Week of 7/5/09

Dear EarthTalk: What kind of job opportunities might be opened up by the new federal emphasis on green projects?

—Dick Wetzler, St. Paul, MN

If it’s a U.S. industry that has the potential to be cleaner and greener, chances are the Obama administration has already set aside some stimulus money for it. In February 2009, the new president signed the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act into law. Besides creating jobs, the bill promises to spur American companies to greener heights through investments totaling over $75 billion.

According to Environment America, a federation of state-based environmental advocacy groups, the stimulus package includes $32.8 billion for clean energy projects, $26.86 billion for energy efficiency initiatives and $18.95 billion for green transportation. Some of the key green features of the bill include accelerating the deployment of "smart grid" technology (systems of routing power in ways that optimize energy-efficiency), providing energy efficiency funds for schools, offering support for governors and mayors to beef up energy efficiency in private homes and public buildings, and establishing a new loan guarantee program to help renewable energy producers survive in down economic times.

With the private capital and credit so tight due to the recession, this influx of federal support is vital to help the still fledgling green energy and transportation sectors stay afloat. And most economists agree that it makes good sense to steer away from finite foreign oil toward homegrown renewable energy. Obama has promised the creation of some 500,000 jobs in the nation’s burgeoning clean energy sector alone.

Most economists agree that it makes good sense to steer away from finite foreign oil toward homegrown renewable energy. Pictured: The Biglow Canyon Wind Farm under construction in Sherman County, Oregon.© Dave Worth, courtesy Flickr

"The central facts here are irrefutable: Spending the same amount of money on building a clean energy economy will create three times more jobs within the U.S. than would spending on our existing fossil fuel infrastructure," writes University of Massachusetts economist Robert Pollin in The Nation. "The transformation to a clean energy economy can therefore serve as a major long-term engine of job creation." Wind turbine engineers, insulation installers, recycling sorters and photovoltaic cell salespeople—along with the businesspersons behind them—can all look forward to bright and potentially lucrative futures.

This view is shared by the Solar Energy Industries Association, which predicts that the stimulus will help create some 119,000 jobs in the American solar sector alone before the end of 2010. Employers from solar cell manufacturers to green building materials retailers to wind farm maintenance firms to recycling haulers to energy auditors will likewise be looking to swell their ranks of employees with relevant skills.

The federal government itself is also in on the recovery effort beyond doling out the money. According to the official Recovery Act website, the General Services Administration’s Public Building Service will invest $5.55 billion in federal building projects, "including $4.5 billion to transform federal facilities into exemplary high-performance green buildings, $750 million to renovate and construct new federal offices and courthouses, and $300 million to construct and renovate border stations." About $1 billion worth of projects will be undertaken—a boon for everyone in the building industry, including construction workers, electricians, plumbers, air conditioning mechanics, carpenters, architects and engineers.

CONTACTS: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act; Environment America; Solar Energy Industries Association.

Dear EarthTalk: What effects do fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides used on residential lawns or on farms have on nearby water bodies like rivers, streams—or even the ocean for those of us who live near the shore?

—Linda Reddington, Manahawkin, NJ

Synthetic agricultural chemicals became commonplace beginning with the so-called "Green Revolution" in the second half of the 20th century, but their benefits haven't come without environmental costs -— namely the wholesale pollution of most of our streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and even coastal areas, as these synthetic chemicals run-off into the nearby waterways.© Roger Smith, courtesy Flickr

With the advent of the so-called Green Revolution in the second half of the 20th century—when farmers began to use technological advances to boost yields—synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides became commonplace around the world not only on farms, but in backyard gardens and on front lawns as well.

These chemicals, many of which were developed in the lab and are petroleum-based, have allowed farmers and gardeners of every stripe to exercise greater control over the plants they want to grow by enriching the immediate environment and warding off pests. But such benefits haven’t come without environmental costs—namely the wholesale pollution of most of our streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and even coastal areas, as these synthetic chemicals run-off into the nearby waterways.

When the excess nutrients from all the fertilizer we use runs off into our waterways, they cause algae blooms sometimes big enough to make waterways impassable. When the algae die, they sink to the bottom and decompose in a process that removes oxygen from the water. Fish and other aquatic species can’t survive in these so-called "dead zones" and so they die or move on to greener underwater pastures.

A related issue is the poisoning of aquatic life. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Americans alone churn through 75 million pounds of pesticides each year to keep the bugs off their peapods and petunias. When those chemicals get into waterways, fish ingest them and become diseased. Humans who eat diseased fish can themselves become ill, completing the circle wrought by pollution.

A 2007 study of pollution in rivers around Portland, Oregon found that wild salmon there are swimming around with dozens of synthetic chemicals in their systems. Another recent study from Indiana found that a variety of corn genetically engineered to produce the insecticide Bt is having toxic effects on non-target aquatic insects, including caddis flies, a major food source for fish and frogs.

The solution, of course, is to go organic, both at home and on the farm. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic farmers and gardeners use composted manure and other natural materials, as well as crop rotation, to help improve soil fertility, rather than synthetic fertilizers that can result in an overabundance of nutrients. As a result, these practices protect ground water supplies and avoid runoff of chemicals that can cause dead zones and poisoned aquatic life.

There is now a large variety of organic fertilizer available commercially, as well as many ways to keep pests at bay without resorting to harsh synthetic chemicals. A wealth of information on growing greener can be found online: Check out OrganicGardeningGuru.com and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Alternative Farming System Information Center, for starters. Those interested in face-to-face advice should consult with a master gardener at a local nursery that specializes in organic gardening.

CONTACTS: CDC; Organic Gardening Guru; USDA’s Alternative Farming System Information Center.

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