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

May 6, 2005

Air Date: May 6, 2005



Driving Change: The Road to the Future

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We’ve always been a car-obsessed country. Two auto analysts, Danny Hakim of the New York Times and Walter McManus from the University of Michigan, help us take a look under the hood at the economics and psychology of our car culture, and how that’s changing as the price of gasoline goes up. (06:45)

Waste Not

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Part I: Some environmentalists and businesses are taking a new look at ethanol, the alcohol fuel now made from Midwestern corn. They believe expanding ethanol production to grass and crop waste could mean importing less gasoline and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Brooke Coleman of the Renewable Energy Action Project about the promise of waste-based ethanol.
Part II:Our conversation on cellulosic ethanol continues with Jerry Marin of California’s Air Resources Board. He says his state doesn’t like ethanol. Brooke Coleman of the Renewable Energy Action Project responds. (10:40)

Expired Beverages / Lisa Ann Pinkerton

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Lisa Ann Pinkerton of WYEP in Pittsburgh continues our look at the new ethanol with a visit with two entrepreneurs who show you can make ethanol from old beer and soda. (04:30)

Veggie Van

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When Kaya and Joshua Tickell want a fill-up, they drive to the nearest fast food joint and ask for a helping of used vegetable oil, hold the fries. The Tickells take used cooking oil and turn it into clean-burning biodiesel fuel to power what they call their Veggie Van. Producer Bill George caught up with the pair on the road in Sarasota, Florida and has this sound portrait. (04:30)

Judgement Day

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“Heaven help us,” advises satirist Rich Pliskin and his Players of Princeton, New Jersey. If admission past the pearly gates depends on what we drive, some of us may be in trouble. (02:30)

Science Note/Lemon Cleaner

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Living on Earth's Katie Olivieri reports how a touch of lemon juice could clean up diesel engines and their emissions. (01:45)

The Segway Revolution?

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Three and a half years ago, the Segway was so top secret it needed a code name: Ginger. When it was finally revealed in December 2001, it was hailed as a device that would change the face of transportation. Host Bruce Gellerman visits the Segway headquarters in Bedford, New Hampshire to see how the human transporter has lived up to the hype. (07:30)

NASCAR's Lead Foot / Jeff Young

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Jeff Young goes to the race track to track down one of the last uses of leaded gasoline: NASCAR racing. Lead in gas is linked to brain damage and at least one environmentalist is pushing the racers to switch to unleaded. NASCAR says they're trying but it's not an easy task. (07:15)

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Danny Hakim, Walter McMannus, Brooke Coleman, Jerry Martin,
REPORTERS: Lisa Ann Pinkerton, Jeff Young
NOTE: Katie Oliveri


GELLERMAN: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.


GELLERMAN: I’m Bruce Gellerman. Americans love their cars—big—but with rising gas prices, you’d think U.S. automakers might try to shift our affections to fuel-efficient models. Think again, says an industry analyst. Detroit is stuck in reverse.

HAKIM: When Toyota and Honda were creating hybrids, General Motors was creating the Hummer brand.

GELLERMAN: As they plan the future of the automobile, who’s in the driver seat? We kick the tires and look under the hood of the auto industry. Also, Indy 500 drivers are getting the lead out of their fuel, but NASCAR’s are still in the slow lane.

MAN: It has been banned throughout the world even in far-flung places like Kazakhstan. If Kazakhstan can get rid of lead in gasoline, why can’t NASCAR?

GELLERMAN: Driving change—the road to the future. This week on Living on Earth. Stick around.

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

Driving Change: The Road to the Future

The 2005 Toyota Prius (Courtesy of Toyota)

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, sitting in for Steve Curwood. We love our cars. Last year alone, Americans bought 17 million of them and we drive 1.3 billion miles a day, burning up 312 billion gallons of fuel each year in the process. So, how much are you paying for a gallon these days? The spike in oil prices, foreign policy concerns and worries about air pollution and global warming have ignited interest in alternative fuels and vehicles, accelerating a trend in the auto industry. Just last month, Japanese car makers Toyota and Nissan announced their U.S. sales soared by 25 percent while the fortunes of GM and Ford continued to sink. We turn to Walter McMannus. He’s director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan and Danny Hakim. He’s the Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times. Hakim talks about what kinds of cars Americans are buying.

HAKIM: You know, in the 1990s, the big sport utility vehicles and large pickup trucks really started to gain a lot of ground. This year and over the last year, they’ve been slipping a little bit and it seems like consumers are shifting to smaller SUVs. They’re a bit more fuel efficient and part of that is just driven by the fact that automakers have started to produce a lot more of those small SUVs.

GELLERMAN: Where is the auto industry in the United States right now in terms of fuel efficiency and just responding to this whole gasoline crisis?

HAKIM: I would not characterize two dollars and what is it now? Fifty cents; that’s not a crisis. It’s not higher than it was in the ‘70s and it’s also about right where it was in the ‘40s before it fell during the ‘50s. So it’s, we’ve seen prices this high before and people still bought vehicles. But if you look at what’s available in the marketplace, there’s a huge number of vehicles, you don’t have to go hybrid, you don’t have to go car. You can get an SUV that has good fuel economy and something like 20 percent of all entries, all entries in the market have fuel economy that’s better than twice the median fuel economy. And that means there’s lots of choices and all people have to do is buy them.

The 2005 Toyota Prius. (Courtesy of Toyota)

GELLERMAN: Well, if the Japanese were so surprised by the sales of SUVs, are American carmakers surprised by the incredible sales of hybrids?

HAKIM: Well, I wouldn’t say they’re incredible. I mean, so far there’s only a quarter of a million hybrid vehicles on the road in the U.S. And, you know, they sell more pickup trucks in a quarter than that so it’s not an incredible number. But it is having an incredible impact and I think what is surprising to the Detroit automakers is how quickly people have responded to the higher fuel prices. You know, the SUV sales being down 20 percent in the first quarter compared to a year ago, that’s very important. They’ve been saying for years people don’t care about fuel economy, they’ll keep buying these things, and they’re changing their behavior.

MCMANNUS: But I would say there is very much still a debate in Detroit about the effect of higher gas prices on consumer behavior. General Motors is still pretty adamant that its customers aren’t affected by gas prices and it’s really not affecting purchase decisions. And, by contrast to that, Ford cited higher gas prices as a key factor in its lower earnings forecast for this year. And Ford executives are quite open in saying that, you know fewer people are buying these large SUVs because of gas prices. And, you know, in this era of rising gas prices, they have a pretty big bet on large SUVs and pickup trucks. And I think there’s a fair number of analysts that think there’s a risk to that. You know, if gas prices are going to be rising for some time or are going to be sustained at a higher level, is it a good position to be in for Ford and GM to have so much of your business banked on some of the least fuel efficient vehicles?

GELLERMAN: But people are standing in line to buy one of these hybrid cars and Detroit has to literally give people money to buy one of their cars.

HAKIM: That giving away money, I mean, when GM says that people are not responding to the gas price, they’re being a little disingenuous because over the past three years, they’ve increased the incentives on SUVs and the pickup trucks much more than they’ve increased the incentives on anything else. When they say there’s no effective fuel economy, yeah, if you lower the price.

GELLERMAN: The average fuel efficiency of cars sold in the United States peaked in what? 1988?


GELLERMAN: It was a little bit over 22 miles per gallon and now it’s down to less than 21 miles a gallon. We’re going backwards.

MCMANNUS: Well, we’re not going backwards, we’re just not going forward. I mean, the decline within cars, within trucks, it’s gone up. The cars are more fuel-efficient than they were. Trucks are more fuel-efficient than they were. What’s happened is the shift, you know, the mix has shifted toward the trucks and so that’s why we’ve gone down.

HAKIM: We’ve really become a country of truck buyers to a large extent. In 1980, about 80 percent of the vehicles sold in the U.S., the light duty vehicles were passenger cars. Today, less than half of the vehicles sold in the U.S. are passenger cars.

GELLERMAN: Walter, looking down the road where is this industry going?

MCMANNUS: Well, for the U.S., the industry is saturated, I mean they’re fully mature. There’s, the growth has been very slow, in terms of the total vehicles that are sold. It’s not going to be huge, but interestingly enough it’s still an attractive investment opportunity for the Japanese, the Koreans and maybe some day, a Chinese company is not only going to sell cars here, but they’re going to assemble them and build them here. And at a time when the American traditional big three are shrinking and they’re closing plants and they’re scaling back, here the other companies are coming here.

GELLERMAN: Danny Hakim?

HAKIM: I do think you’ll start to see the big three, the American automakers produce more fuel efficient cars going forward because it’s going to be a competitive issue rather than an environmental issue. When Toyota and Honda were creating hybrids, General Motors was creating the Hummer brand. I think going forward they’re going to have to reconcile with some of these environmental issues and with regulations that are tightening up around the world from China to Canada. California is pushing a tough new global warming regulation for automobiles. I think this is just going to become a business reality.

GELLERMAN: Danny Hakim writes about the auto industry and is the Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times. Walter McMannus is the director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan. I want to thank you both for being with us.

MCMANNUS: You’re welcome.

HAKIM: Thank you.

Related link:
Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation

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Waste Not

GELLERMAN: There was once a time when happy motoring meant touring the USA in your Chevrolet and you even got service with a smile. Life seemed simpler then.

[BANJO MUSIC: “And up through the ground, come a bubblin’ crude, oil that is…” ]

GELLERMAN: But today, 50 or 60 bucks a fillup, Jed Clampit might have abandoned the old cement pond and chosen to stay on the family farm. Instead of drilling Texas tea, he might be distilling moonshine, ethanol. Since the 1990s, ethanol’s been required by some states as a gas additive to curb emissions. Now, with the price of gasoline sky high, the homegrown alternative fuel has President Bush’s support.

BUSH: I like the idea of people growing corn. It gets converted into fuel for cars and trucks. Our farmers can help us become less dependent on foreign oil.

GELLERMAN: With me to discuss the buzz about making ethanol from agricultural and industrial waste is Brooke Coleman of the Renewable Energy Action Project. Hi Brooke.

COLEMAN: Thanks for having me.

GELLERMAN: So, ethanol has been around for a long time. I mean, the Germans were using it, I think we were using it in World War II.

COLEMAN: That’s correct. Ethanol in this country has been produced since the early part of the 20th century. The Model T, the Ford Model T, ran on both an ethanol blend and a petroleum blend.

GELLERMAN: And in the ‘70s when they had the oil shock prices then in the long gas lines. Ethanol was in the news and people were using it. So, what’s new here is that, instead of making it from corn, now we can make it from other things.

COLEMAN: Correct. There’s a term called cellulosic ethanol and the end product is the same. However, cellulosic ethanol comes from the leaves, stems and stalks of the plants instead of just the fruits and the seeds. So if today’s ethanol producers grow corn to harvest a corn kernel, tomorrow’s producers may be choosing from rice, wheat, oat, barley, straw, switch grass. Some companies even want to make it out of urbanized waste streams and municipal waste and even stale beer.

GELLERMAN: So, how much ethanol is the United States using right now as fuel in gasoline?

COLEMAN: Oh, it’s about just over three billion gallons of ethanol, around three billion gallons and that is still a fairly small percentage of the United States’ overall consumption of gasoline, which is up around 130 billion gallons a year.

GELLERMAN: So, it can be used to extend the supply of gasoline?

COLEMAN: It can.

GELLERMAN: And I was reading it can increase octane levels and it can decrease engine emissions.

COLEMAN: That’s true.

GELLERMAN: What’s new now is that we can use all of these other waste products, now why is that new? Couldn’t we have taken all this waste and turned it into fuel before?

COLEMAN: The reason that that’s new is to produce ethanol from the stems and stalks of a plant as opposed to say the corn kernel. There’s another step in the production process. The corn kernel is what people refer to as a fermentable carbohydrate. That means that it ferments easily into a fuel-grade alcohol. The stems and stalks have to be broken down into a fermentable carbohydrate and that involves a variety of methods and the one that many investors see as the future of the industry is using micro-organisms to break the plant matter down into a fermentable carbohydrate.

GELLERMAN: And those are novel micro-organisms, or you can get them in any store?

COLEMAN: No, you can’t get them in any store. There are companies that are working on putting these enzymes on the market and what that allows is a more efficient production of ethanol.

GELLERMAN: I know there’s a big controversy over whether you are actually getting a yield, an energy yield for using corn for ethanol production because you have to have oil to have the tractors and you have to have pesticides, chemical-based, herbicides and all that kind of stuff.

COLEMAN: That’s correct and it’s a responsible question to ask. In the last five to six years, ethanol production efficiency has increased significantly and the Department of Energy in several studies has confirmed that there’s a positive net energy balance. But the point here is to let, allow the industry to further mature, to implement more efficient production strategies and to move toward cellulosic ethanol, which is far more efficient.

GELLERMAN: And then you could have distilleries or fermenters all over the country. You wouldn’t be dependent upon just a few refineries at either end of the country.

COLEMAN: And that is one of the reasons that the oil industry is so opposed to ethanol production. They know that it’s a naturally decentralized industry. They know that there are not as significant barriers to entry as there are now. I mean there are a few upstart environmental entrepreneurs that are considering opening an oil refinery, however, there are several that are considering opening an ethanol refinery.

GELLERMAN: What is the potential of what you’re calling cellulosic ethanol?

COLEMAN: The potential is great. We’re talking on the order of 150 billion gallons by 2050 and presuming that our consumption of liquid fuels increases over 150 billion gallons by 2050, that still represents a majority of our consumption of liquid fuels, which would create jobs, tax revenue, fuel diversification, increase competition in the marketplace and reduce CO2 emissions which is where we need to go.

[MUSIC: Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” Television Themes: 16 Most Requested Songs (Columbia) 1994]

GELLERMAN: We’re talking with Brooke Coleman of the Renewable Energy Action Project about the promise of cellulosic ethanol. Coming up—California just says no to the stuff. It already has its fill. That’s just ahead on Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: G Love & Special Sauce “Lay Down the Law” Yeah, It’s That Easy (Okeh) 1997]

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Brooke Coleman of the Renewable Energy Action Project is a big fan of filling up our cars with ethanol made from waste. We’ll continue our conversation with him but first, California leads the nation in the use of clean fuels including ethanol. And because of its expertise curbing auto emissions, other states, even other countries, seek the advice of California’s Air Resources Board. But agency spokesman Jerry Martin says the Air Resources Board doesn’t share Brooke Coleman’s enthusiasm for waste-based ethanol.

MARTIN: The state of California and the Air Resources Board have some reservations about ethanol largely because we have done studies on granted older vehicles that show that using large amounts of ethanol increases nitrogen oxide emissions. Nitrogen oxides are the building block of photochemical smog and another problem we have with ethanol, of course, is that ethanol for California is an import product, which means that California drivers will have to pay an added cost to have ethanol put in their gasoline.

GELLERMAN: But California growers raise rice, you’ve got vineyards, you’ve got some of the largest agricultural areas in the country.

MARTIN: That’s correct. As a matter of fact, the state Air Resources Board has sponsored research projects to develop ethanol from rice straw as a way of helping rice growers in the Sacramento Valley get rid of the straw. We have nothing against ethanol, but we recognize some limitations with the product.

GELLERMAN: But you’re also fighting the federal government to get out of using ethanol in gasoline.

MARTIN: That’s correct. Largely because we don’t think it’s necessary. Cars built today are equipped with mechanical and electronic solutions to the problems that oxygenates in gasoline solved in the early ‘90s.

GELLERMAN: But Jerry, you know, as goes California, so goes the nation. Investors are watching California to see what you do with the waste ethanol, to give it a green light or not. Aren’t you depriving the rest of the country of a relatively clean renewable fuel?

MARTIN: We don’t think so and as I said earlier we are not against ethanol, we are just against a requirement demanded in Washington that California use an oxygenate when we don’t think it’s necessary. We think it adds to our air pollution burden and, of course, this is the most polluted state in the nation with 75 percent of the health-threatening pollution occurring here. We cannot afford to add a product to our fuel which we know will increase air pollution. Right now, ethanol is just another product Californians would have to pay for in their fuel.

GELLERMAN: Jerry Martin is spokesman for the California Air Resources Board. Jerry, thank you very much.

MARTIN: Thank you.

GELLERMAN: Brooke Coleman, you’re with the Renewable Energy Action Project and maybe this is not such a bright horizon as you were thinking originally?

COLEMAN: Well, we don’t agree with that position. There is a zone of disagreement basically. We don’t think that the evidence suggests that ethanol blends worsen air quality. In fact, ethanol has been used in some states since the mid ‘80s. Not a single state that has replaced either MTBE, which is the old oxygenate, with ethanol has ever had a documented air quality problem. And it’s important to point out here that every major city in this country monitors smog every hour of every day, 365 days a year. And so, when ethanol’s been used for two and a half decades and there’s no empirical evidence to suggest that the cities that use it have problems, then I think it’s time to move onto the more important issues here. And that’s petroleum displacement, global warming, job creation, and creating tax revenue in the state of California.

GELLERMAN: Brooke, is it possible that the rest of the country could increase its use of this waste ethanol and California do what it’s doing and the country would be better off or worse off, but that this could happen without California?

COLEMAN: It could, but when the California Air Resources Board comes out and says something, the rest of the country listens. And that’s true across the board for environmental policy makers.

GELLERMAN: But you said yourself, that, you know, in Midwest states they’re using this to a greater extent already.

COLEMAN: That’s correct, but we, there’s an opportunity here. And California’s the biggest consumer of gasoline in the country. To move a major, major sector of the transportation market toward what we believe is a more sustainable fuel use, I mean, we’re talking about; I mean look at California’s situation right now. They are blending 900 million, almost a billion gallons of ethanol. And their position to give refineries flexibility is basically, let refiners use as much ethanol as they want. And what that sounds like to the average consumer is, hey, flexibility is usually good. Well, what that sounds like for someone trying to develop an ethanol plant is a waste of money because you don’t build a 40-million dollar ethanol plant and hope that the refineries are going to use it.

GELLERMAN: Brooke, you mentioned that the petroleum companies are seemingly not all for this, they’ve got a vested interest in petroleum, so how do you create a market for this?

COLEMAN: One of the ways is you get several plants up and running. You know, the government says, hey, this is worth it from a public policy perspective. We’re going to invest, you know, a billion dollars, over the next 25 years and we’re going to get four or five plants up and running and we’re going to have a deployment strategy. And if it doesn’t work, you know we’re going to have reinsurance and insure the people based on performance.

GELLERMAN: Brooke Coleman is with the Renewable Energy Action Project in Massachusetts and Brooke, thank you very much.

COLEMAN: Thank you.

Related links:
- Renewable Energy Action Project
- California Air Resources Board

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Expired Beverages

Distillation towers of the New Companies plant where the beer will be boiled into alcohol/ethanol. (Photo: Lisa Ann Pinkerton)

GELLERMAN: Well, despite questions about the use of ethanol, a growing number of entrepreneurs are betting on the future of making the alternative fuel out of all sorts of stuff and starting up ethanol refineries that don’t use corn. Lisa Ann Pinkerton of WYEP in Pittsburgh has the story of two enterprising men in Ohio who are about to start making car juice-out of expired “brewski.”

PINKERTON: There may still be debate on what happens to city air when ethanol is mixed with gasoline. Nevertheless, the Clean Air Act of 1990 continues to require smoggy cities to blend oxygenates into their gas. And at a gas station along the rainy, Ohio turnpike, drivers are none the wiser.

MAN: Isn’t that like corn substitute or something like that?

WOMAN: I have no idea about gas. All I know is I just fill up my car. I don’t know what’s in there.

STUDENT: I’m not sure to be honest with you.

SALESMAN: It doesn’t bother me one way or the other. I mean I’ve got to drive.

PINKERTON: As long as the Federal Government requires ethanol, Ohio will be a large purchaser. This reality combined with an idiosyncrasy in the beverage business made one group of investors see a future in stale beer and soda. Just outside of Cleveland, Liquid Resources recycles whole pallets of expired beverages, all the way from the cardboard and plastic to brew inside, which can be converted into valuable ethanol.

COOK: You know, what we used to do is just take it to the dump. And the dump's eating all the glass. It’s a landfill you know.

PERRY: The whole state of Pennsylvania and all of southern Ohio is doing exactly the same thing.

COOK: Yeah, right.

PINKERTON: Liquid Resources clients are people like Steve Cook of Knoll Beverage. He wholesales around two million cases to greater Cleveland each year. But if products expire before they’re sold, the state requires him to destroy the controlled substance if he wants to get his valuable excise taxes back. This means taking it to a dump or burning it at hazardous waste facility.

COOK: In terms of if it’s recycled, we’re not even sure.

PINKERTON: But at Liquid Resources, Cook can avoid bureaucratic red tape, get his taxes back sooner and better the environment all at the same time.


PINKERTON: On the warehouse floor, amongst a sea of pallets, glass bottles are crushed and the liquid that was once useless appreciates in value as it trickles into a tank below.


PINKERTON: The glass shards left over fall into a dumpster outside to be recycled. Yellow tubing, snaking across the warehouse floor, carries the discarded beverage to its new destiny. As Co-founder Tim Curtis follows it, he says the plant could convert anything made with corn syrup.

CURTIS: Colas, juices, pop tart filling--products like that that have sugar are great products for us.

PINKERTON: At the opposite end of the warehouse, Curtis props a door open with a rock, before stepping toward two towering distillation columns, about three stories high.

Distillation towers of the New Companies plant where the beer will be boiled into alcohol/ethanol. (Photo: Lisa Ann Pinkerton)

CURTIS: The steam heats the alcohol and the process of distillation happens as the lighter parts of those solutions, which is the alcohol that we want, rises to the top of these columns. And what is flowing out of the top of the second column is a very pure kind of alcohol. For a listener’s standpoint 198 proof, 199 proof ethyl alcohol, which is ethanol--that is of sufficient quality to be used as a fuel blend.

PINKERTON: While Liquid Resources is happy to keep cans and bottles out of landfills, the idea to make ethanol out of wastes was purely a business decision.

CURTIS: We were really compelled toward making ethanol from other people’s wastes. They’re always going to have to get rid of and therefore, would have an interest in paying someone like us to manage.

PINKERTON: Once they finish calibrating their machines, Liquid Resources hopes to put around six million gallons of waste based ethanol on the market each year. But Daniel Sperling, head of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, says moving away from corn-based ethanol won’t be easy.

SPERLING: I think what we need is a redoubled effort to make sure that we do gradually make this transition from corn ethanol and perhaps we can adopt policies that are designed to do that. We don’t have that now. And so everyone takes the easy way out with the corn ethanol, even though, in the long term, it’s more expensive and uses more energy and produces more greenhouse gasses.

PINKERTON: Just outside of Cleveland, this is Lisa Ann Pinkerton for Living on Earth.

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Veggie Van

Kaya and Joshua Tickell in front of their Veggie Van (Courtesy of The Veggie Van Organization)

GELLERMAN: Cellulosic ethanol? It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Uh, fill ‘er up with cellulosic ethanol, okay buddy? Nah. Send us your suggestions to “Name that fuel. E-mail us at comments at loe dot org. That’s comments at loe dot o-r-g. While some folks will soon be filling their tanks with fuels made from flat coke or Budweiser, others are already using alternative fuels made of the oil that cooks their French fries.

WORKER: Hello, welcome to Long John Silvers. Is this going to be for here or to go?

CUSTOMER: It’s going to be to go. We’re with the Veggie Van…

GELLERMAN: Kaya and Josh Tickell power their Veggie Van with clean-burning bio-diesel. They travel the country to promote renewable energy and fill up using used cooking oil from fast food joints along the way. Producer Bill George caught up with the pair in Sarasota, Florida.


K. TICKELL: We were really amazed when we started researching this fuel. One thing that we learned is that the original diesel engine was designed by Rudolph Diesel, over 100 years ago to run on vegetable oil. His engine was later modified to run on a dirty byproduct of petroleum, which was called diesel fuel and the idea of running an engine on vegetable oil sort of got lost. So we wanted to take this idea back and help people know this unknown bit of information.

Kaya and Joshua Tickell in front of their Veggie Van (Photo: Courtesy of The Veggie Van Organization)

J. TICKELL: We spent a lot of time in the laboratory and in the engine compartment of different vehicles, learning about this fuel and making it work. And that became basically our obsession, our passion.

K. TICKELL: This is the Veggie Van—the vegetable oil-powered van that’s traveled all around the country powered by vegetable oil from fast food restaurants. We bought the Veggie Van but we didn’t want to put any strange fuel into the engine right away, before we knew it would actually work. So we got a small Volkswagen, a Volkswagen Jetta with a diesel engine and we experimented with various mixtures of this fryer grease fuel in that car until we felt confident enough that it worked.


J. TICKELL: Well, here we are inside the Veggie Van. Now this is our little mobile house. It’s kind of like a spaceship. It’s got everything we need to stay alive.

K. TICKELL: Everything electrical runs on solar power. So we’ve got the little refrigerator, little TV, couple fans. And you can see the charge controller over there on the wall, pretty much produces enough electricity for us to use anything we want. And even if it’s cloudy for a week, we still have enough electricity because we have batteries under that seat over there, which store the energy. And we’ve got the solar panels mounted on the roof, about 150 watts right now. At different times, we’ll have jugs of fuel in here, up to 100 gallons of fuel in jugs in here. The fuel is not flammable at all. You can throw a match on it and it won’t catch on fire. And it’s not toxic.

J. TICKELL: It’s smells like the inside of a fast food restaurant. It really does.


J. TICKELL: What we do to make the diesel engine run on vegetable oil is we modify the vegetable oil. We make it light and viscous just like diesel fuel is. And we do that by a very simple chemical process. We mix methanol, which is alcohol and lye, which is a white, powdery drain cleaner with the vegetable oil.


K. TICKELL: It’s actually a very empowering experience to make your own fuel, even if you just make a liter of fuel in a blender. The feeling that you can actually make something to create your own power and not have to be dependent on the oil companies or the gas station to still get from one place to the other. And also the environmental benefits are just fantastic. This fuel is 75 percent cleaner than diesel fuel. So, you really feel like you’re making an impact.

J. TICKELL: We get 25 miles to the gallon.


J. TICKELL: We’re just filling up the Veggie Van with some bio-diesel, which we made. And I’ve just got a little 12-volt pump here that I hook up to the engine and it just sucks it right out of the jugs and right into the fuel tank.


K. TICKELL: Sometimes we are running low on fuel and we just have to look in the phone book, under restaurants and call up whoever is closest. And we have gotten grease everywhere from the Long John Silvers, Kentucky Fried Chicken chains to the ‘ma and ‘pop burger spot, truck stops--all over the place. And you’d think that, you know, we would get turned down once in a while but actually, we’ve never been turned down.


GELLERMAN: By the way, Daimler Chrysler and General Motors have jumped on the bio-diesel bandwagon. They’re testing blends of the fuel in some of their passenger vehicles in the hope of making engines that will have lower emissions than standard diesels.

Related link:
The Veggie Van Organization

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Judgement Day

GELLERMAN: Struggling over what kind of car to buy? Heaven only knows hybrid vehicles are easier on the environment but you have to admit, SUVs are bigger and will get you to your final destination with a hell of a lot more power. As Princeton, New Jersey writer Rich Pliskin and his players advise, your choice may have long-term consequences.

ANNOUNCER: And now, a public service announcement.


USHER: Number 471, to the right of the cloud, please. That’s it.

JANE: Kinda nervous. You?

CHUCK: Nahh! This guy's a gentle giant. You'll be OK.

JACK TRIBBLE: Oh good Lord, thank you, thank you!

JANE: Sounds like that guy’s making out OK.

CHUCK: That's Jack Tribble.

JANE: You know him?

CHUCK: Neighbor. Couldn't stand the guy. So “holier than thou” with those His and Hers hybrids. Uh, make ya’ sick.

JANE: Somebody sure likes him. Look at the attention he's getting.

USHER: Right this way, sir. Follow the sound of the harps. That’s it.


JANE: Hey, look at that other guy. He must be in big trouble.

CHUCK: That’s Ken Schmertz!

USHER: Number 472: Schmertz! Sub-basement Level 5! Fast lane, no stops!

SCHMERTZ: Wait! Can we talk about this?

USHER: Let’s go, mac!

SCHMERTZ: Tell my wife–tell my wife to wax the Navigator!

JANE: Wow! Sub-basement Level 5! I wonder what he did.

CHUCK: Ken lived for his SUVs.

JANE: Ouch.

CHUCK: Yeah. Ouch.

JANE: So what about you? What line were you in?


JANE: Oh, well, I’m sure it’s okay. That Schmertz fella probably just cheated on his taxes or something.

CHUCK: Yeah. I guess…What about you?

JANE: Oh, I never cheated on my taxes. That would be a sin.

CHUCK: No, what’d you do for a living?

JANE: Oh, right! I invented an affordable, solar-powered family minivan to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, reverse global warming and cut the trade deficit in half by 2007.


USHER: Number 473!

JANE: Hey! My number’s up!

USHER: Right this way, ma’am. And may I say what a colorful blouse you’re wearing today?

JANE: Well, see ya’! Or, not. Hey Jack! Jack Tribble! Wait up!

ANNOUNCER: This message was sponsored by the Alternative Cars for a Better Future Foundation. We’re AC-BIFF, reminding you to drive responsibly. Because someday, it just may matter.

GELLERMAN: “Divine Inspiration,” courtesy of Rich Pliskin and his players from heavenly, Princeton, New Jersey. Just ahead—NASCAR drags its wheels on leaded gas. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

[Performed by: Erika Lynn Becker, Michael Gallagher, Michael Hegarty, Dan Johnson and Rich Pliskin]

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ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and Verizon, providing 411 directory assistance for residential and business numbers locally or across the country; the Kresge Foundation, building the capacity of nonprofit organizations through challenge grants since 1924. On the web at k-r-e-s-g-e.org; the Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, from vision to innovative impact, 75 years of philanthropy. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: Chaos Butterfly “Rocks & Numbers (part 2)” threelivingthings (Magnetic) 2005]

Science Note/Lemon Cleaner

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, and coming up: We take a ride on a two-wheeled magic carpet. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Katie Oliveri.

OLIVERI: Lemon juice is not only an environmentally friendly household cleaning solution, but it may also do wonders for your diesel-powered car and the air. A catalytic converter is designed to reduce the amount of emissions from the automobile. The device found in diesel engines uses a heated platinum catalyst to combust unburned hydrocarbons, therefore reducing emissions of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and nitrous oxide, which contribute to smog. Although converters are self-cleaning devices, there is one problem. Sulphur in fuel and phosphorus in oil additives can clog them, preventing converters from doing their job efficiently. Scientists from Madrid, Spain found a “solution” to the problem. They discovered that a simple wash of diluted citric acid, the substance present in lemon juice, could effectively clean catalytic converters in diesel-powered cars. Past scientific tests have shown that while other strong acids clearly removed blockage in converters, they also ate away at the heat-conducting platinum. Citric acid, however, washes out catalyst destroyers without damaging the metal. A six-hour citric wash removed 82 percent of phosphorous and about 90 percent of sulphur from a catalyst in a diesel-fuelled vehicle. Currently, although converters should last the course of an average car’s run, about 149,000 miles, 90 percent of them fail before reaching roughly 50,000 miles. Scientists hope regular cleaning will save drivers big bucks, since replacing a converter costs as much as a brand-new engine. Spring cleaning just took on a whole new meaning. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Katie Oliveri.

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The Segway Revolution?

Segway's chief engineer Doug Field (left) with host Bruce Gellerman (Photo: Jennifer Chu)

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Now we segue, not just from one story to the next, but to the future. To make the journey, we hope aboard a Segway.


O’DONNELL: You can now step up, and the key is to relax and let the machine balance for you. Just think forward, that's the easiest way to describe it.

GELLERMAN: The Segway looks like a pogo stick on two wheels. You stand on a platform in the middle. Its space-age innards contain state of the art gyroscopes and sensors, drive-by-wire controls and a whisper-quiet, pollution-free electric motor. When the Segway was first introduced in 2001, it was hailed and hyped as a device that would revolutionize human transportation. Certainly the technology is cutting edge but when I met Doug Field, Segway's chief engineer at the company's headquarters in Bedford, New Hampshire, he acknowledged that factoring in the human part of the revolution has taken a bit longer than expected.

FIELD: A market revolution takes time and when you introduce a new technology you need to wait and adapt and see how the people use the product and who sort of takes off with it. Because it’s not only based on how useful the product is in a particular market, but it’s about the psychology of people and how different groups behave. So, I think, I wouldn’t say it hasn’t gone as we had hoped or expected, but we’ve had to be very adaptable.

GELLERMAN: These market niches, it’s very interesting to see the way the product actually, the applications have evolved. Of course, I was reading the New York Times and they have Polo now.

FIELD: Uh-hm.

GELLERMAN: And you have the new device for golf.

FIELD: Right.

Segway's chief engineer Doug Field (left) with Bruce Gellerman (Photo: Jennifer Chu)

GELLERMAN: Where are the other horizons that you see for this?

FIELD: Well…

GELLERMAN: I can come up with 30 of them.

FIELD: Exactly and we all do that and one of the biggest challenges in marketing and developing this business is deciding where to go. But police and security type markets are one of the most compelling markets that we’re really pushing for right now. A security officer or policeman is someone who needs to be present in a lot of places, be able to move quickly but still interact with their environment whether they’re inside an airport or on a street. Consumers are the other side of the business and some of them are using it for actual transportation. Some are using it for pure fun like the people who are doing polo and some are doing it for both. They ride it to work during the week and then play polo on it during the weekend.

GELLERMAN: I noticed that, surprised a little bit, perhaps maybe not, France, a big market for you. How’s that?

FIELD: Well, I think Europe in general is a very interesting market because, well for several reasons. First of all, the alternative, the automobile, is dramatically more expensive than it is in the U.S. In addition, a lot of the cities because they’re so much older were not designed and built around the automobile. So, the Europeans, I think, are used to adopting transportation technologies a little more quickly. You see a lot more public transportation there. We have a great partner in France also, Kiolis, who is working with us setting up kiosks where people can combine the product with the use of mass transportation to use it to get to their final destination.

GELLERMAN: How does that work because this is that last mile that you’ve tried to link it seems to me from the home to the mass transit?

FIELD: Right, right because mass transit has to choose to stop in one location. You can’t get everyone’s destination. And everyone wants to make an individual decision from that point forward. So, an individual can use the machine to get to their last mile by actually carrying it with them onto transportation.

GELLERMAN: The idea, I can think of places where the kiss ‘n ride is, you just park your human transportation machine and hop on the train and you’re off to work.

FIELD: Exactly, exactly, that is one potential vision.

GELLERMAN: Okay. Good, I’ve got about a thousand more questions. Can we take it out for a spin?


GELLERMAN: Boy, you just hopped right on top of that.

FIELD: Yeah, I’ve spent a little time on them.

GELLERMAN: OK, so how do you turn it on?

FIELD: So we’re going to turn it on using, this is an intelligent key that has a code in it that has to match the machine in order to start up. So it reads that key. So, to actually get it ready to stand on, what you want to do is level it out, okay, and then press and release that blue button.


FIELD: Let go. Now you’ll sort of feel the machine come on.

GELLERMAN: Oh my! It does. It feels like it’s really coming alive.

FIELD: So, just pull it forward and backward a couple times and you’ll see, gently, gently, there you go. And you see how the wheels respond to that?

GELLERMAN: Yeah, it kind of rolls back and forth as I push, huh?

FIELD: Right. So you can now step up and the key is to just sort of relax and let the machine balance for you. Just think forward, that’s the easiest way to describe it.

GELLERMAN: Think forward. It’s almost as if I don’t have to move it. It’s as if I do just think.

FIELD: Exactly. And the reason is it’s really making use of the same gesture you would use as you would even before you take a step, if you think about walking you actually put your weight forward and you start to sort of tip and fall and then you take a step. Well, the machine is taking the step for you. So that almost subconscious motion that you make by tilting forward the machine is responding to and you forget about it very, very quickly. There’s no gas pedal, there’s no brake; it’s just under you responding.

GELLERMAN: I’m going to go right, I’m going to go left.


GELLERMAN: So, right now how fast am I going?

FIELD: One and a half, two miles an hour.

GELLERMAN: Oh really, I feel like I’m zooming.

FIELD: The top speed of the machine is 12 and a half miles per hour which is 20 kilometers per hour which is about the speed a fit person can run.

GELLERMAN: So, you know, but the one thing, there is a nerd factor. You kind of look weird on it.

FIELD: And any radical technology tends to have that effect. And it’s one of the reasons technologies do take time to be adopted. It is not something that any of us who were growing up would expect to see a wheeled machine do, ride along on two wheels balancing and standing upright. The funny thing is if you start talking to kids who have seen this over the last couple years they completely take it for granted. There’s nothing special about it and that’s probably something that’s associated with how technologies get adopted is the kids that were around when it got adopted gradually grew up and became consumers and start using it.

GELLERMAN: Alright, I’m off. As I’m doing my George Jetson imitation and zooming around the company parking lot, I hover next to a man standing beside a brand-new, $5,000 Segway.

GELLERMAN: Hi. Are you the owner if this Segway?

SCHNEIDER: No, not yet.


SCHNEIDER: I’m working on it.

GELLERMAN: Really, may I ask your name and where you’re from?

SCHNEIDER: Sure, Bob Schneider, Randolph, Massachusetts.

GELLERMAN: Uh-huh. And you came up here to look at one, buy one, think about one?

Bruce Gellerman rides a Segway. (Photo: Jennifer Chu)

SCHNEIDER: I’m on the borderline here of purchasing one. Contemplating.

GELLERMAN: Yeah? What would you use it for?

SCHNEIDER: Uh, that’s the big question. Whether it’s recreation or whatnot. I don’t really have an exact use for it as of yet.

GELLERMAN: So, this is the model you would get? This is a different model than the one I think I’m riding on.

SCHNEIDER: Well, it’s what I can afford, basically. That’s what it comes down to.

GELLERMAN: How long did it take you to learn how to use it?

SCHNEIDER: Probably about a total of three minutes.

GELLERMAN: Well, if you ever want to drag race I’m ready.

SCHNEIDER: You’re ready? Okay. (laughter)

GELLERMAN: Well, thank you very much.

SCHNEIDER: Thank you.

GELLERMAN: I feel absolutely comfortable on it. It’s really remarkable.

FIELD: That’s the idea. There’s a quote, I believe it’s Arthur C. Clark, that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic and it’s a great way to describe the machine I think.

GELLERMAN: Well, Douglas Field, chief engineer of Segway, thank you very much.

FIELD: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Check out me on my Segway at LOE.ORG

Related link:

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NASCAR's Lead Foot

Jeff Gordon celebrates his victory in the Advance Auto Parts 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway. (Photo: Nick Laham/Getty Images)

GELLERMAN: When Formula One race car drivers start their engines at the Indianapolis 500 this Memorial day, they'll be using a mix of ethanol fuel. A trend toward more environmentally friendly racing? Well, maybe. When NASCAR racers put pedal to the medal, it’s with a lead foot, and leaded gasoline, raising health concerns from some fans and environmentalists. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports on efforts to get the lead out of NASCAR.

[SOUND OF CROWD AND CARS, whoo-hoo, Vrooom- vroom]

YOUNG: For most of its 53 years, NASCAR was confined to the rural southeast. Then sometime in the early 90s, stock car racing grew quicker than kudzu, spreading out like that weedy vine to some 75 million fans around the country. Now, you’ll find NASCAR races from New England to California and, starting this year, in Mexico City. Those are also some of the last places you’ll still find cars burning leaded gasoline. Engine tuner Claude Queen says lead keeps the specialized engines of his Miller Lite team running smoothly. And he remembers the one time they tried to use unleaded.

QUEEN: Broke a lot of parts. Valves mostly. Sure did. It acts as a lubricant, the valves and valve seats, they wear out if you don’t have the lead in em.

YOUNG: Lead’s a great lubricant but it’s also terribly toxic. That’s why Congress banned leaded gas decades ago for nearly all uses—except aviation and racing, which were exempted from the law. Frank O’Donnell with the Washington-based environmental group Clean Air Watch says it might be legal for NASCAR to use lead but that doesn’t make it safe.

ODONNELL: Breathing in lead will actually harm your brain. It will reduce your IQ level. One way of putting it is breathing in too much lead will make you stupider.

YOUNG: The Environmental Protection Agency says the form of lead used in gasoline, alkyl lead, can cause neurological damage, mood swings and memory loss at very low levels. Children are especially vulnerable. A report EPA drafted five years ago says lead particles could remain airborne around race tracks and spectators and residents nearby might be at risk. When O’Donnell read that he started a campaign to pressure NASCAR to get the lead out.

O’DONNELL: It has been banned throughout the world even in far flung places like Kazakhstan. If Kazakhstan can get rid of lead in gasoline, why can’t NASCAR?

YOUNG: NASCAR Spokesperson Ramsey Poston says they’re already trying to do that but it will take time.

POSTON: It’s not as simple a process as you might think but it is one that we’re working on and it is absolutely a high priority and that is why we are continuing to work with EPA to find the solution.

YOUNG: NASCAR has a verbal agreement with EPA to continue research into a suitable unleaded fuel. EPA’s Paul Matthia says he’s satisfied with NASCAR’s pledge to make the switch in three to five years.

MATTHAI: And the last I talked to them they seemed to be on target. I’m not sure where it’s at exactly because they haven’t given me a lot of information but they say they’re on target to do it and I believe them.

YOUNG: That’s not good enough for O’Donnell of Clean Air Watch. He says other race series have switched fuels and thinks NASCAR is just dragging its lead feet. He hopes public pressure will speed things up but some of the e-mails O’Donnell’s getting indicate he’s not winning many fans in NASCAR nation.

O’DONNELL: Here’s one of them: Frank, first off you damn communist, do you have a clear understanding who you just messed with? You people will never be satisfied until we all live in your little perfect greenie-weenie utopia. I would love to be swearing…

YOUNG: We’d hear more but the FCC would probably object. So, is that really representative of what NASCAR fans think? To find out, I went to the speedway in Martinsville, Virginia, on a sun-soaked Sunday afternoon. Thousands of race fans walk along the highway toward the track passing vendors with NASCAR T-shirts and bumper stickers. At Tommy "Mississippi" Jones’ stand you can even get a confederate flag with your favorite driver’s face on it. Jones doesn't think the fuel issue is very important.

Jeff Gordon celebrates his victory in the Advance Auto Parts 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway. (Photo: Nick Laham/Getty Images)

JONES: Oh, we got a lot worse things in this world to worry about than what kind of gas somebody’s using or how much pollution it’s gonna do. It might bother other people but to me it don’t make any difference.

YOUNG: One of Jones’s customers disagrees.

FAN 1: It should be unleaded. I mean something should be changed on that I think. It is a hazard.

YOUNG: Now, this is no scientific survey but my random chats with fans found them pretty evenly split on whether a switch to unleaded would be good or bad. Some worry about the effect on the sport.

FAN 2: People like speed so whatever it takes to get it that speed I think is important.

FAN 3: I mean it was a good idea to ban lead for the millions and well billions of cars that are out there on the highway but for a sport like this? I don’t think it’s, it’s not significant.

YOUNG: Fans with children at the race all agreed: "unleaded" is the way to go.

DAD: I’m all for keeping the little guy healthy.

YOUNG: Who’s this?

DAD: This is Dylan. When you mention that, that definitely throws up a red flag so that would cause concern for me. Especially having a child this young, bringing him to races you don’t want to think he’s being exposed to something he shouldn’t be.

YOUNG: And Dylan, your thoughts on this?

DAD: Say hey.

DYLAN: Hey! (laughter)


YOUNG: NASCAR estimates it uses 100,000 gallons of leaded fuel in a racing season. EPA says budget constraints prevent monitoring to determine the potential health risks that amount of leaded fuel might pose.


YOUNG: After the race, Claude Queen, the engine tuner, catches a smoke break in the shade of a tool cart before going under the hood of driver Rusty Wallace’s Number two car. He thinks a bit about how carefully calibrated that engine is and what it would take to change its fuel.

QUEEN: I mean, we’re going to unleaded, we have no choice, but it’s gonna take a little work. Whole lot of work actually.

YOUNG: Would you have, I guess it’s a little early at this stage, but a ballpark guess what it wold cost to make that switch?

QUEEN: I’d say probably two to three million a team maybe.

YOUNG: Now, I think I’m starting to understand why people are reluctant to jump into this.

QUEEN: Yes, money’s tight. We get a lot of money from sponsors but we use it, too. I guess unleaded gas ain’t good for you but it ain’t killed me yet, ain’t dead yet, heh heh. Yes, that’s about the bottom line.

YOUNG: Queen lights up another Salem and sets about the business of getting his team’s battered car ready for the next race. In Martinsville, Virginia, I’m Jeff Young for Living on Earth.

Related link:

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[MUSIC: Chaos Butterfly “Sleepy” threelivingthings (Magnetic) 2005]

GELLERMAN: We leave you this week, waiting for a ride on one of the most environmentally friendly forms of transportation. Get out your change. Michael Rusenberg and Hans Ulrich Werner recorded this soundscape of the Lisbon, Portugal tram–the city’s streetcar system.

[EARTHEAR: Rusenberg/Werner “Trams/Soundmarks and Signals” Lisboa! A soundscape portrait (WDR) 1993]

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Eileen Bolinsky, Susan Shepherd, Jennifer Chu, Steve Gregory and Ingrid Lobet-with help from Christopher Bolick and Kelley Cronin. Special thanks this week to the Allegheny Front in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Our interns are the Katies--Katie Oliveri and Katie Zemtseff. Our technical director is Paul Wabrek. Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at living on earth dot org. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Steve Curwood will be back next week. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER1: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield pays its farmers not to use artificial growth hormones on their cows. Details at Stonyfield dot com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, and the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the Town Creek Foundation.

ANNOUNCER2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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