section where you write about South American capuchin monkeys and their encounters with millipedes.
ENGEL: Okay. Upon finding one of these large, as long as eight centimeters, millipedes. A capuchin gets it to release its defense of toxins by rubbing it and rolling over it, intermittently taking it into its mouth without eating, and slowly withdrawing it again. During mouthing, the monkey drools copiously and its eyes glaze over. One millipede can be shared by several capuchins. Those that do not have one of their own rub against others that are already covered in secretion. The result is the anticipated writhing cluster of drooling monkeys.
TOOMEY: What an image. Professor, why would monkeys rub millipedes all over themselves?
ENGEL: Well, they live in an environment where they are under almost constant attack from biting insects, and any small hole in the skin is going to leave them open to bacterial and fungal infections-- this is a very warm, moist environment. And obviously, the skin is therefore going to be quite uncomfortable and quite irritated a lot of the time.
to swallow as scour for worms.
(Photo: Michael A. Huffman)
TOOMEY: How do animals know what to do when they're ill?
ENGEL: Well, from reviewing the research to date it seems that the most common method that they're using is trial and error of something that actually makes them feel better. And the reason I say that is because in laboratory studies it's been shown that if you take a sick rat, the rat will increase the diversity of the type of foods that it's eating until it finds something that makes itself feel better, and then it will concentrate on eating that. So, that's one mechanism that's going on.
In the great apes, the primates, we've probably got some learning and some what's now being called culture in primate societies-- we've probably got some of those mechanisms at work, as well, about what's useful in their environment.
TOOMEY: And there's also a fascinating theory that you write about in your book that animals and humans alter their tolerance for bitterness.
TOOMEY: And this may be a clue as to what substances they take in when they're ill. Talk to us about that.
ENGEL: The story came particularly from chimpanzee self-medication. It was noticed that very sick chimpanzees who are kind of overloaded with nodule worm infestations will go and choose the most bitter plant in their environment, called bitter pith-- and it's known locally as goat killer, it's that horrible. But a sick chimpanzee will suck this pith on and off for 12, 24 hours, until they get better. And Michael Huffman of Kyoto University has found out that this directly reduces the amount of nodule worms. The nodule worms are killed by the toxins in this plant.
TOOMEY: Perhaps it doesn't come as a surprise that an animal as intelligent as a chimp may be able to self-medicate, but you have some examples of even insects medicating themselves-- if you could tell us about that.
ENGEL: That's right. And the example that interests me is one by Rick Karban and his team at California where they were studying the effects of these lethal parasites on wooly caterpillars. And what happens normally when you study these caterpillars in the laboratory is that they get infected with these parasites. The fly lays its eggs inside the abdomen of the caterpillar and the larvae grows so large that the caterpillar dies. And so, because they're normally lethal, these parasites are called parasitoids-- meaning that they always kill their host, as it were.
And the team of scientists were studying this in the laboratory but they got overcrowded, and they had to start using outdoor enclosures. And when they did they found something very interesting, because as soon as they started observing these infected caterpillars outside they discovered that the caterpillars survived these apparently lethal paresitoids, and they discovered that the caterpillars were able to do this because they had choice of medicinal herbal plants in their outdoor enclosures. And the thing that was saving them was that they were switching their diet to toxic hemlock, and the hemlock was, somehow, helping prevent the parasites from killing the caterpillars.
TOOMEY: You make a point of explaining the reasons behind the difficulty of studying animal self-medication in the wild. What are some of the difficulties in this field?
ENGEL: When youíre looking at animal self-medication you've quite often got to look at animals for a long period of time. If I could just give you an example of elephant behavior. A research scientist, Holly Dublin, who was studying elephants for many years, had to watch an elephant for a whole year before she saw one incident of what looked like self-medication. So, that's the main problem.
The other problem is that only 15 percent of plants on the planet have actually been analyzed in any detail chemically for their medicinal compounds and so on. And so most of what we see wild animals eating, we don't know what they're eating. (Laughs) So we have no idea whether they're eating something medicinal or not.
TOOMEY: Most everything that we've ever thought about that sets us apart from the animal world has really been shot down: tool making, emotions, so on. And you write that this idea of animals medicating themselves touches a nerve. And I'm wondering, is that because this is just one more example of how thin that dividing line is between us and them?
ENGEL: I think it could be. But I think it's slightly worse for the idea of animal self-medication, because it has all these links to herbalism, and herbalism is linked to pre-scientific era-- especially in Europe, it's linked to witchcraft and old wivesí tales and so on. And so it's kind of even more anathema to scientists than, say, tool making. It has greater links to the thing that worries scientists most, which is anthropomorphizing animals.
TOOMEY: So, Professor Engel, what can we learn from "Wild Health"?
ENGEL: I think one of the most important things we can learn is to take back some of the responsibility for our own health and to pay more attention to how we feel on a day-to-day basis. I mean, what we're tending to do is to ignore our health until we're actually ill, and then go to an expert and try and buy something that's going to make us better, which is not what we're seeing in the wild. For animals medicine is something they do, whereas for humans medicine is something we buy from experts. And I think that's probably the biggest lesson we can learn.
TOOMEY: Professor Engel, thanks for joining us today.
ENGEL: Thank you very much.
CURWOOD: Cindy Engel, a professor of environmental sciences at Open University in Suffolk, England, and author of the book "Wild Health: How Animals Keep Themselves Well and What We Can Learn From Them." She spoke with Living on Earth's Diane Toomey.
CURWOOD: Many songbirds live in the tropics, but head north to more temperate climes in the spring when it comes time for breeding. One reason: the eating's better up north as great volumes of insects and other bird food also emerge in the spring. But, as Nancy Cohen reports, it ain't the chow that the birds are singing about when they get here.
COHEN: Although it may seem that birds sing because they enjoy it, their intricate songs are actually a tool for communicating. In the world of birds, it's the males who do most of the singing. Dr. Bruce Byers, a biologist from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, says they sing in contests with other males, and when they sing to females, as Byers translates it, they're broadcasting a kind of personal ad.
BYERS: "I'm better than the other males. I'm better than my neighbor. I'm stronger. I'm healthier. I have better genes for you to pass to your offspring. I'm strong, I'm sexy. Come mate with me."
COHEN: Byers is a quiet guy who's spent more than a decade studying the songs of one species, the small yellow capped, chestnut sided warbler. The bird's song is best described as, well, warbly.
BYERS: The notes kind of tumble out one after the other in kind of a watery fashion, almost.
COHEN: Byers has chosen to study the chestnut-sided warbler because of this song, the one males use to attract females. The song doesn't vary much from bird to bird, nor does it vary much between renditions sung by a single bird, which raises the question: what does a female listen for in these songs?
BYERS: It seems unlikely that females were basing their choice on, say, the repertoire or the complexity of these songs. They must have been basing it on something else.
COHEN: Byers' goal is to find out if there is something special about the songs of the successful males, the ones who have the highest number of offspring. To find the answer, he spends every spring going to work well before dawn.
[SOUNDS OF HIKING]
COHEN: It's June, about 4:00 in the morning. Byers is making his way down a muddy trail in the Savoy State Forest, about three hours west of Boston. His field site is on the edge of the woods. It's not exactly what you'd call pristine. It's a swath of cleared land that runs beneath towering electric power lines. The power poles don't seem to bother these birds. In fact, they build their nests right underneath them.
BYERS: It's Thursday, June 14th, at 4:43 a.m., recording a bird halfway between pole seven and pole eight.
COHEN: Byers spends the morning tromping up and down the hillside, tuning his ear to the birds and turning his tape recorder on and off and on again.
BYERS: Trying to get on this bird, halfway between eight and nine.
COHEN: Byers uses a parabolic microphone which juts out from the center of a large plastic dish. Any sound waves that hit the dish reflect back onto the microphone. This means he'll get a good recording without having to aim the mic precisely at the birds. This is what one of his recordings sounds like: [sound clip of bird song] This song, the chestnut sided warbler's mate attraction song, is transliterated in field guides this way:
BYERS: "Pleased, pleased, pleased, to MEET-cha." Or "Please, please, please, Miss BEECh-er." And to me it sounds like "Wheat, wheat, wheat, wheat, WHEAT-chu." Those last two syllables, the "wheat-chu" is louder than the introductory part of the song.
COHEN: After two breeding seasons, Byers has recorded hundreds of these mate attraction songs for each of the 56 male birds in this study. As he records, he identifies each singer by the multi-colored bands that he placed on the birds' legs earlier in the study. This allows Byers to create a profile of each male's singing style and correlate that with the bird's reproductive success. To find out which males had the most offspring, he takes blood samples and compares the DNA of each chick with that of both parents from every nest in his study.
By early September, the chestnut-sided warblers are migrating to Central America where they spend the winter, and Byers goes back to his lab, a drab cinder block room at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
[SOUND OF TYPING]
COHEN: Byers is taking a close look at the songs of the males with the most offspring-- a very close look. Here, he's measuring frequency.
BYERS: And now we have this-- a graph has appeared on the screen. And what it shows is for each frequency of sound that appears in this song, how much energy the bird has put into that particular frequency in the sound. And so what ...
[SOUND OF BYERS TALKING UNDER]
COHEN: After years of research, Byers has made a significant discovery: the male birds who have the most offspring almost always stay on a single frequency or pitch when they're singing the mate attraction song.
BYERS: So if it's a high pitch, they're singing it at exactly that same high pitch time after time after time. Some birds vary it a little bit when they sing a series of songs of the same type. The first one's high, the second one's maybe a little lower, and they're going high, low, high, low, high, high, low, and not keeping it consistent from song to song. Those birds have lower reproductive success.
COHEN: These are preliminary results. Byers will spend the winter looking at other aspects of these songs such as whether each syllable is equal in length to every other syllable. Such detailed analysis seems daunting, but Byers says understanding bird songs is worth it.
BYERS: They're among the most elaborate and complex vocalizations in the animal world, including humans, and just as we acquire language, songbirds acquire their songs. They're not born knowing them; they have to learn them.
COHEN: How the songs develop and evolve is the bigger question that drives Byers' work. The quest draws him close to the small details of bird life.
[SOUND OF TAPPING AND FOREST]
COHEN: Back in June, Byers pointed out a perfectly crafted nest cradled in the crook of a branch. Inside were two scrawny, just hatched nestlings, their heads as big as their bellies, naked, featherless.
BYERS: They are strange looking creatures and it's hard to believe that just about 12 days from now they'll have all their feathers and they'll be able to fly out of the nest. They grow so fast.
COHEN: Even after years of research Byers is still in awe of the chestnut-sided warbler. Now that he has shown that the males who father the most offspring sing the most consistently, he wants to turn to the females. Can females discriminate differences in singing style? And if so, do they base their choice of mates on those differences? Perhaps it's female choice which is shaping the evolution of the elaborate singing of the chestnut-sided warbler. For Living On Earth, I'm Nancy Cohen in Savoy, Massachusetts.
[MUSIC: Jewel Akens, "The Birds and the Bees", REMEMBERING 1966 (Dominion - 2001)]
CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week, how some photographers ignore, manipulate, even destroy pristine landscape to shoot that one stunning, singular magazine cover.
MAN: I started looking at landscape photography in the way you would look at fold-outs from Playboy: the very selective precision with which somebody's posed the landscape.
CURWOOD: Taking nature out of nature photography, next week on Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: We leave you this week with the sounds of "Waking Woodlands." Recordist Douglas Quinn marks the transition from night to day in tree-filled regions in Brazil, Madagascar, and Kenya, and then blends the results into something he calls "Forest: Book of Hours."
[SOUND CLIP, Douglas Quinn, "Prime", FORESTS: A BOOK OF HOURS (EarthEar - 2001)]
CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Maggie Villiger, Jennifer Chu, and Gernot Wagner, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson and Milisa Muniz. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. And congratulations to Liz Lempert and her husband Ken on the arrival of a new nine pound baby girl. Her name is Ella, but we'll just call her Ellie. We had help this week from Jessica Penny, Rachel Girshick and Jessie Fenn.
Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of Earth Ear. Our technical director is Dennis Foley, Ingrid Lobet 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.
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the William and Flora Hewlitt Foundation, for coverage of western issues; the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education, and The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living On Earth Network-- Living On Earth's expanded Internet service.
ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
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