Week of 12/05/2004

Dear Earthtalk: I’d like to start saving more energy in my home. Do you have any tips?

—Mitch Rochelle, Carson City, NV

A University of Michigan study estimates that the average American household could reduce its energy bills by 65 percent and, over the home’s lifetime, save $52,000 if it maximized energy efficiency.

One place to start is household appliances. Washers and dryers generate lots of heat, so in a warm climate they should be in sealed-off rooms so as not to exacerbate air conditioning needs. Likewise, dishwashers and ovens should be run in the morning or evening to minimize heat buildup. On older refrigerators, vacuum the coils at the back of the unit regularly to keep them clean and free of dirt and dust. When they become covered in dust their efficiency is dramatically reduced.

While repairing old appliances can improve energy efficiency somewhat, replacing them with new models that comply with the federal government’s Energy Star standards can reduce household energy costs by 20 percent. Consumers should remember that getting the right size unit installed professionally is essential to getting the most from new appliances.

Air-conditioning and heating need not take such a huge bite out of America’s energy dollar. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, if your air conditioner is more than eight years old, it’s a good candidate for replacement. If your furnace or boiler is old or simply inefficient, the best solution is to replace it with a modern high-efficiency model. And to keep heating bills to a minimum, install a programmable thermostat and schedule it to trigger heat only during the hours you are home.

Many older homes are poorly sealed and lack insulation, sending energy bills skyrocketing. Also, it is common to find gaps between duct joints, whether a home is new or old. Seal and insulate ducts that are exposed in areas such as your attic or crawlspace to improve your system’s efficiency. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, by properly sealing air leaks and adding insulation, you can improve comfort and cut your energy bills by up to 10 percent.

For a do-it-yourself assessment of your home’s potential energy efficiency, check out the Home Energy Saver website run by the U.S. Department of Energy. Special software enables users to input information about their homes, and then learn how much energy (and money) could be saved by insulating the attic or installing double-glazed windows. Indeed, with winter bearing down upon us, there’s no time like the present to save energy in your home.

CONTACTS: Natural Resources Defense Council, (212) 727-2700, http://www.nrdc.org; Energy Star Program, 888-STAR-YES, http://www.energystar.gov; Home Energy Saver Website, www.homeenergysaver.lbl.gov.

Dear EarthTalk: Would oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge hurt the wildlife?

— Alexander Brower, Jefferson, WI

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), which oversees all of America’s 540 wildlife refuges, Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is "among the most complete, pristine and undisturbed ecosystems on Earth." USFWS biologists fear that opening up ANWR’s disputed coastal plain to oil extraction would be disastrous for area wildlife dependent upon an unspoiled environment.

While hundreds of bird, mammal and fish species would be impacted by oil development within ANWR, none would suffer quite as much as the caribou, which migrate 400 miles each year to the coastal plain of the Beaufort Sea to give birth. Indeed, as many as 50,000 calves are born each year right on top of where seismologists estimate the U.S. could extract as much as 10 billion barrels of oil. The caribou feed on the region’s nutritious lichens, which bloom in late spring and early summer, providing crucial sustenance for nursing calves and their mothers. Biologists fear that the establishment of oil rigs on the coastal plain could force the caribou to abandon their traditional birthing grounds, initially lowering birth rates and eventually jeopardizing the very survival of the already dwindling herd.

Polar bears could also be profoundly affected by oil drilling in ANWR. Its coastal plain has been determined to be the most important on-shore habitat for polar bears in Alaska. "Biologists fear that if oil drilling is permitted on the coastal plain, disturbance from heavy machinery could cause mothers to abandon their young cubs," says Joel Bennett of the non-profit Defenders of Wildlife. "Because polar bears reproduce at a slow rate, these disturbances could lead to serious population declines," he adds.

Despite claims that improved technologies will minimize the industrial "footprint" of extraction facilities within ANWR, government geologists contend that potential oil reserves may be located in many small accumulations in complex geological formations, rather than in one giant field (as was previously discovered to be the case at Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope). Consequently, development on the coastal plain—which is located more than 30 miles from the end of the nearest pipeline and more than 50 miles from the nearest gravel road and oil support facilities—could likely require a large number of small production sites spread across the landscape, connected by an infrastructure of roads, pipelines, power plants, processing facilities, loading docks, airstrips, gravel pits, utility lines and landfills.

The fragile tundra is extremely sensitive to human exposure and still exhibits scars from exploration vehicles that passed through almost 20 years ago. With 95 percent of Alaska’s North Slope already open to oil exploration and development, ANWR represents the last frontier of protected habitat in the coastal region.

CONTACTS: Arctic Protection Network, http://www.protect-the-arctic.com; Defenders of Wildlife "Save the Arctic Refuge" Program, (202) 682-9400, http://www.savearcticrefuge.org; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Information, (800) 362-4546, http://arctic.fws.gov.