Thursday, December 20, 2007

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

This is hard to believe. The EPA has denied California the opportunity to set tougher emission standards than the federal government. Here's what EPA head Stephen Johnson said:

"The Bush administration is moving forward with a clear national solution — not a confusing patchwork of state rules," Mr. Johnson told reporters on a conference call. "I believe this is a better approach than if individual states were to act alone."

Um. What? What 'clear national solution' is he talking about? I've been watching the environmental idiocies of this presidency for the past 7 years, and I haven't seen a "clear national solution" for anything this administration has done. Is the solution "Do nothing."?

I can't help but wonder if this is the beginning of an attempt by the Bush administration to override the KDHE's decision to deny a permit for a new coal plant. I mean, really, isn't the KDHE's rejection of the permit on the basis of CO2 emissions essentially the same thing as California independently reducing car emissions?

The actions of the EPA and the government on this issue have, over the past 7 years, bordered on absolute lunacy. This appears to be a continuation of that trend.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Some more fallout from the coal plant denial

My thoughts on the KDHE denial of the coal plant near Holcomb have been previously identified. Hell, I even got into it with Greg Laden when he criticized Kansas without mentioning the denial.

Well, one of the big idiocies the pro-coal plant advocates have been promoting is the idea that without the coal plant all other alternative energy strategies in the region will be stymied. They've made this claim based on the understanding that without the coal plant investment money, there will be no attempt to build the high-energy wires that are needed to get wind power hooked into the grid.

I think this is a bogus argument on a number of fronts.

1. If the electricity is needed, the power lines will get built. The approval for their construction has already gone through state agencies, so one of the big hurdles is cleared already.

2. The power lines are/were being built by a consortia of power producers, government agencies, and other entities. I'm not convinced all those organizations are going to shut it down just because the coal plant won't be built (I could be wrong about that).

3. In Sunflower's own documentation on this plant, they cite a 15% increase in the power consumption over the next 25-50 years in SW Kansas. Even without high power transmission lines, it would appear the best way for SW Kansas to meet that increasing demand is through wind farms.

In conclusion, I don't think there's any way wind and solar power won't continue to grow within Kansas. If anything, I think the coal plant would have stymied the further development of wind power. Apparently that was the conclusion at the Dole Institute of Politics for the Kansas Electric Transmission Summit (what a name!) as reported by the Lawrence Journal World and In fact, the members of that conference pointed out that wind farms are increasing exponentially. If that continues, the power lines will be built, coal plant or not.

(Hat tip to Diane Silver's excellent blog In this Moment)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Explanations: The difference between belief and evidence

(Update: Greg Laden pointed out in an email that the term "special knowledge" which I use extensively here, is similar to the term "received knowledge" in the social sciences)

I am occasionally asked what I think about the whole “Creationism” issue. Considering the typically caustic nature of this issue, I have often wrestled with how to approach it. Here’s what I try to say:

Imagine a painting of a man. Let’s just assume the man is older, say, in his 50s. You can tell he is in his 50s by the color of his hair and the wrinkles on his face (EDIT: I'm being told men in their 50s don't have wrinkles..sorry!). The man is wearing a certain set of clothes, which may also indicate his age or his profession or his socio-economic status. By examining the painting carefully, you can construct a plausible understanding about the man’s life.

Of course, all of those clues were put there by an artist who wanted to cultivate a certain perception within your mind about the man in the painting. The painting itself may not be 50 years old, it may be 10 or 500 years old.

Now imagine, instead of a painting, you were looking at a humanoid robot. The robot looks and talks and moves like a man. There is no visible clue that this robot is anything but a perfectly ordinary man. Even a detailed medical examination would reveal nothing that indicates the robot is not a human. In fact, all of the possible evidence indicates that the robot is human. Only those with a special knowledge realize the robot is not human. No one can independently verify that knowledge, because all the evidence indicates the robot is human. That special knowledge must have been given by either the creator of the robot, or one who was present when the robot was created.

The Bible is special knowledge, as are all other religious texts. Those texts purport to be written by an agent of the creator, who was present when the universe was created. If you have faith in the source of such special knowledge, then you need no evidence to support that belief. Simply put: independent verification is irrelevant to special knowledge.

Science, on the other hand, is constructed solely from evidence. That evidence must be of a form that anyone could reproduce. In a philosophical sense, this severely limits the scope of science. Science is based on some assumptions, but the primary assumption is that an objective reality exists. No such assumptions are necessary to believe in special knowledge.

The frequent and misguided attacks on science by believers in special knowledge seem to assume that science ought to support special knowledge. This simply isn’t the case. Science may support that special knowledge, or it may not, but the only requirement of science is that all the evidence be independently verifiable.

Now, interestingly enough, this does not necessarily mean the results of science are correct. To go back to the example of the robot: Even if all the evidence points to the robot being a human, that doesn’t make it so. Similarly, even though all the evidence points to a billions-year-old universe, evolutionarily-derived biodiversity, and mankind descending from apes, that doesn’t preclude the possibility that some omni-potent agent created the universe…but that omni-potent agent must have made the universe look like it works this way.

Based upon this understanding, I do not believe a person is an idiot just because they have a literal belief in a creation story. On the other hand, saying that the evidence supports such a belief indicates idiocy or ignorance. Any individual can believe anything they want to believe, but that doesn’t change the fact that science must be based on independently verified evidence. If that independent verification isn’t available, then it isn’t science, and therefore it shouldn’t be in a science class.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Plains Leopard Frog

A few months ago a good friend of mine noticed that his little garden pond had attracted some frogs. He ended up taking the following picture and sending it to me. As it turns out, these are Plains Leopard Frogs:

The picture is shrunk a little to fit in this space, but there are at least 5 frogs visible there (click to enlarge). The Plains Leopard Frog (Rana blairi) is named after Frank Blair, a fairly famous Texas herpetologist. Leopard frogs, in general, are present all over North America, but generally seem intolerant of pollution and habitat disturbance. There are actually several species of leopard frog, but there appears to be hybridization occurring between those species as the geographic and habitat barriers that had separated them are being removed by humans.

Leopard frogs sing for mates for a long time each year. According to Collins (1995) they may begin as early as February and continue throughout the summer. I can't think of a good way to describe their call in'll just have to go find a pond and listen. The species is a water obligate, although they appear to forage on primarily terrestrial species. Habitat destruction and the widespread use of pesticides appear to be causing a wide-spread decline in this species.

I've found that garden ponds are generally readily used by amphibians as breeding sites, especially in Western Kansas where water is increasingly unavailable. My in-laws little pond (maybe 10 square feet surface area), attracts lots of Great Plains Toads that would otherwise remain hibernating through what has been an extended drought in the area. I'm sure the population density of those toads has increased dramatically since they built the pond. I wonder whether the leopard frogs will use my friend's garden pond in a similar manner. Unlike toads, which are often toxic, the Leopard frog tadpoles are highly susceptible to fish predation, but my friend doesn't keep any fish in his pond.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Species Profile: The Neosho Madtom

Let's go looking for Neosho Madtoms!
(I look silly in waders)

The Neosho Madtom is a state and federally listed threatened species. The species occurs only within the Neosho River basin. Individuals are usually small (1-2 inches as adults) and often only live one year. They are primarily consumers of benthic invertebrates.

The species first got listed back in 1990, and it has been the subject of some fairly testy back and forth between regulators and gravel harvesters ever since. KDWP suspended all gravel harvesting options for a while, then allowed them to continue within some limits. Needless to say, this ticked off the gravel harvesters, one of whom successfully sued KDWP for the lost income. Some of these guys are extremely bitter about the whole thing. For some reason I've had three requests to do these gravel harvesting operations in the past month, saturating all the available permits for the Neosho River.

Unfortunately, below is the best picture I have of the fish, since we were largely unsuccessful in finding the little guys.

Back in the mid-90s the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS; the federal agency tasked with enforcing the Endangered Species Act) issued an opinion about gravel-harvesting options in the Neosho and Cottonwood Rivers. In essence, they said that the gravel harvesting was possibly damaging the Neosho Madtom populations. As a result, a large, long-term study by FWS and the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks has been occurring since then to figure out whether or not gravel harvesting is harming the Neosho Madtom.

The kinda non-intuitive part of this is that the gravel harvesters aren't even getting into the water. That picture above is of a gravel bar in early November. The gravel harvesters are pulling gravel out from above the waterline. So why might these operations be a problem? Basically, when the river floods, the madtoms may be moving up onto the flooded gravel bars and using them as a site for reproduction. What happens when gravel is being removed? The answer is we don't know. But we will.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Photos: SETAC in Milwuakee

For some reason my pictures of catching Neosho Madtoms are not coming up on this computer, but I wanted to put some pictures up anyway. So here's some pics from my recent trip to SETAC in Milwaukee. (captions below the pic)

Yes. I'm wearing shorts in Milwaukee. In November. Has anyone heard of this whole 'climate change' thing?
This is the Milwaukee River (I think). There's a nice river-walk behind a bunch of buildings in the downtown. The first part of the week was so nice we walked along here a couple of times during lunch. Later in the week it got extremely cold and windy, so I guess we haven't gotten to the point where it is warm all year yet.

Apparently there's a duck theme to the riverwalk.

Unfortunately the closest thing we saw to an actual duck was this chair floating down the river. I also have pictures of traffic cones in the water. Beautiful.

This is recovered treasure from a sunken Spanish ship. The weight of the silver block is supposed to be so great that you can't run away with it, but there were still two guards with tasers there.

This was the beer line just before 5 30 when the open bar opened.

What? That doesn't look like a scientific conference! How'd that get in here?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Cool Journal Articles: CO2 Enrichment and Crayfish

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

I have a lot less time to read good journal articles than I used to, and KDWP has incredibly limited access to on-line journals, so I am just now getting to the latest issue of the Journal of the North American Benthological Society (JNABS; which is actually listed as December 2007). I feel like JNABS is a vastly underrated journal, but I have to admit that I’ve published two papers there, so I may not be entirely without bias.

At any rate, there are several very interesting articles in this issue, and I hope to highlight them all on this blog. The most interesting/amazing by far (in my mind) is one by John Kominoski and others (see full citation below #1). I just did a quick google-search, and apparently Kominoski has his own google-page (you can get a .pdf of this article from there).

Ok, so let’s talk about this paper a little. Oddly enough, this paper integrates subjects I find very interesting: dissolved organic matter (DOM), periphyton and crayfish. The basic premise of the paper is that as CO2 levels in the atmosphere rise, the organic chemistry of plants is going to change. This has lead to a widespread idea that herbivores feeding on these elevated CO2 plants will be less able to extract needed nutrients. My friend and collaborator Paul Frost has published one paper exploring the stoichiometry behind this, but he certainly isn’t the only one (see his citation below #2). The basic idea is that as you increase the CO2 in the atmosphere, you increase the amount of carbon in the leaves/tissues of plants. That seems great, since it means more productivity when measured in terms of energy.

Unfortunately, it also means less (by percent weight) of other essential elements (i.e., nitrogen or phosphorus). So more CO2 in the atmosphere means you have to eat more food to get the same amount of nutrients (as in a lower CO2 atmosphere). At least, that’s one theory with some support.

The kicker is that the additional C in those leaves in plants may not just be adding nutrient-poor bulk to the plant, it may be in the form of compounds that are actively toxic. That’s what Paul Frost found in the 2005 paper I mentioned earlier. His little bugs eating elevated-CO2 leaves were leaking essential nutrients.

So back to the Kominoski paper. Kominoski (or Nancy Tuchman or one of the authors) got the idea that these leaves aren’t just a direct food source to detritivores and herbivores, they are also an indirect food source to the base of the aquatic foodweb (the biofilms on rocks, often referred to as periphyton). Here’s where the DOM story comes into play. See, DOM is a fantastically important component of most aquatic ecosystems, controlling light penetration through the water column, the bioavailability of heavy metals and nutrients, has a huge effect on the pH of water, and is a ‘food’ source for bacteria and algae. DOM is just organic matter, which is a pretty broad category, and it comes from a lot of different places (animal excretion, algal release, bacterial release), but one of the biggest sources in temperate forested streams (and lakes) is leaves.

That’s right, leaves. Leaves falling into streams or lakes or wetlands leach organic compounds. You can probably imagine where this is going. Kominoski et al. found that the DOM leached out of his CO2 enriched leaves caused a different biofilm to develop than the DOM leached out of leaves raised in ambient conditions. That difference proved to be one that crayfish (a hugely important species in many aquatic ecosystems) could detect, and avoid. The implication that Kominoski et al. draw is that crayfish in a CO2 enriched world will possibly stop eating periphyton and start eating other, more nutrient-rich sources of food preferentially. Say goodbye to smaller macroinverts!

One key implication of this paper is that climate change isn’t just going to cause ecological havoc because of changes in temperature or rainfall; simply changing the CO2 content of the atmosphere will have dramatic and subtle effects on the biosphere.

Now, I don’t necessarily get everything in this paper. For example, the conclusion is somewhat tenuous. I’ve measured the grazing rate of crayfish on periphyton: For some species it is not much. Of the crayfish I’ve seen, it seems like they don’t eat periphyton unless they’re starving, but I’m no expert on that. (Hopefully some experts will email me a smarter reply about that.)

I’m also a little thrown off by a particular line in the abstract: “...cyanobacterial biovolume was higher in [elevated CO2] algal assemblages than in [ambient CO2] algal assemblages after 35 [days].” Yet in Figure 2, the differences in cyanobacterial biovolume don’t appear to be significant (visually or statistically), and leading up to the 35 day mark the different treatments appear to flip-flop in importance. So, I’m not sure I would have included that in the abstract, even though it is conceptually an appealing idea (cyanobacteria seem to be considered ‘poor quality’ food by most aquatic ecologists).

A few other notes:
- I’m curious to see on how many more posthumous papers the legendary Bob Wetzel will be a co-author. Will this be the last one? Is John Kominski (who seems pretty cool) the last first author with Wetzel as a co-author?

- I really thought this paper was Nature-worthy. That’s pretty much the holy grail of ecologists. However, after I read around a little, I realized that the implicit finding here (that CO2 enrichment will cause all kinds of weird and unexpected effects) is not that novel. Still, a great and complete story.

- I also saw a talk John Kominoski gave at NABS 2003 in Athens, GA. I talked to him at that conference, but I doubt he would remember me. I’m somewhat surprised that it has taken this long for the paper to come out. I wonder if it got rejected by a better journal, causing the delay. Formatting this thing for Nature would have been hard, and it would have been equally hard to re-format it for JNABS.

#1 Kominoski, J.S., P.A. Moore, R.G. Wetzel, and N.C. Tuchman. 2007. Elevated CO2 alters leaf-litter-derived dissolved organic carbon: effects on stream periphyton and crayfish feeding preferences. JNABS 26:663-680. DOI: 10.1899/07-002.1

#2 Frost, P.C. and N.C. Tuchman. 2005. Nutrient release rates and ratios by two stream detritivores fed leaf litter grown under elevated atmospheric CO2. Archiv für Hydrobiologie 163: 463-477

That's pretty cool.

So there have been grumblings that the Bush administration has consistently undermined the best science at federal agencies. Finally some action is being taken to correct those idiotic decisions. Let's just hope this keeps up.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC)

Last week I attended SETAC's annual conference, which took place in Milwaukee. I gave a talk about toxistoichiometry, and attended the whole meeting.

There's a lot to talk about with SETAC, so I think I'm just going to hit the memorable stuff for now:

1. SETAC's annual conference is riddled with extremely poor talks. The 2nd talk of the Green Chemistry session was by an EPA scientist who didn't really give a talk at all. He simply recited a list of criteria for what makes a chemical 'environmentally friendly.' No justification, no explanation, nothing but a recitation of conditions. I wish this were unusual, but in fact, SETAC appears plagued by talks from people who don't really seem to care about producing a quality talk. That's extremely disappointing, especially when the titles and/or abstracts sound so promising. By comparison, the annual conference for the North American Benthological Society (NABS) typically contains a slew of extremely well-done talks.

2. The heavy metals story is overwhelming. There were multiple sessions and hundreds of posters detailing the toxicity and effects of heavy metals. This was encouraging to me, since I've been working to stop a project by an energy company to dump heavy metals into the Kansas river. The sheer volume of evidence in support of the hazards of heavy metals makes my job easier.

3. Ecotoxicologists at SETAC need to get better, and that's all there is to it. One speaker used a tennis-shoe metaphor/literary device to get her point across ( the "Just do it." approach or a "New Balance"), without ever explaining what either meant. Another speaker referred to a 24 hr toxicity test on crustaceans as 'Chronic.' A third speaker (actually the chair of my session) gave a talk that consisted entirely of him recounting an unsuccessful survey for hellbender salamanders and then showing us pictures he took while he was doing the survey.
These are unacceptable, and we should expect better from scientists giving talks at major conferences. If you don't have any results or data, don't try to amuse me by showing me your pretty underwater photographs of a bluegill. A talk at a scientific conference should include, at minimum, a complete story of some research, along with necessary background info and some kind of data.

4. The good talks: While the "Ecotoxicology" sessions were mostly awful, the "Wildlife Ecotoxicology" session was amazing. I didn't agree with all of the science (particularly one speaker's assumption-laden justification for his qualitative interpretation of his data) in almost every talk we got an introduction, a compelling methodology, and a insightful synthesis. This peaked with Nico van den Brink and Frouke Vermeulen's separate talks demonstrating the importance of taking into account foraging on heavy metal uptake from both a theoretical and experimental basis. That whole session was stellar, and has to rank as the overall highlight of the conference.

5. Tyrone Hayes. This guy gave the best scientific talk I have ever seen in my life. You can read about him online here, here, and here. He made a compelling case that Syngenta has bought out the integrity of several researchers and may be unfairly influencing the EPA. Apparently this fight has been going on for awhile, although I hadn't been fully aware of it. I do know that corporate interests certainly seem able to "buy" whatever results they want from unscrupulous researchers.

6. My talk. I thought my talk went fairly well. I had a lot of good questions, mostly on a more general front, but also a few that made me think. When people see this research, they start thinking up lots of intuitive ideas about how to go forward, and for some reason, a lot of these ideas are pretty obvious. I had multiple questions that paralleled my own thoughts, and the thoughts others have offered. One of my hopes during this conference was to interact with some profs who might be interested in doing some toxi-stoich research in their own labs. I don't know if that is going to happen.

There was a lot more that happened, and I'll try to recount some of it here, along with my thoughts on how to improve scientific conferences.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Explanations: Conservation Easements

Whenever a project will be destroying critical habitat for a state-listed species, the project sponsor is required to replace the lost habitat. This can be done in a number of ways, but one of the critical components is insuring that the replaced habitat will not just be torn down once KDWP isn’t looking. As a result, I’ve been running into projects where conservation easements are likely to be a critical component.

An easement is a legal document attached to a title/deed, specifying a certain condition or use of the property. A conservation easement is, obviously, used to specify conditions or usage that will accomplish conservation goals. The property is still owned by the deed-holder, but the owner must abide by the terms of the easement.

Existing habitat can actually be used as “replacement” of lost habitat if the existing habitat will be managed in a way that improves its quality. For example: Cattle grazing is detrimental to Broadhead Skinks. A conservation easement may require an area be fenced off and grazing stopped, which would greatly improve the habitat quality for the Skink.

The issues with easements start with their length. We at KDWP have a mandate to preserve habitat in perpetuity. Landowners in Kansas (especially Western Kansas for some reason), tend to get really nervous when you talk about perpetuity. In the past, we’ve done easements for various lengths of time: 100, 50, or even as little as 25 years. The difference between 100 years and perpetuity is significant, but sometimes 100 years is all you can get. Considering the statutes regulating T&E in Kansas have only been around ~30 years, preserving/enhancing habitat on the 100 year scale is probably pretty good.

However, all these inconsistencies in past easements have made my job difficult. See, project sponsors like to see consistently. “Why can’t I do a 25 year easement if my neighbor did?” This is an understandable concern, and on numerous issues in this job, I’ve tried to make a point of following the precedents we’ve set previously. I’ve done this because I wanted to get my feet wet before stirring things up. Finally, this week we’ve collectively made the decision that we’re just not going to accept easements for less than perpetuity.

Personally, I feel like this is the right thing to do. The KS statutes refer to perpetuity, and the habitats ought to be preserved indefinitely. Even beyond T&E species, Kansas and the U.S. has a need to maintain ecosystem integrity, and maintaining conservation easements in perpetuity also accomplishes that.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Kansas WRAPS

On Tuesday I attended a work group meeting of Kansas WRAPS participant agencies. WRAPS stands for Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategies. The goal of WRAPS is to fund novel and innovative projects that will improve watersheds. The idea is to do this by getting local stakeholders to participate. The WRAPS process is 4-stage: Develop, Assess, Plan, and Implement. Each WRAPS group represents a particular watershed, and each year they may request funding to accomplish one of those 4 stages.

The funding requests greatly exceeded the available funds (as expected) so the requests had to be pared down considerably. My understanding is that this work group, consisting of representatives from perhaps a dozen state agencies and other interested parties, was intended to offer guidance and thoughts on how to assign that money.

At the meeting, I was told that the initial criteria for getting WRAPS funds was for projects that were experimental or novel or otherwise a dramatic change from approaches that had been tried previously. Yet many of the project proposals included ideas that have been used extensively elsewhere. For example, one group asked for money to build terraces. Fortunately, the work group, along with the ultimate decision-makers, agreed that this was not what WRAPS is intended to fund.

This meeting was actually a fairly interesting look at how decision-making at this scale gets made. For example, there was considerable talk about the possible need to protect the service providers. A service provider is an agency who actually carries out the projects that the WRAPS group wants to implement. So if WRAPS group A gets the money, then they are going to pay, say, Kansas State University (A service provider) that money in order for one of the professors there to design and organize the project. What the WRAPS work group was discussing was whether or not we ought to consider the fate of those service providers when assigning funds. If a service provider is on the books as accomplishing a particular task for 4 different WRAPS groups, but only 2 of those groups get funded, will that service provider be able to exist on 1/4th of the projects it had planned for?

Personally, I don’t believe that should factor into the WRAPS funding assignments at all, because if it does, then it becomes a powerful incentive for WRAPS groups to use those service providers that the WRAPS work group thinks are worth preserving. In essence, the funding agency would be funneling money to particular groups (and eliminating competition). By ignoring those considerations, the service providers that can’t adapt to the changing conditions will simply fade away.

These were the kind of meta-issues that dominated the meeting. There was surprisingly little discussion of the ‘innovations’ that were being proposed. I guess I was a little surprised by that. Fairness was the big motivating force behind a lot of these discussions. The first idea that always arose was to make everything the same for everyone. Yet fairness can also be achieved by any method that is transparent and logical. Written decisions explaining the justification for a particular project can be just as fair as a universal system that can be applied in advance.

The other major issue that got a lot of conversation at the work group meeting was in regards to a couple of individual WRAPS groups. Apparently this is an issue related to history. Bill Hargrove, the K-State representative, took issue with the lower Ark River watershed having two WRAPS (the City of Wichita has one, and Sedgwick County has one). Almost everyone in the room made a point of lamenting the inability of City and County to work together, ostensibly because every other WRAPS group in a similar situation had managed to unite into a single committee/group. Yet, the map online of WRAPS watersheds shows a lot of overlap. Further, the online FAQ for the project seems to suggest that overlapping WRAPS are perfectly acceptable. The issues facing the City and the County would appear to be separate. Yet it was fully ten minutes before the uproar about “Wichita and Sedgwick” died down. Suggestions were made that any funding to those groups be given on the condition of them merging.

I find this very silly. Bill Hargrove, in particular, used questionable logic by maintaining that “every other WRAPS group” had to collaborate, yet he himself identified other WRAPS groups that had overlapping watersheds. Further, Bill had made a point earlier in the meeting of not taking a ‘cookie-cutter’ approach to funding WRAPS groups, because each one should be evaluated differently. Yet his (and others) primary objection to the Wichita-Sedgwick split was that it didn’t fit into the cookie cutter mold that had been used on so many other projects. Personally, I think that such an arbitrary distinction (the city lines) is silly, but I can understand from an organizational standpoint why it makes sense: Within the city limits, Wichita has extremely well-defined lines of communication between stake-holders and the WRAPS group. But translating those interests outside the city is…odd.

The WRAPS program is a good one. The plan is sound, although the implementation and evaluation is tricky (isn’t it always?). I’m looking forward to participating in this project more in the future.

Monday, October 22, 2007

A good day for Kansas

Last Thursday, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment denied a permit to Sunflower Electric for 2 proposed coal power plants near Holcomb, KS. In the words of Secretary Roderick Bremby: “After careful consideration of my responsibility to protect the public health and environment from actual, threatened or potential harm from air pollution, I have decided to deny the Sunflower Electric Power Corporation application for an air quality permit.”

This decision was a bombshell across the state of Kansas. Almost everyone I know, and I know some people, assumed that the decision would be to allow the construction of the new coal power plants. The KDHE technical review actually recommended issuing the permit, despite protests from numerous individuals, organizations, and the Fish and Wildlife service.

Earl Watkins, Sunflower’s president and CEO was not happy (.pdf): “We are disappointed with the Secretary’s arbitrary and capricious action. It’s clear the KDHE technical staff followed the law in its treatment of Sunflower’s air permit application when the staff recommended that the permit be issued. All Kansans should be alarmed by this action, since the impact of this denial will be felt across many industries in Kansas, not just power plants.” Watkins went on to imply that Sunflower wouldn’t invest in the algae technology they had previously been planning to produce ethanol and other biofuels. Watkins characterized the decision as political. Steve Miller, a spokesperson for Sunflower, was quoted as saying investors would gather a “truckload of lawyers” and “find out if there’s a way around this or to overturn this.” As he put it: “Our main thing is we think this was an arbitrary and capricious decision.”

State legislators were quick to pile on as well, directing their wrath at the Democratic Governer:

“I am disappointed in the governor’s lack of support and leadership for western Kansas on this major development project. I am hopeful this effort will not live or die on Secretary Bremby’s decision.”

-- Steve Morris, R- Hugoton

“His [Bremby’s] action today sends a clear message that economic development is not welcomed in rural Kansas. This is clearly to me a political decision dictated by Governor Sebelius.”

-- House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls

“As despicable as I find the national Republican Party, I find the leaders of the Kansas Democratic party even more despicable. Anyone who would throw a 3.5 billion-dollar investment away when it offered the citizens of this great state an opportunity to show the world what can be done with one of the most innovative energy programs ever conceived does not and will not get one minute of my time.”

-- Lon Wartman, who resigned as Finney County’s Democratic chairman.

"By forcing Secretary Bremby to deny the permit she (Sebelius) has not only caved to liberal special interest groups, but she has once again has shown her lack of commitment to promoting Kansas economic interests."

-- Kris Kobach, Republican state chairman (cites: 1, 2)

But this did not really reflect the range of opinions regarding the KDHE’s decision:

“I am encouraged by this decision, because protecting the people of Kansas – in every corner of our state – has always mattered more to me than anything else.”

-- Governor Sebelius

“moving forward it is critical that members of our administration and the Kansas Legislature continue to aggressively pursue renewable energy sources, such as wind generation. These opportunities will not only allow our state to lead the nation in clean energy, but will provide much-needed economic opportunities for rural Kansas.”

-- Janis Lee, D- Kensington

“The Holcomb plant would have locked the state into another 50 years of dirty, polluting coal energy and eliminated the market for the renewable forms of energy that are the future.”

-- Craig Volland, Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club

Based on this decision, we can say Kansas is becoming part of the solution rather than becoming part of the problem of global warming. It's a tough decision, but the right decision.”

-- Bob Eye, Topeka attorney for the Sierra Club

In my opinion, this was the best decision for Kansas. The supporters of this initiative are attempting to re-cast the issue as one of political development, and even in terms of Eastern Kansas dictating to Western Kansas, but these are misguided arguments. Allow me to explain:

1. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment is not mandated to promote economic development, but rather to protect the health and environment of Kansans. As a result, any argument based on economic development should be ignored. I’ve found no one arguing that the coal plant won’t produce greenhouse gases, and I’ve seen no evidence anywhere that greenhouse gases aren’t causing global climate change. Further, the citizens of Kansas were given an extraordinarily long time to make comments on this proposed permit, and based on the 117 page response to comments that KDHE generated, many of those comments expressed doubts that the EPA/KDHE air quality standards were strong enough to protect Kansans’ health. The only arguments in favor of the new coal plant were financial, but it isn’t the Kansas Department of “Making the Rich Richer.”

2. Individuals from Western Kansas (some of my in-laws among them) are trying to cast this as Eastern Kansas stifling Western Kansas development. My initial feeling is that Western Kansas is making a straw man argument here. Take a look at this map (.pdf) (or this one) showing the distribution of Kansans. Notice anything? The vast majority of Kansas lives in the Eastern half of the state. In fact, the top 3 metropolitan areas of the state (Kansas City, Topeka, and Wichita) make up over half of the state’s total population. So does Eastern Kansas have a bigger say in what goes on in the state: Of course it does. Last I checked, this was still a democracy.

Consider this, in the U.S. Senate, 51 representatives are voted in by just 17% of the U.S. population. I haven’t dug through all the numbers to find out, but I suspect a similar effect occurs in Kansas. I imagine the # of citizens per representative in Kansas is smaller in the west than in the east, and therefore the west is over-represented in the government.

Even if I were inclined to bicker over the financial aspects of this project, I suspect they would all come out bad for Kansas. The energy this coal plant would produce would be sent primarily to Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas. Just 15% of the proposed output from this plant would be going in-state, yet, 100% of the pollution would be occurring in-state. Air pollution from coal plants has been linked to increased infant mortality and asthma attacks, while filling the air with NOx, SOx, mercury, lead, and a host of other compounds that are known to cause human health concerns. The financial analyses done previously don’t really take these health effects into account, but if you think they don’t matter, you’re not paying attention.

All-in-all, I think this is a great day for Kansas. Secretary Bremby has drawn a line in the sand, and I hope we can defend it. The onus is now on the power industry to come up with some real solutions to our power needs, even if those solutions do not necessarily generate the most profit possible.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Toxistoichiometry: Integrating Ecological Stoichiometry and Ecotoxicology

In my current job I haven’t been doing a lot of original research, but that hardly means I am abandoning my wide range of research interests. I wanted to explain today a little bit about the “big idea” that I’ve been chipping away at for years. What follows are pieces from a talk I’m going to give to the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry in Milwaukee on November 12th.

Evaluation of toxicity is most often done by the use of standard bioassays on commonly used test organisms. For example, you can pull up an EPA-approved method for determining the acute or chronic toxicity of any chemical to Daphnia spp. Theoretically, anyone in the world can follow the same protocol and get the same result. In reality, considerable differences occur between labs and even between Daphnia strains (not to mention different species), but this overall approach has been accepted for years as a means of estimating toxicity. The problem is that this method only estimates relative toxicity within a specific context. Relating the results of these short-term, laboratory tests to real-world scenarios is not only difficult, it may be impossible. For example, frequently used protocols often provide organisms with an abundance of high-quality resources, while in nature organisms are often faced with either low quantity or low-quality resources. A number of studies have tried to understand how the effect of a toxin varies with food quantity, but few have adequately addressed how food quality alters the effect of a toxin. Imbalances between the nutritional quality of a food source and an organism’s dietary needs are common in nature and appear to play a role in individual physiology, population dynamics, community interactions, and ecosystem processes. The study of how nutrient imbalances alter ecological relationships is often referred to as ecological stoichiometry. Organisms respond to changes in the stoichiometric ratio of elements in their food with corresponding variations in growth, reproduction, assimilation, and excretion. Essentially, nutritional imbalances have a large effect on ecosystem function.

My interest is in linking ecological stoichiometry with ecotoxicology. Initially, I have focused on how food quality affects acute toxicity in aquatic organisms. My collaborators at the University of Notre Dame and Trent University and I have shown that some toxins (iodine, cobalt, fluoxetine in particular) are stoichiometrically explicit, meaning the effects on organisms vary based on the quality of food the organism is getting. Other toxins do not appear to be stoichiometrically explicit (bendiocarb, triclosan, methanol) although it is obviously harder to prove.

The implications of stoichiometrically explicit toxins are presently unknown, but one can imagine a situation where the concentration of a toxin allowed by law is harmless when organisms are fed high-quality food, but detrimental when they are given poor quality food. Obviously, in nature species are often faced with food shortages or poor food quality, thus the actual effect of toxins may be much greater than the estimated effects. Evaluating the risk a chemical poses to an ecosystem therefore requires a more context specific approach. Are the receiving ecosystems frequently nutrient stressed? Are times of pollutant release going to coincide with occasions when ecosystems are nutrient stressed? I’m not sure whether regulatory agencies are equipped to permit in this way.

This kind of work is obviously just a first crack at the idea, and in many ways a very basic approach. Without this kind of base data, however, addressing more interesting questions becomes difficult. I believe that toxistoichiometry has the potential to provide a new axis of understanding for ecotoxicology.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Photos: October in Redbelly Snake Habitat

The key component of critical habitat for Northern Redbelly and Smooth Earth Snakes is an Oak-Hickory forest. I think this is because the soil must have been maintained for quite a while if Oak-Hickory is present, so the soil-dwelling snakes could be present.

Another big component is limestone and other rocky outcrops. Here something has made its den along an outcropping.
Permanent water and a fairly dense leaf litter layer is also important. This seepage is probably not permanent, but still adds something to the habitat.
Again, some more pics of rocks and rocky outcropping under a dense Oak-Hickory forest.

A final key ingredient is evidence for food sources. Here's a European earthworm, a primary food-source for these snakes. I also found snails and other soil-inverts at this location.

Random Bonus Picture:
Nothing to do with snakes, just a neat picture of a mushroom.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Report from Kansas E3: Energy, the Environment, and Economics.

So last week on Thursday I attended the 2007 State of the State, Kansas Economic Policy Conference (with the above title). The conference is put on by the Institute for Policy and Social Research at the University of Kansas. They’ve got a website with some basic information.

The key theme of this meeting was about how to balance our staggering energy demands with the environmental hazards caused by energy generation. I had been under the impression that this was going to be more of a panel-discussion type of conference. The two big sessions were labeled “Panels” and listed moderators, but in the morning session each of the panelists gave a 20+ minute talk, and there was virtually no time for questions.

I found the conference to be very interesting, at least the portions I saw (I did not see every speaker). Several points stood out, and I’ll discuss them briefly:

1. Our energy problems are enormous, and getting much greater. All the speakers agreed upon this point. They also agreed that the dramatic increases in demand over the next 25 years will be driven by increasing energy consumption in China and India. One speaker tossed out the staggering datum that China is building 1 coal power plant a week. The (old-school) industrialized world (OECD countries) is probably not going to see dramatic increases in energy consumption. The estimated increases are amazing. Speaker Tim Carr, of the Kansas Geological Survey and the University of West Virginia, put the energy numbers into a somewhat comprehensible format. Today, we globally use the energy equivalent of 211 million barrels of oil (MMBOE) a day. By 2030 we’re globally expected to be using 311 MMBOE/day. As he points out, there probably are enough coal, petroleum, and natural gas resources available to meet this demand over the next hundred years. As he also pointed out, the problem is the effect using such resources will have on the environment.

2. Nobody in the energy industry has any idea how to develop an environmentally friendly energy source. The morning Keynote speaker, William Downey of Kansas City Power and Light, repeated over and over again that “I have been in the utility industry for 35 years, and we’ve essentially got the same options for power generation now that we had 35 years ago.” Tim Carr pointed out that wind, ethanol, geothermal, solar, and all other biofuels account for less than 1.5% of our global energy usage. Downey also pointed out that the amount of money being spent on R&D has been decreasing from both the public and private sector over the past thirty years, despite the increasing need to find solutions. In my opinion, this is strong evidence that the industry is not hiring a diverse enough workforce in the R&D field. If energy companies continue to hire geologists and engineers who have specialized in understanding how to find petroleum and coal, it should be obvious that they aren’t going to be able to come up with innovative strategies to utilize solar, tidal, or bio-energy options.

3. Individuals with positions of security generally give terrible talks. Not all the talks I saw were awful. William Downey’s talk was actually quite good, especially considering the computer went out and the tech people kept interrupting him. Other speakers were less skilled orators. I assume this is because they didn’t practice. The speakers were generally rambling, monotone, and apparently intimidated by the audience. Some of them mumbled! By contrast, almost all the truly great talks I’ve seen have been by graduate students or other young and ‘inexperienced’ speakers. I assume this is because the younger speakers have more at stake. The mind reels at the implication that the people who are most listened to are the ones who have quit caring about how to express themselves.

4. Mis-information and spurious correlations can dramatically alter how people perceive an issue. Tim Carr put up a correlation between life-expectancy and energy consumption, making vague appeals to “refrigerating medicine” as the causative agent. I don’t actually have the data to disprove this assessment, but he offered no evidence in support of it. Other speakers have suggested that HIV/AIDS, which dramatically lowers life expectancies whether or not it is treated, is single-handily driving down life expectancy in Africa. Eliminate African countries, and the energy-lifespan relationship looks a lot weaker. Yet by putting up a figure with little or no context and supporting data, Tim Carr managed to suggest that we must produce more energy to save lives. In reality, the relationship between energy usage and life-span is more complex, and even spending more time in contemplation of Carr’s figure suggests that any relationship that might exist plateaus at a level 1/10th of the U.S. per capita energy consumption. That information doesn’t support the central tenet of the speakers: That energy consumption must continue to rise.

Tim Carr also put up a list of “Humanity’s Top Ten Problems Next 50 Years” as enumerated by Richard Smalley, a 1996 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry. #1 on the list is Energy. Carr said “I like to start my talk with a Nobel Laureate.” This is an appeal to authority, and while Richard Smalley was certainly passionate about cheap energy, it is hard to take seriously a list that lists “Energy, Food, and Water” as the top three concerns, while listing “Population” as #10. After all, if population problems are solved, won’t most of the food, water, and energy problems be solved? Further, Smalley himself advocated education as the means to achieve cheap energy, yet education is only #8 on the list. Again, by showing this slide, appealing to authority, and then moving on without any critical analysis of the idea, the real issue is obscured so that a particular viewpoint can be promoted.

5. The conference organizers don’t know how to make a vegetarian food option. No. Potatoes and asparagus (the sides) do not constitute a ‘substitute’ for beef. And here I thought KU would be able to provide some reasonable alternative (cheese ravioli? Anything?).

I really didn’t end up learning much about how environmental concerns could be addressed while developing economically viable energy sources. Mostly the energy people seemed to just throw up their hands and advocate “clean coal” (I’ll try to explain why this is a misnomer in some future post) or nuclear. I’m not sure nuclear isn’t a good solution, but I’m not as informed as I ought to be about the risks. The other major suggestion was to get consumers to be more energy efficient. That strategy has been so effective in some places that energy companies have raised their rates to compensate for lost revenues.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

One Acre at a Time

A lot of people don’t realize how beautiful Kansas is. When people think of natural beauty, they often think of mountains and forests. Kansas is lacking in both. In terms of natural beauty, however, Kansas lacks little. There are few more imposing and awe-inspiring views on earth than the sea of grass in the Flint Hills. Standing atop a plateau, with the wind very nearly blasting you out of your shoes, you feel the enormity of the sky above and you can’t help but feel a little overwhelmed.

Even in the agricultural lands of Kansas, I’ve often found pockets of beauty. On Friday I was out in the field, doing an environmental assessment on a site that will one day be flooded for a dam. From the road the site looks pretty boring: Overgrown pasture abutting cropland. But I went out and walked the site anyway. The pasture was like a bizarro-world tall-grass prairie. Instead of a nearly impenetrable sea of 6-foot bluestem, I was wading through a nearly impenetrable sea of 6 foot ragweed. I had been following a stream, and lost it when it meandered and I wandered into the pasture.

In order to find my way back to the stream, I did what any Kansas-born kid would do: Look for the trees. Stumbling forward towards a huge cottonwood, I suddenly burst out of the pasture and into an area where the tree canopy had cut off light to the grown, and the underbrush was sparse. All around me were mulberry trees, grape vines, cottonwoods, gooseberry, and red-bud trees. In the surprisingly still air of this pocket of semi-forest there were monarch butterflies wafting around, and I startled deer from their slumber. I felt like I had stumbled into another county. The stream had obviously criss-crossed this area of the valley a dozen times, as evidenced by old, dry stream channels. In the active channel was the only remaining pocket of water anywhere in this entire stream-reach.

Pockets of natural areas like this are probably more common than I know, and pretty important for the general welfare of the surrounding animal community. This isn’t the most obvious habitat to protect, and it isn’t the most obvious habitat to try and get replaced, but you can say that a thousand times and then you’ll have lost a thousand little pockets like this. That starts to add up.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Explanations: Why you can't convince me to not do my job.

I consistently hear complaints from residential developers, engineers, and builders that environmental legislation causes unnecessary “delays.” Occasionally these complainers will attempt to argue with me about whether or not I should require mitigation for the loss of wildlife areas. I find these complainers to be borderline offensive, for the following reasons.

First, and perhaps foremost, I am not the one requiring mitigation, and I am not the one causing the delays. The elected officials of the state of Kansas passed into law the Kansas Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act in 1975 and since then the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP) has been required by law to require mitigation for loss of habitat. Since 1975, the citizens of Kansas (and the U.S. as a whole) have repeatedly been polled to gauge the level of support for this legislation, and have consistently responded that they favor such laws. Environmental regulations are no different than regulations governing workplace safety or speed limits. The majority of Kansas citizens want such regulations to prevent irresponsible practices.

Secondly, whether or not I personally believe that each species should be regulated, or that KDWP regulations represent the best science, I am obligated to regulate based on the KDWP-approved methods. Now that I’m a part of the process, and because I’m a scientist, I will work to make sure that the methods KDWP uses are objective and transparent. In many ways, what we do can’t be improved upon. In other ways they can. What’s true in all cases, though, is that I’m obligated to not use my own methods, but methods that KDWP has approved.

Finally, this country needs environmental regulation. The evidence from the past suggests that various industries will pollute as much as they are allowed, even when that pollution is the source of human and environmental health concerns, so long as it increases profit. The reasons are many, but ultimately it is because any industry governed by market forces will punish those who willingly forgo an advantage. Without environmental regulation, any industry that benefits from immoral polluting will be at a competitive disadvantage to those companies that will pollute immorally. Regulations insure that all competition occurs on a level playing field that the majority of society agrees is fair. A similar line of logic exists for developers, agriculturalists, etc.
To sum up: I’m going to protect the threatened and endangered species of Kansas. Nothing you say or do will convince me otherwise. As a result, feel free to keep your meaningless grumbling to yourself.