Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Climate: California Water and Agriculture

Last week I posted on my personal blog about California's upcoming water problems and agriculture-killing drought. As California produces a huge amount of this country's fresh produce, the seed catalogues I received as gifts in December are now all the more valuable. Half the seeds I have ordered have arrived and the other should follow shortly. That state's water problems are giving everyone a headache from top to bottom (Gov. on down).

Now that water issues are becoming national and global problems, people are becoming involved on the federal level. Scanning headlines the other day I came across an article from the LA Times on new climate warnings issued by Energy Secretary Steven Chu:
"I don't think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen," he said. "We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California." And, he added, "I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going" either.
The knock on effects of increased temperature through AGW are potentially devastating. If increasingly severe drought trends hold, there will be major disruptions to a hydrological cycle we have become dependent on for survival. One can only imagine the scenarios that can possibly be played out: California loses it's natural storage capacity for water in the High Sierra snow pack, more water is diverted from out state, forcing those states to draw down their own in-ground aquifers forcing more water diversion projects from further east. That eventually brings us to the Midwest. In the same article, Chu also warns of "water shortages plaguing the West and Upper Midwest" so in that sense it is easy to see how this easily becomes a national problem.

It also serves as a reminder that those of us living in the upper Midwest might also prepare for changes in rainfall. One of the projects I'd like to complete this upcoming summer is a rain collection and storage system. During WW2 we had victory gardens. Now, it might be a good idea to start "climate gardens" in the face of changing agriculture patterns and availability. And if we are going to do so, we may as well start now to ensure we have secure water supplies for those gardens!

EDIT: I now have all my seeds, except for the strawberries...

Thursday, January 29, 2009

MN Gov. Vetos Peak Oil Legislation

This is old news, but I found it the other day browsing energy related news. In the state of Minnesota, the legislature created a bill that would petition Governor Pawlenty to "prepare a plan ... to meet the challenge of peak oil." I stumbled across this piece of legislation and was shocked. The bill was introduced in the 2007 session and went on to be vetoed in 2008.

There are a couple reasons that this bill surprised me. First I wouldn't expect this sort of thing from politicians (except Roscoe Bartlett). Peak oil and its implications have to be seen through a telescope - it's a long term issue. There are no quick fixes. The problems have been in the making for over a hundred years and the solutions must be far reaching, forward looking, yet effective enough to keep society from crashing. Politicians and long term policy rarely go hand in hand. Second is that the bill is bipartisan, and oddly enough authored by predominantly suburban representatives, though no rural reps were attached to the bill. Last, it is not a wishy-washy, feel good statement. It contains, yet goes past the tired anecdotes of US oil consumption and production figures and dives into EROI of transport fuel alternatives (pajoritively), environmental degradation of continuing BAU and biomass-based fuels, the North American natural gas peak, and laying out a time frame for mitigation as given by the Hirsch report.

The bill does not provide suggested ideas for mitigation of PO, as that is the point of the legislation: to provide "funding and ... give direction to state departments for the development of a response plan as soon as possible." In early half of 2008, Matthew Simmons addressed the Minnesota legislature. This was when oil prices were skyrocketing into the $100/bbl+ range. It's too bad the guvna didn't hear the Senior Energy Advisor to the Bush administration's presentation, though I doubt it would have rescued the bill.

I enjoy being pleasantly surprised (though not comforted) that there are at least a few people in elected politics that could be bothered to spend even a few moments drafting such a bill. If the shift is in the right direction, I can handle small steps for at least a while.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Calls for Increasing the Federal Gas Tax

The National Commission on Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing, the closest thing we have to a national transportation planning body, will be recommending upping the federal gas tax in an upcoming report.
A roughly 50 percent increase in gasoline and diesel fuel taxes is being urged by the commission until the government devises another way for motorists to pay for using public roads.

The 15-member National Commission on Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing is the second group in a year to call for increasing the current 18.4 cents a gallon federal tax on gasoline and the 24.4 cents a gallon tax on diesel. State fuel taxes vary from state to state.

In a report expected in late January, members of the infrastructure financing commission say they will urge Congress to raise the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon and the diesel tax by about 12 cents to 15 cents a gallon. At the same time, the commission will recommend tying the fuel tax rates to inflation.

The commission will also recommend that states raise their fuel taxes and make greater use of toll roads and fees for rush-hour driving.
There are several reasons for increasing the gas tax. The one being trumpeted the most is obviously that the revenues pay for upkeep of our transportation system. A reemerging concern is that with low gas prices due to the economic downturn, Americans will again be tempted to buy gas guzzlers. In fact, this trend seems to be already occurring.

Surely the dealerships who this past summer found those large vehicles to be unsellable dead weight will be more than eager to pawn them off on the market segment that doesn't think about the long term when making large purchases. Gas prices are not going to stay low. The only reason they are low is because of the "demand destruction" of the global recession.

Echoing the commission's soon-to-be-released findings are the New York Times and Thomas Friedman. The Times uses the second argument, that higher gas prices will encourage Americans to buy more fuel-efficient cars.
Americans did not buy enormous gas guzzlers just because Detroit marketed them relentlessly. They bought them because they wanted big cars — and because gas was cheap. If gas stays cheap, Americans would be less inclined to squeeze their families into a lithe fuel-efficient alternative.


Americans have flirted with fuel-efficient cars before only to jilt them when gas prices fell. In the late 1970s, for instance, they spurned light trucks as gas prices doubled. But as gas prices declined between 1981 and 2005, the market share of sport-utility vehicles, pickups, vans and the like jumped from 16 percent to 61 percent of vehicle sales in the United States.

The recent infatuation with the Toyota Prius and other fuel-efficient cars could well come to a similar end. It took a gallon of gas at $4.10 to push the share of light trucks down to 45 percent in July. But as gasoline plummeted back to $1.60 a gallon, their share inched back up to 49 percent of auto sales in November.
The editorial suggests a variable tax that would effectively create a floor for gas prices of $4.00 to $5.00 per gallon.

A gas tax would help to train people who do not consider the long-term consequences of their decision to in fact do so, just like regulations on sub-prime mortgages can force would-be borrowers into more reasonable financial decisions. Gas is not going to stay cheap. The International Energy Agency, which might be called notorious for its overly rosy fossil energy outlooks, reported in November that oil prices "will rebound to more than $100 a barrel as soon as the world economy recovers, and will exceed $200 by 2030". When the economy recovers, don't be surprised to see the owners of shiny new SUVs crying wolf again. Those who are heavily dependent on gasoline are between a rock and a hard place: struggling economy plus low gas prices, or burgeoning economy plus high gas prices. There will never be a burgeoning economy with low gas prices. Our best option is a burgeoning economy with greater energy efficiency and alternative sources of energy, so that we don't care that gas prices are high.

So the time is overripe to increase gas taxes, even in this economy. I say "overripe" because the "ripe" times have already passed: the 1980s, coming out of the oil embargoes; the bright, peacetime economy of the 1990s, and the 2000s, when, as Thomas Friedman recalled in his recent call for a gas tax increase,
[i]n the wake of 9/11, President Bush had the political space to impose a gasoline tax, a “Patriot Tax,” to weaken the very people who had funded 9/11 and to stimulate a U.S. renewable-energy industry. But Bush wimped out and would not impose a tax when prices were low or a floor price when they got high.
What we can't avoid in all of our cooing for "fuel efficiency" is the importance of price. As Friedman says,
The two most important rules about energy innovation are: 1) Price matters — when prices go up people change their habits. 2) You need a systemic approach. It makes no sense for Congress to pump $13.4 billion into bailing out Detroit — and demand that the auto companies use this cash to make more fuel-efficient cars — and then do nothing to shape consumer behavior with a gas tax so more Americans will want to buy those cars. As long as gas is cheap, people will go out and buy used S.U.V.’s and Hummers.

There has to be a system that permanently changes consumer demand, which would permanently change what Detroit makes, which would attract more investment in battery technology to make electric cars, which would hugely help the expansion of the wind and solar industries — where the biggest drawback is the lack of batteries to store electrons when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. A higher gas tax would drive all these systemic benefits.
Yet another reason -- probably the most important -- is climate change. Even the chairman of the American Truckers Association is not opposed to a carbon tax (albeit only if revenues go to highway spending).
Charles Whittington, chairman of the American Trucking Associations, which supports a fuel tax increase as long as the money goes to highway projects, said Congress may decide to disguise a fuel tax hike as a surcharge to combat climate change.

Transportation is responsible for about a third of all U.S. carbon emissions created by burning fossil fuels. Traffic congestion wastes an estimated 2.9 billion gallons of fuel a year. Less congestion would reduce greenhouse gases and dependence on foreign oil.

"Instead of calling it a gas tax, call it a carbon tax," Whittington said. "As long as we label it as something else we may have the momentum and acceptance to move forward." [AP, above]
There may be, after all, a window of opportunity for moving towards the true cost of driving and fuel use by increasing the federal gas tax.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Embarrassing Recalcitrance in Poznan

If climate change is the world's house on fire, then the Poznan talks are us filling a squirt gun drop by drop. Bloomberg:
Harlan Watson, who heads the U.S. delegation for the first week of talks, told reporters in Poznan it’s "unclear" whether a long-term goal for 2050 can be agreed in Poznan. He also said he didn’t think any numbers can be fixed for a 2020 target, including the possible 25 percent to 40 percent emissions cuts for developed countries that the EU and China have suggested.

"I don’t think many parties are ready to sign onto any range at this time," Watson said. "My own opinion is that that’s going to occur in the end game" in Copenhagen.

"We’ve seen in past discussions of this that a number of parties aren’t prepared to agree to a long-term goal until other parties are coming forward with a 2020 or a near-term goal, and a number of parties, including the United States, are not willing to come forward with that yet."
It's saddening that my country is representing itself like a recalcitrant child in Poland. It's not the "United States" that is unwilling; it is the Bush administration dragging its feet, at the expense of global quality of life. That is what "we've seen in past discussions" (Bali and Montreal, exhibits A and B).

Earth to Mr. Watson: you don't wait for the "end game" to decide on a range. You sign the convention. The whole purpose of agreeing on a range and a negotiating text ahead of time is so you can be ready to sign the actual treaty. Perpetual negotiation -- that is to say, shucking responsibility -- will only lead to the "end game" for the world's vulnerable ecosystems and the livelihoods of millions of people. Secondly, the long-term goal should not be based on a short-term goal. It should be based on science. Start with the target recommended by James Hansen et al. (PDF):
If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm.
The best policy is formulated after taking into account the recommendations of experts. Our position at the Poznan talks, if Mr. Watson's remarks are any indication, is the antithesis of good policy.

Meanwhile, a fifth of the worlds corals are dead, primarily due to climate change.
many of the remaining reefs could die in the next 20 to 40 years unless humans reduce greenhouse gas emissions...

Further coral loss will have alarming consequences for some 500 million people who depend on reefs for their livelihood, according to a report by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN) presented at the UN conference on global warming in Poland.
Here is the blatant and unacceptable schism between the urgency of climate change and the twilight zone of waffling officialspeak inhabited by the Bush administration's team. No wonder youth are embarrassed by Watson's "sidestepping and recalcitrance".

But it's not just the U.S. that is waffling. George Monbiot -- whose worry that the global community would "talk ourselves to Kingdom Come", instead of actually acting on climate change, certainly seems applicable to Poznan -- recently interviewed (link to video) a defensive and noncommittal Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Though de Boer was visibly rattled in Bali at some of the machinations of responsibility avoidance, in the interview he continues to see the meek progress on international climate negotiations as acceptable.

We need to do a lot better than this, and everyone knows it.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Coal power plants must address CO2 emissions

In a rather remarkable move, the Environmental Appeals Board of the Environmental Protection Agency remanded a permit to build a coal power plant in Utah because it did not adequately address carbon dioxide controls. The permit does not technically ban all coal-fired power plant construction, but delays their approval until they deal with CO2.

Of course, this should not be a problem for the coal industry, right? I mean, they've been touting how clean they are with expensive "clean coal" ad campaigns. So this is really all water under the bridge for them, is it not?

The ruling by the EAB refers to the landmark Supreme Court case Massachusetts v. EPA, in which the court concluded that the EPA had the authority to regulate CO2 emissions under the Clean Air Act, and the duty to do so as long as it concluded that CO2 emissions are harmful to the public welfare.

Industry groups have claimed that the CAA is not the appropriate legal tool to regulate CO2 emissions.
The American Petroleum Institute filed a brief opposing the Sierra Club, arguing that the Clean Air Act, a version of which first passed in 1963 long before climate change became an environmental issue, is the wrong vehicle for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
There is merit to the argument that the Clean Air Act wasn't intended to regulate CO2, which is a different kind of pollutant than, for example, volatile organic compounds or particulate matter. CO2's harm is not medical, but physical, in terms of the way it compromises the stability of climate systems if too much of it is concentrated in the air.

But the Clean Air Act gives flexible authority to the EPA administrator to regulate air pollutants. For example, at least regarding motor vehicles, Section 202 (a)(1), which was at the heart of the Massachusetts ruling, states:
The Administrator shall by regulation prescribe (and from time to time revise) in accordance with the provisions of this section, standards applicable to the emission of any air pollutant from any class or classes of new motor vehicles or new motor vehicle engines, which in his judgment cause, or contribute to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare. Such standards shall be applicable to such vehicles and engines for their useful life (as determined under subsection (d), relating to useful life of vehicles for purposes of certification), whether such vehicles and engines are designed as complete systems or incorporate devices to prevent or control such pollution.
Notice how the section does not specify the way in which a pollutant might endanger public health or welfare. In fact, the finding in section 101(a)(2) acknowledges the "complexity" of air pollution. No one word better describes the nature of climate change. In the past, complexity had been exploited by skeptics to deny that climate change was occurring due to greenhouse gas emissions.

Even complex processes can hold general truths, however. The EAB ruling is a long-awaited regulatory affirmation from the federal government of that complex but firm truth that CO2 emissions en masse are endangering the public health and welfare.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Talking with Spain

Barack Obama has been President-Elect for five days and already we are starting to see the differences between how he conducts himself compared to how John McCain likely would have.

For example, the President-Elect has already spoken with Spain.

Recall that McCain bewilderingly refused to commit to a meeting with the NATO ally's Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

McCain's reticence was pointed out by Obama in the first debate as well as Joe Biden in the VP debate:
John McCain said as recently as a couple of weeks ago he wouldn't even sit down with the government of Spain, a NATO ally that has troops in Afghanistan with us now. I find that incredible.
We'll welcome you back, multilateralism.

Four Years Later

I started Brudaimonia four years ago, on the night of election day in 2004, after returning dejected from an election party in a downtown Minneapolis hotel. The initial excitement of that night was gradually sucked away over the course of the evening as we learned the result.

I started the blog as an outlet for my frustration, hoping to maintain it with occasional posts on environmental concerns and sustainability, war and peace, foreign policy, religion, and science; highlighting overlooked issues.

Four years later, President-Elect Obama is 72 days from moving into the White House, and our country has a lot of work to do to restore itself to a place where people can thrive. Obama's election was a landmark for one of the three sides of the sustainability triangle. But the great achievement for social sustainability -- an African American president less than a half-century after the long, gripping period of institutional discrimination and segregation -- comes in the midst of great challenges to economic and environmental sustainability.

Regarding the former, the global economic crisis is the global realization that wild, unrestrained capitalism is really just delayed socialism behind a curtain -- socialism, that is, for the large corporations whose greed drove the crisis. Regarding the latter, climate change, the most pressing environmental issue the world has ever faced and the biggest environmental justice issue in world history -- threatens to sneak out of our consciousness as we focus on the economy. But it is front-and-center for those who know that climate change is intimately connected with the long-term health of the global economy.

So we all have work to do. After 72 days, progressives will (thankfully) no longer have at their disposal that crutch of complaining about the many ways in which the Bush administration set this country back. We have to embrace better, smarter government and remember that while cynicism is much easier than hope, hope is the stronger and everlasting force.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Matt Simmons: "McCain Doesn't Have a Clue"

More damning evidence that McCain simply doesn't understand the world we live in, particularly when it comes to Energy, is Matthew Simmons' endorsement of Barack Obama. Simmons is a lifelong republican, Texas oilman and energy adviser to Bush and Cheney in the early years of the administration. Scanning through various blogger headlines I found the above endorsement:
“He’s [McCain] just witless about this stuff. As a lifelong Republican, I’m supporting Obama.”
In the original article Simmons goes on to explain that McCain just doesn't get it with his off-shore drilling and nuclear plant energy policy proposals. It's shocking to see just how many people (republicans and independents) McCain has disuaded from supporting him with the terrible ideas he wants to pursue as our nations leader. I'd think republicans tend not to rub each other the wrong way -I thought maybe Simmons just doesn't like McCain- because for Simmons to go out and specifically criticise McCains energy policy while at the same time stating he supports Obama really says it all about the depth of McCains policy and (lack of) understanding on the issues.

Monday, October 06, 2008


I frequently describe today's Republican Party platform as being a tumbleweed of contradictions and hollow platitudes, devoid of any meaningful principles, but its increasingly desperate ticket for the White House is making it clear that that description is way too charitable.

Scenes from the Two-Minutes Hate in Clearwater, Florida, earlier today:
Worse, Palin's routine attacks on the media have begun to spill into ugliness. In Clearwater, arriving reporters were greeted with shouts and taunts by the crowd of about 3,000. Palin then went on to blame Katie Couric's questions for her "less-than-successful interview with kinda mainstream media." At that, Palin supporters turned on reporters in the press area, waving thunder sticks and shouting abuse. Others hurled obscenities at a camera crew. One Palin supporter shouted a racial epithet at an African American sound man for a network and told him, "Sit down, boy."


Palin, speaking to a sea of "Palin Power" and "Sarahcuda" T-shirts, tried to link Obama to the 1960s Weather Underground. "One of his earliest supporters is a man named Bill Ayers," she said. ("Boooo!" said the crowd.) "And, according to the New York Times, he was a domestic terrorist and part of a group that, quote, 'launched a campaign of bombings that would target the Pentagon and our U.S. Capitol,' " she continued. ("Boooo!" the crowd repeated.)

"Kill him!" proposed one man in the audience.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Why drilling in ANWR is a bad idea

Bru's note: This post is an adaptation of an email reply to a forwarded message by a family friend containing this misinformation about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Apparently this misinformation has been circulating around conservative websites, as a simple Google search will reveal. The forwarded message I received contained the hilarious preface: "I received this from my nephew who is an oil geologist and successful wildcatter in Texas and Montana."

I'm hoping to update this ANWR truth post and refine it over time to include more information on why drilling in ANWR is a bad idea. This is just the first draft.

The best sources of recent information are the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration (EIA) May 2008 report on ANWR and an analysis by Congress's Joint Economic Committee. I would tend to trust the EIA over someone's "nephew who is an oil geologist and successful wildcatter in Texas and Montana". (wtf?)

* Drilling in ANWR would lower gas prices by one to four cents ($0.01 to $0.04) by 2025. So, in other words, if gas is $6.00 per gallon in 2025, drilling in ANWR would lower prices to $5.96 to $5.99 per gallon. Hugh savings, eh?

* There is just not that much oil there, relative to what our country consumes. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated that 10.4 billion barrels of oil are technically recoverable in the "1002 Area", which basically comprises the coastal plain of ANWR. 10.4 billion barrels may sound like a lot, but consider that the U.S. consumes over 20.6 million barrels of oil per day.

Furthermore, consider that only part of the 1002 area was designated by Congress as open for drilling in the 1980 act that established ANWR. This area only has an estimate of 7.7 billion barrels of oil. The other part of the 1002 area belongs to Native peoples.

What's more, this estimate is only given by USGS as being 50 percent likely. There could be more oil, but there could be less. (There is a 5 percent chance of there being at least 11.8 billion barrels, and a 95 percent chance of there being at least 4.2 billion barrels.)

Moreover, this is just "technically recoverable" oil, which means oil that could be recovered without consideration of cost constraints. Economically recoverable oil may be a lot lower. Using the 50 percent figure of 7.7 billion barrels of oil and making the generous assumption that all of it is economically recoverable, then ANWR could only provide enough oil to supply U.S. consumption for 296 days, or less than 10 months.

And this is assuming current oil demand, not demand in 2016 (1), when ANWR oil production would finally begin contributing to oil supply and oil demand will likely be much higher.

* Oil infrastructure is more than a "point". The photo below suggesting oil development would be no larger than an itty-bitty dot is an insult to rational thinking. Does this supposed "oil geologist" think that crude oil magically appears as gasoline in people's gas tanks after being pumped out of the ground? The truth is that each well would have to be connected to a pipeline system, and accessible by road. The footprint of drilling in this 1.5 million acre area would be more than just the wells. The chance for an oil spill is also very real. In 2006, a corroded BP pipeline leaked 267,000 gallons of crude oil in Prudhoe Bay, which is an existing oil production zone not far west of the ANWR coastal plain.

* It is a lie to suggest wildlife aren't affected by oil infrastructure based on a few token photographs of wildlife coinciding with a background of oil facilities. To cite one example, a 1992 report by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game found significant disruption of caribou calving by oil infrastructure development in Prudhoe Bay. Here is the report's abstract (emphasis added):

---- Aerial surveys were conducted annually in June 1978-87 near Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to determine changes in the distribution of calving caribou (Rangifer tarandus granfi) that accompanied petroleum-related development. With construction of an oil field access road through a calving concentration area, mean caribou density (no./km2) decreased from 1.41 to 0.31 (P = 0.05) within 1 km and increased from 1.41 to 4.53 (P = 0.04) 5-6 km from the road. Concurrently, relative caribou use of the adjacent area declined (P < 0.02), apparently in response to increasing surface development. We suggest that perturbed distribution associated with roads reduced the capacity of the nearby area to sustain parturient females [i.e. females in labor and about to give birth] and that insufficient spacing of roads may have depressed overall calving activity. Use of traditional calving grounds and of certain areas therein appears to favor calf survival, principally through lower predation risk and improved foraging conditions. Given the possible loss of those habitats through displacement and the crucial importance of the reproductive process, a cautious approach to petroleum development on the Arctic Slope is warranted.----

Here is the link to the article:

* The coastal plain is not a "barren wasteland". When all you can think about is "drill, baby, drill", like many conservatives, you probably don't want to face the simple fact that just because a few photos don't show massive amounts of large, furry animals, that nothing exists of biological importance on the coastal plain. But when Rush Limbaugh "drill, baby, drills" ludicrous talking points into conservatives' heads on a daily basis such as, "The wildlife that lives [in ANWR] wishes it didn't, but it's too stupid to figure out how to move anywhere" (yes, he actually said that), the overwhelming ignorance of misinformation such as this pro-drilling email is not surprising.

In reality, ANWR is a treasure trove of wildlife. That's why it's a wildlife refuge. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to some of the most diverse and spectacular wildlife in the arctic. The Refuge's rich pageant of wildlife includes 36 fish species, 36 land mammals, nine marine mammals, and more than 160 migratory and resident bird species." The FWS has a detailed list of all this wildlife: The 1002 area, where conservatives want to put oil derricks, pipelines, and access roads, shares in this great biological diversity. According to the FWS, "The [1002] area includes habitat important to the Porcupine and Central Arctic Caribou Herds, as well as many other species." (Source:

Additional resources:

Here is the EIA report (commissioned, interestingly, by Ted Stevens):
Here is the USGS report:
BP oil spill in 2006:


(1) Burgos, Russell A. "Unraveling myths about ANWR drilling: It just won't work." Ventura County Star. June 16, 2008.