by Adam Wollner
September 23, 2013 5:38 PM
An empty Senate meeting room, just outside the chamber, is seen Monday in Washington. Only a week remains for Congress to pass a funding bill in order to avoid a government shutdown.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
In seven days, the federal government runs out of money.
While the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a resolution Friday that keeps the government funded through Dec. 15, the measure also defunded President Obama’s signature health care law — which means it has virtually no chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate.
If a budget resolution doesn’t hit President Obama’s desk before Oct. 1, that’s a big problem: the government will be forced to close its doors.
With that prospect looming, here are eight things you should know about the possible shutdown:
It won’t be the first time
Since a new budgeting process was put into place in 1976, the U.S. government has shut down 17 times. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan each dealt with six shutdowns during their terms in office, lasting anywhere from one day to two and a half weeks.
The last actual shutdown came in 1996 — though the government came close during budget negotiations in 2011.
The last shutdown lasted three weeks
The three-week shutdown that lasted from December 16, 1995 to January 6, 1996, ranks as the longest in U.S. history. As a result, about 284,000 federal workers were furloughed, and around 475,000 essential employees went without a paycheck, although they were eventually reimbursed.
They weren’t the only ones inconvenienced. Some benefits for military veterans were delayed and cleanup at more than 600 toxic waste sites was stopped. The government also shut down for six days in mid-November 1995, initially resulting in the furlough of 800,000 federal employees. The Congressional Research Service reported the shutdowns cost taxpayers a combined $1.4 billion.
Only the “essentials”
Only federal employees deemed “essential” would continue to come to work during a shutdown. Employees who qualify as essential include those involved in national security, protecting life and property and providing benefit payments.
That means members of the military, border control agents, air traffic controllers, the FBI and the TSA are among those who would remain on duty. The president and members of Congress are also exempt from furlough and must decide which of their respective staff members to keep around during a shutdown.
The checks are in the mail
Even in the event of a shutdown, Social Security beneficiaries will still find their checks in their mailboxes and doctors and hospitals will receive Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. However, if the government does not resolve the budget situation by Nov. 1, those entitlement program payments could be delayed by up to two weeks.
Even in a shutdown, the Postal Service delivers
One reason Americans will get their entitlement checks: a government shutdown would not hit the operations of the U.S. Postal Service. Government agencies that the Treasury Department does not directly fund, like USPS, would be relatively unaffected in the short term by a shutdown. Some postal employees would likely face furlough, but it wouldn’t be enough to completely close down the agency.
National parks and museums? Forget it
Have plans to visit a national park or go sightseeing in the nation’s capital? You might want to cancel them. During the Clinton-era shutdowns, 368 national parks closed, resulting in the loss of 7 million visitors. In Washington, D.C., the public would be unable to visit the monuments and museums that millions of tourists flock to every year. The Capitol building would remain open, though.
Visa and passport delays
Those hoping to enter or leave the country during a shutdown would likely experience some difficulty. The government was unable to process around 200,000 pending passport applications and a daily average of 30,000 visa and passport applications by foreigners during the 1995-96 shutdowns. This would not only result in a headaches for would-be travelers, but a loss in millions for the airline and tourism industries.
Who would be blamed for a shutdown?
Generally speaking, no one comes out looking good if the government shuts down. A Pew Research poll conducted Sept. 19-22 shows 39 percent of Americans would blame Republicans if a shutdown were to occur, compared to 36 percent who would fault the Obama administration and 17 percent who would hold both sides responsible. According to a Pew poll from a comparable period during the 2011 budget battle, the public spread the blame around nearly identically.
What Triples Your Risk of Being Depressed?
By Jim Clifton and Deepak Chopra
If economics aspires to be a science — “the dismal science” as it was traditionally called — it must recognize that the most relevant economic data are human. The rise and fall of GDP, mean household spending, and consumer confidence are useful statistics, but ultimately the “units” of the American economy are bodies and souls. What’s going on with them?
Even as the stock market soars, the unequal distribution of wealth, which reached an all-time U.S. high in 2012 (with the top 1% grabbing 20% of all incomes), also implies inequality in physical and mental well-being. We are breaking recent records there, too. It is well documented that the greatest burden on the economy is skyrocketing healthcare costs.
At $2.5 trillion annually, America’s healthcare bill is three times the size of the defense budget and nearly twice the size of the whole Russian economy. It is also roughly twice the size of the entire Indian economy, and India has a billion-plus population.
When you compare America’s per person health care spending to comparable societies, things look even worse. The U.S. spends more than $8,000 annually per person on healthcare, where Canada and Germany each spends roughly $4,500 per person, while the United Kingdom spends about $3,500, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. Yet even as we lavishly outspend those countries, Americans have shorter life spans and generally worse health outcomes. In other words, citizens in comparable societies live longer but spend half the money we do on healthcare or less.
What’s afflicting our bodies to such an extent that the medical system may not be able to manage a turnaround? One big answer: epidemic rates of obesity and diabetes. Obesity is the primary cause of Type 2 diabetes and a major contributor to chronic disease in general, including hypertension and coronary artery disease. If the United States solved the obesity problem, its economy would arguably roar back, unburdened by unsustainable healthcare costs. The news that our obesity epidemic has stopped rising and in the case of school children may even be declining, is a start, although long overdue.
But the country can’t reliably tackle obesity, which is correlated with low income levels, or turn the economy around, if many of its citizens are depressed. The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index just uncovered that being unemployed, dropping out of the workforce, or working part time while wanting full-time work are the strongest predictors of having depression. Unemployed adults and those not working as much as they would like to are about twice as likely to be depressed as Americans who are employed full time.
Clearly our society has a crisis of body and soul – and often both together, since depression significantly raises a person’s risk for disease almost across the board. Economists don’t realistically figure these human factors into their predictions, and we’ve only scratched the surface. Well-being also declines from a host of things specific to America: chronic stress, uncertainty over keeping a job, anxiety over lost pensions, pressure to increase productivity (already the highest in the world but constantly pushed to rise even higher), and the longest work week in the developed world, along with the lowest vacation time.
The cure for the worst things is a full-time job. Gallup workplace data show that the ultimate job is one in which you get to do what you do best every day, your manager encourages your development, and your opinion counts. When and if every American can have this “therapy” of full-time meaningful employment, then depression, stress, and anxiety will subside, and the average person will become much more motivated to tackle chronic health problems like obesity. The human factor can never be over-emphasized if we intend to get the economy roaring again, but more importantly, if we intend to take well-being seriously and not simply raw economic data.
The “Dream Job”| Sages and Scientists: Mallika Chopra – Part 1
The Problem with Coca Cola Enterprises’ ‘Don’t Waste, Create’ Campaign
By Raz Godelnik | September 6th, 2013
Hearing about Coca Cola Enterprises’ (CCE) new sustainability initiative in the UK designed to boost the reuse and recycling of plastic bottles, my expectations were pretty high. After all, CCE, the largest Coca-Cola bottler in Western Europe, is known to be taking sustainability seriously and is even considered one of the leaders in exploring consumer behavior change.
Therefore I hoped the ‘Don’t Waste, Create’ campaign would be strong, maybe even as progressive and exciting as CCE’s ‘Recycle for the Future’ study, wherein the company teamed up with university researchers to closely observe the dynamics that drive waste disposal and recycling in the homes of 20 French and English families.
Unfortunately I was dead wrong. If ‘Recycle for the Future’ was all about the future of using brand marketing to encourage recycling, ‘Don’t Waste, Create’ campaign is all about the past and not necessarily in a good way.
In fairness, maybe my expectations of CCE were too high in the first place because of its impressive track record, but please read the following description of the campaign and tell me if it doesn’t have a ‘90s feel to it:
“The ‘Don’t Waste. Create’ campaign will encourage consumers to use their waste packaging at home in a fun and useful way, while also pledging to recycle… By asking parents to submit their recycling ‘pledges’, the initiative aims to educate and inform families about the importance of recycling, while also suggesting activities that allow them to reconnect with nature and keep their families entertained during the summer holidays. ‘Don’t Waste. Create’ idea sheets will be available for parents to download at home …Suggested ideas include a bottle bird feeder or self-watering bottle plant pot. After the activities have been completed, households are encouraged to recycle their creations once they are no longer needed.”
The online campaign, which began last month and runs through September is also accompanied with in-store activities at Sainsbury’s, one of the UK’s largest supermarket chain, although the website doesn’t give much detail about the partnership. And there are also rewards – in return for pledging to recycle, customers receive a voucher for 80 cents off their next purchase of a 2-liter bottle of a Coke product, and also have the chance to win “a family ‘glamping’ holiday in France.”
Trying to figure out what CCE had in mind when thinking about this campaign, I read the explanation from Nick Brown, Associate Director for Recycling at Coca-Cola Enterprises: “CCE is committed to reducing plastic waste and helping our customers to re-think how they dispose of their packaging. By asking them to re-use and then recycle plastic bottles, ‘Don’t Waste. Create’ encourages families to think more sustainably while having fun, giving them a tangible way to help reduce their household waste.“
This is where I got even more confused. CCE is a company involved in a number of innovative and challenging initiatives, from participating in the UK soft drinks industry’s effort to reduce its carbon emissions to Continuum Recycling, a recycled-PET joint venture with ECO Plastics that processed 500 million bottles in its first year of operation. In addition, CCE has committed to recycling more packaging than it uses by 2020 and generally demonstrates a clear understanding of where it can really make a difference (energy and climate change and sustainability packaging and recycling).
So I couldn’t help but wonder how such a company believes that providing customers with instructions on how to make a bottle bird feeder or a bottle plant pot from empty Coke bottles will encourage them “to think more sustainably while having fun, giving them a tangible way to help reduce their household waste?”
While some might argue the answer is that this campaign isn’t really about encouraging customers to recycle more Coke bottles but rather about encouraging them to buy more Coke, I believe this is just an example of a poorly designed campaign. Why? First, because it’s not clear if the ‘remedy’ the campaign offers (make recycling fun) actually relates to the reasons behind the low at-home recycling rates in the UK, and second, the ‘fun’ component in the campaign doesn’t seem to be utilizing game thinking and elements very well.
Looking at the issues explored in CCE’s observational study it’s not clear if the ‘fun’ factor has anything to do with the low recycling rates in British households (half of plastic bottles in the UK are not collected for recycling and most of them are thrown away at home). Some of the issues mentioned include consumers’ need for more information about recycling and the recycling infrastructure. Over 30 percent of people in the UK believe collected materials are not recycled.
Nevertheless, as Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter write in their book “For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business,” fun is an extraordinarily valuable tool to address serious business pursuits. That also includes customer engagement and sustainability. Yet, in this case, the game thinking, which according to Werbach and Hunter is the mind-set required to deploy fun in a considered and directed way, is lacking.
Werbach makes the case that a well-gamified system includes all three basic elements of intrinsic motivation: competence (overcoming challenges), autonomy (being in control and having options), and relatedness (sense of purpose or goals). In other words, he says, if you use this elements properly it results in participants having fun. Is this the case here? I doubt it.
While the campaign is loosely connected to these three elements, it is really far from mastering them. Just compare it to Heineken’s six pack design challenge or think what would this campaign look like if it was based on a competition on the best idea for reusing a Coke bottle with the backup of a smart platform like Club Psych – that could really be fun, right?
[Image credit: Coca-Cola Enterprises Limited (CCE)]
Fracking’s Threats to Drinking Water Call for a Precautionary Approach
Posted Jul 1, 2013 by Sandra Postel (originally posted by the National geographic)
A Marcellus shale gas well operation in Scott Township, Pennsylvania. Photo credit: wcn247/Flickr Creative Commons
At least one aspect of fracking’s risks to drinking water became a little clearer this week.
A study led by Rob Jackson of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that drinking water wells located within 1 kilometer of a shale gas well in a region of northeastern Pennsylvania are at high risk of contamination with methane.
Fracking, shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, is the process of blasting water mixed with sand and chemicals deep underground at high pressure so as to fracture shale rock and release the gas it holds.
Colorless, odorless, and highly flammable, methane is the primary component of natural gas. It is not regulated as a drinking water contaminant, but it poses potential health and safety hazards. If the gas builds up in a basement or other confined space, for example, it can set off an explosion or start a fire. If breathed in high enough concentrations, it can cause dizziness, headaches and nausea.
The risks of long-term exposure and of secondary water quality changes due to high levels of dissolved methane are not known.
The research team analyzed 141 drinking water wells in northeastern Pennsylvania’s gas-rich Marcellus shale region and detected methane in 82 percent of them. For homes within 1 kilometer of a gas well, the average methane concentration was six times higher than in water wells located further away.
Nearly 1 in 11 of the household wells analyzed had methane concentrations above the threshold level set by the U.S. Department of Interior for immediate remediation; all but one of those drinking water wells was within 1 kilometer of an active shale gas well.
By analyzing the isotopic signature of the gases, Jackson’s team determined that the methane found in the drinking water was of fossil origin, not from current biological activity. The presence of ethane and propane, constituents of natural gas that are not produced by microbes, also signaled that the contamination was coming from nearby fracking operations.
Ethane was detected in 30 percent of the home water wells sampled, and concentrations of this gas were 23 times higher on average for homes less than one kilometer from a fracking well.
“Overall, our data suggest that some homeowners living <1 km from gas wells have drinking water contaminated with stray gases,” Jackson’s team concluded.
Stray gases are those that leak out of the production wells and enter the surrounding environment, including groundwater. The leaks can occur, for example, from faulty steel casings, which are supposed to keep the gas inside the well. Or they can occur from imperfections in the cement sealing between the well casing and the surrounding rock that permit fluids to migrate up the outside of the gas well.
While compelling, the study is not definitive because of the lack of data on the quality of the drinking water wells before the fracking began.
To better gauge fracking’s risks to drinking water, the natural gas industry should be required to disclose its well records or pay for the state or a third party to collect water quality data before fracking operations are allowed to begin.
Without those data, we are flying blind about where, how and under what conditions fracking poses threats to drinking water.
As the Jackson team concludes: “Ultimately, we need to understand why, in some cases, shale gas extraction contaminates groundwater and how to keep it from happening elsewhere.”
The migration of methane into groundwater is only one possible risk to water quality from fracking. Another is the potential for the fracking fluids – the toxic mixture of sand, water and chemicals used to break open the gas-holding shale formations – to move through natural or secondary fractures into groundwater. And yet another is the contamination threat posed by the discharge of toxic wastewater produced by fracking operations.
In all these cases, more scientific research is needed. Much of it requires that industry not only collect and make available pre-fracking water quality data, but also release the names of the chemicals they are using, instead of hiding them behind the veil of company secrets.
Ultimately, more transparent and safer fracking operations will benefit the industry as well as the families living in fracking territory. Until the public has full confidence that its drinking water is being safeguarded from contamination, it will continue to protest fracking’s expansion.
If hydraulic fracturing is as safe as its proponents claim, then the industry should welcome the scientific studies needed to prove it so.
Until such studies are completed, the public is wise to call for precautionary measures – including moratoriums on fracking.
Originally published at National Geographic Newswatch
Posted by Sandra Postel of National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative in Water Currents on July 18, 2013
Riverbend Steam Station, a coal-fired power plant on North Carolina’s Catawba River. Nationwide, thermoelectric power production requires more than 200 billion gallons of water a day, most of it to cool the plants. Duke Energy plans to retire Riverbend in 2015 as part of its effort to modernize its power stations. Photo: Flickr/cc/Duke Energy
When we flip on a light, we rarely think about water. But electricity generation is the biggest user of water in the United States. Thermoelectric power plants alone use more than 200 billion gallons of water a day – about 49 percent of the nation’s total water withdrawals.
Large quantities of water are needed as well for the production, refining and transport of the fuels that light and heat our homes and buildings, and run our buses and cars. Every gallon of gasoline at the pump takes about 13 gallons of water to make.
And of course hydroelectric energy requires water to drive the turbines that generate the power. For every one-foot drop in the level of Lake Mead on the Colorado River, Hoover Dam loses 5-6 megawatts of generating capacity – enough to supply electricity to about 5,000 homes.
In short, energy production is deeply dependent on the availability of water. And, as a report released last week by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) makes clear, as climate change brings hotter temperatures, more widespread and severe droughts, and lower river and lake levels, the nation’s energy supply is becoming more vulnerable.
Consider these examples from the DOE report:
- In September 2010, Lake Mead dropped to levels not seen since the drought of 1956; as a result, the Bureau of Reclamation cut Hoover Dam’s generating capacity by 23 percent.
- In 2009, NV Energy abandoned plans for a 1,500 Megawatt (MW) coal-fired power plant that would have used more than 7.1 million gallons of water per hour.
- Extreme drought in the fall of 2011 led the city of Grand Prairie, Texas, to ban the use of municipal water for hydraulic fracturing in order to save the city’s dwindling drinking water supply.
- In 2007, 2010 and 2011, the Tennessee Valley Authority had to reduce power output from its Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama because the temperature of the river into which the plant discharges was high enough to raise ecological risks.
- In the summer of 2012, low snowpack in the Sierra Nevada curtailed California’s hydroelectric generating capacity by 8 percent.
- At the Martin Lake Steam Electric Station in Texas, drought so reduced the level of its cooling pond that cooling water had to be piped in from another water source eight miles away.
One particularly interesting figure in the report compares the water requirements of seven different types of electric power facilities – nuclear, coal, biopower, natural gas combined-cycle, concentrated solar, photovoltaic solar and wind. The last two come out as by far the most water-conserving electricity sources. In contrast to the 20,000-60,000 gallons per megawatt-hour needed for nuclear and coal plants with “once-through” cooling systems, PV solar and wind require only negligible quantities.
Locations of the 100 coal-fired power plants most vulnerable to water stress. Courtesy U.S. Department of Energy.
Of the one hundred coal-fired power plants deemed to be most vulnerable to water shortages, most are located in the southeastern states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina (see map). In these states, water for cooling may be constrained by low river flows, high water temperatures or both – forcing utilities to cut back on power generation.
On balance the study’s findings make a strong case for a more rapid shift to renewable energy sources to shore up the nation’s energy security in the face of climate change.
If there’s a call to action in the DOE assessment, it’s this: If, by 2050, the United States could get 80 percent of its electricity from renewable sources – with nearly half coming from water-thrifty wind and solar photovoltaic generation – then total water consumption in the U.S. power sector would decline by about half.
Given the projections for climate-related disruptions to the water cycle, there is little time to waste in making this transition.
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues. She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.
MGM Resorts raises stakes with giant Vegas solar system
By BusinessGreen Staff Published July 10, 2013
In Las Vegas, everything is on a grander scale, so it should come as no surprise the gambling capital of the world soon will be home to one of the world’s largest rooftop solar systems.
NRG Energy last week announced plans to install a 6.2 megawatt (MW) installation on top of the Mandalay Bay Resort Convention Center. At peak production, the array should produce enough electricity to meet around a fifth of the building’s energy demand, while reducing pressure on the grid at the hottest time of the day.
“The new 20,000-panel solar rooftop array at Mandalay Bay will effectively enable the resort to lock in a substantial component of its energy costs at a very competitive rate,” Tom Doyle, president and chief executive of NRG Solar, said in a statement.
“Our expectation is that other corporations will follow thought leaders like MGM Resorts to protect our planet.”
Once the project is completed, Mandalay Bay will buy the electricity generated through a power purchase agreement.
The system is the latest in a series of environmental measures taken by parent company MGM Resorts under its Green Advantage sustainability initiative.
Over the past five years, the company has reduced its energy intensity by more than 12 percent and has saved more than 2.5 billion gallons of water.
The news comes as U.S. developer SolarCity announced it has started fitting 3.4 MW of solar rooftop systems at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.
The project will see solar systems installed on more than 600 military homes as part of the company’s SolarStrong program to power 120,000 military residences.
Similar schemes are underway at bases in Texas, Hawaii, Los Angeles and Colorado, contributing to the Department of Defense’s target to meet a quarter of its energy requirements from renewable sources by 2025.
In other solar industry news, the investment arm of insurance giant Aviva has acquired a 12.3 MW portfolio of residential solar systems built on 4,000 U.K. homes from Ecovision Renewable Energy Ltd.
Aviva Investors will collect revenue generated through the feed-in tariff subsidy scheme, while residents continue to save money on their electricity bills.
“This acquisition continues the expansion of our activities in the U.K. renewable sector and is in line with our strategy of investing in high quality infrastructure assets with attractive yields,” Ian Berry, fund manager of infrastructure and renewable energy at Aviva Investors, said in a statement.
“As institutions continue to look towards assets that offer secure and long-dated income streams in order to meet their liabilities, we believe infrastructure opportunities such as this offer the potential to meet these needs.”
Image courtesy of MGM Resorts International.