The environment is once again under attack by the US government, this time in a foolish and futile gesture to appease voters who are justifiably angry about high gas prices. In a move destined to have no effect whatsoever on gasoline prices in the near term, and possibly ever, President Bush just lifted the Executive ban on offshore drilling. This ban was actually imposed by the Presidents’s father. A story from Reuters (via Yahoo!News) by Jeremy Pelofsky and Tom Doggett describes the President’s action as

a largely symbolic move unlikely to have any short-term impact on high gasoline costs.

Of course, off-shore drilling isn’t the only forbidden activity that President Bush has just approved- he also approved drilling of 4400 wells in Wyoming and related energy mining activities on Federal land formerly protected by a large number of environmental regulations. In “Heedless Rush to Oil Shale” by Democratic Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado writes in the Washington Post:

Bush and his fellow oil shale boosters claim that if only Western communities would stand aside, energy companies could begin extracting more than 500 billion barrels of recoverable oil from domestic shale deposits. If only the federal government immediately offered even more public lands for development, the technology to extract oil from rock would suddenly ripen, oil supplies would rise and gas prices would fall.

If only.

Since the 19th century, we in the West have been trying to extract oil from the vast oil shale riches that lie under our feet. It is no easy task, and past efforts have failed miserably. Commercial oil shale development would require not only immense financial investments but also an undetermined quantity of (scarce) water from the Colorado River basin and the construction of several multibillion-dollar power plants.

Sometimes it seems that we are getting close to overcoming these barriers. But each time we near a boom, we bust. The last bust, the infamous “Black Sunday” of 1982, left Western communities holding the bill long after the speculators, Beltway boosters and energy companies had taken off.

Senator Salazar goes on to add:

The governors of Wyoming and Colorado, communities and editorial boards across the West agree that the administration’s headlong rush is a terrible idea. Even energy companies, including Chevron, have said we need to proceed more cautiously on oil shale. With more than 30,000 acres of public land at their disposal to conduct research, development and demonstration projects (in addition to 200,000 undeveloped acres of private oil shale lands they own in Colorado and Utah), they already have more land than they can develop in the foreseeable future.

So why is the president hurrying to sell leases for commercial oil shale development in the West’s great landscapes? A fire sale will not lower gas prices. It will not accelerate the development of commercial oil shale technologies.

Senator Salazar continues by saying that he supports the idea of developing technology for removing shale oil in a commercially feasible manner, something I would not be in favor of relative to solar and wind power, but he concludes that Federal land is being given away for no logical reason- not even the oil companies are making any promises about if and when shale oil from the Western US will become a viable commodity.

Returning to the subject of off-shore drilling, I think that this policy change will be considerably more than symbolic to the environment, even if it is only symbolic with regard to our national energy crisis. The construction of drilling platforms and the potential for oil spills, ruined beaches and dead fish and birds may well dwarf the wreck of the Exxon Valdez on March 23. 1989. Let’s hope not, but let’s also remember that the Exxon Valdez spill broke many Federal laws and some prosecution resulted (although, as shown below, the Supreme Court recently protected Exxon from significant financial punishment). The President and his corporate friends should be held to strict environmental standards that they haven’t done well in following, historically: if President Bush’s close friends in the oil industry keep up their poor track record of environmental protection and cause serious damage, they should be prosecuted.

In case some of the details of the Exxon Valdez case may need to be reviewed, here are a few worthwhile quotes and links to the original sources. In a case the went to the Supreme court and was resolved in June of 2008, Adam Liptak of The New York Times reported on June 26, 2008 that (note, you may have to sign up for a free registration to set the Times article)

The Supreme Court on Wednesday reduced what had once been a $5 billion punitive damages award against Exxon Mobil to about $500 million. The ruling essentially concluded a legal saga that started when the Exxon Valdez, a supertanker, struck a reef and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into the Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989.

From alternet.org:

The spilled oil — somewhere between 11 to 38 million gallons (the figure is elusive because as we learned the hard way, the truth was one of the first casualties of the spill) — created a big mess and broke a lot of federal laws. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Exxon paid $2.5 billion for its cleanup and another $1 billion for penalties. But, it might surprise people who live outside Alaska to learn that taxpayers, not Exxon, paid a majority of that bill. Exxon recouped most of its remaining expense from its insurance companies and from money it paid to settle damages for natural resources — publicly-owned wildlife and lands.

From the State of Alaska and the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council:

The Exxon Valdez spill, though still one of the largest ever in the U.S., has dropped from the top 50 internationally. However, it is widely considered the number one spill worldwide in terms of damage to the environment. The timing of the spill, the remote and spectacular location, the thousands of miles of rugged and wild shoreline, and the abundance of wildlife in the region combined to make it an environmental disaster well beyond the scope of other spills. Much has been accomplished over the years to prevent another Exxon Valdez-type accident. See the Spill Prevention and Response section of this website.

For more information about the environmental impact, case studies, legal history and science of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, this time from NOAA (the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration of the US Department of Commerce), see here.

Getting back to Monday’s decision by President Bush and the Reuters story by Pelofsky and Dogget,

With prices at the pump over $4 a gallon, Bush pushed the Democratic-controlled Congress to expand offshore oil and natural gas drilling and give companies access to the Arctic Wildlife National Refuge despite fierce opposition from environmentalists.

However,

Democratic leaders in Congress and environmentalists immediately condemned the move as having have no short-term impact on soaring oil prices.

Of further note, from Reuters:

Democratic White House hopeful Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign quickly condemned the move. “It would merely prolong the failed energy policies we have seen from Washington for 30 years,” spokesman Bill Burton said.

and

Republican White House contender Sen. John McCain, who reversed his previous opposition to offshore drilling, told reporters that he thought the decision was a “very important signal” and that “states should continue to decide.”

Meanwhile, Japan, Germany, Spain, China and many other countries are cornering the market on fuel efficient cars, plug-in electric hybrid vehicles, solar power installations, wind power installations, and manufacturing plants required for producing solar panels, while the U.S. is left in the position of having many innovative companies but no significant tax support or other incentives to reduce our dependence on oil.

This latest act of poor judgment by the President is typical of his actions, where he has consistently fought and overturned environmental protections and the White House has ordered officials to ignore science and the environment in favor of big business. Some of these orders have come from Vice President Cheney’s office, though he has been stealthy while interfering with the EPA and other agencies. For a 2007 report on the Vice President’s role in hampering EPA efforts, see the Washington Post article “Leaving no Tracks” by Jo Becker and Barton Gellman:

Law and science seemed to be on the side of the fish. Then the vice president stepped in.

First Cheney looked for a way around the law, aides said. Next he set in motion a process to challenge the science protecting the fish, according to a former Oregon congressman who lobbied for the farmers.

Because of Cheney’s intervention, the government reversed itself and let the water flow in time to save the 2002 growing season, declaring that there was no threat to the fish. What followed was the largest fish kill the West had ever seen, with tens of thousands of salmon rotting on the banks of the Klamath River.

Characteristically, Cheney left no tracks.

It is long overdue for the USA to develop a reasonable and sustainable energy policy that will diminish our dependence of oil, introduce sustainable energy and transportation on a large scale, and do so without damaging or adding threats to our health or environment. It is long overdue to rein in the the current administration’s reign of international policy, environmental, and financial disasters.

Original text copyright © 2008 James K. Bashkin

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Volkswagen announced the Golf Twin Drive Concept, a step toward a diesel plug-in hybrid. Jalopnik.com reports that the concept car runs in electric-only mode up to 30 miles, using an electric motor that makes 82 hp. In addition, there’s a 2.0 liter 122 hp turbodiesel. The two engines combine for 174 hp. Regenerative braking to charge the batteries, engine turns off while stopped in traffic- the benefits of many good technologies. Only particulates from diesel exhaust remain a concern, but most people will run off the battery most of the time, given the short distance of the average car trip and the ability to charge the battery from the braking system. Volkswagen will work with the German government on a fleet of 20 Twin Drive Golfs for 2010. Much clean electricity is available in Germany from Wind and Solar power stations. No plans to export to the US at this time. Why don’t we request it?

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PINEDALE, WYO. — As reported by the L.A. Times, Federal land managers are recommending companies be allowed to drill almost 4,400 new natural gas wells in western Wyoming, where energy development already is blamed for a spike in air and water pollution. Shell, Ultra Resources and Questar want to relax drilling restrictions meant to protect wildlife “so they can tap into an estimated 20-25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. That’s equivalent to about a year’s supply for the entire country.”

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The website 1sky.org reports that

Congress is now deciding which federal programs will be funded in 2009. Among those programs are the Green Jobs Act, which would invest $125 million in green-collar job training programs, and the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant, which would authorize grants to local communities to help improve their energy efficiency and increase renewable energy. Now we must make sure that Members of Congress keep their promise and fully fund these programs.

If you wish to write to Congress to voice your support for Green Jobs and Grants, this link will help.

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As reported by Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post, new regulations in Europe about the use of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals are affecting US manufacturers, if those manufacturers want to maintain exports to European countries. It is no surprise that the Bush administration and US chemical manufacturers oppose these new laws, which require companies to determine the safety of chemicals and materials before they can be used. This approach is contrary to US practice, where the harmful nature of a chemical must be demonstrated before the substance is regulated or banned.

The laws also call for the European Union to create a list of “substances of very high concern” — those suspected of causing cancer or other health problems. Any manufacturer wishing to produce or sell a chemical on that list must receive authorization.

In the United States, laws in place for three decades have made banning or restricting chemicals extremely difficult. The nation’s chemical policy, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, grandfathered in about 62,000 chemicals then in commercial use. Chemicals developed after the law’s passage did not have to be tested for safety. Instead, companies were asked to report toxicity information to the government, which would decide if additional tests were needed.

In more than 30 years, the Environmental Protection Agency has required additional studies for about 200 chemicals, a fraction of the 80,000 chemicals that are part of the U.S. market. The government has had little or no information about the health hazards or risks of most of those chemicals.

The changes in Europe are welcomed (by me) and many consumer and environmental groups:

The European Union’s tough stance on chemical regulation is the latest area in which the Europeans are reshaping business practices with demands that American companies either comply or lose access to a market of 27 countries and nearly 500 million people.

From its crackdown on antitrust practices in the computer industry to its rigorous protection of consumer privacy, the European Union has adopted a regulatory philosophy that emphasizes the consumer. Its approach to managing chemical risks, which started with a trickle of individual bans and has swelled into a wave, is part of a European focus on caution when it comes to health and the environment.

What a novel idea: that regulatory agencies should protect the consumer and not giant corporations. Not all corporations in the US are protesting: Apple computer has already responded with its MacBook Air, which exceeds projected European standards for the use of toxic materials, quite a feat for a computer, especially in the early stages of these regulatory changes. However,

The EPA has banned only five chemicals since 1976. The hurdles are so high for the agency that it has been unable to ban asbestos, which is widely acknowledged as a likely carcinogen and is barred in more than 30 countries. Instead, the EPA relies on industry to voluntarily cease production of suspect chemicals.

“If you ask people whether they think the drain cleaner they use in their homes has been tested for safety, they think, ‘Of course, the government would have never allowed a product on the market without knowing it’s safe,’ ” said Richard Denison, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. “When you tell them that’s not the case, they can’t believe it.”

This is an excellent article about welcome changes. With the globalization of commerce, US companies will likely be forced to adopt new standards even if US lawmakers and regulatory agencies continue to lag far behind Europe. New legislation along the lines of the European laws has been introduced by the Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, but it may take a long time for Congress to respond. U.S. Companies will not have the luxury of waiting much longer.

Please understand that I am not in any way “anti-chemical” or anti-industry or anti-US: I don’t expect or hope for “organic computers,” using the common consumer definition of “organic,” nor do I expect to find “all-natural cell phones.” I have worked in the U.S. chemical industry (in the past) and believe that modern society has benefited tremendously from many contributions of the the chemical industry. However, I also believe that transparency is vital for a functioning democracy, and that, once potential problems are discovered with products or ingredients, it is important to assess the risk. I don’t expect us to maintain a lifestyle similar to what has evolved in developed countries without some risk- there just isn’t a free lunch in any area of human endeavor. However, the ignorance of toxic or other deleterious properties of chemicals that may have helped cause their enthusiastic adoption by industry and consumers has long been replaced with hard data on health problems, at least in some cases and for some chemicals. Other chemicals are quite safe, and many other cases remain under-examined. Furthermore, it has become increasingly clear in recent years that there is more than one kind of risk to assess: acute risk due to contact or exposure to a substance, and chronic risk when that substance is introduced into the environment and the food chain. Persistent bio-accumulators, or molecules that are not metabolized, but instead accumulate in increasing amounts as one moves up the food chain, can have serious health consequences. These consequences are caused by estrogen-like behavior in some cases. Similar issues exist with inorganic elements like lead and arsenic from consumer electronic goods that are introduced into landfill, and that leach out into groundwater. Consumers and environmentalists, both groups I belong to, should be aware that these harmful inorganic elements are completely natural, as are uranium and other substances we don’t want to ingest.

While it is important for industry to find safe replacements for many current materials or chemicals in use, it is also important for consumers to recycle electronics (TV’s cell phones, computers, etc.) properly, so that the component materials can be recovered and re-used and kept out of ground water. This recycling should be free to the consumer, subsidized by manufacturers and retail chains, as Best Buy has recently started doing in the US. Of course, the cost will be passed on to the consumer, but that is one of the choices we have to face: do we want to continue poisoning our children or will we

  • use cell phones, etc. for longer periods of time rather than treating them as disposable items
  • refuse to pay a little more for greener, safer technology?

Let’s make choices that protect consumers and the environment while allowing industry to fluorish.

Original text copyright © 2008 James K. Bashkin

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Several recent articles have indicated the impact that gas costs are having on lifestyles. Two related articles were reported in recent posts at this site, “How to Find the Cheapest Gas Price in Your Area“and “Plug-In Hybrid Leads Toyota’s Drive Beyond Oil“. In The Demise of the RV, Eric Fry reports for Rude Awakening on the disappearance of the once-ubiquitous Winnebago and its close cousins from American roadways:

“I never would have bought [my motor home] if I thought that gas would go this high,” a retired firefighter in Westchester County told the Hudson Valley’s Journal News. “My wife always wanted to go to Napa Valley,” the firefighter lamented. “But with gas so high, it probably would be cheaper to fly and rent a car, rather than take the motor home.”

The firefighter is probably right. We did the math:

Assuming gas mileage of 10 miles to the gallon, a 31-foot motor home would consume about $2,500 worth of gasoline to journey from the Hudson Valley to the Napa Valley, and back again. By comparison, two roundtrip plane tickets from JFK to San Francisco would run about $375 each. Even after paying another $450 to rent a midsized car for a week, the fly/drive combo would only cost about $1,200 – or less than half the cost of the RV’s gas.

At the same site, Dan Amoss offers stock trading advice related to the weakest recreational vehicle (RV) companies. (Note: I do not offer or endorse any financial advice related to the stock market):

For most of the last three decades, oil prices have been low, the economy has been expanding and motor home sales have been soaring. RV sales have been trending up for nearly three decades, but there are many reasons to expect a huge decline in 2008-2009.

The posts wraps up with questions and a request for comments from Joel Bowman of Rude Awakening:

Is the high oil price the greatest threat to market stability in the months ahead? How bout the financial fiasco that has rocked Wall Street to the core? Or, perhaps it’s political incompetence? We’d like to hear your thoughts on the market’s greatest risk and, if you can see a way out, your ideas on how to play the downward trend to your favor.

On a related note, the recent article from Lyneka Little of MainStreet.com reports that “Rising Gas Prices are Hurting Nonprofits“. I heard a related story on NPR by Kate Archer.

This situation is clearly seen in nonprofit food delivery programs to homebound seniors such as Meals On Wheels. In these programs, oft-time volunteers deliver meals to the elderly, typically by driving—and paying for the gas—their own vehicles. Nowadays, volunteers are finding it harder to fund the delivery.

The MOWAA has seen a 58% loss in volunteers due to the gas prices alone. Dealing with the loss of volunteers, “our programs have to cut back on everything,” says Enid Borden, President and CEO of Meals On Wheels Association of America. Now, “sometimes volunteers are only able to go out once a week or once every other week,” says Borden.

The one meal a day can turn into no meals a day or a meal and frozen dinners for additional days. Now 4 out of 10 seniors sit on a wait list hoping to be one of the million to receive a warm meal.

Other effects are seen from the general economic downturn, as former corporate donors have either gone bankrupt or simply don’t have any funds to make their typical donations:

Citymeals-on-Wheels, which serves New York’s homebound elderly, knows this firsthand. While donor contribution is up by 13%, Citymeals has been hit by a decline in the high-end sector and in special events. Bear Stearns (BSC) was a major donor for the organization, and Citymeals has lost $500,000 in charitable contributions since that firm went under, says Marcia Stein, executive director of Citymeals. “To lose a half a million dollars in the last quarter of the year, that was very tough, and that’s money that will not come back,” says Stein. “It’ll take many years to recover.”

In order to contribute to Meals on Wheels or Citymeals-on-Wheels, please visit the following websites: Meals on Wheels Association of America and Citymeals-On-Wheels. Thanks to Lyneka Little for highlighting this problem in her article.

Do you have any stories of your own about the effects of gas prices on your summer plans or lifestyle that you would like to share? If so, please add them to the comments. Thanks and best wishes, Jim

Copyright © 2008 James K. Bashkin

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By BASHARAT SHAH, MD, published on eHow.

Fuel prices may vary from station to station. But, there is a way of knowing which gas station is selling gas cheapest (other than, of course, roaming through the whole town). So, before you hit the road to fill in your tank, follow these steps to learn how to find the best gas deal in your town.

To use just the internet (more sophisticated methods are also described):

Log on to http://www.gasbuddy.com. Enter your zip code. Gasbuddy uses google maps to display the results of most gas stations located in your area. You may also drag the map to see prices in surrounding areas. Gasbuddy also gives you the list of gas station in the order of low to high gas prices. The best thing about gasbuddy is that you have access to it even while you are on the road. Just text a message to the number with the zip code you are driving in and you will receive an automated text message giving you the list of top 5 cheapest gas stations close to you.

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An article about the release of Toyota’s plug in Hybrid scheduled for release in 2010:

It’s no secret Toyota’s been working on a plug-in hybrid to compete against the forthcoming Chevrolet Volt, but Wednesday’s announcement sets a firm deadline and makes it clear Toyota has no plans of ceding the green mantle to General Motors. It also underscores how quickly the race to build a viable mass-market electric car is heating up.

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Nigel Hunt of Reuters reports that

Corn prices rose to record highs on Monday and looked set to climb further as torrential rains threatened to reduce further U.S. crop prospects in a market already facing tight supplies and surging demand.

Strong demand for corn from U.S. biofuel producers has contributed to supply tightness in the corn market. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has forecast about a third of this year’s crop will be consumed by the biofuel sector.

“I am still very bullish. I think $7, $8, $9 corn is well within reach,” said Commerzbank analyst Edward Hands.

Unfortunately, the combination of a foolish corn ethanol program with rising gas prices and rising transportation costs are all conspiring to drive up the price of food. With the additional effects of the recent heavy storms and rain in the Midwest, including flooding in some areas and frequent tornadoes, corn prices are skyrocketing. One simple action that should be taken immediately is to halt all corn ethanol subsidies and programs, so that food and fuel are no longer in competition with each other.

Original text copyrighted © 2008 James K. Bashkin

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Addendum. Devastated US corn crop sends ethanol producer shares into freefall.” The Associated Press reported the following financial news:

The values of ethanol producers hemorrhaged Thursday as the price of their key feedstock, corn, climbed to record levels because U.S. floods have devasted this year’s crop.

“In the last 10 days the world has changed in the corn market with massive flooding causing irreparable damage to this year’s crop and pushing corn prices up $1 over this time frame,” Citi Investment Research analyst David C. Driscoll wrote in a client note.

“As a result of this unprecedented weather event which has happened only twice in the last 25 years, ethanol margins have plummeted over the same ten day time span with small and mid size ethanol producers now running at substantial losses against cash costs.”

He expects such small and mid-sized producers to halt operations.

Unfortunately, these financial and farming problems will increase food prices in the near term, but they may help lower food prices in future growing seasons, as long as the corn ethanol producers stay shut down. Repeal of the tax credits for corn ethanol would help keep corn ethanol from once again driving food prices up.

Original text copyrighted © 2008 James K. Bashkin

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Diesel used to be cheaper than gas (petrol) in the U.S., but now it’s more expensive. Matthew L. Wald of the New York Times analyzes and explains why diesel’s price is rising in the article “So You Think Gas Costs A Lot?“. Basically, it comes down to demand, and the demand for diesel is rising fast, but there are many other complicating factors for diesel, and Wald reports several interesting aspects of this complexity, including

  • the increased production of ethanol was also pushing up diesel prices by offsetting some of the need for gasoline, because as refiners make less gasoline they produce less diesel
  • Terry Slocum, director of the energy program at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization founded by Ralph Nader, said the problem was that the oil industry, despite record profits, had not invested enough in refining capacity for diesel fuel. “There’s really no excuse why we’ve got this shortage of capacity, which in turn is driving prices far higher than for gasoline,” he said.

So, we learn of yet another way that ethanol production harms the US and global consumer. However, if you factor in the better gas mileage of modern diesel engines vs. gasoline engines, diesel is still a better deal according to Jim Henry of BusinessWeek Online. Furthermore, according to Wald,

Shifting to diesel engines had been promoted as one way to save oil and meet coming fuel economy standards; because diesel engines operate at higher cylinder pressures, they deliver more power for each B.T.U. of energy they use (and each gallon has more B.T.U.’s than gasoline).

Unfortunately, the advantages of diesel are shrinking as the cost of diesel fuel increases, making recent advances in diesel efficiency even more important. It is also relatively recent that high mpg diesel cars have been able to meet emissions standards in all 50 US states, though more such cars are on the way (see here for 60 mpg). In order to provide sufficient power, many modern diesel cars use a turbo engine design. Some diesel cars are reported to reach over 100 mpg, though these tend not to be production models and may not meet the toughest U.S. emission standards.

A comparison of the design and convenience of diesel and gas car engines is given by Simon Byholm in “Diesel Or Gas – Loud Smoking Dinosaur Or Fuel Gulping Monster“. In spite of the impressive efficiency of diesel engines and their improved emissions, a few environmental concerns remain. Diesel is still a carbon-based fuel, for one, so CO2 emissions still occur when diesel fuel is burned. There is another emission to be concerned about with diesel fuel, however: small particulates. You’ll recognize the particulates, and how real an issue they are, from the black smoke that is a familiar sight in the wake of diesel-powered cars and trucks.

So, we can be excited about the advent of high mpg, relatively low-priced turbodiesel cars for the US market like the upcoming JettaBlue from VW, but I wonder about the severity of health problems from diesel smoke and the relative cost of diesel and gas in the future. Certainly, improved fuel efficiency is something to celebrate while we wait for even greener options, like plug-in electric hybrid vehicles, to show up in US dealerships.

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James K. Bashkin © 2008

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