- AmeriScan: September 18, 2003 AmeriScan: September 18, 2003

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U.S. Says New Technologies Needed for Greenhouse Gas Reductions

BERLIN, Germany, September 18, 2003 (ENS) - In a speech to European global climate policy experts, U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said that meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will be impossible without revolutionary new energy technologies being developed by U.S. led research.

The U.S. Energy Secretary said that no technologies currently exist to significantly cut emissions of greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

Abraham defended the Bush administration for its decision to withdraw support for the Kyoto Protocol, which he says would have forced the United States to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets that are not currently achievable without severe economic hardship.

"The United States is neither ashamed of its position on Kyoto nor indifferent to the challenges of climate change," Abraham said. "The United States is investing billions of dollars to address these challenges."

Nations seeking to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases "face one hard and clear choice," Abraham said.

"Either dramatic greenhouse gas reductions will come at the expense of economic growth and improved living standards, or breakthrough energy technologies that change the game entirely will allow us to reduce emissions while, at the same time, we maintain economic growth and improve the world's standards of living."

Abraham said the United States is leading research into new technologies designed to reduce or eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil. The United States is also aggressively looking to replace fossil fuels with new energy sources such as hydrogen, Abraham said.

The Bush administration has faced sharp criticism at home and abroad for its approach to climate change, which rests on voluntary agreements with industry to cut emissions.

Critics say the administration's policies, including many of the research options outlined by Abraham, are stifled by inadequate funding and are being used by the administration to overshadow immediate reductions that could be made by stricter fuel economy and efficiency standards. The United States contributes some 25 percent of the world's emissions of greenhouse gases.

But Abraham says the world needs to develop "revolutionary technologies" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"When those technologies are developed, we will all exceed our targets," he said. "If they are not developed, then we will all fail."

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Reprieve Sounded for Mute Swans

WASHINGTON, DC, September 18, 2003 (ENS) - The long running dispute over how to manage the mute swan populations in the Atlantic Flyway appears to have come to a close, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announcing Wednesday that it will withdraw all permits to kill mute swans nationwide.

The announcement came eight days after a federal court granted a request by The Fund for Animals to block the Maryland state officials from killing hundreds of swans throughout the Chesapeake Bay while The Fund's lawsuit was pending.

The new decision by federal officials, which was not explained, does not just apply to Maryland, but to dozens of permits to kill tens of thousands of mute swans throughout the United States.

"This is a colossal step for thousands of graceful and majestic mute swans," said Michael Markarian, president of The Fund for Animals. "These birds have been scapegoats for far too long, and blamed unfairly for environmental damage that is being caused by massive corporate polluters such as poultry factory farms."

Earlier this month, The Fund for Animals, along with four citizen plaintiffs, filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton charging that federal officials' decision to authorize the destruction of Maryland's mute swans violated the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The group charged that the environmental impact of the planned killing of up to 31,000 mute swans over the next ten years - including 525 in the state of Maryland this year- was not adequately studied and that non-lethal alternatives, such as egg addling, were not fully considered.

State and federal officials said the management plan is needed because mute swans are a nonnative species without natural predators.

A species native to Europe and Asia, mute swans were introduced to estates and parks in the eastern United States beginning in the 19th century. Maryland's population of mute swans originated when five birds escaped from captivity in 1962.

The primary concern of Maryland state officials is the birds' consumption of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), which is an important part of the Chesapeake Bay's ecosystem, providing food and shelter for marine species and improving water quality.

Maryland state officials say the state's current population of 3,600 birds is eating 10.5 million pounds of SAV a year and they believe that the current population is on the verge of an exponential increase in numbers and could reach 20,000 birds by 2010.

In granting the injunction on September 9, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan noted that state experts have characterized "the 'bay wide' impact of mutes swans as 'negligible,'" and conceded that the relatively small population of mute swans in Maryland "consumes only 10 percent of the total annual Chesapeake Bay SAV biomass."

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Americans Mostly Ignorant About GM Foods

WASHINGTON, DC, September 18, 2003 (ENS) - Americans' knowledge of genetically modified (GM) foods remains low and their opinions about its safety are just as divided as they were two years ago, according to a new survey released today by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

This finding comes as GM technology is being increasingly applied to U.S. crops, in particular corn and soybeans.

Estimates find that some 75 percent of processed foods in grocery stores contain GM foods, but Pew's survey reported that 24 percent of Americans believe they have eaten GM, with 58 percent believing they have not.

The Pew survey finds that 34 percent had heard a "great deal" or "some" about GM foods, compared to 44 percent in a survey conducted by the organization last year.

Opposition to GM foods has declined, Pew reports, from 58 percent opposed in 2001 to 48 percent in 2003.

But it finds that Americans have essentially the same opinion about the overall safety of GM foods as they did in 2001 - 27 percent of consumers say that GM foods are "basically safe," down from 29 percent in 2001.

Twenty five percent say that GM foods are "basically unsafe" - the same as in 2001.

The survey also shows that knowing that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reviewed and approved a GM product can increase public confidence, and that public support for GM products decreases as uses of the technology shift from plants to animals.

"When it comes to genetically modified products, the U.S. public clearly supports the role of regulatory bodies like the FDA to provide an independent safety approval for new biotechnology food products," said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. "This finding suggests that the actions of government agencies are likely to play an important role in influencing public acceptance of the next generation of agricultural biotechnology products."

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Senate Opposition to ANWR Drilling Appears Solid

WASHINGTON, DC, September 18, 2003 (ENS) - At least 43 U.S. senators have weighed in with opposition to a plan to include a provision within energy legislation that would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas drilling.

A group of 38 Senate Democrats have sent a letter to New Mexico Republican Senator Pete Domenici - the cochair of the conference committee tasked with forging the final energy bill - stating their opposition to drilling in ANWR. This comes on the heel of a similar letter sent by five Republican senators.

The Democrats say they will not vote for any final energy bill that includes drilling in ANWR.

A provision to open ANWR was passed within the House energy bill, but there is no such language in the Senate bill. But the Bush administration and its allies are convinced such a measure is a vital part of the nation's energy future.

They contend that the oil and gas within the 1.5 million acre coastal plain of the 19.5 million acre refuge can be explored and developed without harming the environment.

Opponents believe the coastal plain is the biological heart of the refuge and that oil drilling would have devastating impacts to its wildlife.

And the amount of oil within ANWR's coastal plain is very much open for debate. Advocates and opponents of drilling cite both ends of the range estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which runs from under three billion barrels to more than 16 billion barrels.

Critics of opening ANWR say the nation could save far more oil through modest conservation efforts and note that it would take a decade to develop the oil in the coastal plain.

In the letter to Domenici, the Democrats state that ""a national energy policy that strengthens our security and economy is too important to be waylaid by a controversial provision twice rejected by the Senate."

Seven Republicans and one Independent joined 43 Democrats in defeating the provision in March.

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Blueprint Rolled Out for Fuel Efficient SUV

WASHINGTON, DC, September 18, 2003 (ENS) - The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Center for Auto Safety has released a blueprint for a safe and fuel efficient sport utility vehicle (SUV). The move comes in response to growing criticism about the safety records and the fuel efficiency of currently available SUVs, which are far and away the most popular vehicles in the United States.

"SUVs are not the problem - poor automaker designs and weak government standards are," said David Friedman, director of research for UCS's Clean Vehicles Program and lead engineer on the blueprint.

The average SUV lacks much of the modern, fuel efficient technology used in cars, and burns 40 percent more gasoline than the average car. UCS says that at today's average price of about $1.70 per gallon, the average SUV owner will pay more than $13,300 over the vehicle lifetime - $3,800 more than car owners.

In addition, the overall fatality rate for SUV drivers was eight percent higher than for the average car driver in 2000, largely because of SUV design, height, and weight distribution.

"SUVs are five times as likely as passenger cars to be in fatal crashes where a rollover is the first harmful event," said Carl Nash, former head of the Accident Investigation Division of National Highway Transit Safety Administration and a co designer of the blueprint. "SUVs are more likely to maim or kill their occupants than passenger cars and present a far greater hazard to the rest of us on the road."

The blueprint for the new vehicles - dubbed the "Guardian" and "Guardian XSE" - use technologies already in some vehicles. According to UCS, they have the same size and acceleration as the Ford Explorer, but are both significantly safer and offer better gas mileage.

"Consumers have never been given a choice like the Guardian, a powerful SUV that is safer and runs on the same amount of gas as a car," Friedman said. "Our blueprint shows the way. Now automakers just need to build better SUVs."

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Urban Areas Need More Trees

SAN ANTONIO, Texas, September 18, 2003 (ENS) - Urban areas have a severe tree deficit that is costing tax payers billions of dollars each year in air and water benefits, according to a study released Wednesday at the National Urban Forest Conference by American Forests.

The conservation group says that this deficit has increased by 21 percent during the last 10 years.

"This is a huge nationwide tree deficit that is getting worse," said Gary Moll, American Forests' vice president of the Urban Forest Center. "Trees work to clean air and water naturally, and they do it for free.

American Forests' study analyzed 448 urban areas defined by the U.S. Census - tree cover in these areas stands at an average 23 percent.

Using satellite images from a sample of 40 urban areas American Forests calculated that urban areas have 21 percent less tree canopy today than they did 10 years earlier.

According to the report, this equates to more than 1.7 billion trees needed to increase tree canopy to the recommended 10 percent in the 448 U.S. urban areas.

The report notes that actions to reverse this deficit can - and should - be taken at the local level. One way to do reverse the tree loss trend, the report recommends, is by incorporating tree cover data into their infrastructure database.

Another recommendation is for cities to develop public policies that increase tree cover and promote green infrastructure.

In addition, the report suggests that analysis recommends that the community should set tree cover goals and institutionalize a system to maintain this goal. Citywide, American Forests recommends a 35 percent tree cover and 45 percent in special ecological areas.

"Communities can harness these assets by maintaining existing trees and planting new ones," Moll said. "American Forests recommends communities increase their tree cover by a minimum of 10 percent."

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Mine Runoff Impacting Colorado Ski Areas

BOULDER, Colorado, September 18, 2003 (ENS) - The mining industry is adversely affecting the $9 billion Colorado tourist industry, according to researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments.

The researchers have focus in on the effects of the acidic runoff from abandoned mines, which they say limits the ability of several of Colorado's prime ski areas to respond to winter drought.

Colorado's severe drought has made artificial snowmaking essential at many ski areas, including Keystone and Arapahoe Basin, the focus of the authors' study.

Contamination from mines - known as acid rock drainage - enters waterways that are used for making artificial snow.

In Colorado alone, roughly 7,000 abandoned mines continue to leach waste minerals into more than 1,600 miles of streams.

When the snow melts, the water can run into streams not previously polluted, further spreading the contamination, according the researchers.

The authors explain that there are currently no reliable methods of mitigating acid-rock drainage at its source, the abandoned mines that dot today's recreational areas.

Although periodic droughts are normal in Colorado - affecting at least five percent of the state periodically - ski resorts also are concerned about the potential additional impact of climate change, which could add to the problem of inadequate snow. Recent studies cited by the authors suggest that warming, under even the most conservative scenarios, could shorten the ski season, shift ski areas to higher elevations and eliminate marginal areas altogether.

The paper will be published in the Sept. 23rd issue of "Eos," published by the American Geophysical Union.

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Not Your Child's Guinea Pig

WASHINGTON, DC, September 18, 2003 (ENS) - If you thought guinea pigs were cute and cuddly, think again. Picture a 1,500 pound guinea pig, roughly the size of a buffalo, and you have a pretty good image of a species that roamed the banks of an ancient Venezuelan river some eight million years ago, according to an international group of scientists.

The species - the Phoberomys pattersoni - is the largest rodent known to have existed, more than 10 times the size of today's largest rodent, the capybara.

"Imagine a weird guinea pig, but huge, with a long tail for balancing on its hind legs and continuously growing teeth," said Marcelo Sánchez-Villagra of Germany's University of Tübingen. "It was semi aquatic, like the capybara, and probably foraged along a riverbank."

The discovery of the fossilized remains of the ancient rodent will be reported in Friday's issue of the journal "Science."

Researchers found the fossil in May 2000, but never specifically classified it, until now.

Dubbed "Goya," the 90 percent complete fossil was trapped within sedimentary layers of brown shales and coal, within the Urumaco Formation in a now arid region 250 miles west of Caracas.

It was discovered by a research team under the direction of Orangel Aguilera of Venezuela's Universidad Nacional Experimental Francisco de Miranda, coauthor of the Science paper. The research team also includes Inés Horovitz, now at the University of California in Los Angeles.

Scientists had speculated that it might be related to various other rodents - either chinchillas, viscachas or pakaranas.

By examining the Goya fossil, together with a second specimen offering more complete skull evidence, the authors were able to identify Phoberomys pattersoni as a sibling to the pakarana Dinomys - a close relative of the guinea pig.

Some nine feet long and more than four feet tall, the ancient and massive rodent had long teeth revealing an abrasive diet, perhaps of grasses from brackish water. Its hind quarters and rear legs were much larger and more powerful than its smaller forelimbs, much like a guinea pig. But today's guinea pigs weigh about 2.2 pounds.

Fossil and associated plant evidence in the area where the fossil was found suggest a lush, tropical landscape, rich with super sized turtles, catfish and crocodiles.

The paper thus seems to reinforce the theory that a massive river called the Paleo-Orinoco-Amazon once flowed parallel to the Andes mountain range through Urumaco, in the Falcon State, northeast to the Caribbean Sea.

"The northern region of Venezuela holds the key to many mysteries of paleontology and animal evolution," said Sánchez-Villagra. "Yet, we have known very little about this area because regions covered with vegetation are not the best place to look for fossils. Most of the fossil evidence has been found in southern South America. With this work, we are taking steps toward broadening our knowledge of South America as a whole."

Andrew Sugden, an evolutionary biology expert and the international managing editor of "Science" says the research is a milestone within the field.

"At a stroke, this giant rodent more than doubles the size range of this remarkable family of animals and provides fascinating new insights into life some eight million years ago," Sugden said.