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.

“Foreign oil” redux

Reading Hillary Clinton's recent speech (more on that later) reminded me of an old hobbyhorse: As faithful readers will recall, the term "foreign oil" irritates me to no end. Decrying our dependence of foreign oil is just a way of decrying our dependence on oil, period -- with the extra macho credibility that comes with jingoistic, xenophobic overtones. For that reason it's probably politically necessary. But it adds nothing to our substantive understanding of America's energy situation. For a host of geological, economic, social, and environmental reasons, we could never conceivably produce enough "domestic oil" to satisfy our demand -- and anyway, what domestic oil we do produce goes out on the world market like any other oil. The problems that come with dependence on foreign oil and the problems that come with dependence on oil are one in the same. It would make as much sense to decry "liquid oil" or "underground oil." So if you hear the term "foreign oil" from a politician, assume it's accompanied by a wink and a nod. If you hear it from a pundit, assume it's accompanied by confusion. Update [2005-10-25 14:0:34 by David Roberts]: Oh, the whole point of this post was supposed to be: The term "foreign oil" suggests that domestic oil would be okay, and thus supports the scumbags in Congress who are trying to build new refineries on military bases and neuter environmental protections. It doesn't matter that in her speech, Clinton says "a few more refineries and drills won't solve the problem" -- the very term she's using to frame the problem works against that point. Framing, people. Look it up.

The most politically powerful welfare recipients in the world

Wealthy ‘family farmers’ in California wage PR campaign to maintain their subsidies

We're happy to present this guest essay from Lloyd G. Carter, an attorney and former journalist who has written about California water issues since 1969. Carter is president of the California Save Our Streams Council. ----- Remember the family farmer? He was immortalized in Grant Wood's 1930 painting "American Gothic": a grim, hardscrabble stoic in overalls, grasping a pitchfork. Guess what? It wasn't really a farmer. It was Wood's dentist posing as a farmer. Fresno County's own philosopher/farmer, Victor Davis Hanson, announced years ago that the family farmer was a figment of the urban imagination. Hanson wrote that the multi-generational family farm has all but disappeared and that soon the only thing left will be "broke serfs and thriving corporations." But now a coalition of western San Joaquin Valley agribusiness interests have launched a multi-million dollar media blitz to convince Californians that the modern "family farmer" still exists -- and needs to keep consuming colossal amounts of California river water. The statewide ad campaign includes television spots, full page newspaper ads, bus stop billboards in big cities, and even sponsorship of the "California Report" on National Public Radio. The word "family" is repeated ad nauseum.

Must read

Dave Pollard on the avian flu pandemic.

TIME and energy

TIME magazine has a package of stories on energy and related matters (The Watt links to all of them). I only read the "Peak Oil: Yes it is! No it isn't!" bit, and it was distinctly unenlightening. But maybe the rest of it is good.

Wicked-smaht grids

I'm at that blissful point vis-a-vis "smart grids" where I know enough about them to think they're bitchin', but not enough to know why they're never gonna happen. Whee! So I was happy that eternal optimist Joel Makower flagged this report (PDF) from the Center for Smart Energy. (Who's against smart energy, huh?) The report says there are boatloads of money -- around $45 billion -- waiting to be made by the folks who get to this stuff first. Whenever I hear a stat like that, I think, hm, are businessfolk in this industry just retarded? If there's $45 billion on the table, why is no one grabbing it? What do the think-tankers and the pundits know that the business types don't? Same think with peak oil -- if oil's going to cost $200 a gallon in 10 years or so, why does anyone who has any oil sell it? As opposed to, say, holding onto it for 10 years and raising their profits by some 150%. Maybe a reader can enlighten me. Anyhoo, of particular interest are these seven key markers of smart grids:

NYT comes out for the gas tax

It's hard to decide whether to love or hate the New York Times these days. It's reaping a much-deserved whirlwind over its bungling of WMD coverage, Judy Miller, and matters Plame. But then, their lead editorial today -- arguing in favor of a federal gas tax -- is right square on the money. You won't find a more compact, solid summary of the problem than this, the first paragraph: There's no serious disagreement that two major crises of our time are terrorism and global warming. And there's no disputing that America's oil consumption fosters both. Oil profits that flow to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries finance both terrorist acts and the spread of dangerously fanatical forms of Islam. The burning of fossil fuels creates greenhouse emissions that provoke climate change. All the while, oil dependency increases the likelihood of further military entanglements, and threatens the economy with inflation, high interest rates and risky foreign indebtedness. Until now, the government has failed to connect our crises and our consumption in a coherent way. That dereliction of duty has led to policies that are counterproductive, such as tax incentives to buy gas guzzlers and an overemphasis on increasing domestic oil supply, although even all-out drilling would not be enough to slake our oil thirst and would require a reversal of longstanding environmental protections. Of course, any gas-tax proposal faces two difficulties:

Warming oceans and Hurricane Wilma

In Environmental Science & Technology, Paul Thacker interviews Judith Curry, climatologist and coauthor of a recent paper in Science on the connection between warming oceans and hurricanes. In her work she found -- as did two similar papers published in peer-reviewed journals recently -- that hurricane intensity is increasing, and it's linked to increasing ocean temperatures, and this is true across the globe. She says: ... you can't use hurricanes to prove that there is global warming. What you can do is show an unambiguous link between the increase in hurricane intensity and the warming sea surface temperatures. And if you look for why the sea surface temperatures are warming since the 1970s, you don't have any explanation other than greenhouse warming. In totally unrelated news, Hurricane Wilma is the most powerful storm in Atlantic history -- it went from fairly mild to the strongest effing storm ever in 18 hours, blowing away the previous record for speed of intensification. ... Keith Blackwell, hurricane researcher at the University of South Alabama's Coastal Weather Research Center in Mobile ... said Wilma's rapid intensification was caused by the warm waters of the northwest Caribbean, which have spawned other extremely powerful storms. ... "There are so many astounding things about this season," Blackwell said. Wacky.

Rebuilding: Mississippi renewal

Everything I've heard about the Mississippi Renewal Forum leads me to believe it is (was, I guess, since it ended this week) a really kick-ass example of exactly what's needed in the Gulf Coast rebuilding effort. Time will tell whether local communities take the advice meted out in the many New Urbanist presentations, but it sounds like everybody, including Gov. Haley Barbour, was impressed. Click around the site a bit -- there's a daily journal and tons of pictures and descriptions from the presentations. Great stuff. Update [2005-10-21 15:18:58 by David Roberts]: More at inhabitat, the NYT, and the radio program Open Source.

Barringer lets one get by

The New York Times' Felicity Barringer gets dinged by Media Matters for credulously passing on a bit of administration propaganda about the Arctic Refuge. C'mon, Ms. B, you gotta be on your guard with these people.