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In what is becoming known as the “Earth Day Blowout,” a premier oil rig exploded and plummeted to the bottom of the ocean last week, ultimately sinking on the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day.

Deepwater Horizon

Crews working to put out the flames after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded.

The BP-owned Deepwater Horizon was staffed with over 100 employees, 11 of whom are still missing (and presumed dead) with several others still hospitalized.  Like the coal mining accident earlier this month, this Gulf of Mexico oil spill is bringing to light the damages done by accidents on oil rigs.  From 2001 to 2007, there were over 1,400 accidents involving oil rigs.  In these accidents, 41 people died and 302 were injured.  Investigations into these previous accidents show that human error generally accounts for causation of problems.  That’s to be expected; after all, we’re only human, right?  But the question remains: do we want to continue risking the lives of workers and the integrity of our environment to perpetuate offshore drilling?

Oil spill

The oil from the Deepwater Horizon making its way towards the US coastline.

Right now, the oil spill is leaking at the rate of 42,000 gallons per day from a pipe 5,000 feet below the surface.  The spill covers an area of 1,800 square miles –  larger than the entire state of Rhode Island.  Originally, the slick of oil on the ocean’s surface measured a mere two miles by eight miles.  BP sent 32 vessels to try to contain the spill before it hits the Gulf Coast, where it has the potential to damage an already fragile Louisiana coastline.

This is not a concern to take lightly.  We’ve seen in the past that oil spills can have devastating effects.  For example, look at the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.  That accident spewed 10.8 million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound, covering 1,300 square miles.  Wildlife are still feeling the effects of that accident today.   At the time, thousands of animals perished.  Birds became soaked in oil and were unable to fly to safety.  Some otters, covered in oil, froze to death in the Arctic waters, while others tried to lick the oil off their fur and poisoned themselves to death.  Two short years later, the largest oil spill in history occurred: the Gulf War oil spill, which dumped up to 462 million gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf, covering an area 42 miles wide by 101 miles long.

Covered in oilAre we okay with this?  Are we okay with painful accidents like the Deepwater Horizon and others in the fossil fuel world, such as the loss of 29 miners in a West Virginia coal mine explosion earlier this month?  What price are we willing to pay to fuel our dependence on fossil fuels?  Accidents like these are sad and heart-wrenching.  But hopefully, they spark new ways of thinking about energy and ways of obtaining it.  There are more options and better options.  We have to pay for renewables and alternatives, and it’s up to us to decide what is more valuable: our people and our environment or cheap fuel.

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Last week I saw some big (and possibly surprising) news from President Obama: plans to open the Atlantic coastline, the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, and Northern Alaska to oil and natural gas drilling.

“The answer is not drilling everywhere all the time,” Obama said.  “But the answer is not, also, for us to ignore the fact that we are going to need vital energy sources to maintain our economic growth and our security.”

The move appears to be an attempt to placate Republicans, who have historically pushed for an increase in American oil exploration and drilling (drill, baby, drill anyone?).  However, it is unclear whether this goodwill gesture will be enough to satisfy Conservatives.

Not surprisingly, the expansion plan has angered many who are concerned about the effects of drilling on the environment.  Obama tried to address this in his speech.

Bird

Let's hope offshore drilling doesn't result in more of these poor critters...

“There will be those who strongly disagree with this decision,” Obama said, “including those who say we should not open any new areas to drilling. But what I want to emphasize is that this announcement is part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies more on homegrown fuels and clean energy.”

The guy has a point.  Like I talked about a few weeks ago, Americans are less concerned about the environment than ever in the presence of high unemployment rates and an unstable economy.  And this theory behind the decision makes sense: the less money we use to import oil, the more money we have for other things, like investing in renewable energy or creating green jobs.  However, it doesn’t seem very likely that offshore drilling will affect oil prices anytime soon.

It’s been rough going against climate skeptics and legislators who seem determined to fight anything with Obama’s stamp on it.  This action might make the road ahead a little easier.

To soften the blow, President Obama also announced strict fuel economy regulations that will take effect in coming years.  By 2016, the average miles per gallon achieved by carmaker’s fleets must be 34.1, although some expect that to increase to 35.  This means that small trucks will likely average about 29 mpg while cars will get about 38 mpg.  The new regulations will cost new car buyers an average of $926 in six years, although they can expect to save over $3,000 in gas money during their vehicle’s lives.

President Obama appears to be trying to please everyone.  Maybe we can get some measure of his success during the upcoming climate talks in the Senate.

As you may have noticed, I’m a girl.  And as a girl, I tend to read Cosmopolitan magazine.  Maybe I’m hoping for the perfect no-work hairstyle.  Or maybe great advice on how to wear skinny jeans and not look like a goofball.  Anyways, Cosmo is kind of a girl thing.

Cosmo

An unlikely place for car info, huh?

But Cosmo does include worthwhile, conscientious articles that are fun to read.  In the most recent April issue, Cosmo had an article called “Rethink Your Green Routine.”  There was advice about shopping for groceries, taking showers, and what to do with your appliances when they’re not in use (unplug them!).

What surprised me was Cosmo’s advice on buying a new car.  The author said that instead of buying a new hybrid or energy-efficient car, it makes more environmental sense to buy a used, fuel-efficient car if you’re only going to be driving it for a few years.

To be honest, this took me aback.  I thought, “How could they be recommending we drive our old clunkers around?  How can that be better for the environment?”  So I decided to look into it a bit.

This article gives lots of numbers about how much it takes to make cars converted to oil and energy units and all kinds of things.  But what I got out of it is that the average car uses about 10% of the energy used in its lifetime during its construction.  That number seems to be about right, although here’s a place that said about 20%.  Even so, the energy used to produce a car decreases as technology improves.

Beater car

Is this really better to drive around than a new Nissan Leaf? Maybe!

I can buy that; it certainly takes energy to gather materials, ship them, and turn them into something worthwhile.  But does it really make more sense to buy an old car rather than get a more efficient one?

Well, that’s where Cosmo’s advice gets more specific.  They say if you’re looking for a new car to last you more than five years, to spring for a fun hybrid or small, fuel-efficient little car (or maybe that gorgeous Porsche…assuming they put it into production).  But if you’re looking just to get around for the next few years, then it makes more sense to get a car that’s already made.

Really, this all comes down to using what we already have.  The cars on the road have one thing going for them: they’re already there.  We don’t have to put more energy into producing them.  Funnily enough, eBay is a powerhouse in the reusing field (take a look at this article).  I have to admit that in the race to be green, we tend to overlook the solutions that are right in front of us.

And as far as cars go?  Maybe it means getting a few more miles out of that Tercel.  Or keeping that old Malibu going for a couple more years.  There are a million ways to skin a cat, and greening up our cars is no exception.

Electricity

Is this the ultimate answer?

I read an article on treehugger.com (Ten things that could suddenly make Americans love EVs) the other day that got me thinking about EVs.  The author had some good ideas, for sure, so let’s look at them and take them a step further (or maybe a step back).

  • Facing massive amounts of unpaid debt, credit card companies ban use of credit cards for buying things like gasoline and groceries. No cash, no drive.

While this might make sense in theory, I don’t think credit cards will ban purchase of such basic essentials (I mean, people have to eat).  Also, people with EVs will likely charge their cars at home, and they still have to pay the electricity bills.

  • Gas goes over $5/gallon and stays there.

Maybe.  I’m no economist, so I’m not sure how gas prices are predicted to increase, and I’m not sure if there are any dramatic increases coming in the near future.  Certainly, however, this is a long-term concern which is likely inevitable.

  • Power companies compete directly with fuel retailers, building charge stations in secure public parking garages and at Park and Ride lots (as pictured). Net monitored use tax can substitute for parking meters.

Competition with the fuel companies?  About time!

  • El Nino cycle ends and for a decade to follow there are extended gas shortages following hurricane season.

This may be…it would certainly drive up oil prices!  People tend to think with their pocketbooks, often out of necessity.

  • Upgradeable driving distance EV’s are offered by the major car companies. The first time buyer can start with a low-cost 40-mile drive range model and add battery capacity up to 200+ miles, as budget and circumstances permit. Models with ranges over 100 miles are offered with a Volt-like hybrid option

I think this will be great, especially in cities.  Gotta get it marketed!

  • Battery prices fall by 50% as manufacturing costs go down.

The technology is said to be out there.  But this is almost like a chicken and egg scenario: battery prices will fall as production increases, production will increase when the demand is there, and the demand will be there when prices are reasonable.  Again, we need commitment and marketing from car companies for consumers to know what the heck is going on.

  • Corporate fleets and local governments decide they need EV’s just to keep operations going and to buffer budgets against unpredictable operating cost fluctuations.

Even without the other benefits of EVs, I think that large contracts from the governments or other agencies would promote production of EVs.  This takes commitment from the government or the agency.  The government is committed to many things with little public support at the moment; the public is focusing on more imminent crises at the moment, so we probably can’t expect anything from the feds.  However, state governments could make commitments, as could corporations or agencies wanting to protect the environment.

  • Very large numbers of rural US poor move to the cities and inner ring suburbs. Small, inexpensive EV’s that can be rented and recharged at work are an option for those who left the big truck back home.

There are theories out there that say the best thing we can do for the planet is to move to the cities and concentrate our mess instead of spreading over sprawling countryside.  Adding EVs to the mix sweetens the deal.

  • Large tax credits are offered for those who purchase or lease US-made EV’s.

There are tax credits currently set up for EV purchasers, but right now it’s set up as a personal tax credit which isn’t accessible at the time of purchase.  This could be made more consumer-friendly, for sure, but a step in the right direction!  After all, Obama said he wants a million plug-ins on America’s roadways by 2015.

  • EV dealers put satellite lots near mass transit hubs, industrial parks, and corporate office centers, offering discount charging for regular customers and shuttle services for those who need them.

Again, makes good sense for city drivers.  Once it is affordable, people should show up.  In theory.

Who Killed the Electric Car?

A look at the movie, Haley style: a running commentary as I watched it.

Opening scene – funeral, presumably for the car.  A little cheesy, but makes a good point.  There were more electric cars than gasoline cars on the road a hundred years ago.  Who would’ve thought?  Apparently these cars were like sitting inside huge lamps.  I feel like it would be very hot inside a lamp…

Ick!  Now we’ve got some pictures of lovely smog….“the black cloud of death.”  I’m glad I don’t live in California!  One gallon of gas burned=19 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  That seems like a ton.

All right.  Onto the Sun Racer!  Take a look at this little car – solar-powered, goofy-looking, pretty neat!  So GM challenges these guys to make an electric car.  The GM CEO even says that these cars will be the perfect commuting vehicles.  GM wants their marketers to develop a strong desire in the market for an electric vehicle, especially in Cali, where smog still reigns supreme. California’s in on the game, passing a zero emissions mandate in 1990.  And then, the Saturn EV1 is born.

EV1

The EV1 in all its glory...

And everyone loved it!  So other car companies joined in on the action, creating conversion (gas/electric) cars.  People are amazed by the lack of pollution, and Tom Hanks makes lots of appearances extolling their virtues.  Mel Gibson even pops his scarily-bearded head in.

Now, the skeptics show up.  Is the car big enough?  Strong enough?  Manly enough?

First the skeptics, then big oil (which funded most of the anti-electric movement).  Are electric vehicles really more environmentally-friendly?  (Which is why we need to be working to create clean electric energy – wind, solar, all that good stuff, but that’s neither here nor there.)  Are they only for rich people?

There seems to be some sort of poem going on now.  Or was that a car commercial?  I guess so.  The lady speaking sounds a bit too gravelly to be sexy.  And in America, cars are supposed to be sexy (ever watch Cadillac’s spokeswoman Kate Walsh?  Take a look at this). This begs the question: is GM really trying to market the cars earnestly?  And GM starts withdrawing its EV reach…laying off employees, closing factories, and moving backwards.

Headline: White House Joins Fight Against Electric Cars.  It looks like the government is leaning towards hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.  Again, Cali is all over it, with Arnold lauding their virtues and driving around a hydrogen-fueled Hummer.

We go to a meeting with the California EPA (at least that’s what it looks like to me), cause automakers sued the state because of the emissions law.  Eighty people showed up to support the electric car, and two showed up to support the automakers who didn’t want to comply with the zero emissions mandate.  Yet, in April of 2003, CA killed the mandate.

And then they took the cars off the road altogether!  How wild is that?  Ahh, protests…EV supporters showed up in CA to garner support for their cause.

Which brings us back to the funeral.  One of the GM marketers even cries…pretty touching, not going to lie. And GM has all the cars back…

And the crush them!  Oh my god.  They take them out to this racetrack in the desert and literally destroy them.  That is truly sad. Other electric vehicles are being taken off the road, too.  Some of these actually get shredded.  Just wild.

The activists think it’s wild, too.  They offer $1.8 million to GM to buy back the last 78 surviving cars.  GM never gets back to them.

California Air Resources Board, Alan Lloyd, GM, big oil, American consumers, batteries – all suspects in the killing of the EV.  GM says there was no demand, no profit (how on earth does Toyota do it?  Well, have done it, at least). Some people say Americans were too dumb to understand that EVs worked just as well as gas cars.  A very cute older couple (the Ovshinkskys) had already sold a long-lasting battery to GM, which then in turn sold it to Texaco.  Nice. Now we’ve got a tax break for people buying Hummers – I’m sure that is super helpful. Hydrogen cars.

“The average vehicle on the roadways today is less efficient than it was 20 years ago.”  Another sad fact.

Carter tries to eliminate dependence on oil, Reagen deregulates everything, Clinton tries to promote hybrids, and Bush…well, Bush is Bush. Here’s a good point: it took laws to get everything standardized with cars (think seatbelts, catalytic converters, airbags).

The verdict: I think we all killed the electric car.  Good news?  We’re bringing it back!  Tesla’s already done it, and Chevy (GM-owned is bringing out the Chevy Volt next year).

Sooo I guess I’m still on this biofuels kick.  Here’s something pretty neat going on in my hometown – Madison, Wisconsin.  Basically, they’re making jet fuel (and regular fuel, too) out of biomass, or leftover biological stuff like waste and plant materials.

Dinosaur

Personally, I think my bones make a great 93-octane gasoline.

But I’ll take it easy on the new biofuels now.  I want to ask a question: why the heck haven’t we adopted an entirely new fuel model?

Well, in America, we’re stubborn, individualistic, and set in our ways, for starters.  But there’s something bigger going on here.

Let’s think about it.  For the past 150 years or so, we’ve stuck a pipe in the ground and gotten in return an energy-rich mixture of ancient fossils (thank you, dinos).  It makes our cars go, it powers our tractors, it even starts our rickety old lawnmowers.  Basically, we’ve had it easy, and we coasted along intent on getting the most out of oil as we possibly could.

And now here we are.  Oil is running out, the planet is heating up, and things are generally just going to pot.  We want an answer!  Yet here we sit, most of us still driving fuel-dependent vehicles that get marginally better miles per gallon than cars ten or twenty years ago.  Are we just that resistant to change?  Maybe.

But here’s the thing: right now, there’s not an easy way out of our oil dependency, or even our “dirty energy” dependency.  There is no single front-runner in the biofuel or alternative fuel industry.  Instead, there are all kinds of small, somewhat helpful projects going on, and at this point, we don’t know if we will have one dominant solution or many.  Maybe there is no one solution, or maybe we just haven’t found it yet.  We have no choice but to keep looking, and I give a lot of credit to those who are.  There’s just not an easy fix – hard to admit in a society thrilled with one-click buying and fast ways to lose weight.  We didn’t get here overnight, and we can’t go back overnight.

So the next time you’re wondering why the heck we aren’t all just driving electric cars, think about just how easy we’ve had it.

For a time, ethanol was billed as the solution to our fossil fuel addiction.  It’s renewable, it emits less CO2, and it’s made from common crops.  What could be better, right?

If only it were that easy.

Corn

It's in just about everything we eat, and now it's in our fuel, too!

Let’s start with the good stuff.  Ethanol is commonly made from corn, but researchers are working to produce it from other plants, like switchgrass.  That means ethanol is made right here in the good old US of A, which reduces our dependence on foreign oil.  Since it’s made of plants, which take in CO2 from the atmosphere, it helps reduce greenhouse gases.  And burning ethanol itself reduces less air pollution and greenhouse  gases than burning gasoline.  Pretty slick.

But alas, the course of searching for cleaner cars never did run smooth.  Ethanol has some pretty major downfalls.

  • It’s not widely available outside the Midwest.  To make ethanol more accessible, you have to transport it, which might not be the cheapest or most environmentally friendly answer.
  • Ethanol contains less energy than gasoline, meaning fewer miles to the gallon.
  • Prices fluctuate depending on crop prices.
  • While the plants that go into ethanol do take in carbon dioxide, the equipment used to produce and process those plants emit CO2, and the specific balance of these two processes is unclear.
  • Some researches believe that ethanol takes more energy to produce than can be obtained from the fuel itself, although this has been refuted in a UC Berkeley study.

So what is the verdict?  While we may not be as excited about ethanol as we used to be, it is certainly still a part of the renewable fuel solution.  Many gas stations sell gasoline that contains about 10% ethanol.  And researchers are working hard to produce commercial ethanol made from cellulosic materials like corncobs and other inedible plant parts.  This is one technology that seems here to stay, at least for now.

Drilling for oil

Our future or our past?

I would love to know everything about oil subsidies in America.  Maybe not because I think they’re the most exciting thing in the world (although they account for billions and billions of dollars), but because I like to know things.  As such, some people call me the KGB.  I am indeed not Russian, but I am curious.  Although I am learning that it’s much more productive to satiate my curiosity with journalistic findings rather than interrogating my loved ones – what can I say, I’m a slow learning.  So today, we’re delving into: the oil subsidy!

First things first: what is a government subsidy?  Simply put, a subsidy is a stipend or some financial assistance the government gives to an industry to prevent its decline.  There are many different kinds to accomplish different things, but that’s the general idea.

Keeping that in mind, it doesn’t necessarily make sense that oil companies (or Big Oil, as some call them) receive billions of dollars every year in government subsidies.  Especially when you take into consideration that Exxon Mobil set the record for highest profits earned by a US company EVER in 2008 to the tune of a cool $45.2 billion.

Exxon Mobil logo

No more government help?

Granted, Exxon and others have seen decreased earnings in the past year due to fewer Americans on the roadways, but overall, they seem to be sitting pretty.

But they might not be able to rely on their government help for very long.

President Obama recently announced his 2011 budget and it’s not business as usual for Big Oil (unless you’re Michael Scott from The Office, and then you have absolutely no idea what that means anyways, so your opinion probably doesn’t matter anyways).  He cut out a bunch of subsidies for fossil fuels (hopefully putting about $36 billion in America’s piggy bank in the next few years) and put in around $6 billion in green energy development.

Here is a good overview of these budget plans from solveclimate.com.  This article brings up a good point – will these proposals make it through the legislative branch?  Similar moves have been shot down by Congress and there hasn’t been a lot of compromising there lately.  Conservatives have already started launching commercial attacks against Democrats in preparation for election year.  Will both parties reach across the aisle and agree to work for the people they represent when looking at the budget?

Time will tell.

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