Climate & Energy

The experiment

If biofuels are sustainable, we should be able to show it

A friend recently sent me a one-page press release from an ethanol lobby group that purported to debunk "myths" of biofuels. Our ensuing discussion helped me clarify why even people who once were excited and optimistic about biofuels (like me) are now so opposed to production subsidies (as opposed to R&D). My friend asked (paraphrasing), "If not biofuels, then what?" and noted that what we're doing now -- "squeezing oil out of rocks" -- is not exactly good for the planet. For me, the bottom line is simply this: Ethanol is no more a renewable fuel than hydrogen is. Rather, ethanol is a way for us to consume natural gas, diesel oil, and coal (not to mention a huge volume of water and vast acreage of cropland) to make motor fuels. All this is on top of serious problems raised by studies about land diversion for carbon emissions and food availability. It's important to remember that fossil fuels are biofuels (fuels made from once-living matter), so using that term alone isn't helpful.

Notable quotable

“So I hope that this film will help others to connect the dots the way it helped Tipper and me to connect the dots on the relationship between mountaintop removal — which is a crime …

U.S. should back off from biofuels to bring down food prices, says Texas guv

Has the U.S. push for biofuels contributed to rising global food prices? Well, yes, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday: “There has been apparently some effect, unintended consequence from the alternative fuels effort.” But, …

Carbon tax shifts?

The only obstacle to more state carbon taxes is politics

One of Washington State's conservative think tanks has just proposed a carbon tax shift. Interesting. (Read it here.) The Washington Policy Center has garbed its tax shift proposal in anti-government clothing. Some of the rhetoric makes my skin crawl. But the proposal itself is sensible if modest. It includes a starter carbon tax that pays for a small sales tax reduction. As a bonus, it throws in a business and occupations tax reduction on all capital investment. It's not goofy. It's the kind of thing I was hoping we might get about a decade ago, when energy and climate issues weren't front-page news. Today, I hope we can do better: a comprehensive, auctioned, regional cap-and-trade system with built-in buffers for working families. I'm guessing that the political chances of WPC's proposal are somewhat slimmer than the odds for my preferred climate pricing policy. So rather than engage in a fight over the rhetoric, I'll use it as a springboard to answering four questions that I've had from readers and from people at my speeches on climate policy.

The cost of the status quo

We keep being told how much it will cost us to leave fossil fuels behind. Here’s a little story about how much it will cost us to remain hooked: “According to normal economic theory, and …

Celebrating Earth Day with Tom Friedman

An interview with The ‘Stache pre-pie-in-the-face

Yes, Tom Friedman came to Brown University on Earth Day to unveil his new book and got hit by a pie. But he cleaned himself up, came back with a joke about surviving Beirut and Jerusalem but running into trouble in Providence, and went on to deliver a stem-winder of an address for an op-ed columnist essentially outlining his latest book. I found The World Is Flat to be a good window into business models in the 21st century. His new offering, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution -- and How It Can Renew America, promises to be a cogent lassoing and explication of many of the biggest things that matter in the 21st century. Friedman chooses as the crucial drivers: energy supply and demand, climate, the spread of democracy versus petro-authoritarianism, biodiversity, and energy poverty. A few bits from Friedman's speech to look forward to in Hot, Flat, and Crowded and when he returns to columns this month: The McCain gas tax holiday: A "dumb as we want to be" approach to energy policy. On high oil prices and petro-dictatorship: With oil at $25 per barrel, Bush looked into Putin's eyes and saw his soul. At $100 per barrel, look into Putin's eyes and you'll see "all the instruments of democracy he's swallowed." Did Reagan bring down the USSR -- or was it the decline in oil prices from $80 per barrel to $14.50? And finally, China as the Speed bus, except that it must switch from a diesel to a hybrid engine without going below 50 miles an hour. (That's the first thing since The Matrix that makes you aspire to be Keanu Reeves, isn't it?) Before his speech, I had the chance to catch up with Friedman and ask him a few questions. The short interview is below:

The slow car movement

Easing off the gas eases gas use

A few weeks ago, Clark wrote about truck drivers slowing down to economize on fuel. It's a great story, but was it a real trend or just anecdotal? Photo: Pietro Izzo Well, I'm here to report that there's some truth to it. Or at least some truthiness. A recent Congressional Budget Office paper examining the effects of gas prices found this: "Freeway motorists have adjusted to higher prices by making fewer trips and driving more slowly." That's surprising to me. I mean, I don't slow down when gas prices are high; it would never occur to me. Do other folks?

There is no food shortage

A gap between rich and poor makes free markets fail

It's really an absurd travesty when starvation gets blamed on "global warming do-gooders," and we haven't seen the last of that. The problem is miscast, though. There isn't a food shortage, at least not yet. There is a food price crisis, which is a very different beast. Are its roots in the huge resource gap between the relatively rich and the very poor? If that's true, it has broad implications. Here's one way of looking at it, from the Omaha World-Herald:

There's a hole in my energy bill

Biofuels loophole in 2007 energy bill grandfathers in pollution

A recent report ($ub. req'd) by Greenwire's Ben Geman revealed a massive loophole in the 2007 energy bill that renders meaningless most of the climate safeguards for corn ethanol that Democrats have touted. The loophole exempts any ethanol refineries that have already been built or were under construction at the time the bill passed from meeting the global warming requirements. Those facilities have a combined production capacity of 13.7 billion gallons, just shy of the 15 billion gallons of production mandated in the bill -- meaning that the Democrat-vaunted greenhouse-gas safeguards will apply to only 11 percent of corn ethanol production. With recent studies in the journal Science and elsewhere revealing that corn ethanol takes 167 years to produce enough greenhouse-gas savings to make it as green as regular old oil, and with billions of people struggling with skyrocketing food prices, and millions more acres of forest and savanna being destroyed, that means disaster for the climate and the world's poor.

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