Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Turning lunar dirt into fuel

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Moon colonists could use compounds hidden in crushed rock on the lunar surface to help generate air and hydrogen or methane fuel, a recent study found.

The iron and titanium compounds in the rocky material, called regolith, could be used to break apart lunar ice or the moisture from astronauts’ breath in a process called “extraterrestrial photosynthesis,”researchers wrote in the study published in Joule.

The China-based team sees the method as a way to help astronauts cut down on the amount of supplies needed to live on the moon — in effect expanding their ability to live off the land. 

 
“Just like the ‘Age of Sail’ in the 1600s when hundreds of ships head to the sea, we will enter an ‘Age of Space,’” Yingfang Yao of Nanjing University said in a statement.  

“But if we want to carry out large-scale exploration of the extraterrestrial world, we will need to think of ways to reduce payload, meaning relying on as little supplies from Earth as possible and using extraterrestrial resources instead,” Yao added. 

Worth noting: China’s government plans to have a lunar research station this decade.

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

Today we’ll look at a U.S. attempt to turn antitrust measures against a key oil group — and why it might finally work. Then we’ll look at studies that suggest that the diets that are good for weight loss and diabetes also help preserve global forests. 

Oil competition bill advances despite opposition

A U.S. Senate committee approved a bill on Thursday that would open up the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to being sued for antitrust violations, Reuters reported. 

The bill’s proponents hope its advancement will lead to more competition in oil markets, which could mean lower prices for consumers — but its opponents worry it opens U.S. agriculture up to similar measures by other countries. 

Competition over cartels: “I believe that free and competitive markets are better for consumers than markets controlled by a cartel of state-owned oil companies,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said at a press conference following the vote.

The so-called “NOPEC” bill takes aim at Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members. U.S. lawmakers have accused them of colluding by refusing to make more than gradual increases in oil supply to meet soaring global prices, Reuters noted.

Possible blowback: OPEC opposition is one reason why the legislation has repeatedly failed to advance over the years — and one reason why it faces a tough path to passage by the full Senate now.

In 2019, for example, Saudi Arabia threatened to take oil payments in currencies other than dollars if NOPEC passed — a move that would reduce America’s clout in the global economy. 

 
Then there’s domestic opposition: Principally from key trade and business groups like the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

As the leading trade group for the U.S. oil and gas industry, API wants new production to be in the U.S., not OPEC countries.

“Legislative efforts that strengthen American energy production would be the best approach to ensure market stability and protect America’s energy security,” API stated in a letter reported by Reuters.

OPENING A CAN OF WORMS

Suing OPEC for antitrust violation could open up the U.S. to potential challenges in foreign courts on a swath of issues, the Chamber warned in a letter Wednesday. 

“Once sovereign immunity has been eliminated for one action of a state or its agents, it can be eliminated for all state actions and the actions of agents of the state,” the letter read.  

Other concerns loom: In addition to threatening the dollar, if signed into law, the bill risks creating a precedent where the U.S., for example, could be sued in foreign courts for withholding grain exports, analysts told Reuters. 

 “It’s always a bad idea to make policy when you are angry,” said Mark Finley of Rice University’s Baker Institute told Reuters. 

What now? If the past is any prediction, the NOPEC bill faces extremely long odds — though current tensions over soaring gas prices could impact the debate.

Vegan diets are good for humans & forests: studies

Just 12 weeks on a plant-based diet can have noticeable impacts on several key health indicators while also being substantially more sustainable, new studies find.

The findings: People who ate a vegan diet saw more substantial weight loss and a greater reduction in their risk for diabetes than those following other, non-vegan diets, according to the study presented Thursday at the European Association for the Study of Obesity.

Other impacts: When scaled across entire populations, even a small step in the direction of veganism can have enormous effects on global forests, a second study, published Wednesday in Nature, found.  

Fungal ‘meat’ saves forests: If just 20 percent of meat from cows, goats and sheep were replaced with plant- or fungus- based “microbial protein,” it would cut deforestation and accompanying carbon emissions in half, the Nature study found.

More plant-based proteins mean less cattle, whichhas further knock-on effects, lead author Florian Humpenöder said in a statement. 

“The reduced numbers of cattle do not only reduce the pressure on land but also reduce methane emissions from the rumen of cattle and nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizing feed or manure management,” Humpenöder said.

A side benefit: Reducing deforestation in key beef-growing areas like the Amazon rain forest could have broader beneficial effects on the U.S. food supply, as we reported last week. 

The Amazon produces the bulk of the moisture that falls on the U.S. Midwest, which links its survival directly to that of the U.S. corn belt.

PRACTICAL STEPS

While going plant-based can help cut one’s carbon footprint, there are a few additional steps that can help the planet, according to the BBC.

Save roasting for special occasions: Roasting vegetables in the oven accounts for 80 percent of the food’s carbon footprint, while microwaving, pressure cooking, boiling and steaming are far more energy efficient, according to a 2020 study cited by the BBC.

When you cook, cook a lot: “Batch cooking” a large amount at once, or several items in an already-heated oven, helps cut the amount of needed energy, the outlet reported. 

Worry about what your food is, not how far it traveled: Except for certain highly perishable produce like berries — which are flown on carbon-intensive jets — “buying local” has far less impact than replacing red meats with chicken, fish or plants, according to a study published by the American Chemical Society. 

India maintains wheat exports – but US prices on rise

India’s decision to not cut wheat exports is good news for global supply, though grain prices in the U.S. and around the world are likely to keep rising.

With drought hitting many global wheat-growing regions simultaneously and many supplies bottlenecked in the Black Sea, there is little to keep prices from going up.

‘I don’t see any controls on exports’: That’s what Indian food minister Sudhanshu Pandey said on Wednesday — even as he warned wheat production was expected to fall 5 percent this year, according to The Deccan Herald.

A cautionary tale: India may have been cautioned by the experience of Indonesia, which banned the export of palm oil last month — causing a backlash from investors and chaos in the global edible oils market, Asia Times reported.

Not out of the woods: While India isn’t instituting export controls, the poor forecasted harvests in the U.S. and India mean that wheat futures soared on Wednesday, according to Food Business News. 

U.S. is still in a tough spot: Key wheat-growing states like Kansas are in a drought and farmers are anxiously eyeing weather forecasts, hoping that rain comes before the June harvest, Bloomberg reported. 

Why June? That’s when most wheat intended for U.S. bread flour begins to be brought in — and crops will be better if it rains before then, the outlet noted.

‘Better’ is a relative term: “It’s going to be a short crop no matter what at this point,” grain broker Joe Nussmeier told Bloomberg.

The southern harvest in Texas and Oklahoma is “already too far gone,” Nussmeier said — but there’s still a chance for Kansas and Colorado if it rains. 

Grain prices are going up: The only question is how much and how fast. 

Thursday Threats 

Worsening water shortages and an impact of the solar boom.

Water scarcity will get worse for vast majority of farmland

Scaling up solar means a new flood of trash 

  • With solar panels lasting 25 to 30 years, the current spate of new solar deployments will lead to 10 million tons of new waste by 2050 — which developers should be planning for now, The Wall Street Journal reported. “We have to work today if we don’t want to have a problem in the future,” Agustín Delgado of Spanish utility Iberdrola told the Journal.

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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