David Roberts

David Roberts

Energy, politics, and more

David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist. You can subscribe to his RSS feed or follow him on Twitter or email him at droberts at grist dot org, if you're into that sort of thing.

Kolbert report

This week's New Yorker has another fantastic piece from Elizabeth Kolbert on global warming: "Butterfly Lessons." It's a fairly detailed look at the effect of climate change on a range of butterfly and frog species. It's not online (yet?), but Kolbert is rapidly becoming reason enough to subscribe to the magazine. I can't wait for her book.

GM and ethanol

Just because General Motors calls it green doesn’t mean it is.

Joel Makower reports that General Motors will lead a joint demonstration project "to learn more about consumer awareness and acceptance of E85 as a motor vehicle fuel by demonstrating its use in GM's flexible-fuel vehicles." The California Department of Transportation will use some flex-fuel vehicles and work with Chevron Technology Ventures to make sure there are filling stations that offer E85 (gas w/ 85% ethanol). A company called Pacific Ethanol will provide the liquid fuel. Filling stations that sell E85 will be receiving "a lucrative federal tax credit." Joel passes rather lightly over the central problem with biofuels, a problem advocates have never satisfactorily resolved. We're always told that biomass for ethanol could come from crop waste, fryer grease, turkeys, or what have you, but what it inevitably will be made from is whatever's cheapest. Right now it's cheapest to use corn, sugarcane, soybeans, and palm oil -- heavily-subsidized agribusiness products. Joel holds Brazil up as a model, boasting that it just became a net exporter of sugarcane ethanol. But right there in Brazil rainforests are being plowed down to plant crops, making carbon sinks into carbon sieves. If there were more confident predictions and fewer just-so stories about how genuinely renewable sources of ethanol will become cheaper than biodiversity-destroying, CO2-increasing agricultural crops, I would feel more comfortable biofuel boosting. I'm not ready to walk blindly into this future, holding General Motors' hand for comfort.

All Awkward Pauses Considered

I was on the radio, doing a humorless slow-drone thing when I think maybe they wanted some zest and wit and, um, brevity.

New EPA fuel economy regs

The EPA's long-awaited and more accurate fuel-economy calculations will debut next week.


Poor safety enforcement led to the tragedy

The Sago mine disaster was first and foremost an incredible tragedy. (I challenge you to read this story and not get a tear in your eye.) I haven't said anything about it because in my experience most initial reports around accidents like this are exaggerated or plain wrong -- and that was certainly the case in Sago. But now that the dust is clearing a little bit, there seems to be a growing consensus that the accident was, if not the direct result, at least indirectly related to a woeful lack of enforcement on the part of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. And that, of course, has to do with the coal industry's extraordinary friendliness with the Bush administration (though previous administrations, including Clinton's and Bush I's, share plenty of responsibility). Start with today's NYT editorial, but for details and background, check out the guest posts from Ellen Smith, the editor of Mine Safety and Health News, over on Washington Monthly: here, here, and here. ThinkProgress also has some good stuff here, here, and here. Update [2006-1-6 14:28:57 by David Roberts]: More from Jordan Barab.

New Year’s Resolutions 2006

Stop drooling over concept cars we’ll never own That is, as soon as we’re done gawking at this stackable, shareable, electric two-seater dreamt up by MIT’s Smart Cities team. It’s inspired by corralled shopping-carts, powered …

The Mustache of Understanding speaks truth

Woah. Tom Friedman is on fire. Of course you can't read it unless you pay for Times $elect, so here are the relevant bits: Sorry, but being green, focusing the nation on greater energy efficiency and conservation, is not some girlie-man issue. It is actually the most tough-minded, geostrategic, pro-growth and patriotic thing we can do. ... ... The biggest threat to America and its values today is not communism, authoritarianism or Islamism. It's petrolism. Petrolism is my term for the corrupting, antidemocratic governing practices - in oil states from Russia to Nigeria and Iran - that result from a long run of $60-a-barrel oil. Petrolism is the politics of using oil income to buy off one's citizens with subsidies and government jobs, using oil and gas exports to intimidate or buy off one's enemies, and using oil profits to build up one's internal security forces and army to keep oneself ensconced in power, without any transparency or checks and balances. ... No matter what happens in Iraq, we cannot dry up the swamps of authoritarianism and violent Islamism in the Middle East without also drying up our consumption of oil - thereby bringing down the price of crude. A democratization policy in the Middle East without a different energy policy at home is a waste of time, money and, most important, the lives of our young people. ... We need a president and a Congress with the guts not just to invade Iraq, but to also impose a gasoline tax and inspire conservation at home. That takes a real energy policy with long-term incentives for renewable energy - wind, solar, biofuels - rather than the welfare-for-oil-companies-and-special-interests that masqueraded last year as an energy bill. ... Green is the new red, white and blue. Amen, brother! Update [2006-1-6 11:11:0 by David Roberts]: Just as a tangential side-note: I know how (conservative populism) and why (9/11) it happened, but nonetheless I find it utterly galling how completely our national dialogue has come to be dominated by arguments about who is more macho and who is a "sissy." (Note to Friedman: "sissy" is not a word that genuinely macho people use.) What about intelligence? Pragmatism? Anyone?

Lists and very alternative energy

Among the nifty things to read about in L.A. Weekly's List Issue is this: "8 New Very Alternative Energy Ideas" I particularly like the bit with the hamsters.

Oil independence and the electorate

Who’s fired up about energy?

New York governor George Pataki (R) is delusional if he thinks he's going to win the Republican nomination for president. McCain might have a teeny tiny eensy beensy sliver of a chance. Giuliani, even eensier. But Pataki, no. The very things he's done to appeal to moderates in his home state will damn him irredeemably in the eyes of today's Republican base. That said, he does seem set to run, and as peakguy on Oil Drum NYC says, his final State of the State speech may well be setting up one of the central planks of his strategy: independence from "foreign oil." Not just here in New York, but across the nation, our reliance on foreign oil is hampering the financial freedom of our working families and their employers; it is hurting our economy, damaging our environment and enriching regimes that support, harbor and encourage the terrorists who threaten our national security. You'll be hearing this kind of stuff from members of both parties. It will be pitched to sound tough on national security and bullish on the economy. Environmental messages will be muted at best. I must say I'm skeptical about the electoral efficacy of energy independence, at least at present. While it is carefully calibrated to appeal across a number of demographics, I don't think anybody but environmentalists really feel fired up about it. Like most environmental issues, its appeal is broad but shallow. We've had high gas prices this year, and that put oil on everybody's radar. And of course there's, you know, the Iraq war, which according to a new study may run this country up to $2 trillion. But most folks still don't connect that to oil. Most people have not have their lives directly affected by our dependence on oil -- at least in ways they perceive as such. Most people are still living their comfortable, driving, suburban, middle-class lives just fine. It will take a huge, sustained price spike, I think, before "energy independence" gets any real traction as a campaign slogan.

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