Monthly Archives: January 2012

On “exploding saltpeter”: a correction

In October I posted a complaint about really bad science reporting that was based on a newspaper’s coverage of some egregiously wrong claims about molten salt thermal storage.

Those claims were made by the couple behind “,” and consisted of allegations that sodium and potassium nitrate, commonly known as saltpeter and Chilean saltpeter and proposed as media for thermal storage in concentrating solar facilities, are dangerous high explosives.

I countered this claim with references to the reasonably well established fact that neither substance is explosive or even flammable, which is easily confirmed with a moment’s research. And I said, in segueing to the real purpose of my post which was a criticism of the Pahrump newspaper that covered the allegations seriously,

So a couple of enviros get their science badly wrong. It happens far more frequently than I am comfortable with — you can google “chemtrails” for jaw-dropping examples of same. The friedcranes folks seem to be nice enough people, though clearly just a bit too non-discerning in their choice of trusted sources of information.

This morning I received a piece of email from the Fried Cranes people, and based on that message I am afraid I have to make a formal correction of my earlier post. They don’t seem to be nice people after all.  In fact, based on the last paragraph of the email, I’d have to amend that to something along the lines of “vicious, petty little asswipes.”

Dear Mr. Clark:[sic]

Your arrogant comments about “scientific illiteracy” in a recent blog exposed considerable illiteracy of your own. Apparently the Federal Departments of Homeland Security and Transportation are equally illiterate. We refer you to our illiterate editorial of January 23, 2012 where we cited their regulations pertaining to potassium and sodium nitrates:

Apparently Timothy McVeigh was equally “illiterate” when he detonated 2-1/2 tons of ammonium nitrate in Oklahoma City and a Norwegian farmer named Anders Breivik was also “illiterate” when he made this “perfectly safe” fertilizer go “boom” in the capitol city of Oslo just last summer.

It would be appropriate for you to acquaint yourself with all the facts before engaging in the name calling and demonization that are so prevalent from our esteemed administration these days.

Noteworthy is the fact that SolarReserve® is rapidly creating liability layers for themselves as a result of our concerns. The Crescent Dunes Project in Tonopah, Nevada is now owned by an affiliate limited liability company named TonopahSolar®, LLC. Most multinational corporations form subsidiaries, not affiliates. Then the operation and management was further delegated to PIC Group, Inc. out of Marietta, Georgia. Similarly, SolarReserve® has formed an affiliate named SaguacheSolar, LLC, a Delaware corporation registered here in Colorado to own their proposed project here.

When you have published as many books as we have, we will then graciously bow very low and accede to your elite judgements about our intelligence and capabilities. How’s that first book of yours coming, by the way?

John and Erika Keyes

I’d have consigned the email to the bitbucket if not for the really nasty swipe at the end there. If it was intended to get a rise out of me, it worked. So a few notes:

For those of you whose eyes glazed over in high school chemistry, it may be helpful for me to point out that comparing sodium and potassium nitrate to the highly explosive ammonium nitrate is roughly equivalent to comparing water and lye. Both water and lye consist of the highly corrosive hydroxyl ion bonded to something else, just as the saltpeters and ammonium nitrate consist of nitrate ions bonded to something else. Thus the Keyes’ reference to Timothy McVeigh is approximately as relevant as mentioning Drano in a discussion of drinking water.

The reference to the Departments of Homeland Security and Transportation involves a limitation on how much saltpeter you can carry on a passenger or cargo aircraft or by passenger rail. Turns out you can legally carry only five kilograms of saltpeter in your luggage on a domestic flight. [See edit, below.] Only 5kg! It must really be dangerous stuff! Five kilograms is a hair over 11 pounds, or about 176.4 ounces. That same body of regulations, incidentally restricts air passengers to carrying no more than 3 ounces of any personal care product. I’ll do the math for you: the departments of Homeland Security and Transportation apparently consider Johnson’s Baby Shampoo to be 60 times more dangerous than sodium or potassium nitrate!


[Edited to add: It’s worse than I’d imagined. That 5kg figure applies to mixed sodium and potassium nitrates. Either one on its own? The limit’s 25 kg, ir around 55 lb. Which means that shampoo is actually 300 times more dangerous. Or something.]

As for the whole issue of “liability layers,”  one need only point to the prevalence of the practice in other parts of the solar industry not using “highly explosive” saltpeter. NextEra Solar formed the corporate facade “Genesis Solar” to build the Genesis Solar project in California. Solar Millennium, builder of the mothballed Blythe Solar project, formed the shell Solar Trust of America. Stirling Energy and Tessera Solar were both part of an Irish firm named NTR. And so forth. Though it may be far more gratifying to imagine the corporate shell game as a response to one’s heroic expose of its Insanely! Dangerous! Molten Saltpeter!, it turns out to be pretty much standard operating procedure.

Finally: that first book of mine, published four years ago, is available at the link in the sidebar. It may not be as impressive as, say, this marvel of American literature, but I’m kind of proud of it nonetheless. Though perhaps the Keyes were referring to my book on Joshua trees, on which I’ve indeed been working for a frustratingly long time. What can I say? Research and factchecking take time compared to just making shit up on the fly.

Shame on you, Nevada Wilderness Project

I’ve tried to hold off lately on criticizing environmental groups in this space. This is in part because once started, the practice generally has no end: the venality of the most mainstream groups runs deep. It’s also because every once in a while high-ranking staff of a group I criticize will respond in such a poorly argued fashion that it further erodes my regard for the organization, as happened on this post.

But mostly it’s because I decided this past year not to rent the sellouts space in my head. Better to write about the things I want to save, to build a fan base for them, than to spend time mired in negativity because a large organization doesn’t agree with me about those things’ value. I’d rather work to support things than oppose people. (F’rinstance: have you signed Desert Biodiversity’s petition to protect the Ivanpah Valley?)

But it’s one thing to disagree. It’s another to spread falsehoods.

I read this post on the Nevada Wilderness Project’s blog yesterday. The post itself is not particularly remarkable: it’s an update on renewable energy policy in Nevada vis-a-vis California’s repeatedly expressed intention to generate all its non-carbon power in-state. Nevada has been tying its plans to sell off its public lands wholesale to energy developers to meet Californian demand, and so the notion that California might not be buying has upset some people.

If you haven’t been following the desert solar Inside Baseball stats, you might think that the Nevada Wilderness Project would be applauding this development; it offers to lessen development pressure on the Silver State’s wildlands. As it happens, NWP has for some time been a cheerleader for remote industrial renewable development in Nevada. The group parallels in this regard its national colleagues at The Wilderness Society, but NWP has taken this support to rather absurd lengths, going so far as to sponsor a 501-mile hike along the proposed route of a huge transmission line, not to protest the line’s construction through the state of Nevada but in fact to cheer it on. IN NWP’s own words:

Adam hiked the path of the SWIP [SouthWest Intertie Project] line on foot, traveling north to south through high quality sage grouse habitat, large mammal travel corridors, canyons, valleys, along dirt roads, past ranches, and many other areas that will be changed by the construction of the line.

NWP conceded that construction would “affect the natural landscape,” but crowed over the resulting “conservation opportunities.” Which to me reads kind of like OxFam mentioning a looming famine in glowing terms because of the resulting “relief opportunities.”

Wilderness groups working on climate issues point out that if we don’t do something about climate change, there will be no wilderness areas left—or at least, the damages to the biological systems in said wilderness areas will be irrevocably and dramatically changed.

This is undeniably a valid argument. It is an argument that would be every bit as valid for groups working to support women’s crisis centers, community gardens, public broadcasting, and food banks: each of them works to achieve goals that will be utterly undermined by catastrophic climate change. Somehow out of all these groups it’s only the wilderness organizations that have rewritten their charters.

A cynic might suggest that the current popularity of climate change as an issue among major granting organizations encourages groups dependent on such funding to shift their mission so as to maximize development potential.

An even greater cynic might speculate that wilderness groups have a special incentive to hop on board the Big Solar train: mitigation. Developers seeking to destroy public lands are often compelled to “mitigate” that destruction by buying and setting aside other land for protection. Of course, if out of 100 acres of prime desert a developer destroys 50 acres but graciously “mitigates” the other 50, what we have at the end of the day is half as much prime desert as we once had. But if that mitigation involves trading development on a piece of land for protecting some other land as wilderness, then the wilderness organization can count that as a victory in their fundraising material.

Or so that cynic might say. I have been that cynic fairly often. Wilderness groups seem to think little of consigning land without “wilderness characteristics” to destruction, as long as they can thereby save land that does have those characteristics. Never mind that the land destroyed might be the best habitat for a Threatened species in the entire state of Nevada. You can see a freeway from the old-growth desert, so it’s worthless.

But I’m used to all that from certain wilderness groups; all the disregard for the value of land shielded from their vision by their ideological blinders, all the backroom horsetrading, all of it.

That’s not what prompts this complaint. What prompts this complaint is a throwaway caption on a photo accompanying the post on the Nevada Wilderness Project’s blog, which reads:

A rendering of how heliostats will look at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the California desert. According to developer BrightSource, the technology design “allows the solar field to coexist with existing vegetation.”

As it happens, the design of the plant requires that the vegetation beneath the heliostats be kept at a height of no more than 18 inches. If you’re used to pruning shrubs in a garden, 18 inches seems like a reasonable height. Boxwood hedges can live through decades of pruning to 18 inches, for instance.

To my knowledge, based on my working familiarity with the Ivanpah Valley, boxwood hedges have been recorded from vanishingly few places within the footprint of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. What does grow there? Creosote, Mojave yucca, buckhorn cholla, and barrel cacti are among the most common shrubs. Several of them can live to astonishing ages. None of them can withstand being sheared to 18 inches for very long. When they die, and when the desert pavement around them is destroyed, the soil around them will no longer be held in place. It will blow away or be carried off in floods, and with it the stored seeds of several dozen native annual plant species, some of them rare.

In actual point of fact, this is how the Ivanpah solar plant has been “coexisting” with native vegetation:

That Mojave yucca was around 700 years old.

Here’s the thing: the Nevada Wilderness Project knows all this. Or if they don’t, it’s because they have deliberately refused to acquire the knowledge. Yesterday morning, I asked NWP for clarification of that caption on Twitter. No reply was forthcoming.

A lot of anger here over a photo caption, you might say, and you’d be right. Except for this: They went out of their way to add it. The image doesn’t require it. And it is just a caption, but a caption here and a pullquote there and an offhand comment somewhere else and you bend your public’s perception of reality. Repeat a lie enough times and it becomes the truth. I forget who said that.

Despite my strong views on desert solar development, I still try to maintain respect for green groups that come down with different positions than mine. I have good friends that work within the Sierra Club, for instance, and continue to find the majority of the work of the Center for Biological Diversity of immense value, and hold its staff in quite high regard, despite the aching boneheadedness of their leadership on the renewables issue.

But functioning as a press release distribution arm for BrightSource goes beyond a good-faith difference of opinion. Casually spreading corporate-sponsored misinformation goes beyond agreeing to disagree.

It’s one thing to find the Ivanpah Valley not worth your time as an organization. It’s wrong-headed and ill-informed, but still: if you don’t care about endangered wildlife that doesn’t live in areas with “wilderness characteristics,” there’s not much one can really say to argue with you.

But to to spread blatant, easily debunked lies, in the service of advancing your organizational mission, even if it means collateral devastation of delicate ecosystems? That, my friends, is beyond the pale. That is not excusable.

It is, in fact, what we are supposed to be fighting against.

Thistle, again

How many times have I saved this rabbit’s life? Once by adopting him eight years ago, certainly, less than a week before his “deadline” at the animal shelter. Again a year later, the first time he went into GI stasis and I found him cold as death already. We microwaved a sock full of rice as a hot water bottle and rushed him to the vet. Again on the first anniversary of Zeke’s death — bladder full of sludge, that time and a painful and crotchety recovery that was. Another time in 2008 with the head tilt, in tag-team fashion with the ex-. Any number of additional times over the years chasing away feral cats ad sharp-shinned hawks. Six times? Seven?

Apparently not often enough.

He weighed three pounds seven ounces on Monday, down four ounces from October. I can glide my finger between his shoulder blades.

A twentieth of a milliliter of buprenorphine twice a day for pain, and a third of a milliliter of enrofloxacin along with it, the latter one with vitamins and foul flavor mixed in. I pick him up beneath the armpits, cradle him lying on his back in my left arm, wait until he relaxes, then wave each syringe ineffectually in the general vicinity of his mouth as he flinches. Eventually I win. The enrofloxacin is supposed to kill off the deleterious gut flora his vet thinks is keeping him on the razor edge of GI stasis, and the buprenorphine is to ease his pain. Pain from GI stasis causes GI stasis. It’s a bit of a problem.

A rabbit is an abundantly self-replicating machine designed to turn plant material into turds. It’s what they do, except when they don’t and then they die instead. Shut down a rabbit’s digestive tract for more than a couple days and it’ll never start up again. It is my job to keep that fire lit, and to that end I have been shoveling fuel into him like a locomotive fireman with a pile of cilantro-flavored coal.

I can feel every one of his vertebrae when I pet him. When he’s lying supine on my arm his hipbones press into my flesh. He’s about ten years old, and there are any number of reasons he might be losing the weight. None of them are uplifting reasons that give me hope for many future years of companionship.

PZ left a comment here a long time ago, not long after I met Thistle, that has stayed in my mind since. He referred to rabbits, from his perspective as an habitue of biology labs, as “friable… Crumbly and fragile.” I’ve kept Thistle alive for seven years since he made the comment, and yet I have to agree.

He used to be an asshole, this rabbit. One day not long after Zeke died I was lying on the papasan cushion I’d bought him to comfort his old dog bones, and Thistle walked into the room. He’d grown to like sitting on the papasan cushion, looking for all the world like a raisin on a slice of pita bread, and he wanted to do it some more, but I was in the way. He grunted at me from the edge of the cushion. I petted him and said something insufficiently submissive. He turned, walked to the far side of the room, then pivoted and leapt at me, biting me on my septum. It hurt like hell, especially when I laughed. Which I couldn’t not do.

Maybe it was his aging that mellowed him, or maybe it was my going away for a year and a half with no explanation, and then showing up again. He is sweet now and spends most of each day with me in his cage next to my desk. Even when he’s feeling well, he sometimes fails to eat if I’m not sitting next to him. For someone that once had the run of an entire house and his own expensively planted garden, he now shows little interest in leaving his cage. He’s happier if I take him out once a day and fuss over him, but sitting next to me in his cage as I work is enough. He’s good company.

Exercise works to get the gut moving, so I’ve been making him run around the house anyway. After loading each dose of painkiller and antibiotic into him, I put him on the hardwood floor and he ambles slipperily off to see what the cat is up to. The cat only outweighs Thistle by a factor of five and thus is easily pushed around. Yesterday morning the front door was open and desert sunlight streamed in through the metal security door. Thistle headed straight for it, gazed out across the apartment complex’s patio with cloudy eyes. Annette questioned whether his memory was good enough, but I’m certain I know what he wanted on the other side of that door. Though he might have been confused about where it had gotten to.


I just updated my environmental work resume because I needed to for a grant proposal I just submitted, and I realized the one I had on this site was somewhat out of date. So I’ve uploaded it here. I know: you’re thrilled.

Three Announcements

1) In the first hour or so of the year, as Annette and I celebrated at our local gaybar-cum-Chinese restaurant,* I suggested that 2012 is the year in which we should make it legal. She agreed. We are happy. Details regarding the wedding are completely up in the air, though Los Angeles is the likeliest location.

1)a: squee.

2) At about the same time I became not-employed by the Desert Protective Council, by my choice. The DPC ate up about 1/2 my time and about 5/3 of my emotional energy, so it was a necessary decision. Nonetheless, the money that came in as a result of the job was, for the last three or four months, just enough to keep us from sliding farther into debt. I need to replace that. Therefore, the job hunt starts now. I’m accepting offers of employment either piecemeal-short-term editing and web design jobs, as well as leads for longer term payrolly kinda deals. Also, if you’ve been putting off tossing a five-spot into the ol’ PayPal jar, or buying a copy of the Zeke book, now would be an okay time for that.

3) In the meantime, I am pleased to announce that Desert Biodiversity has a website, and we are busily assembling an impressive Board of Advisors and will subsequently apply to some 501(c)3 for non-profit status. You can check out the site, sign up, and even toss some cash in toward expenses if you like. (Of course since we’re not a 501 (c)3 yet any donations are not tax-deductible. But they will be much appreciated, and help keep my current cash flow problems from stunting the organization’s growth.)

I’ll have more news on Desert Biodiversity here shortly. Even with a full-time job search I’ll still end up having more time and emotional energy now that I’ve left that job referenced up there.

Oh, and confidential to Sven DiMilo: tried to send you email. Don’t know if I have a good address for you. Ping me if you didn’t get it. Thanks.

* The gaybar-cum-Chinese restaurant is, naturally, called “Wang’s.”