Posts

Hiatus

Thanks for checking on my latest meanderings. I'm currently meandering around the country with my wife and dog. The posts should resume after we return, which may be soon.

A Biochar Breakout Opportunity

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Relatively speaking, Scott Pruitt supports efforts to clean up toxic waste in our land. He only wants to cut the superfund budget by $330 million, which is a 30% cut, as opposed to the 34% cut for the EPA overall. To show even more support, he wants to be briefed regularly on the 10 worst superfund sites. The other 1,300 sites are not going to receive as much attention. At the same time, under Pruitt's budget proposal, the states will have 45% less federal grant money to rely on for some of their clean-up efforts.

Since money is tight for these projects, the EPA and PRP's (Potentially Responsible Parties, but let's just call them "perps") should be happy to know that there is a lower cost method available to remediate heavy metal contamination in soils. Heavy metals are elements of high density (> 5 g/cc) and include Cd, Cu, Hg, Ni, Pb, and Zn. These metals are often left in the soil after manufacturing, mining, and disposal operations have moved on and can al…

The Mid-Atlantic's Coming Green Revolution

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In establishing the Healthy Soils Program, Maryland has begun to officially view soil in terms of biological populations, organic content, structure and water-holding capacity, and carbon sequestration. Everybody wants healthy soil, but for the past 70 years, conventional agriculturalists have been satisfied merely with healthy crops. Food for those crops has been supplied by chemicals known to help them grow. The soil fell into neglect, and in the process, we lost a lot of carbon from the soil and released a lot of nitrous oxide through chemical production. The Healthy Soils Program, then, is a way to recover from this unforeseen consequence of the Green Revolution by reducing the severity of our recent interventions in soil fertility.

In promoting healthy soils, Dr. Sara Via brings out a few principles farmers and gardeners should follow. I have annotated them here with my comments for gardeners:

Rotate crops - some crops, e.g. tomatoes, should be rotated over 3 or more yearsLimit so…

First Things First

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Last night, I was fortunate to hear Dr. Sara Via, a University of Maryland biologist, give her talk on "Ecology of the Soil" to my county's Master Gardeners. She recommended a 2016 paper from Nature entitled Climate-Smart Soils. One of the gems in this paper is the decision tree it offers for the coolest things to do with agricultural land, depending on its nature and condition. It says that marginal lands should be planted in perennials, and histosols (soils containing high organic matter, i.e. former bogs) should be restored to wetlands. Aside from those cases, the paper proffers a hierarchy of various measures that can be taken to improve soil health, such as cover cropping and no-till. The final measure in the hierarchy - adding soil amendments, such as biochar - is not based on the soil condition, but on the availability of the amendment - the more, the merrier (though 2" of compost per year may be a good upper bound).

This decision tree clarifies matters great…

Carbon Nation

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It is fortunate that Project Drawdown left CO2 capture and storage (CCS) out of their solution set, because the IPCC left us with a mixed bag by including it as a key element among their recommended approaches*. Environmentally-minded organizations such as the Post-Carbon Institute (PCI) are all too happy to explain that CCS doesn't pencil out when you consider such fixed costs as a network of pipelines in the U.S. equal to that of the entire oil industry. As implied by their name, however, the Post-Carbon Institute discounts the value of all of the extra tight oil that might be recovered and burned by enhanced oil recovery using all the captured CO2. Considering how polluting coal and other industrial combustion processes can be, it makes sense if you can exchange the CO2 output for a more clean-burning petroleum product, but the extra pipelines and other CCS components required really does cause it to look like CCS would be a net economic loss (until oil prices rise). The fact t…

Drawing Down - 3rd World Style

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If  you are the independent type, third world solutions, otherwise known as appropriate technology, can be pretty great. The Drawdown project sees the biggest benefit of small methane generating anaerobic digesters in parts of the world where wood fired cookstoves are commonplace. Distributed digesters in the Drawdown model are fed livestock manure exclusively. Paul Hawkins' group estimates that 36.5% of manure in Asia is currently being run through small digesters and that we can bring that percentage up to 52.6% for all regions of the world where agriculture is dominated by small farms. For the rest of the world, they estimate much greater savings through the use of industrial sized anaerobic digesters. Yet, in marketing their product to the first world, HomeBiogas claims, even without displacing a cookstove, that their food scrap fed digester will save as much GHG emissions as if you stopped driving a car. In my case, it would also save on electricity to run cooking appliances …

Loosening the Grip of the Grid

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One of the distinctions made by zero waste advocates is that incineration of waste to reduce landfill use exacerbates pollution. Waste industry apologists credit Maryland Governor Larry Hogan's decision to withdraw limits on landfill expansion as an effort to avoid shifting the burden to incinerators.

That might be a defensible position if Maryland's landfill gas emissions were well controlled and not the highest human-caused source of methane in the state. Fortunately, the U.S. Appeals Court rode to the rescue in their recent ruling against the EPA's delay tactics on oil and gas well methane emissions. Since the EPA has also postponed the implementation of new landfill gas emissions requirements, expect that the court will also find that decision to be unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious. More landfills will then be required to incorporate gas collection and control systems. This should serve to pressure states to become more waste conscious.

Waste consciousness shoul…