Sunday, November 30, 2008

Another Lesson in Economics

Airfares are dropping. Gasoline prices are dropping. Instead of thanking your lucky stars for answered prayers, thank yourselves.

These happy reversals of long-standing trends are the result of a very basic factor of economics: lack of demand.

When gas prices began rising sharply we parked our vehicles and took up the mantra of environmentalist everywhere by riding public transportation. Let’s don’t blow it by returning to our old glutinous ways.

I would like to be altruistic and say we did it to save the environment, but no, we did it to save our pocketbooks.

Whatever the reason, we need to improve this trend and take the environmental reasons to heart. And if we continue to save a little money in the process, so much the better.

Of course now airlines are complaining about the lack of revenue, but please keep in mind they are crying for themselves, not for us and definitely not for the environment.

So, while we are still high on this happy news, can home mortgage rates be far behind?

Friday, November 28, 2008

EPA Should be Overhauled

The subject of coal was brought up during the recent presidential campaign cycle and President-elect Obama as well as Senator John McCain made some allusions to keeping this 19th century fossil fuel industry alive. Truth of the matter is we continue to need the energy this sooty polluting energy source provides. However, it is not the only option and the EPA is doing nothing to force this industry into cleaning up its act.

Dozens of new coal plants across the country have been put on hold in response to EPA allowing coal-burning power plants to build without addressing global warming. The coal industry’s response is to counter-sue in an attempt to prevent states from acting to fight global warming. This is just incredulous.

During the presidential campaign, the coal industry launched a $35 million ad campaign to rally public support for coal-fired electricity and to fuel opposition to legislation that Congress is crafting to slow climate change. The Australian Coal Industry spent millions to launch an offense to persuade the public that it is not a climate change villain. These advertising campaigns, quite simply, mask the harmful and polluting nature of coal-fired power plants. The public knows these advertising claims are lies. And yet they continue to try to greenwash the truth hoping the public will buy into their self-delusional pipedream.

The money spent on these greenwashing campaigns would be better spent in developing renewable energy sources. If the coal and oil industries would redirect their efforts and invest their very sizable fortunes into developing alternative energy the entire planet could get there sooner and everyone would be healthier for it. Money spent on new coal plants could also help develop wind and/or solar farms, geothermal plants or biomass development. Why fight the inevitable?

It disturbs and saddens me greatly that the EPA could issue such permits to an industry that has historically been the single most visible polluter of our environment without requiring controls on carbon dioxide. As far as I am concerned it is an indictment against the EPA. For what are they good for if they are not going to take appropriate measures to protect our environment and our health? Their action is the converse to their very name.

I can understand why the coal industry wants to do what it can to maintain its ‘business as usual’. It is the very mindset of human behavior to continue on the course that it knows best. But when that course is proving to be harmful to the health of the general population, not to mention the very environment in which we all live, then that course needs to be altered.

We as a nation have understood for decades that polluting our water, air and land cannot be tolerated. The federal government created an entire agency to protect the environment because we all know that in our endeavors to become a powerful nation we were fouling our own nests. The EPA has been given tools to combat polluters, the Clean Air Act being most notable, but continue down a path that all but proves they are in bed with these very polluters.

Other recent decisions have indicated that EPA Director Brown is, at best, sympathetic to industry polluters, and, at worst, being bought off by them. The EPA has obviously lost its mandate to protect us and therefore should be overhauled.

Finally, we will have a president that will actually listen to scientists and view them as something more than just court-jesters. The EPA better sit up and take notice.

I know the coal industry and all its related support groups employ a lot of people, but coal truly is not the answer. It has polluted our world for far too long. Alternative methods need to be employed, sooner rather than later. Monetary factors cannot dictate our future health. The only parties arguing the permits should be upheld are those who have a financial interest in having these coal-power plants be built (American Institute, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Chemistry Council and the National Association of Manufacturers). This sends a very loud message that they value profit over our health.

The Supreme Court will go no further than to tell the EPA that they must decide whether carbon dioxide endangers public health and welfare. But we already have tons of proof concerning the negative effects of excess carbon dioxide and where it comes from. Let us stop wasting money on more studies. Let us stop spinning our wheels trying to side-step the obvious, albeit expensive, solution. Let us develop renewable energy sources and get these industries up and running now.

Further reading:
American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity Greenwashing Dirty Coal
EPA Decision on Standards for Greenhouse Gases Draw Criticism
Is Bush interfering with EPA decision?
EPA Car Emissions Ruling Contested on Hill

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Oil Shale Drilling is Not Worth it

The US Bureau of Land Management recently announced its decision to rescind authorization for drilling leases on and near the border of Utah’s scenic national parks. This decision came after negotiations with National Park Service officials who objected to noise, lights and air pollution near Arches National Park, Dinosaur National Monument and Canyonlands National Park, all in Utah.

This may sound like a victory for environmentalists and naturalists, but it is only temporary. These oil and gas drilling leases, totaling more than 50,000 acres, will still be auctioned off December 19, 2008. This perpetual game will continue until the oil companies get their way or (as is extremely unlikely) become as environmentally ‘friendly’ as their ad campaigns like to claim they are. The arguments against drilling will still be the same and will remain just as valid.

"This is the fire sale, the Bush administration's last great gift to the oil and gas industry," said Stephen Bloch, a staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "The tracts of land offered here, next to Arches National Park or above Desolation Canyon, these are the crown jewels of America's lands that the BLM is offering to the highest bidder," he said.

The pursuit of these shale oil drilling leases at this point in time should not even be taking place due to another often overlooked fact. Oil companies currently hold leases to 90 million offshore acres, mostly in the Gulf of Mexico, and upwards of 70 million of those are not producing oil. It is estimated that if all these existing areas were being drilled, U.S. oil production could be boosted by nearly 5 million barrels a day, although it should be noted that it is impossible to estimate production. Let’s keep this point in mind when we look at how much untapped oil is estimated to lie beneath the U.S.

There is a rumor, circulated amongst those who stand to benefit from this rumor being true, that says -- there lies beneath the surface of the Rocky Mountains the largest untapped oil reserve in the world. Those people who only see dollars signs where there is natural beauty want to desperately convince the rest of us that mankind will benefit more from the extraction of this oil, with its extremely expensive extraction, production and shipping processes, than we would from leaving this natural beauty unspoiled. They are playing a tune that only financial profiteers want to listen to.

Oil shale is a misnomer being neither shale nor oil, in fact an immature source-rock which has not yet generated any oil and needs to be heated at 600 °F to yield oil by pyrolysis. In fact they should be classified with coal and peat.

The process, which is both economically and environmentally unsound and irresponsible, would extend the oil era by decades, if useable oil could be extracted. This would increase the odds of significant global warming and is not my idea of taking responsibility for our future.

An example of the shale oil extraction process would be to extract tons of rock to the surface, heat and crush it to extract the oil, distill the product to separate out the contaminated by-products and the result is a low-grade form of synthetic crude oil. Where do these contaminated by-products go? Into surface and ground water, of course. There will also be erosion, sulfur gas emissions, and air pollution caused by the production of particulates during processing, transport, and support activities.

Another process called ‘in situ conversion’ involves cooking the rock at 650-700 degrees F. while still in the ground and would contaminate ground water from the hydrocarbons created. So, Shell oil, in 2004, received approval from Rio Blanco County, Texas, state and federal officials to conduct a $50 million, two- to four-year study of a groundwater freezing process in hopes of containing these produced hydrocarbons. The obvious problems here are 1) the process is creating hydrocarbons; 2) the resultant hydrocarbons will be hot enough to melt the ice and will therefore, eventually, contaminate the surrounding rock anyway; 3) this money could used for alternative energy research. Their mentality is that the consumer will cover the cost of all of this in the end, therefore the experiment will become cost effective. Thank God for consumers, right?

This is the type of mentality that needs to be reversed. How about putting consumers ahead for a change and come up with something that does not dip so deeply into our pockets nor destroys what we absolutely must have for survival: a clean and functioning environment?

Just because you have always made money burning fossil fuels does mot mean you must continue to do so. Branch out into other fields that are more friendly to us and the environment and will not eventually choke us all to death. I am certain that your entrepreneurial ‘gifts’ will find ways to make money off of the endeavor.

Drilling for oil on land results in rearranged landscape, wildlife habitat disrupted probably for decades, piles of barren, jagged rock where once stood unspoiled natural beauty, contaminated rivers and streams, large swaths of trees cut down or mountains leveled and open pits left in the wake of profit seekers along with unsightly roads crisscrossing the land to access these pits. Also, the waste generated from the extraction process will require land to be withdrawn from traditional uses for decades.

We in this nation have turned a page in some small regard, when we told the auto industry they cannot be bailed out for their irresponsible business practices. Let’s show the oil companies the error of their ways and face them in the direction of developing alternative energy sources. Also, while on the topic of telling corporations of our displeasure with their wasteful practices, there is a movement underfoot to stop the shipping of food over long-distances because of the adverse effects of the very act of shipping. Pollution and the amount of fossil fuel burned to get food from around the world to your local grocer is very wasteful. Likewise, shipping fossil fuel to local gas pumps is wasteful. The pollution released into the air surrounding our national parks is already taking a toll on those parklands. Producing additional pollution inside the parks by these trucks transporting oil through them would prove to be even more devastating.

The days of fossil fuels are numbered. Some businesses realize the financial liabilities associated with greenhouse emissions and yet they refuse to bow to the obvious. This point needs to be drilled to the point that these individuals abandon the destruction of nature’s beauty and the disruption of our food chain just for their personal profit.

This nation needs to collectively wake up to the fact that burning fossil fuels is killing us. Why should our health and welfare take a backseat to oil company executives profit? Whenever an oil crisis surfaces they like to tell us that the expense of extracting shale is now acceptable. The reality is that the destruction of nature is never acceptable. It is not the only alternative to “business as usual”.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ocean is Growing Acidic

New research by scientists at the University of Chicago have documented that the ocean is growing more acidic faster than previously thought.

These findings correlates with increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide generated by human activities.

Yet another reason to slow down our consumption of fossil fuels. But, other human activities produce carbon dioxide as well, such as by producing cement and by carrying out land clearing and forest combustion. These activities only result in approximately 22% of the current atmospheric CO2 concentrations. The process of generating electricity is the single largest source of CO2 emissions in the United States, representing 41% of all CO2 emissions.

Carbon dioxide is produced naturally through plant photosynthesis, animal respiration, plant and animal decay, volcanoes, and diffusion out of the oceans. Without this natural production of CO2, life on our planet would cease to exist. The balance of oxygen and carbon we need for life began to change with the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s. At that time humans began adding to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the rate of CO2 production has steadily increased to the point that global warming has become a critical issue.

Carbon dioxide emissions have risen from 280 ppm in 1850 to 364 ppm in the 1990s. This increase has caused about 50-60% of the global warming. Fossil fuel combustion for energy generation causes about 70-75% of the carbon dioxide emissions, being the main source of carbon dioxide emissions. The remaining 20-25% of the emissions are caused by land clearing and burning and by emission from motor vehicle exhausts. Most carbon dioxide emissions derive from industrial processes in developed countries, such as in the United States and in Europe. However, carbon dioxide emissions from developing countries are rising. In this century, carbon dioxide emissions are expected to double and they are expected to continue to rise and cause problems after that.

When fossil fuels are burned to produce energy the carbon stored in them is emitted almost entirely as CO2. The main fossil fuels burned by humans are petroleum (oil), natural gas and coal. CO2 is emitted by the burning of fossil fuels for electricity generation, industrial uses, transportation, as well as in homes and commercial buildings. In 2006, petroleum supplied the largest share of domestic energy demands, accounting for an average of 47 percent of total fossil-fuel-based energy consumption in 2006. Coal and natural gas followed in order of importance, accounting for 27 and 26 percent of total fossil fuel consumption, respectively. The figure below displays emissions for each of these sectors, by fuel type in 2006.

The first person who predicted that emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels and other burning processes would cause global warming was Svante Arrhenius, who published the paper "On the influence of carbonic acid in the air upon the temperature of the ground" in 1896. However, it wasn’t until the 1930’s that it was confirmed that atmospheric carbon dioxide was actually increasing. In the late 1950s when highly accurate measurement techniques were developed, even more confirmation was found. By the 1990s, the global warming theory was widely accepted, although not by everyone. Whether global warming is truly caused by increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, is still debated.

The University of Chicago study is based on 24,519 measurements of ocean pH spanning eight years, which represents the first detailed dataset on variations of coastal pH at a temperate latitude, where the world's most productive fisheries live.

"Of the variables the study examined that are linked to changes in ocean acidity, only atmospheric carbon dioxide exhibited a corresponding steady change," said J. Timothy Wootton, the lead author of the study and Professor of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago.

"The acidity increased more than 10 times faster than had been predicted by climate change models and other studies," Wootton said.

"This increase will have a severe impact on marine food webs and suggests that ocean acidification may be a more urgent issue than previously thought, at least in some areas of the ocean," he added.

"Many sea creatures have shells or skeletons made of calcium carbonate, which the acid can dissolve," said Catherine Pfister, associate professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago and a co-author of the study.

Climate alarmists are striving to convince us that we have a moral responsibility -- if not a religious duty -- to do all in our power to reduce our CO2 emissions and thereby "save the planet" from a catastrophic warming that they claim will otherwise lead to the extinctions of millions of species of plants and animals. If this unfortunate fate would indeed result from continued "business as usual" anthropogenic CO2 emissions, their "proselytizing" on this issue would be justified. But what if they are wrong? And, what if their policy prescriptions actually cause the very catastrophe they claim they will cure?

Only you can decide for yourself your position on this debate. But before you make that decision, please gather the facts and don’t bury your head in the sand and think someone else will take care of it. We are all contributing to the problem and will take all of us to do something to change it.

Whether you choose to follow the science or not, there is definitely a correlation between the increase of carbon dioxide and the warming of our planet. You cannot ask for more clearly defined proof than this.

Further reading:
CO2 Science
NASA maps shed light on Carbon Dioxide’s Global Nature
Climate Change – Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Ocean’s Carbon Balance
What is the Carbon Cycle?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bio-based Butanol as an alternative fuel

Scientists have been feverishly studying many alternative fuels in an effort to break our tether to fossil fuels. Realistically, they are trying to find the next big money maker, but who can blame them.

Nasib Qureshi, chemical engineer, has been trying to perfect a modified method of producing biobutanol from wheat straw since 2003. he reasons that wheat straw is present in abundance and its cost would be lower than corn-glucose dependent feedstock.

Another reason for the interest in using biobutanol as fuel is its several advantages over ethanol. New pipelines are not required for transportation of biobutanol – existing pipelines will do. Biobutanol is less corrosive compared to ethanol. Biobutanol is less prone to water contamination. Biobutanol can be used alone in internal combustion engines or it can be mixed with gasoline. Biobutanol provides more energy per gallon than ethanol.

Biobutanol can also be produced from fermented sugars drawn from corn glucose. But large scale commercial production of such biofuels was not possible due to high recovery costs, low yields and easy availability of conventional fuels. But conditions are different now. Our environment is more polluted, reserves of conventional fuels are not going to last forever and gasoline prices keep fluctuating alarmingly.

Clostridium bacteria is one of scientists favorite means of stimulating fermentation. Preparation of biofuels mainly involves four preparatory steps such as pretreatment, hydrolysis, fermentation and recovery. These steps have to be carried out separately and sequentially. But Qureshi and his team members deviated from this traditional method and combined three of the four steps. They employed a procedure known as “gas stripping” to extract the biobutanol. First the wheat straw has been pretreated with dilute sulphuric acid or other chemicals. Next the material is fermented in a bioreactor containing three different types of commercial enzymes and a culture of C. beijerinckii P260, a strain Qureshi obtained from Professor David Jones of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. Here Qureshi has combined the two steps.

The bacteria and enzymes do their jobs simultaneously. First the enzymes hydrolyze the straw and release simple sugars then the bacterias start fermenting those sugars into acetone, butanol and ethanol. Butanol is produced in greatest quantity but other two are also valuable components. “Feb batch feeding” method increased the butanol production. Qureshi says he is planning to scale up production levels in 2009. “Then, we’ll look at the economics of using hydrolyzed wheat straw to see how we’re doing and move this process forward.”

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Vaporizing Garbage into Gas

Every year so much garbage ends up in America’s landfills that we are becoming the Saudi Arabia of trash. These dumps emit more of the greenhouse gas methane than any other human-related source. The Atlanta-based company Geoplasma has created an innovative method of using plasma technology to turn rotting rubbish into usable power for up to 50,000 homes and at the same time reduce the amount of methane into the atmosphere.

Engineers have developed an efficient torch for blasting garbage with a stream of superheated gas, known as plasma. When trash is dropped into a chamber and heated to 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, its organic components—food, fluids, paper—vaporize into a hot, pressurized gas, which turns a turbine to generate electricity. Steam, a by-product, can generate more. Inorganic refuse such as metals condense at the bottom and can be used in roadbeds and heavy construction.

Several small plasma plants exist around the world for industrial processes, but Geoplasma is constructing the first U.S. plasma refuse plant in St. Lucie County, Florida. The plant is scheduled to go online by 2011; it will process 1,500 tons of garbage a day, sending 60 megawatts of electricity to the power grid (after using some to power itself).

Emissions are far lower than in standard incineration, and the process reduces landfill volume and methane release. Power prices are projected to be on par with electricity from natural gas. The difference, says Ron Roberts, St. Lucie County’s assistant director of solid waste, is that “you’re getting rid of a problem and making it a positive.

Photo Credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory