Author Archives: Amy Standen

Amy Standen is a radio reporter for KQED Science. Her email is astanden@kqed.org and you can follow her on Twitter at @amystanden.

Threatened by Rising Seas, Alaskans Ponder Where to Move

Winning their landmark climate suit against energy companies is just one challenge

Following their appearance in a San Francisco Federal Appeals Court this week, Climate Watch contributor Amy Standen was the only journalist to sit down with members of the Kivalina delegation before their return home.

US Coast Guard / Lt. Cdr. Micheal McNeil

As a group of nine Alaskan natives returns to their coastal village after their day in court, it seems that their plight is about more than getting money to pay for a move to higher ground. It’s an interesting microcosm of the climate conundrum: The past isn’t prologue anymore. History is a faulty crystal ball. How climate change will affect a specific place is anyone’s best guess. And in the case of Kivalina — and likely, many other places — residents’ visions of the future may not line up with those of scientists.

In the past, Kivalina– which lies at the tip of a narrow barrier island off the coast of Alaska – was buffered from storms by a thick layer of ice around its perimeter. But now the ice is melting. Every time a storm hits, many of Kivalina’s 400 residents take shelter in a local elementary school, hoping the waves will spare them. Everyone agrees: The village must relocate. Continue reading

Clean-Tech’s Unlikely Champion

Is the Pentagon setting the pace for renewable energy?

Solazyme Inc.

A Riverine Command Boat running on a 50/50 blend of algae-based and traditional fuel.

Thirty years ago, the idea of a military-alternative energy partnership might have raised some eyebrows, particularly among solar entrepreneurs here in Northern California. But in the wake of Solyndra’s crash and burn, the Pentagon has become one of clean-tech’s strongest remaining allies in Washington. Leading the charge is Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, whom I interviewed last week for my radio report on KQED’s Quest.

According to a recent study from the Pew Charitable Trust, the military has tripled its investment in technologies like biofuels, solar panels, and electric vehicles over the last four years. Today, it spends $1.2 billion a year on alternative fuels. That amount is expected to reach $2.25 billion by 2015. Mabus says he wants to see the Navy and Marine Corps getting at least half of their fuel from non-fossil fuel sources by 2020. Continue reading

EPA’s New Regional Chief: Act Locally

New EPA regional chief Jared Blumenfeld. Photo: EPA

New EPA regional chief Jared Blumenfeld. Photo: EPA

Yesterday I spoke with Jared Blumenfeld, the former head of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment–aka the guy who brought mandatory recycling to San Francisco and banished the phrase “Paper or plastic?” from the city’s supermarkets–by banning the plastic.

Blumenfeld now occupies a vast corner office in the EPA’s Region 9 headquarters, overseeing a territory that includes four Western states and 20 of the country’s largest cities. Born 40 years ago, just as Region 9 came into being, this week he was briefing reporters on his plans to “revolutionize” the region with a tighter focus on environmental justice, enforcement, and making small businesses more efficient.

What do these things have in common? For one thing, they’re all pretty local: specific communities with specific complaints and needs (a profile, incidentally, that fits Blumenfeld’s first initiative to a “T”).

So what about more sweeping changes on, say, climate? You could argue that it’s not the job of a regional head to get mixed up in Beltway politics. But given all the recent drama in Washington around cap and trade, maybe Blumenfeld’s local focus is intentional.

How, I asked him, has the mood in Washington affected his ambitions for EPA Region 9?

“I was looking at a recent poll that showed how many fewer people understand climate change last year than this year,” he replied. “I think the environmental movement has gotten away from the people. We’ve become overly specialized, jargony, focused on large problems no one person can solve.”

Having made San Francisco a considerably “greener” place, maybe Blumenfeld’s first task is to export small initiatives that–for the moment at least–make environmental problems feel local and solveable.

Amy Standen is the lead radio reporter for Quest, KQED’s multimedia science initiative.

New Tailpipe Regs are an “Alternate Reality”

Amy Standen specializes in science and environmental reporting for Quest. She’s among the guests today on KQED’s Forum program. Listen to the archived program here.

Hazy day in L.A. Photo: Craig Miller

Hazy day in L.A. Photo: Craig Miller

Yesterday afternoon, as I started working on my news spot about the new federal standard for tailpipe emissions, I dug up my notes from over a year ago, the last time I covered this story in any depth.

The contrast in tone between then and now amazed me. Back then, I was describing accusations of outright lying, government actions that California enviros called “completely illegal,” and California officials “sharpening their knives” as they marched into battle with EPA former Administrator Stephen Johnson. It was September, 2007, and Democratic lawmakers, led by Henry Waxman (D-CA), were accusing the White House of strong-arming the EPA into denying California its “waiver,” or permission to regulate auto tailpipe emissions. The mood between California environmentalists, many of the state’s elected officials, and the Bush administration couldn’t have been more hostile.

Today, it’s as if we’ve landed in an alternate reality.  Not only has California been given its more fuel-efficient cars, but those same laws are taking effect nationwide. The new rules actually exceed anything that California–traditionally the most ambitious state in the union, when it comes to greenhouse gas regulation–could have asked for.

Instead of knives being sharpened, California enviros are singing the praises of “an historic blueprint to carry out rigorous greenhouse gas emission standards,” to quote one email I received today. Another group told the New York Times: “This is the single biggest step the American government has ever taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions.” Compared to the fall of ’07–actually make that since ’05, when California first asked for the waiver and the EPA first started stalling–it’s like night and day.

Still, listening in to the White House background press briefing on Monday afternoon, you could hear the seeds of criticism taking root in a few reporters’ questions.

Sure, American automakers will be making more fuel-efficient cars, one reporter asked, but what is the White House doing to encourage consumers to buy them? (in addition to restricting tailpipe emissions, the new rules also substantially increase fuel efficiency standards for manufacturers’ fleets–SUVs and trucks will still be available; they’ll be more fuel efficient than before, but less efficient than smaller cars.) The question takes on new relevance as the federal government finds itself a major stockholder in auto companies.

President Obama says the new regs will have the equivalent impact of taking 177 million cars off the road.