Analysis and rationality in a nonrational world

June 29, 2006

Pollution policy weirdness

Filed under: Energy — analysis @ 8:58 pm

Today’s thought comes to you from an apparently very old and abandoned site called Drivers Central. They talked about the issue of how auto pollution is measured – that is, in percentages. It’s an odd idea when you think about it, because the entire idea of emissions regulation is to reduce the total amount of emissions, not to alter percentages. Global warming does not stop if you get a slightly lower percentage of carbon dioxide created per car, but double the number of cars (though apparently it did slow quite a bit when we stopped relying on coal for heating and moving trains around). Therefore, it would seem the logical approach would be to regulate the total amount of pollutants created per mile travelled.

The outcome of this approach is fascinating, really. Suddenly, SUVs and trucks would need to all satisfy ULEV requirements while cheap economy cars would have barely any emissions apparatus at all, aside from the de rigeur catalytic converter. Cheap cars would become cheaper, while luxury cars, pickups, and SUVs would become more expensive. Minivans would overnight become much more attractive because it would be easier to get them through emissions and cheaper to design and produce them. Best of all, there’s some justice to making the bigger polluters (in absolute terms) pay more of the cost of pollution reduction than those who are barely using any fuel at all.

I’m sure there are problems with this scheme, but none that we couldn’t fix, and it seems more logical than the current mess.

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June 28, 2006

Oil prices again

Filed under: Energy — analysis @ 7:12 pm

Whenever oil prices rise, you can bet that the talking points will go out and those crazy tree-huggers will be blamed, because to people like Ann Coulter, the truth is for other people. It’s hard to fight people like that, because normal citizens assume that if it’s in a book or newspaper, or on TV, or even on a web forum, it’s probably true, and that people would not intentionally lie. Unfortunately, lying has long been a part of public life; the Nazis didn’t invent the Big Lie, but they sure showed immoral people how to use it well. (Not to equate run of the mill American hatemongers and liars with Nazis, but they do share some methods.)

One of the reasons for oil prices rising recently has been speculation over Iran, Nigeria, and Venezuela. The latter country was the subject of an attempted coup by the US, which, not surprisingly, led to some bad feelings over there. Venezuela wants to get more money for its oil, which is hardly a terrible thing; wouldn’t you like the United States to get more money for its exported grain? I’d hope the answer is “yes.”

Bolivia recently nationalized its oil industry and apparently raised its export prices; Venezuela, which owns one major gas company, could do the same with what remains of private oil pumpers in its own borders. That is also driving up the price of oil.

The big factor, though, is really China, the world’s second largest consumer of oil after the United States, and despite all our SUVs and minivans, China is expanding faster in its oil use than the US, and is, like the US, doing whatever it takes to get oil rights across the world. Speculators know that.

Now, the fear-uncertainty-doubt people – those who use the term “tree hugger” and mean it – honestly seem to believe that environmentalists have caused all the oil prices to go up. They honestly believe it when they say that environmentalists capped the oil wells and won’t let oil companies open the wells again. They honestly think it’s horrible to keep that six months’ supply of oil in Alaska all cooped up just because of some spotted owls or something (normally these people are not very good at understanding the real ramifications of oil exploration and exploitation, and the fact that the spotted owl was just the only way to stop a certain area from being over-logged some years back has been rather exaggerated out of proportion. By the way, remember all that anti-environmentalism in the lumber industry, where lumber companies were claiming that the bad tree-huggers were killing American jobs? Those companies happily started moving operations to China when they got a better deal. Jobs meant NOTHING to them.)

Back to the point: oil wells are ONLY capped when they run dry, or at least dry enough to make it uneconomic to drill further. I don’t know of any environmental group that ever got an active well capped. Can you imagine the Sierra Club pushing around Exxon? With George W. Bush in the White House? Seems a bit farfetched when they can’t even get the Federal government to stop giving away national forests to loggers and mining companies.

As for Alaska, knowing what you do about the global security situation, don’t you think it might be nice to have some oil in reserve in case the Arab world turns against the US? Don’t you think serious domestic reserves in case of war would be a nice idea? Doesn’t anyone remember what happened in World War II? The Germans cut off our supplies of a number of key materials; only our cleverness and quite a bit of rationing got us through. In a guerilla war against a real power like North Korea, I suspect we could see some anti-tanker sub action. Be nice to have a pipeline, wouldn’t it?

Once they’re finished on the oil well straw man argument, they start on oil refineries and how environmentalists won’t let any new ones open. That’s baloney – because the oil industry has actually shut down a number of refineries due to financial underperformance (that means not making enough money, rather than losing money). In the 14 years ending in 2000, there was a single application for a new oil refinery and it was quickly approved. Another refinery has been proposed for Arizona; environmentalists have not blocked it, but investors aren’t providing enough money.

The number of refineries is now half of what it was in 1980, because of oil company mergers – not a single one was shut by environmentalists. Do you really think environmentalists would shut down existing facilities when they could be stopping new strip mines from destroying federal wildlife preserves, or trying to stop groundwater contamination across Northwest New Jersey, or any of the other high-priority projects that have come up?

ExxonMobil has plenty of cash for new refineries and wells if they wanted to build them – they bought back $5 billion of stock last year.

The United States currently uses nearly 21 million barrels of gasoline per day. The number of vehicles in the US is increasing faster than its population, and the weight of American vehicles has been increasing rapidly. Americans drove 1.4 trillion more miles in 2004 than in 1980, increasing miles driven by about 90%. Average gas mileage of vehicles has increased less than 5 mpg in over 25 years.

In the Great War, stickers were produced that asked “Is this trip really necessary?” Americans could greatly lower the price of oil by asking the same questions, but we’re in the entitlement society now. Gone is the sense of personal responsibility, replaced by hatred and blame. Point the fingers at tree-hugging environmentalist wackos. Never mind that the Congress, White House, and Supreme Court are now all right-wing controlled and would never dream of following the advice or requests of environmentalists. They’re still somehow in control. Just don’t ask how.

If you want to blame people for high oil prices, start pointing fingers at John Q. Public first, then maybe at China, though they’re just pursuing that American Dream we’ve been selling them. We have seen the enemy, and it is us.

May 31, 2006

The simple list of ways to reduce our reliance on oil

Filed under: Energy — analysis @ 1:36 am

1. Forget corn-based ethanol. It takes too much energy to grow.
2. Heavier taxes on gasoline and petrodiesel (but not biodiesel) to pay for ALL road and bridge building. No more property taxes going for roads!
3. Untaxed biodiesel.
4. Relaxed diesel emissions standards (except for sulfur.)
5. People, for God’s sake, start thinking about power consumption when buying computers, air conditioners, refrigerators, and washing machines.
6. More replacement of incandescent bulbs with fluourescent lights.
7. Fewer lights where they’re not needed.
8. Shut off the lights when you leave the room.
9. 68 degrees and a sweater in winter.
10. Take away the black windows from SUVs and minivans so people can see through them.
11. Require special licenses for vehicles over 4,500 pounds to reduce the number of big SUVs and MPVs.
12. …which will make people feel safer when buying cars, so they buy cars, which get better mileage.
13. More emphasis on population reduction. Fewer people, fewer cars.
14. Buying a house? Get a smaller one, not a bigger one.
15. Central air – more efficient than window units!
16. Insulation
17. SHUT OFF THE FREAKIN’ TELEVISION!!!! In the bar, the restaurant, the department store, the waiting room.
18. LCD screens – $250 now!
19. Laser printers. Use more power when printing, but toner carts last much longer and are less energy intensive overall. They pay for themselves.
20. Use the Energy Saver feature in your computer.
21. Front-loading washing machines. You’d be SHOCKED. Not just 1/3 or less of the water (including HOT water of course) – but also HALF the drying time. Oh, and it’s better for your clothing.

May 12, 2006

Mass transit is the best thing for the hard-core driver

Filed under: Driving, Energy — analysis @ 1:44 pm

Though Americans are always ready to spend billions on highways and bridges, outside of a few sparsely populated states, most of our roads are jam-packed with drivers, day and night, making spirited driving difficult or dangerous; car insurance starts expensive and quickly rises to a small fortune after a ticket or two. Meanwhile, out in Europe, with higher population density, there seem to be a lot more enjoyable highways and byways.

To intensify the irony, European cars are generally small; we Americans, with our many V-8 trucks and V-6 sedans, guzzling fuel, usually cannot achieve the speeds of a lowly Fiat Punto (65 hp) on a French, German, or Northern British road!

One of the funny things in life is that, often, when you do something you think should result in more A, you get less A. When you try to make life easier for drivers, you end up with heavy traffic and bad roads. Indeed, highway planners (the honest ones, at least) have long admitted that traffic increases to fill any available capacity.

To reduce congestion, don’t build highways. Build rails.

To raise highway speeds, don’t add lanes. Add buses.

To make your drive more satisfying, don’t support road building, new bridges, or bypasses. Support mass transit, trolleys, buses, and trains.

To make gasoline cheaper, don’t ask for cuts in the gas tax. Ask for car-pooling lanes, reduced tolls for car pools and buses, and mass transit.

In short, if you want a more satisfying driving experience – support mass transit and car pooling. Anything else leads to a dead end.

Highways cost more than rail or buses in the long term. They must be maintained and repaired regularly. Rail is the cheapest way to move people, once you have put down the tracks. Yet, we have removed many of the tracks that once criss-crossed our land and let us ride from place to place. While our Federal government pours billions into highways and airports, Amtrak is supposed to pay its own way; thus, it is cheaper to drive (or fly) most places than to take the train, in those rare cases when the train still runs. (Ever so slowly, we are building local train systems, and they usually end up with far higher ridership than politicians had predicted.)

In New York City, we have three area airports: one in New Jersey, one in Flushing, and one out beyond Flushing. None are convenient by rail or bus. Ironically, all are NEAR major commuter lines – the subway for both NYC airports and PATH and NJ Transit for Newark Airport. (Newark, for some reason, added a new monorail instead of simply extending PATH. Cheaper in the short run but darned inconvenient and very unreliable compared with PATH!).

The past five decades have seen growth in the need for mass transit in New York City – and a decline in the number of subway lines. The past three decades have seen almost no expansion of the subway system. Even when they changed the system to allow more than one ride per swipe (replacing the tokens), they did not add trains to carry the extra load.

When we compare the United States to European nations, we find a major difference in attitude. Here, where everyone is an individualist with freedom of choice, we usually cannot “choose” to live without a car. In Europe, where gasoline is unsubsidized (or less subsidized), there are more options. Most people can live without a car; the buses run frequently, there are more options for paying fares, and there are trains heading out to rural areas. Many more people feel free to have no car. Ironically, the “more free” Americans find themselves without as many choices as the government-controlled West Europeans.

The true motoring enthusiast does not enjoy sitting in bumper to bumper traffic. A single bus can carry 30-60 people, enough to take 30-60 cars off the road. A single train can carry hundreds or thousands of commuters. Put enough trains and buses out there, and the driver can start using their engines again. The only down-side is that those who own a Toyota Prius will see their gas mileage fall by 10 mpg with the increase in speed, but that’s a small price to pay.

May 10, 2006

Blame for high energy prices

Filed under: Energy — analysis @ 12:36 pm

It was pointed out to me recently that China is buying up all the energy resources it can, dealing with even oppressive regimes (like Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iran, former-Iraq, and Syria?) to establish a foot-hold. Of course today China uses, per capita, a fraction of the energy of the US, but they’d like to establish a different balance.

I thought I’d go around and list some areas where I see massive wastes of energy today…

(Technorati Profile)

1. School fliers – our school doesn’t believe in putting more than one item on each single-sided page. There are fliers that have ten or twenty words. My favorite: Cinquo de Mayo will be held on May 5. I bet next year, the Fourth of July will be on July 4!

2. Cars. Well, duh, and yes, I’m guilty. After years of driving efficient cars – 38 mpg Corolla, 35 mpg Neon, etc., – I regressed and got a sorta-kinda-minivan, the PT Cruiser, with a stick-shift. 22 city, 27 highway in my case. But then, that’s far better than the average American, who commutes with a Suburban, Explorer, etc., getting even lower mileage and carrying a single person around. I got this for the cargo/passenger space – and it still gets better mileage than any minivan or large SUV. Most SUV buyers buy ’em for the image, not the utility, which for most SUV buyers is no more than a minivan (OK, an AWD minivan for those in the Snow Belt.) Not my opinion – market research. Same goes for big pickups, which are even more wasteful than big SUVs. Mind, I don’t have a problem with muscle cars – at least there you’re getting something for the fuel spent.

3. TVs. Every pizzeria, every waiting room, every store needs lots and lots of TVs, blaring all the time, using up scads of power. Department stores like to have displays with dozens of TVs all at once.

4. Lights. They stay on.

5. Computers. As AMD says, the power wasted by inefficient servers can light entire cities. Me? I got a Mac Mini that uses a peak of 60 watts, but normally uses less than half that. Also, an LCD monitor. At least in the land of computers, I’m energy efficient. But even with standard machines, most people and institutions don’t shut ’em off or let them sleep. I went around and changed settings on each computer in my daughter’s school but they got changed back, and the password was changed so I couldn’t do it any more. So we have about 50 computers running 24 hours a day, and being used 2 hours a day. They ONLY buy Windows machines for some reason (hint: the guy who gets paid for maintenance makes the purchasing decisions), so that’s about 300 watts per machine x 50 x 24 hours. Server farms … have many energy efficient choices now that save power directly, and also save air conditioning (through lower heat.)

6. Unnecessary trips. I biked to the bank today, I work at home, I don’t go out to the mall as recreation. I don’t spend a lot on gas, can you tell? Not everyone can get away with that. Most people can however save trips. If we had a leader in the White House we’d be saving tons more energy just by following the WWII slogan, “is this trip really necessary?”

7. Plastic crap. Toys for tots, gadgets for guys, etc., etc. Takes energy to make, ship, and dispose of, and adds to landfills. Just say no to crap. Kids grow up MORE healthy with a small number of good toys than with a large number of lousy ones. (Psychological research, not opinion).

8. Alternative energy. Yup, I’m paying extra to support wind and solar power (and methane recovery from landfills.) I can afford $5 a month for that.

9. Night football games. Darn, those lights cost the town a lot of money in energy!

10. Landscapers/lawn folk. Yes, they drive me crazy. Everything is gas powered, and they spend hours raising huge clouds of dust to move six leaves to one pile, making noise like an airport while they do it. None of those gas powered gadgets are designed for efficiency, as far as I can tell, and they’re largely unregulated in terms of pollution, noise, and gas mileage. For God’s sake, people, get a freakin’ reel mower and pay a kid to mow your lawn if you can’t do it yourself. I was shocked by the state of reel mowers today. Buy the second-cheapest (NOT the cheapest) from Sears and you get a lightweight, sturdy, self-sharpening mowing machine that’s quiet, efficient, EASY to use, and apparently never needs to be repaired. It takes less time to mow and it self-fertilizes. Oh, and it’s cheaper than a power mower of similar quality, never needs gas, and can go for ten years without a tune-up.

11. Buying stuff made in China. Support an oligarchy with a lousy human rights record, while spending all that fuel to ship it here and destroy our balance of payments. Doesn’t make sense to me but I have to admit like just about everyone else, I end up with lots of stuff made in China because sometimes there’s no choice (or no indication). Wal-Mart, by the way, is probably the worst place to shop if you disagree with “communist” China’s nasty ways. Of if you love America (or Canada) since our economy cannot survive a continued and ever-larger trade debt to China; Wal-Mart has been accused by companies of practically forcing them to move factories to China (as in telling them if they did not, they would lose the world’s largest retailer as a distributor).

12. Bad technologies – using write-once CDs or DVDs for backup, buying lots of floppies, non-rechargeable batteries (purchased by the score), etc. You’re paying one way or another for those. Unfortunately this country doesn’t believe in taxing according to real cost, so you pay a fixed tax for garbage collection (in most towns) and the other costs of getting rid of rubbish and toxic waste are hidden in other tax bills. Make less trash, pay less cash – in the long run. The sensible way would be to put a surcharge onto disposable batteries, razors, etc. to make those who make the trash pay the cash. (The same goes for roads – I believe ALL road building should be paid for by gas taxes.)

13. Driving to work when it’s not needed. I take the bus when I go to the city – the bus carries up to 60 people (as I recall) who would all be driving an individual car. That’s about 90 gallons of gas saved in a short trip for a single bus. (Of course not all are full but you get the idea.)

14. Excessive heating and cooling – that just came to mind from ritzy hotels. They like rooms to be 90 degrees in winter so you’ll be impressed by how they spend your money, I guess.

That’s all I have time for. I guess you could think of a dozen more. But you know, I know I’m not perfect. I try to reduce my impact. But I don’t think you can really complain about high fuel bills if you’re not trying to reduce – those who have Expeditions shouldn’t throw stones. It’s not ONLY a political problem, it’s largely supply and demand. The Alaskan oil reserves would be good for about six months of full American demand; and then it would be gone forever leaving us with nothing (and by the way, we’d sell it to Japan in all likelihood!). What’s more, though they belong to the US government, I doubt much of the cash would flow back into the Treasury. Likewise, I have no time for conspiracy theories telling me that environmentalists have caused the energy prices to spike. Intelligent conservatives know that’s a load of rubbish. Environmentalists have darned little power, and there’s a finite supply of oil going against an ever increasing demand with China and India both coming into the energy age. So I’m not in the mood to hear that. The rest of the world will have no sympathy for our gas prices as long as we’re using double what most people do, and I don’t see why we expect them to. Bring down our energy usage, and then I think we can all talk.

The liberal tree-huggers did it

Filed under: Energy, Government — analysis @ 12:36 pm

Here is what I’ve been told: Democrats and environmentalists (collectively known as the “liberal tree-huggers,” or “Hollywood hypocrites” or, simply, “Easterners” though Hollywood is, I think, out West) caused the shortage of gas in two ways: by not letting oil companies drill in the US, and by not allowing new refineries to be made.

Here is what Bill Cawthon said: “There has been no new refinery construction in the U.S. since 1976. In fact, according to testimony presented to Congress in September 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency received only one application for construction of a new refinery from 1975 to 2000.”

Hmmm.

Also, of course, there are the capped oil wells, which I’m told were shut down by environmentalists. Well, it’s true that in the Alaskan wildlife refuge and some offshore areas, environmentalists and others DID manage to stop drilling. On the other hand, Alaskan oil largely goes to Japan, and there are only six months’ supply there anyway. Rather than burning it quickly in our SUVs, perhaps we SHOULD be saving that for future use – you know, in case of war or national emergency or something. And, just to remind everyone, a wildlife refuge is a refuge for wildlife, not a great big corporate bonanza area.

Traditionally, the government has not profited much from mining or drilling on Federal lands; indeed, it often costs us quite a bit. I don’t recall anyone offering us a fair profit from Alaska; it’s a gimme, gimme situation. Even if I was for drilling there, I wouldn’t approve of the economic terms.

As for the capped oil wells, they cap oil wells when they run dry. Of course they are not completely dry; it’s just not worth the money to squeeze out the remaining oil at today’s prices. I am sure that, no matter what the Sierra Club says, and I really don’t see them objecting to opening up already-used oil fields again, if the price of oil climbs enough to make it worthwhile, those wells will be re-opened.

Dare I even get into the usual tired arguments about the liberal press (you know, like Rupert Murdoch’s Fox / newspaper chains) which is now so afraid of appearing liberal (save for the NY Times editorial section and Boston Globe) that it’s bent far in the other direction, or about how liberals are running the country even though last time I looked, neocons ran the White House, Congress, Senate, judiciary, and all government agencies? No, there’s no point, I won’t convince anyone who isn’t willing to stop and think, but just parrots some lying pundit on the TV (and yes, there are some who lie without compunction) or some improbable e-mail hoax or gets really upset over something blown way out of proportion (like singing the Star-Spangled Banner in Spanish, y’know, like George W Bush did when he was campaigning … or like some store not putting out a model of the baby Jesus at Christmas … or like a cashier saying “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas.”) Anyway, that’s all besides the point. I feel pretty safe in believing that we do have a finite supply of oil with increasing demand from China and India as well as the United States itself, and as long as people continue to act as though there IS an infinite supply, we will continue to run up against the wall now and then, prices will adjust until demand goes down or supply goes up, and off we go, like we have no memory at all. Which we really don’t, since people are using the same tired arguments now that they always did. (By the way, in one comment that was accidentally erased, I was told Fox News must be right because they’re the most popular news channel. Following that logic, communism must be right because there are more people in Communist China than the US, Danielle Steele must be a better writer than John Steinbeck, Ford must be better than Dodge, and Access must be better than FileMaker or MySQL.)

I don’t really know where some people get the idea that oil is inexhaustible. Nothing is available in infinite supply, though I will admit we have more sea-water than we will ever be able to use, since it isn’t particularly useful.

Of course, there’s always nuclear power. That can work out well for companies that figure out a way to shift the burden of paying for the plants and the security and the waste disposal to the taxpayer without letting them know. It’s hardly a perfect solution, though, given the problems of security (think about suicide terrorists aiming small planes into that nice protective dome – those of us who know how poisonous plutonium is, quite aside from the radiation, will understand the problem that poses) and long-term disposal of nuclear wastes, and the headaches they give ethical powerplant folk, who care about safety, not to mention the fact that a uranium shortage is not unlikely given Chinese interest in nuclear power as well as oil and gas.

The most economical solution is using less, pure and simple. But our cars use the same gas they used in 1980, on average – rather shameful given the technological changes that happened at the same time, such as solid-state computer controls, sequential multiple port fuel injection, 5-speed automatics, materials technology advances, direct injection, coil on plug ignition, etc., etc.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, anyone who drove a big car was laughed at for having a boat. That’s the way people thought. Maybe today we should de-cool the Navigators, Suburbans, and, yes, the 300Cs, and start to play up the coolness of the Calibers, ‘rollas, and SRT-4s.

(By the way, I’m still waiting for a public apology or at least an admission of wrong-thinking from the people who insisted we have a shortage of oil because environmentalists blocked the construction of refineries.)

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