Saturday, September 30, 2006

Turning Up the Heat on Lee Scott, Wal-Mart CEO

If you read my last post, you may be familiar with George Monbiot's new website, turnuptheheat.org, started in the wake of his new book on global warming, dedicated to exposing the tokenism of corporations, celebrities, politicians, and other public figures who claim to be on the good side of the global warming fight.

Most of turnuptheheat's targets, however, have been British. In the United States, perhaps nowhere is a better target for an expose than Wal-Mart and its CEO, Lee Scott. To his credit, Scott has made some bold commitments for reducing Wal-Mart's environmental impact, but Wal-Mart's retail model -- including its sprawling, big-box stores and multi-thousand-mile distribution lines -- has always been the penultimate environmental offender. So it would be prudent to balance Wal-Mart's dubious environmental track record with the pretty substantial claims (albeit only claims) of its Chief Executive Officer.

Brudaimonia will undertake some of this expose, but it would be helpful to get some outside input, so keep on the lookout for developments in Wal-Mart's so-called greening strategy.

Friday, September 29, 2006

My Reply to Grist's Article on Sir Richard Branson

Grist just wrote a softball piece on Sir Richard Branson's recently announced plans to take on climate change by investing in renewable energy.

I'll reprint my reply to the article below.

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Hmm, how to deal with the recent wave of corporate greenwashing seeping into the environmental discourse? It sure is tempting to gush over each token commitment by heretofore-notorious climate offenders. But we must continually ask the question as to whether such commitments are enough, because an "at-least-they're-doing-something" attitude is out of the question this late in the climate change solutions game.

From what I know of Sir Richard Branson, he has failed this test. Yes, he plans to invest in clean energy over 10 years. But, as George Monbiot has pointed out on his new website, Turn Up The Heat,
The problem is this: that the climate change crisis has to be addressed right now. We can’t wait for a new fuel to be developed in the unspecified future. Unless massive steps to curb carbon emissions are taken immediately, it will be too late to prevent some of the worst effects of global warming.
In the meantime, Branson's airplanes will only be worsening global warming. He plans to expand the number of business class seats over the next three years, making his planes less efficient per passenger.

This is really bad news for global warming, since Monbiot calculates that "Virgin Atlantic’s planes [already] produce 7.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year," or the equivalent of 6.2 million times the sustainable level of carbon dioxide emissions per person per year.

If he really wanted to do something substantial about climate change, he would begin phasing out airline routes right now. Flying is one of the worst forms of transportation as far as global warming goes, not only for the carbon dioxide each flight spews out, but also because of the water vapor it leaves in the atmosphere (which almost certainly exacerbates global warming). But of course, that makes no sense from a profit standpoint. After all, he admits that his greenwashing is "less a charitable endeavor than a brand-building, revenue-producing tactic."

Furthermore, since when is it responsible environmental journalism to uncritically report on $400 million biofuels investments and "state-of-the-art ethanol plants"? I know Grist has rightfully shed a critical light on biofuels in the past (for example, just a week ago), so why not here? Don't want to burst Branson's light green bubble? The article did not report whether any of the $400 million will be connected to destructive palm oil plantations (PDF) in Indonesia or Malaysia.

The article also failed to critically analyze Vinod Khosla's ethanol plants, despite the fact that at least one reliable blog, The Oil Drum, has thoroughly debunked his ethanol panacea.

Nor are questions raised about whether cellulosic ethanol (which, I agree, is a much better alternative than corn ethanol) can actually be implemented on a broad scale. As biofuel expert John Bennemann points out to the contrary,
these visions of tens of billions of gallons ethanol per year from biomass must, by all reasonable analysis, be considered a distant possibility not an imminent accomplishment...
Moreover, if Branson expects the airline industry to smoothly transition to a new fuel that probably can't even come close to satisfying the fuel demand for the world's automobile fleet, his level of optimism should at least be noted with a critical eye. In this article, it wasn't. In its place was the cornucopian belief that ethanol can reasonably be made into a "mainstream phenomenon."

Even if airplanes could be powered by ethanol, there are major safety issues to overcome, as Monbiot mentions:
A long and detailed report by researchers at Imperial College, London looked into the potential for using ethanol as an aviation fuel. It has a flashpoint of 12°C, which “would present major safety dangers.” It also emits acetaldehyde at low power settings, “bringing localised health problems around airports, especially for ground support staff.” For these reasons, ethanol is “unsuitable as a jet fuel”(12).
I am a pretty faithful Grist reader, and believe that it is unsurpassed on the internet in terms of the breadth plus depth of its reporting, but the more I read articles like this (of the "at-least-they're-doing-something" variety), the more it acquires the feel of a corporate press room.

I'd suggest everyone read Monbiot's entire article on Sir Richard Branson as a counterpoint to the uncritical, pat-on-the-back journalism displayed here.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Public Transportation Ridership Increase

Public transportation ridership increased by 3.2% in the first six months of 2006, according to a report by the American Public Transportation Association.
The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) today announced that public transportation ridership has increased by 3.2% in the first six months of 2006, as Americans took nearly 5 billion trips on public transit.
Most notably, light rail had the highest ridership increase: 9.4%.
The light rail systems in the following areas showed double digit increases from January through June 2006: Minneapolis, MN (23.4%); the state of New Jersey (15.1%); Boston, MA (13.4%); Buffalo, NY (12.2%); Los Angeles, CA (11.9%); Philadelphia, PA (11.9%); and San Diego, CA (11.9%).
Minneapolis's new light rail line, for all the criticism it took from Tim Pawlenty and other conservatives, has been a huge benefit for the city.

What should this suggest to Milwaukee, which has a public transit system worthy of most southern cities? It's time for this city to wake up and smell the coffee. (On the bright side, my last ride on a MCTC bus was sans those annoying TVs. Perhaps the Journal-Sentinel forwarded my unpublished LTE/diatribe against the TVs straight to the County, or it was published without me knowing about it.)

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Sustainability, Obesity, and Urban Planning

In the (tediously) growing public discourse on environmental consciousness in America, the realm of urban planning has sadly not reached the mainstream. Myriad mitigations and semi-solutions have been proposed for surviving or averting the natural resource shortages and potentially drastic climatic events of the next few decades, but fundamentally changing our business-as-usual approach to urban development is rarely mentioned.

That approach has for over half a century sacrificed efficiency for other goals (such as convenience and isolation) in a laissez faire manner, but with all the talk of increasing energy efficiency with regard to home appliances and so forth, talk of increasing the efficiency of our cities is unfortunately absent. One way of defining an efficient city in the realm of sustainability is one that provides relatively abundant public and private goods compared to the energy that is needed for its normal functioning.

As I pointed out in a post on the old Brudaimonia, American society today is perhaps the most inefficient society at fulfilling our desires in the history of the world. We use up a vast amount of resources per capita compared to most of the rest of the world and yet our quality of life leaves much to be desired.

What do we get for all of our suburbanization? For one, we get obesity.
Poor town planning which limits opportunities for children to take exercise has been blamed for fuelling an increase in obesity.

Leading US paediatrician Professor Richard Jackson called for a rethink in the way towns and cities are developed.

He said living in a walkable neighbourhood helped people keep off an average of seven pounds (3.17kg).
The suburban landscape dissuades us from using the most readily available, cheapest, and easiest to use renewable energy that we have: our own energy.
Humans were designed to keep active, [Jackson] said, and they were not designed for the modern, sedentary lifestyle that had become the norm.

He said the environment should support people to make healthy choices, but increasingly children were not given the option of walking.
These children have earned the nickname "cul-de-sac kids," and obesity is not the only result of having few places to walk. They become shut off from most of city life other than what they hear about through the distorted lens of the television. This is one of the causes of the latent racism which is quite prevalent in mostly-white suburban and exurban areas.
"In 1969, 48% of American students (90% of those who lived within a mile) walked or bicycled to school.

"In 1999, only 19% of children walked to or from school and 6% rode bicycles to school."
What is needed in the future is development of cities and towns that refocuses on community development, so that each neighborhood can, among other things, have a strong school nearby to and from which kids can walk. Then they can use their own energy to get around, and come into contact with the world around them, an opportunity of which most cul-de-sac kids are deprived these days.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

What George Says

I neglected to mention a couple weeks ago that I would be taking a break from posting for two weeks. This was because I was volunteering in New Orleans during that time. I am back now and will be writing a lengthy piece on the situation down there once I have time.

In the meantime, read Monbiot's latest. Refreshing, as always.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

"Hang On to [Your] Hybrids": Tempering Chevron's Big Announcement

The California-based oil company Chevron announced Tuesday that it had a successful test of the productive capacity of a deep sea oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.
The successful test of one of the deepest oil wells ever drilled showed such promise that some believe the undersea oil pool could rank as the largest discovery of crude since Alaska's Prudhoe Bay began producing nearly 40 years ago.
The estimated reserves range from 3 billion barrels to 15 billion barrels. The breadth of this range suggests the uncertainties associated with deep sea drilling, a relatively new technique.

While Cornucopians are reveling in their rare helping of good news, and cable news outlets are gleefully reporting on "tumbling" gas prices (which, these days, means $2.50/gal), there are still many questions about "Jack," the name of Chevron's deep sea resevoir. From the original (LA Times article):
Although the discovery suggests that the undersea region holds more oil than previously thought, experts say the crude will be expensive to extract and years in coming.

What's more, growing demand in the U.S. and elsewhere could quickly eat up the production gains. And there is the uncertainty that comes with trying to figure out how much oil lies so far beneath the surface.

"It's phenomenal, if it's there," said Matthew Simmons, who heads Simmons & Co., a Houston investment bank that specializes in energy. "But until you get a field on production, you don't really know what's there…. It's a roll of the dice."

Simmons said the gulf had yielded several highly touted oil finds over the years that fell short of expectations.
Furthermore, as blogger Heading Out mentions on The Oil Drum,
Today's find was a record in a number of ways
More than a half a dozen world records for test equipment pressure, depth, and duration in deepwater were set during the Jack well test. For example, the perforating guns were fired at world record depths and pressures. Additionally, the test tree and other drill stem test tools set world records, helping Chevron and co-owners conduct the deepest extended drill stem test in deepwater Gulf of Mexico history.
The oil that was found was thus expensive to find, and will also be expensive to produce. It is also far enough out into the Gulf that the platforms that will produce it will run into the same risks that hit Thunder Horse and the Mars platforms, and which, should more hurricanes hit the area, may make it more difficult to find insurance.
The LA Times article gives official measurements of Chevron's well:
Chevron's well extends through 7,000 feet of water and then 20,000 feet below the sea floor. From the rig to the bottom, the well measures 28,175 feet — more than 5 miles
It is important to remember that this was just a test well.
Chevron, the largest holder of leases in the deep-water gulf region, would not estimate the cost of the project and would not say when the group might give the final go-ahead for building the massive and costly production rig needed to extract the oil. If the partners decide to develop the field, production will follow in six or seven years, Chevron said.
Given all these uncertainties, there is considerable reason for caution as to how this will affect production, and whether it will even matter in terms of making up for all the depletion of current oil fields from many different countries. But "caution" must not be in the vocabulary in the Fantasyland where Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) is hanging out these days.
Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas), a longtime backer of increased offshore drilling, hailed the announcement.

"The discovery of oil that isn't half a world away and that might increase our country's petroleum reserves by billions of barrels in one swoop will do wonders for assuring American drivers can get gasoline at a price they can afford to pay," Barton said in a statement.
Good God. This has got to be one of the most ignorant statements ever uttered in Washington, and that's saying something. Just about the last thing on the entire planet that can be extracted "in one swoop" is oil five miles below sea level. The delusions generated by our auto-dominant society are truly something at which to marvel.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Like an Addict

Mr. Bush rightfully said that we are "addicted to oil," but the ways in which we will satisfy that addiction in the future are just as chimerical as the chances that the Bush administration will do anything about it, save handing out large subsidies to his oil cronies.

Consider, for instance, the research going on at Shell's Exploration and Production Centre in Houston, according to this BBC article.
They are developing new technologies such as electromagnetic waves to peer through rock and silt for precious reserves of oil thousands of feet below the sea bed.
Like the addict who searches deep within the couch cushions for a few coins -- anything -- to help pay for his addiction.
Geophysicist Rocky Detomo's job is quite simple: to tackle the technologically impossible.
We're so addicted to oil we think we can beat the realities of geology and physics.
"We're looking deeper, we're looking in deeper water, we're looking at deeper depth, we're looking in countries we have never looked before, environments that are very had to get to," [Detomo] says.

"We have to bring all the technology we can to bear to be successful."
It should be clear by now that the US will stop at nothing to get our hands on more oil. Well, that should have been clear on a March night in 2002 when we began an illegal war on false pretenses in a country with some of the world's largest oil reserves.
And then there are submarines.

Roger Anderson, of Columbia University in New York, is working on fitting drills equipped with seismic imaging to submersibles, which could drill miles underground with gyroscopes to orientate themselves towards "the jackpot".

Oil would not need to be brought to the surface - but would be taken straight to shore through pipes across the sea bed.
Gee, I wonder what benthic ecoystems and other affected sea life would think of submarines with huge drill bits dredging up the ocean floor and then miles of pipeline along the seabed itself.
"The reason we're in ultra-deep water is that that's the last frontier," says Mr Anderson.

"We don't go there because we want to. We go there because it's the last place on earth where the elephants live."
As interesting as this technology may be, it's nothing compared to marveling at the persistent sense of inevitability we place on oil consumption. We just have to get more of it. This is like the twilight zone Ockham's Razor, and it makes crystal clear the irony of ridiculous comments like these:
Given all the potential advances, petroleum geologist William Fisher from the University of Texas believes we have a long time to go before any kind of peak emerges.

"Peak oil's been predicted a number of times over the years, and it continually moves forward," he says.

"Even people on the lower end of it increase their estimates over time, because technology and know-how improves. My own sense is that we won't find a peak, and that there will probably be a demand peak that will probably come in 25 or 30 years."
We "won't find" an oil production peak? To call this a delusion would be the Understatement of the Year. The irony begs the question, "If peak oil is so far off, why are we laboring to implement all these chimerical technologies like deep sea drilling, submarines with drill bits (!), tar sands, oil shale, and so forth? You don't dig for coins under the couch cushions if you have a cache of cash in your wallet.

I'll recommend once again Stuart Staniford's "Why peak oil is probably about now" for a primer on the coming oil production peak.