Business & Technology

Big Rail

A pro-rail coalition should be much larger

As a big supporter of rail and transit, the creation of the OneRail coalition is quite heartening. It is, in a nutshell, a group of rail advocacy organizations that have banded together to lobby for rail investment. The Hill reports: Several trade and issue advocacy groups are part of OneRail, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Amtrak, the American Short Line & Regional Railroad Association, the Association of American Railroads, and the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership. If I have a complaint, it's this: A broader coalition is necessary. When highway funding is on the table, the heavies get into the game -- the oil companies, automobile companies, and chambers of commerce. Rail activities should also work to exploit the economic spillovers generated by rail investments. Transit-oriented development has proven lucrative for city governments as well as many commercial and residential developers. Producers of products from steel to electric and diesel engines to upholstery could benefit from new transit projects. Power companies, which helped develop the first generation of streetcar networks a century ago, might conceivably benefit from an increase in electricity demand or from the grid improvements that could accompany creation of improved national rail corridors. The point is this -- rail investment is good environmental, energy, and economic policy, but it's also good business. And if OneRail can get business on board, then we can expect real legislative progress.

Inefficiency goes into remission

Will state emission standards kill the U.S. car industry?

Sunday night The New York Times published, "Obama to Let States Restrict Emissions Standards." First reaction of those concerned only with a so-called economic recovery: "this will kill what's left of the U.S. car industry!" Wrong! This is exactly what the domestic car industry needs. No "car czar" or other federal regulator would be able to push as hard to get more fuel-efficient and lower-emissions vehicles produced in the U.S. faster than regulation-constrained market demand. That $17 billion provided as emergency support to GM and Chrysler had no real strings on fuel efficiency and emissions attached. Anyone who thinks the U.S. manufacturers could continue to compete with European and Asian car makers whose products are more energy efficient and less polluting -- and who are ahead of the domestic producers in their command of the new technologies -- is dreaming. We needed something to shake them up fast. This action by the Obama administration will do just that, without having to spend any of the new White House political capital on working new regulations through Congress.

Payback time?

A letter to Science ponders what $700 billion could do for the natural world

A letter to the editor from Jaboury Ghazoul, in the Jan. 23 issue of Science, tries to put into perspective the $700 billion bailout: An estimated 10 million species populate the earth. To ward against extinction, we could equitably award $70,000 to each and every one of these 10 million species from our $700 billion cash injection. The intertidal bryozoans of Scotland's West Coast would alone receive more than $3 million. In Borneo, the 350 or so species of dipterocarp trees could form a union to demand existence rights, using their $25 million to lobby for viable landscape mosaics in which they could persist alongside competing land uses ...

If you can't trust your toaster, who can you trust?

Underwriters Laboratories launches eco-branch

You've seen it on your toaster, probably, and on your hair dryer too: The little circle with "UL" inside. That means the good folks at Underwriters Laboratories have certified that the product meets health and safety regulations. And now UL is launching an arm called UL Environment that will verify green claims. This is the equivalent of, say, Julia Child offering to taste test your meatloaf: good news. Well, better news if she were still alive. But you see what I'm getting at.

Green Light: Greetings, master Toyota

Toyota becomes world's biggest automaker, Prius goes solar, and other green auto news

Toyota this week officially overtook the ailing General Motors to become the world's largest automaker. Both companies saw sales declines in 2008, but Toyota's 8.97 million vehicles sold bested its U.S. rival by about 620,000. GM was the globe's undisputed auto-king for 77 years. The 2010 Prius' solar roof. Photo courtesy of Toyota. Sales of Toyota's hybrid models dropped by 45 percent in December 2008, but the carmaker might win customers back with the 2010 Prius, which boasts 50+ mpg fuel efficiency, rooftop solar panels, three different drive modes to minimize fuel consumption, and LED headlights. Meanwhile, Toyota announced Tuesday that it would launch a Certified Used Hybrid program. In other auto news ... • Fiat agreed to take a 35 percent stake in Chrysler, which prompted speculation from media types that small, full-efficient, Italian-leathered, pentastar-bedecked coupes would be heading our way soon.

Will Fiat help Chrysler go green?

With Fiat's technology, Chrysler will build more small and midsize cars

Some commenters suggested my earlier post, "Chrysler to electrify entire product line," should have been filed under "humor." How was the company going to survive the current collapse of the auto industry, let alone find the money to invest in green cars? But now the NYT reports: The Italian automaker Fiat agreed on Tuesday to take a 35 percent stake in the struggling American auto company Chrysler, which was forced last month to seek a federal bailout amid fears it might not survive. And, as the article notes, this creates a real eco-opportunity for Chrysler:

Umbra on gift cards

Dear Umbra, I received a gift card this holiday season from a friend to a company which I generally avoid due to its subpar eco-practices. Since my friend has already given the money to this …

Illinois embarrasses itself again

Legislature approves 'Clean Coal Portfolio Standards,' green-lights new coal plant

OK, we've got Obama in the plus column for the state of Illinois. But in addition to the gubernatorial craziness going on in my home state, we've now got this: Tenaska, an independent power company, has been seeking to build a coal plant in Illinois. The problem being of course, that new, coal-fired power plants are really, really, really, really lousy investments. Tenaska tried to change government rules to ensure they made money. That in and of itself isn't inherently bad. Every company has a vested interest in tweaking laws to benefit their shareholders. But to ask is nobler than to receive. I wouldn't be a bad person if I asked the state to give me $1 million a year to support my crack habit, but if the state gave me that money and I accepted, we would both be complicit. So how did the Illinois legislature respond? "Clean Coal Portfolio Standards." Seriously.

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