ENN summarizes the most important and compelling environmental news stories of the week. In the news November 14th - 18th: Bison hunted again, damaging dams, man versus otter, and hot rocks from Oz.
The Week's Top Ten
In the news November 14th - 18th: Bison hunted again, damaging dams, man versus otter, and hot rocks from Oz.
1. World Forest Losses Slowing but Still Alarming, UN Says
First, the good news. Due to efforts to plant more trees worldwide, the rate of annual forest destruction appears to be slowing down. Now the bad news. Currently the world still loses approximately 13 million hectares of forest land every year, with six million hectares of primary forests affected. Keeping that statistic in perspective, Mette Loyche Wilkie, coordinator of the forest area survey, said, "It is obviously very sad to lose this amount, but you should bear in mind that it represents just 0.4 percent of total primary forest."
2. Montana Revives Bison Hunt after 15-Year Ban
This week, Montana brought back an old tradition: the bison hunt. Banned since 1991, the hunt permits the killing of as many as 50 bison over the three-month season. Today, there are approximately 4,900 animals making up the Yellowstone bison herd, which was nearly obliterated in the early 1900s when only 23 animals remained. Although Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks anticipated clashes between hunters and protesters on Tuesday, opening day, it was relatively quiet on the plains. "I think many of our hunters considered whether they wanted to be involved in an opening day circus, and apparently many chose not to be," said regional supervisor Pat Flowers.
3. New Dams Destroying Water Sources and Damaging Economies, WWF Says
The World Wide Fund for Nature released a report early in the week decrying the effect of some of the world's most recently-constructed dams on precious wetlands. "This is not the engineering heyday of the 1950s when dams were seen as the hallmark of development," said WWF's Jamie Pittock. "We know dams can cause damage, and we must put this knowledge to work."
4. Feds Agree To List Puget Sound Orcas as Endangered Species
Backed by the full force of endangered species protection, the killer whales of Puget Sound now have even more power than nature gave them. The 89 whales in the sound's three pods have been detrimentally affected by pollution and declining salmon populations, giving rise this week to a higher level of protection than was initially proposed. Referring to the pods' new "endangered" status, Earthjustice attorney Patti Goldman said, "This will give us the will and the tools to take the actions that will allow them to survive."
5. Hidden Risks of Teflon-Like Chemical Raised by Documents, Says Company Insider
The Teflon-safety controversy took another turn this week, with news that chemical-maker DuPont Co. concealed documents indicated the human health risks of exposure to Zonyl, a chemical related to Teflon. Glenn Evers, formerly a chemical engineer with DuPont revealed that the company had hidden safety studies for a long time. DuPont called Evers' claims into question, saying that he "...expressed a wide range of personal opinions that are inaccurate, counter to FDA's findings, and which DuPont strongly disputes."
6. 'Intersex' Fish Discovered off Southern California Coast
The discovery by scientists of "intersex" fish off the coast of Southern California flags the imminent dangers of sewage discharge into the ocean. Previous discoveries of sexually-altered fish have been conducted in freshwater environments, making these recent ocean findings especially significant. With nearly a billion gallons of treated sewage spewing into the Pacific Ocean daily, health concerns are tremendous. Even treated waste contains contaminating chemicals.
7. Climate Change Could Spread Plague, Scientists Believe
A well-documented 14th century menace, the plague could take hold again, scientists believe, aided by...you guessed it: global warming. "Wetter, warmer weather conditions mean there are likely to be more of the bacteria around than normal and the chance of it spreading to humans is higher," said Nils Stenseth, who headed a recent conference on the plague. After wiping out approximately 34 million people in the 14th century, the disease has reappeared every century, scientists think, and climate change could be its newest vehicle for plaguing us once again.
8. In Coastal Battle of Wits Between Man and Otter, Man Concedes
Score one for the otter. By consistently resisting the otter-relocation efforts of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials and showing up in places where they're just not wanted, the crafty critters have won their freedom to roam. Biologist Greg Sanders summarized the situation like this: "This concept of taking animals and putting them in one place and expecting them to stay where we want them ... wasn't really working." Environmentalists say that allowing otters free range will contribute to the continued recovery of the species that was nearly hunted out of existence.
9. Energy Inspector General: More Suspect Yucca Mountain E-Mails
The proposed nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada continues to be a source of conflict and controversy. According to the Energy Department inspector general, some newly-discovered emails cast doubt on the soundness of the project. In response to news of the revelation, Energy Department spokesperson Craig Steven said, "We certainly appreciate the information the inspector general gave and the recommendations the inspector general presented and this is something we take very seriously."
10. Australia Pioneers Energy from Hot Rocks
New from the clever folks Down Under who brought us boomerangs and Vegemite: Hot dry rock (HDR) geothermal energy. Apparently the intense heat of the rocks beneath Australia's Outback could be harnessed as a sustainable energy source. Characterizing the site as a "geological freak," Bertus de Graaf, managing director of Geodynamics, Ltd., the company exploring the feasibility of the project, said "It's really quite serendipitous, the way the elements -- temperature, tectonics, insulating rocks -- have come together here." Stay tuned for more on HDR.
Guest Commentary: Greening the Home Mortgage Deduction
By Stephen J. Moss, San Francisco Community Power
President Bush’s Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform recently called for dramatic reductions in mortgage interest and property tax deductions. This proposal will surely be greeted as one of the least popular ideas ever floated, right up there with eliminating federally-guaranteed social security payments or raising gasoline taxes. That’s too bad, because this proposed reform is precisely what’s needed to cure a host of problems, including runaway housing prices, urban sprawl, and even global warming.
Our existing tax policies encourage massive over-consumption of housing. Americans are building larger homes ”“ median square footage increased by almost seven percent over the last decade and half, while average family size slightly declined. Bigger houses mean more of everything ”“ greater amounts of materials, such as wood; and more energy-dependent devices, such as lighting, air conditioning, and heating. What’s more, these tax subsidizes are disproportionately provided to the rich; those making $200,000 a year or more.
The mortgage interest deduction was originally adopted to encourage home ownership. At this point it’s just as likely to have the opposite effect. The deduction subsidy “flow,” which results in a net decrease in annual housing payments, has almost certainly been fully capitalized into housing prices. That is, sellers can fetch a higher price for their property in part because higher costs are subsidized by the lower annual payments made possible by the tax benefits. Said differently, the deductions enable buyers to pay more for a home upfront, because they pay less in terms of their back end mortgage payments. And while sellers may reap a temporary windfall, unless they’re ready to downsize their living space they’ll simply have to reinvest their winnings into another over-priced home.
Of course simply slashing the deduction is neither good politics nor good policy. Congress would never pass such a measure, and if it did it would result in at least a partial collapse in the housing market, significantly reducing property values. However, a phased-in deduction-reduction, perhaps over thirty years, would soften the blow, and enable supply and demand to re-equilibrate, albeit at a lower overall value.
A new tax deduction policy should also include incentives to build more environmentally sustainable homes. For example, some banks offer lower interest rates if a property is located close-by transit, under the assumption that such locations reduce automobile dependency and associated transportation costs, thereby increasing an owner’s overall solvency. Similarly, greater deductions could be provided to homes located in high-density areas, as an anti-sprawl measure; and houses that include state-of-the-art energy efficiency features and solar panels, to combat global warming.
We spend almost $150 billion a year subsidizing home ownership. Much of this money is used to build an extra bathroom, guest room, or solarium in houses occupied by wealthy families. That’s not a good use of public dollars. Much better would be to use some of these funds to solve pressing environmental problems while reducing overall housing costs.
Steven J. Moss is the publisher of the Neighborhood Environmental Newswire. He serves as Executive Director of San Francisco Community Power, www.sfpower.org.
Photo: Sea lions gather on rocks. Credit: Byrd/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.