Clark Williams-Derry

Clark Williams-Derry is research director for the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, a nonprofit sustainability think tank working to promote smart solutions for the Pacific Northwest. He was formerly the webmaster for Grist.

The scrap heap is history?

Check it out: by 2015, all cars sold in Europe must be 95 percent recyclable. Apparently, Mercedes-Benz already has a 2007-model year car that meets the requirement. Part of me wonders if automotive engineers aren't actually excited by this sort of challenge. It seems that whenever a new idea like this comes along, the auto executives complain about how impossible and costly it will be -- but as soon as the industry's hands are forced, the engineers figure out how to pull it off faster and cheaper than the executives had claimed was possible. It happened with catalytic converters, with seat belts, with air bags. And now, if early signs are any guide, it's happening with recycling.

Sic transit

Will transit ridership increase as gas prices continue to spike?

As big-time blogger Duncan Black noted over the weekend, high gasoline prices seem to have boosted ridership on some of the the nation's transit systems -- which led big-time blogger Matthew Yglesias to speculate that gas consumption may be more sensitive to price than economists have predicted. Yglesias' take seems mistaken to me. Nationwide, less than 5 percent of all commuting trips are taken on transit; and commutes represent a minority of all trips that people make, but a fairly large share of all transit trips taken. So even if transit ridership were boosted by, say, 20 percent -- which is a huge spike indeed -- that might represent a decrease in vehicle trips of, oh, a half a percent or so at most. In fact, it seems to me that any recent increases in transit ridership are pretty much in line with what economists would predict from recent gas price increases. (See here, especially table 8, for a summary of economic predictions for the relationship between fuel prices and demand.) Of course, that doesn't necessarily undermine Yglesias' main point, which is that higher gas taxes would decrease fuel consumption.

SUV watershed?

Pollsters aren’t asking the right questions about energy issues

There's more to this article than the headline, but the headline alone says quite a bit: "Poll: 8 in 10 want drivers to drop SUVs." That's another tentative -- though possibly shallow -- sign that high gas prices are turning Americans against their gas guzzlers. Of course, since SUVs, trucks, and minivans have commanded roughly half of the new-vehicle market in recent years, one wonders if this means that 3 in 10 people want other drivers to drop their low-mileage vehicles. Other poll responses are equally telling. Seven out of 10 respondents want the government to fight rising gasoline bills by establishing price controls. Of course, holding down prices makes us consume more gas than we otherwise would. Plus, in a world of limited petroleum supplies, price controls could lead to all sorts of other problems -- shortages, rationing, etc. (As The Washington Post's Robert Samuelson reminds us, Cheap Gas Is a Bad Habit.) Seven out of 10 also support new government spending on transit. But almost six in 10 now think it's more important to explore for new sources of energy than to protect the environment; and five in 10 favor opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development, up from just 42 percent earlier in the year.

No kidding

EPA loophole could allow pesticide testing on kids

Just take a look at this San Francisco Chronicle headline: EPA rule loopholes allow pesticide testing on kids That's right -- if this story is to be believed, the EPA has created a loophole that would allow the pesticide industry to test whether its wares are safe by using real, live kids.   But astonishingly, the real story is actually even uglier than that. According to the Chronicle, the EPA rules -- allegedly designed to protect kids and pregnant women -- specifically allow testing on "children who have been abused and neglected." Just read: [W]ithin the 30 pages of rules are clear-cut exceptions that permit: -- Testing of "abused or neglected" children without permission from parents or guardians. -- "Ethically deficient" human research if it is considered crucial to "protect public health." -- More than minimal health risk to a subject if there is a "direct benefit" to the child being tested, and the parents or guardians agree. Read the story -- I'm not making this up.

102nd use for a dead cat

Turn it into biodiesel. This smells a bit like a hoax. But perhaps it's not: after all, if you can turn turkey guts into biodiesel, why not felines? And, come to think of it, why stop with cats?

Energy news that's fit to print

A bonanza of energy-related stories in The New York Times

Today's New York Times has a bonanza of energy-related stories -- some tied to the most recent price increases triggered by Katrina and others to some longer-term trends ...

Gas Mileage: Consumer Retorts

Consumer Reports’ real-world mpg figures make the Prius even more appealing

Consumer Reports recently claimed that EPA's vehicle ratings routinely overstate how fuel-efficient cars and trucks are in real-world driving. For standard cars and trucks, the magazine says, EPA's ratings overstate real-world fuel economy by 30 percent. But for small hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius, they claim that EPA overstates actual miles-per-gallon by a hefty 42 percent. (Ouch.) Now, I believe that there's reason to question Consumer Reports' figures. Of course, I have read a number of reports that the Toyota Prius doesn't actually get the EPA-rated 55 mpg in combined city/highway driving (though some people -- particularly those who've optimized their hybrid-driving habits -- get pretty close, and these folks actually squeezed out 110 mpg from their Prius, albeit in highly non-standard driving conditions). But I'd never heard any claim that the typical Prius averages just 32 mpg -- which is what the magazine's figures suggest. See this comment by WorldChanging's Jamais Cascio for a similar take. But, just for the sake of argument, let's take the CR figures at face value, and assume that small hybrids' mileage really is overstated by 42 percent, vs. just 30 percent for regular cars. Doesn't the higher mpg reduction for hybrids suggest that their fuel-savings advantages vs. regular cars are overstated -- and that they don't save as much money as advertised? Actually, no. As counterintuitive as it may sound, the Consumer Reports figures, on their face, actually bolster the economic case for buying hybrids.

Are Lexus lanes a HOT idea?

Hybrids in HOV lanes may do more harm than good

I don't often agree with New York Times columnist John Tierney, but on this I do. The idea of opening up HOV lanes to hybrid cars is getting bandied about quite a bit, and is already a reality in Virginia and California. But as enticing as the idea may seem, I think it's a mistake. In Virginia, carpool lanes are getting more and more clogged with drive-alone commuters in hybrid cars. But in terms of saving energy, it's more important to keep HOV lanes flowing freely for transit, vanpool, and (perhaps) carpools than to fill them with drive-alone commuters -- even if they're driving efficient cars. As more and more hybrids enter the vehicle fleet, the HOV-clogging problem will only intensify. Plus, hybrid owners may quickly come to perceive driving in the HOV lane as a right rather than a privilege, making it harder to reclaim those lanes for transit. On top of all that, politicians have a disturbing tendency to lower standards, allowing bigger and less fuel-efficient hybrids to use the lanes. So it's a bad idea to begin with, and the slippery slope makes it seem worse and worse. Turning HOV lanes into HOT lanes -- "high-occupancy/toll" lanes free to buses and carpools, available to others for a toll that's dynamically priced to keep traffic flowing -- is a better option than opening HOV lanes to hybrids. Both ideas increase the number of cars on the road, but HOT lanes at least have the advantage of keeping transit moving smoothly while introducing the not-so-radical notion that freeways aren't really free. The most potent argument against HOT lanes is that they're really "Lexus Lanes" -- i.e., rich people will pay to use them but everyone else will be stuck in traffic. Admittedly, the optics of HOT lanes aren't great. But hybrid owners tend to be a well-heeled bunch too, so giving them free access to the HOV lanes still has social and class implications. And besides, according to this Q&A (scroll down to the bottom) studies of HOT lanes in California say that: Although roughly one-quarter of the motorists in the toll lanes at any given time are in the top income bracket, data demonstrate that the majority are low and middle-income motorists. The benefits of the HOT lane are enjoyed widely at all income levels. I don't take that as definitive -- but it certainly suggests that the well-off wouldn't be the sole beneficiaries of HOT lanes.

Better than CAFE, sweeter than taxes

CAFE standards and gas taxes are not the only choices

My own take on CAFE standards is roughly Kevin Drum's: There's no need to think of CAFE standards and gas taxes as an either/or choice. And you can probably get more done with both than with either alone. In fact, there's reason to believe that gas taxes wouldn't raise efficiency as effectively as CAFE standards. Consumers typically undervalue the benefits of fuel efficiency -- they only take a few years worth of gas savings into account when buying a car, even if they plan on holding onto the car for much longer. That's not necessarily rational, but it's apparently human (or at least American) nature. And it means that fuel taxes probably would need to be really steep to get the same result as CAFE standards. Now, as long as we're dreaming about conservation policy, there are two ideas that get much less attention than either gas taxes or CAFE standards, but that could be far more effective than either.

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