Saturday, May 09, 2009

Obama proposed budget rescinds energy industry tax breaks

Exxon Mobil Reported Record $45.2 Billion Profit For 2008

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama outlined a budget plan Thursday that would end $26 billion in oil and gas industry tax breaks, point to a new direction for dealing with nuclear waste and shift government aggressively toward helping to develop renewable energy sources.

Obama called the tax break to the oil and gas industry "unjustifiable loopholes" in the tax system that in most cases other companies do not get.

The proposed budget, details of which were released Thursday, calls for abandoning the decades-old Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project in Nevada and begin the search for another answer to disposing thousands of tons of used reactor fuel now kept at power plants in 31 states. It also would end government subsidies to the nuclear industry to help them certify and plan new nuclear power plants, cutting the program from $178 million to $20 million.

The oil and gas industry tax breaks have often been targeted by congressional Democrats in recent years, but they have not been able to muster enough votes to rescind them. Most Republicans and the Bush administration vigorously defended the tax benefits, saying they're needed to boost domestic oil and gas development.

In the budget statement, Obama said the tax breaks, which are expected to save the oil and gas industry more than $26 billion over the next 10 years, are "unjustifiable loopholes ... costly to the American taxpayer and do little to incentivize production or reduce energy prices."....

Obama's budget also would largely abandon the Bush administration's push to develop hydrogen as an energy source, calling its emergence as a viable fuel unrealistic for the near future. Funding for the program, one cited frequently by President George W. Bush as a key to the country's energy future, would be cut by $101 million to $68 million. A separate $8 million research program on using nuclear power plants to produce hydrogen was canceled.

Other research into electric car technology, better batteries and development of biofuels is "a much better place to put our money," said Chu.

Chimpanzee population down 90% in Cote D’Ivoire


Chimp populations continue to decline in Africa. A new survey of our closest relatives in the Cote D’Ivoire found that the population fell from an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 individuals to a paltry 800 to 1,200, a decline that took place in less than twenty years.

Perhaps most troubling about this new survey is Cote d’Ivoire was supposed to be a stronghold for chimpanzees in West Africa. The report warns it is likely that similar declines have occurred in other West African nations.

Researchers point to an increase of humans in Cote d’Ivoire as the primary reason. Since 1990 the nation has seen its human population grow by 50 percent. This has lead to increases in poaching and deforestation, activities which target both chimps and their habitat.

"The habitat is gone, and all the protected areas have been invaded by people. It's not just the chimps—[there's] no animals at all," lead author Genevieve Campbell told National Geographic.

In the 1960s it was estimated that chimpanzee population in Cote d’Ivoire was 100,000 individuals.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Clayton 'i-house' - "Green" Manufactured Home


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – From its bamboo floors to its rooftop deck, Clayton Homes' new industrial-chic "i-house" is about as far removed from a mobile home as an iPod from a record player.

Architects at the country's largest manufactured home company embraced the basic rectangular form of what began as housing on wheels and gave it a postmodern turn with a distinctive v-shaped roofline, energy efficiency and luxury appointments.

Stylistically, the "i-house" might be more at home in the pages of a cutting-edge architectural magazine like Dwell — an inspirational source — than among the Cape Cods and ranchers in the suburbs.

The layout of the long main "core" house and a separate box-shaped guestroom-office "flex room" resemble the letter "i" and its dot. Yet Clayton CEO and President Kevin Clayton said "i-house" stands for more than its footprint.

With a nod to the iPod and iPhone, Clayton said, "We love what it represents. We are fans of Apple and all that they have done. But the 'I' stands for innovation, inspiration, intelligence and integration."

Clayton's "i-house" was conceived as a moderately priced "plug and play" dwelling for environmentally conscious homebuyers. It went on sale nationwide Saturday with its presentation at the annual shareholders' meeting of investor Warren Buffett's Berkshire-Hathaway Inc. in Omaha, Neb.

"This innovative 'green' home, featuring solar panels and numerous other energy-saving products, is truly a home of the future," Buffett wrote his shareholders. "Estimated costs for electricity and heating total only about $1 per day when the home is sited in an area like Omaha."

Maryville, Tenn.-based Clayton Homes, acquired by Berkshire-Hathaway in a $1.7 billion buyout in 2003, delivered 27,499 mobile or manufactured homes last year, a third of the industry total. Kevin Clayton thinks the "i-house" very quickly could represent more than 10 percent of its business.

"I think in 12 to 18 months it is possible," he told The Associated Press. "That is a lofty goal, but it is very possible. Retailers are saying they want the home on their lots tomorrow. I know the demand is there. How fast we capture it is really just determined by how affordable we can make it."

Clayton Homes plans to price the "i-house" at $100 to $130 a square foot, depending on amenities and add-ons, such as additional bedrooms. A stick-built house with similar features could range from $200 to $300 a square foot to start, said Chris Nicely, Clayton marketing vice president.

The key cost difference is from the savings Clayton achieves by building homes in volume in green standardized factories with very little waste. Clayton has four plants in Oregon, Tennessee, California and New Mexico geared up for "i-house" production.
A 1,000-square-foot prototype unveiled at a Clayton show in Knoxville a few months ago was priced at around $140,000. It came furnished, with a master bedroom, full bath, open kitchen and living room with Ikea cabinetry, two ground-level deck areas and a separate "flex room" with a second full bath and a second-story deck covered by a sail-like canopy.

"It does not look like your typical manufactured home," said Thayer Long with the Manufactured Housing Institute, a Washington-based group representing 370 manufactured and modular home-building companies.

And shattering those mobile home stereotypes is a good thing, he said. "I think the 'i-house' is just more proof that the industry is capable of delivering homes that are highly customizable at an affordable price."

The "i-house's" metal v-shaped roof — inspired by a gas-station awning — combines design with function. The roof provides a rain water catchment system for recycling, supports flush-mounted solar panels and vaults interior ceilings at each end to 10 1/2 feet for an added feeling of openness.

The Energy Star-rated design features heavy insulation, six-inch thick exterior walls, cement board and corrugated metal siding, energy efficient appliances, a tankless water heater, dual-flush toilets and lots of "low-e" glazed windows.
The company said the prototype at roughly 52,000 pounds may be the heaviest home it's ever built.

The final product will come in different exterior colors and will allow buyers to design online, adding another bedroom to the core house, a second bedroom to the flex room or rearranging the footprint to resemble an "L" instead of an "I."

"We thought of this a little like a kit of parts, where you have all these parts that can go together in different ways," said Andy Hutsell, one of the architects...

"Bolivia's Chacaltaya glacier is gone"

From The Miami Herald:

CHACALTAYA, Bolivia -- -- If anyone needs a reminder of the on-the-ground impacts of global climate change, come to the Andes mountains in Bolivia. At 17,388 feet above sea level, Chacaltaya, an 18,000 year-old glacier that delighted thousands of visitors for decades, is gone, completely melted away as of some sad, undetermined moment early this year.

''Chacaltaya has disappeared. It no longer exists,'' said Dr. Edson Ramirez, head of an international team of scientists that has studied the glacier since 1991.

Chacaltaya (the name in Aymara means ''cold road'') began melting in the mid-1980s. Ramirez, the assistant director of the Institute of Hydraulics and Hydrology at the Universidad Mayor de San Andres in nearby La Paz, documented its disappearance in March.

Approximately 35 miles from La Paz, it takes an hour and a half to drive the gravel and rock road up tortuous switchbacks to the top of the mountain of the same name. Visitors on a clear day -- and there are many such days -- can see the Bolivian highland plain, or altiplano, thousands of feet below, and the nearby Huayna Potosi and Illimani mountains, part of the Cordillera Real de los Andes.


Ten years ago Ramirez and his team of researchers concluded that the glacier would survive until 2015. But the rate of thaw increased threefold in the last decade, according to their studies. He believes the disappearance of Chacaltaya is an indication of the potent effects at higher elevations of the interaction of greenhouse gas accumulation and an increase in average global temperatures.

And he thinks other glaciers in the region also may be melting at a rate faster than previously known. Illimani, the colossal 21,200-foot mountain that looms over the city of La Paz and has served as the backdrop for postcard-perfect pictures since film was invented, is the home to several glaciers. They likely will melt completely within 30 years, he said.

While there is a consensus among most scientists that human reliance on fossil fuels is the main cause of higher carbon dioxide levels in the Earth's atmosphere, and that the so-called greenhouse gas effect has led to global warming and other climate changes, Ramirez sees the international controversies over the global warming issue as irrelevant, at least to Bolivians.

Here, it's not just an academic debate.

''It's very probable that other glaciers are disappearing faster than we thought,'' he said. Researchers fear that Chacaltaya's fate will be shared by other glaciers in other areas of Bolivia, and in Peru and Ecuador as well, he said.

In May, the members of Ramirez's research team will gather here to honor the fallen glacier and to commemorate the end of 18 years of work....

Sunday, May 03, 2009

"The Island Where People Live Longer"

From NPR:

Making it to 90 years old is awe-inspiring in much of the world. But on a tiny Greek island in the North Aegean Sea, nonagenarians barely merit a second glance.

The island of Icaria could be the newest of the world's so-called blue zones — places where residents have unusually long life spans...

Buettner and a team of demographers work with census data to identify blue zones around the world. They found Icaria had the highest percentage of 90-year-olds anywhere on the planet — nearly 1 out of 3 people make it to their 90s.

Plus, Buettner says, "they have about 20 percent lower rates of cancer, 50 percent lower rates of heart disease and almost no dementia."

Our life spans are about 20 percent dictated by our genes, Buettner says. The rest is lifestyle. People in Icaria live in mountain villages that necessitate activity every day. "They have gardens," he says, for example. "If they go to church, if they go to their friends' house — it always occasions a small walk. But that ends up burning much more calories than going to a gym for 20 minutes a day."

"They also have a diet that's very interesting," Buettner continues. "It's very high in olive oil; it's very high in fruits and vegetables." It's also very high in greens; about 150 kinds of veggies grow wild on the island. "These greens have somewhere around 10 times the level of antioxidants in red wine."

And though they live on an island, Icarians don't eat much fish. Buettner says pirates pushed the culture up in the highlands and villagers couldn't depend on the sea as much as might be expected.

Particularly unusual to this new blue zone are the villagers' drinking habits. Tea drinking, that is. Icarians drink herbal teas every day, morning and night, Buettner says. This seems to be one of their secrets to longer living.

"We had five of these herbal teas sent to Athens and analyzed for their chemical composition," Buettner reports. "We found out that most of them were diuretics."

"It turns out that diuretics actually lower blood pressure," he says, "so when you're chronically lowering blood pressure every day with these herbal teas, that does help explain why there's lower rates of heart disease."

"That's something we haven't seen in Okinawa or Costa Rica or Sardinia or any of the other blue zones," Buettner says.

Mission To Retrieve & Recycle Pacific Plastic Soup

From the

A high-seas mission departs from San Francisco next month to map and explore a sinister and shifting 21st-century continent: one twice the size of Texas and created from six million tonnes of discarded plastic.

Scientists and conservationists on the expedition will begin attempts to retrieve and recycle a monument to throwaway living in the middle of the North Pacific.

The toxic soup of refuse was discovered in 1997 when Charles Moore, an oceanographer, decided to travel through the centre of the North Pacific gyre (a vortex or circular ocean current). Navigators usually avoid oceanic gyres because persistent high-pressure systems — also known as the doldrums — lack the winds and currents to benefit sailors.

Mr Moore found bottle caps, plastic bags and polystyrene floating with tiny plastic chips. Worn down by sunlight and waves, discarded plastic disintegrates into smaller pieces. Suspended under the surface, these tiny fragments are invisible to ships and satellites trying to map the plastic continent, but in subsequent trawls Mr Moore discovered that the chips outnumbered plankton by six to one.

The damage caused by these tiny fragments is more insidious than strangulation, entrapment and choking by larger plastic refuse. The fragments act as sponges for heavy metals and pollutants until mistaken for food by small fish. The toxins then become more concentrated as they move up the food chain through larger fish, birds and marine mammals.

“You can buy certified organic farm produce, but no fishmonger on earth can sell you a certified organic wild-caught fish. This is our legacy,” said Mr Moore.

Because of their tiny size and the scale of the problem, he believes that nothing can be solved at sea. “Trying to clean up the Pacific gyre would bankrupt any country and kill wildlife in the nets as it went.”

In June the 151ft brigantine Kaisei (Japanese for Planet Ocean) will unfurl its sails in San Francisco to try to prove Mr Moore wrong. Project Kaisei’s flagship will be joined by a decommissioned fishing trawler armed with specialised nets.

“The trick is collecting the plastic while minimising the catch of sea life. We can’t catch the tiny pieces. But the net benefit of getting the rest out is very likely to be better than leaving it in,” says Doug Woodring, the leader of the project.

With a crew of 30, the expedition, supported by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Brita, the water company, will use unmanned aircraft and robotic surface explorers to map the extent and depth of the plastic continent while collecting 40 tonnes of the refuse for trial recycling....