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Energy independence in Murkin terms

by kevinearllynch Sat Nov 11th, 2006 at 02:42:32 PM EST

I wish you people here at EuroTrib would be a little more constructive about, rather than accusative, this topic. Certainly there are some troubles with current biofuel plans. Mainly, the fact that it takes serious petrofertilizers consumption to make corn ethanol. But the liquid fuel problem will not go away! Like as not, the USA still needs over-the-road trucking to get goods to the market, and most people will refuse to give up their autos in the short term. We aren't going to get nuclear powered cars, trucks, and commercial shipping any time soon! What would you suggest as a solution? Personally, I think a biodeisel/electric hybrid engine for personal and commercial transport should be a priority for the next 20 years, with an emphasis on rail and river transport to replace trucks. Then on getting people redensifying their population and having light rail reduce reliance on cars. But this is a LONG term solution, and will need a LOT of selling to make it seem reasonable to your average Murkin.
Now, give me a better idea or stop telling me how hopeless we in the USA are


You have to understand that the Bush administration has, on the whole, been openly hostile towards environmental measures. In the mean while, the press has delighted in saying 'although Bush is a disaster for the environment on a whole and the greens hate him for it, the (divisive) environmental policy xyz he's proposing is actually not bad at all. Environmentalists need to get behind Bush on this policy. If only they would be reasonable...'

It doesn't work that way. First, this is getting lame by now. All Bush has shown himself to be interested in is corporate welfare, which is one of the least efficient ways to promote the environment. Second, a lot of environmental policies are related in many ways. We don't need to be balanced about Bush, because on balance, he's a disaster. A little make-up on one policy cannot make up for retreat or non-action on another.

So each new Bush environmental policy needs to be approached carefully, and with a concealed weapon.

If we have this clear, we can talk about the American way of life myth, what policies will be politically feasible, etcetera.

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Sat Nov 11th, 2006 at 04:32:21 PM EST
Very good, Nanne

you managed to post a comment about my diary without once considering what I put in it. I live in St Louis Missour USA, so there is no way that I'm ignorant of the GWB policy on anything. Simply put, I laid out my personal ideas about how the USA could curb it's appetite for petroleum and asked the Europeans here to either give me better ideas or quit griping about how clueless we "Americans" are.

please, feel free not to miss the point next time


by kevinearllynch (mr_kevinlynch@sbcglobal.net) on Sat Nov 11th, 2006 at 04:42:04 PM EST
without once considering what I put in it

You didn't put much in it, frankly. nanne was courteous enough to write a full comment. You should thank him instead of telling him you know everything already.

Oh, right, and <sigh...>, I'm quite ready to give up saying anything whatever about the United States.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sat Nov 11th, 2006 at 04:51:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Hi Kevin, I'm originally from near St. Louis. (Alton).  Glad to see you here.  

You've asked for Europeans to give you some ideas.  Do you know about Energize America?  Jerome, who is French and runs this site, has put together an energy plan (with the help of many others) for America to implement.  

Here is the URL:

I do think it is annoying how Americans are talked about, but at least some here are genuinely trying to help us in our efforts to improve things.  

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Sat Nov 11th, 2006 at 05:13:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
than you did into the diary.  

We Americans are simply too f'ing spoiled by low energy prices.  And too long lulled by those low prices to believe the day of reckoning will come.  We could have easily continued to ramp up CAFE standards but decided that driving big boats of steel was more fun.

We hid behind "safety" or libertarian arguments instead of addressing the problem.

Not to mention no one here is calling Americans clueless.  Nice strawman.  American policy is indeed clueless but not the same thing.

by HiD on Sun Nov 12th, 2006 at 02:36:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, thank you Jerome for starting Energize America. It's good to see that someone is trying to get a coversation going about energy in the US

Also, sorry about the diary's brevity. It was originally going to be a comment in the "Bush claims 'Energy Independence'" diary by Jerome. Is taking offence at being talked down to a crime in Europe? I also apologise to Nanne for my curtness. It was misdirected frustration at the attitude so prominent in the afformentioned diary that both the Dems and Pubs are going to screw up, just because they're in the US. As I said before, until the French can come up with a serious design for the nuclear tractor-trailer engine, quit telling me I'm clueless


by kevinearllynch (mr_kevinlynch@sbcglobal.net) on Sat Nov 11th, 2006 at 05:24:02 PM EST
It's OK. I get the diary better now that you put it in context. Incidentally, not all the people who claim that Americans are in a state of denial and hopeless are Europeans. Robert D. Feinman is a US American, I think. Here's another American, putting Americans down.

This is not an EU vs the US thing. It's not like we have to come up with a strategy for you. We all have to think about what can be done better, everywhere. It's a global problem, after all.

I'm hoping that the Dems don't screw up on the biofuel initiative, and put some serious amendments into any Bush bill that will make sure it doesn't end up as mere corporate welfare or a shift the problem, and then put the ball back in Bush' court. That's what having a majority is good for. Dems have occasionally shown that they are in a fighting mood during the past year, so I have some hopes...

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Sat Nov 11th, 2006 at 06:09:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for joining in and bringing your perspective. I immediately understood that you were referring to my earlier diary.

As I write on the topic of US energy a lot (several diaries per week for the past two years over at dailykos), I take the topic from many different angles, and sometimes I'm more critical than others - and quite often I presume that people who read me are familiar to some extent with my earlier writing.

i don't know what your situation is in that respect, but your diary is a useful reminder that I might need to remind myself for each diary how it will be read if by someone who is not aware of my previous work.

So, to your question, I'll answer that I am familiar, I think, with the challenges of US energy use, and that I sometimes use my notoriety on the topic to prod Americans a little bit more than is comfortable for them - or for me in return. Call me an "activist" (or call me sucidal, who knows?)...

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Nov 11th, 2006 at 07:15:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well aside from the Energy plan chaired by Jerome there are some other thoughts. (I'm putting in my 2 cents since my name was mentioned below.)

One of things that has happened in the past 30 years is the rapid rise in development in the Southwest. Places like Phoenix and Las Vegas (and their surroundings) have increased greatly in population. Much of this development has been in the form of sprawl. At the same time much of the old rust belt as lost as much as half of its population (Detroit, Buffalo, etc.). These older communities were much more energy efficient from a transportation point of view. They were compact cities with fairly good (not excellent) public transit and lots of local services.

Now a person in a Phoenix suburb has to drive to get a quart of milk, before they walked to the corner store. I claim that this demographic shift (which these people think is the way things have to continue) will not be sustainable. Rising fuel costs and declining water availability will force a re-population of four season cities. This can happen with much dislocation or it can happen as part of a national energy policy.

Similar things can happen in many other sectors. Rail can be restored instead of trucks for many things. I just got a package sent from California to NY in five days (by ground), I could have gotten it in one or two by air. In the old days it would have come by rail (Railway Express) and taken two or three weeks. There are few things (this was a coffee grinder) where such speed in receipt is necessary. We traded speed for fuel consumption.

How many other facets of modern life trade efficiency for unimportant features?

If you continue to read and participate on ET you will find many discussions of what other types of things can be done. The question is whether the American people are willing to give up anything for better energy economy. So far no politician has been willing to propose anything that requires the smallest amount of sacrifice.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Sat Nov 11th, 2006 at 06:34:19 PM EST
But this is a LONG term solution, and will need a LOT of selling to make it seem reasonable to your average Murkin.
Now, give me a better idea or stop telling me how hopeless we in the USA are

You may be forgetting that it's not Europe you're arguing with here - it's the properties of physical and economic reality.

If the average Murkin is so disconnected from reality that dealing with it honestly requires a lot of selling, it's possible the environment is not the main problem.

(At least - not yet.)

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Sat Nov 11th, 2006 at 07:29:16 PM EST
Honestly, thank you all for your comments. I wasn't sure how my flinty, arrogant self (see, we can admit it) would come accross here. But this is a discussion that needs to be had. If you think that the average US citizen is in a state of denial about energy, you're right. Most of us have grown up with the idea that this is a large country, where resources and space are almost limitless. Told since childhood that this is the best of all nations, love it or leave it. To think that we here, as a whole, are part of the global problem is blasphemy to most. Truly, this is such a culture of "winners and losers" that almost noone shudders at the thought of what our lifestyle means. That most of humanity gets to eat garbage while we dine in a 4 star country! So trying to tell the soccer-moms driving their 3 kids around the entire county in a 4 mile per litre behemoth that she needs to conserve will only bring down an evil stare upon yourself most of the time. And the history of the emptying rust belt (and the northern plains) has much to do with the selling of an idea: That sun and surf are the only ways to live. And the northern migration of african-americans into manufacturing hubs after WW1 brought submerged prejudices out, fueling the southern and exurban counter migrations. Easy access to mile after mile of smoothe asphalt made the Car Culture seem easy and glamorous. Yes! The USA has been seduced by 50 years of advertising. Convinced that nothing will do but a big house on your very own 'god's acre' and a shiny shiny BIG automobile to get you that 3 miles to the grocery store. The kicker is, the jig will be up in about 20 years. When energy costs will make these inefficient 'ideals' completely unworkable. I can only blame the evil souls of big industry for trying to blind US consumers, so they can wring the last drops of profit out before they have to move behind the high walls and private armies at their estates. Let's hope that the good people of the USA can be prodded into action before the 2x4 of disaster hits them between the eyes. Otherwise the US civil war will look like just a comma...


by kevinearllynch (mr_kevinlynch@sbcglobal.net) on Sat Nov 11th, 2006 at 10:41:33 PM EST
Most of us have grown up with the idea that this is a large country, where resources and space are almost limitless.

To be quite honest, Europe has 3 times the population density that the US has, and has been depleting its resources for a number of centuries longer than the US, and the US has a large fraction of the global energy reserves (in the form of coal), so I personally don't care what the US does about energy. Europe faces a much more serious problem.

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Nov 13th, 2006 at 10:44:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Personally, I think a biodeisel/electric hybrid engine ... with an emphasis on rail and river transport to replace trucks. Then on getting people redensifying their population and having light rail reduce reliance on cars. But this is a LONG term solution, and will need a LOT of selling to make it seem reasonable to your average Murkin.

Where I object to this "sequentialist" reasoning is when the fact that something will take a long time to achieve is used as a reason to delay getting started on it.

It is, I would think, rather the opposite, that the parts of the solution with the longest lead times are the parts where it is the most urgent to get started on the process.

So, for example, retrofitting low density suburbs and outer suburbs (what the New Politics Institute refer to as "emerging suburbs" as opposed to true exurbia in their report The Next Frontier: A New Study of Exurbia) cannot be accomplished in the next four years, but we need to begin the process in the next four years if it is to be accomplished within the next twenty.

Now, light rail or some other form of dedicated-corridor mass transit is a key element to creating the centers of the new clusters, or recreating the centers where outer suburbs have grown up around existing rural small towns. So that means not only reversing federal subsidies for urban sprawl and converting them into subsidies for clustered concentration in low density areas, but also setting up the system to finance the construction of those light rail systems with much lower hurdles than in the present federal assistance.

Certainly it will not be taken up across the board, but there are a number of projects that have been on the edge of introduction where increasing the benefit accrued to reduction in driving miles and increasing the federal matching funds from 1:1 to 2:1 will spur a number of new systems.

If the quid pro quo for that higher level of federal assistance is local zoning changes that work with changes in federal development subsidies to support clustered concentration, then the experience of the benefits in terms of reduced driving time per day and reduced traffic congestion raises the whole system to the status of solution to traffic congestion.

And if you promise people that bribing other people to get out of their car into the light rail will reduce the traffic congestion that they face, that addresses the "what is in it for me".

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat Nov 11th, 2006 at 10:43:08 PM EST
OK, but it's not so hard to try and convince some people. Here in St Louis and suburbs there's a growing light rail system. As it has branched into the semi-rural Illinois side of the metro area and just opened a new trunk to the southern suburbs ridership has started to rise. Both of these areas face heavy traffic when driving to downtown. It's a good example of cause and effect: If you build it, they will ride. Maybe now we can expand the system into St Charles county, a northern suburb that's just a WEE bit more conservative. They voted down a bond issue to expand the system there 10 years ago and decided to build bridges over the Missouri river instead. It hasn't really helped with traffic congestion, so maybe they'll be more willing to listen when it comes to the idea of getting cars OFF the roads. If only they could get over that fear of dark faces riding the train into their midst sigh


by kevinearllynch (mr_kevinlynch@sbcglobal.net) on Sun Nov 12th, 2006 at 02:34:17 AM EST
It's not easy, weaning people off private cars and getting them on to public transport. If it's any comfort, it's not easy in Europe either. People here also prefer to feel independent and free in their cars; they have a false sense of security at the wheel, and a false sense of insecurity in public transport. They don't like the feeling they have to share transport with representatives of the underclass, of various shades of the wrong colour.

As long as public transport is seen as a form of welfare, a means for the poor to get about, things won't change. The answer requires major investment in public transport that, thanks to comfort, reasonable price, and real usefulness (taking people where they need to go as fast as possible), attracts a wider cross-section of society. That in itself is a huge hill to climb -- in Europe too. It's a mistake to think (whether Americans or Europeans think it) that Europe has got everything worked out and can be smug and condescending. There's a fairly considerable overlap between American problems and ours.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Nov 12th, 2006 at 03:51:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
a false sense of security at the wheel, and a false sense of insecurity in public transport

And again an example why I should hoard every science editoriale into a collection... Because something I read some time ago which I found interesting suddenly becomes relevant.

A sociologist/psychologist has looked at the phenomenon you describe, and concluded there is a lot more than just a (false?) sense of security happening behind the wheel. Driving is individually competititve and leads to self-gratification - for example when finding an empty spot when looking for a place to park, there is a sense of accomplishment to be there first before someone else. There is more, but driving takes the human psyche to a deeper level, not necessarily even a conscious one. It was even suggested that's why it's so hard to get people into a bus if the conditions for the bus aren't immensely favourable. Which means we'd need clean, reliable, punctional and frequent public transport integrated within our life styles to create a pull factor.

Flash-bulb idea: Why not install in each house a small screen which shows how far incoming busses are still away from the stop nearest to your house?

by Nomad (Bjinse) on Sun Nov 12th, 2006 at 07:27:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm sure you're right about competitive behaviour and gratification. My thinking was about road accidents and how people feel falsely safe inside their cars.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Nov 13th, 2006 at 02:58:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I've grown fond of Monderman's theory that the safer a car is perceived, the more reckless it gets driven. Although I also support safe car technology, which is somewhat contradicting.
by Nomad (Bjinse) on Mon Nov 13th, 2006 at 04:57:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Certainly there are some troubles with current biofuel plans.

I don't see who's being accusatory about this. Biofuel plans here in the EU are no better than American ones. With the possible exception that the EU just might R&D second-generation biofuels as a matter of urgency, but if agri-industry and the liquid-fuel corporates get their vampire canines into a good subsidy vein on first-generation biofuels, that R&D may unaccountably slow down...

Last July we got together an ET contribution to an EU Public Consultation on biofuels. If you're interested, you can see it here (pdf).

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Nov 12th, 2006 at 04:02:23 AM EST
I love the bluntness of your comment. Sometimes there is an anti-American outburst here on ET, but most people are able to squelch it pretty well.

I disagree with you about the solution, though. While personally I love my hybrid car, in the long term it's not going to be a solution. When Saudi Arabia collapses, the problem will not be excessive retail price of fuel but simply unavailability. (See previous energy "crises.") Hybrid cars won't go any better than SUVs at that point.

What is needed is a fully electric transportation system, with a combination of heavy rail, light rail, and electric busses. This approach has already been demonstrated in the U.S. in the 1950s and can be duplicated again. The only debate, in my opinion, is where the electricity will come from. One would hope that the source would be renewable resources, but most likely it will be coal.

The European problem is that they don't have a big coal resource, so they have to confront the problem right now, while we have a hundred years or so before the energy supply becomes a big worry. All we have to do is sit back and see how they solve the problem (maybe it will take Europe two or three tries to get it right) and then copy them.

As for global warming, let them (the coastal poor) eat cake.

by asdf on Sun Nov 12th, 2006 at 11:58:17 AM EST
Increased demand for electricity for transportation (rail and plug-in cars)in the US is likeliest to be met by the more than 100 new coal-fired plants in the works.  And, incidentally, most of them are being built to Bush era specifications.  This means they will not be much cleaner than present coal-fired plants, which kill 24,000 Americans a year.

Nuclear energy in parts of the US is now cheaper than coal, and there will be some nuclear expansion in areas where over 80% of the local populations approve of nuclear power as clean and safe and are in favor of new reactors being added. In the SE, electric bills have not gone up in 20 years.  And deaths in the US from nuclear power generation?  Zero.

Discussions are underway between utilities and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to enhance existing plants and build new ones.  Though there are around 30 different expressions of intent, it's not likely that there would be that large an increase.  The waste would be stored in concrete casks on site.  It can be safely contained that way for up to 100 years, by which time most of the hottest radioactivity has decayed. Prototype reactors  have shown that spent fuel can be rejuvenated in them.  Or it can be reprocessed as is the case in Europe.

Only when suburbs become unaffordable will people return to cities.  

by Plan9 on Sun Nov 12th, 2006 at 12:33:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What people forget is, that in general, we're no nicer to Europe around here. Have you read the stuff we say about the EU energy policy? It's moderately better than US policy, but it's still idiotic and it's basically intended to move closer to a US model rather than further away.

We're horrid to everyone around here. Don't take it personally.

The key problem with biofuels plans - especially any being pushed by the Bush regime - is that they don't make any sense as anything other than part of a patchwork solution but that they'll be sold as a total solution, neglecting the rest required. I wouldn't allow Bush to arrange a piss-up in a brewery - he'd probably bring Budweiser for a start - and I sure as hell don't trust him to push a biofuels strategy.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Sun Nov 12th, 2006 at 12:37:29 PM EST
As I see it, the key problem with biofuels is that their production is (in many proposals) ecologically destructive. Unless the fuels are produced from waste, they require that more plants be grown and consumed.

A 1986 estimate places the human share of the total photosynthetic output of the biosphere (the "net primary production", NPP, of land and sea) at 19%. Less is actually consumed, but this much of the flow is directed in support of human purposes. At 13.5 terawatts, human power consumption from coal, oil, nuclear power, etc., is about 18% as large as NPP (calculated from numbers in Wikipedia).

What this says to me is that human appropriation of biospheric productivity is already huge, and that using non-waste-derived biofuels as a substantial fraction of human power consumption would make this huge impact substantially larger.

As part of a patchwork solution, growing new plants for biofuels had better be a small patch.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Sun Nov 12th, 2006 at 09:50:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This depends on the characteristics of the plants. The famous example is the difference between using corn stover and switchgrass as the feedstock to a cellulose ethanol biorefinery (1). Providing an income-elastic market for corn stover encourages the cultivation of maize, which is an annual grass original co-evolved to be growth in a multi-crop system alongside nitrogen fixing legumes and amaranth. Grown in a multiculture, maize is brutal to the soil and demanding of energy-intensive fertilizer.

Switchgrass, on the other hand, is a perenial grass presently used as a fodder crop to hold down the soil and allow soil renewal when a field is taken out of rotation. At first brush, an increased market for switchgrass pellets, in the rainfed agriculture parts of the US, seems likely to do more good than harm.

If the biofuel feedstock development program consists of soil husbandry payment when an identified green ethanol feedstock is selling below a target strike price in the market, the downside if the demand for the feedstock does not reach projected levels is more soil conservation than would otherwise be the case.

Similarly with biodiesel. While biodiesel with soy oil is essentially a welfare program for Archer Daniels Midland, there are many parts of the word where the oil palm and coconut palm are the most productive oilstocks available. If they can contribute to the energy independence of, eg, non-oil producing nations in Africa, that is half of the keystone to safeguarding against IBRD and IMF control of their economy when the oil crisis hits. And while not sufficient for development of a sustainable economy, independence from the IBRD and IMF is clearly necessary.

(1. Not Ready For Prime Time ... don't want to start that argument!)

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Nov 13th, 2006 at 10:28:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You mean "maize grown in monoculture" at the end of the first paragraph, right?

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Nov 13th, 2006 at 10:39:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, I did "mazie grown in a monoculture". While my brain was busy decrying the status quo, my fingers, obviously, would have preferred to be typing about more attractive alternatives.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Nov 13th, 2006 at 12:22:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, assessing the net impact requires (as usual!) looking at the whole system. Changing crop rotation within a fixed growing area could indeed avoid the impact that worries me.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.
by technopolitical on Tue Nov 14th, 2006 at 02:40:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That's why I strongly prefer the support for cellulose-ethanol feedstock crops to be guarantee payments for soil husbandry.

In addition, the reward to family farmers is stronger, since corporate farms only care about value in terms of discounted present value, and not in terms of the viability of the farm as an inheritance.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Tue Nov 14th, 2006 at 11:20:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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