Tuesday, January 21, 2014

West Virginia Governor Says: It's Your Decision

In the age of global warming and rising fossil fuel production costs, the paralysis of pragmatism among many right wing Republican politicians is becoming more evident. For Republicans, it's the age of do-nothingism.

But Democrats also need to make sure their politicians don't go down that road. Democratic Gov. Earl Tomblin says to West Virginians that 'it's your decision' whether to drink the water that was recently contaminated by a chemical spell. I'm sure many Americans have noticed many chemical spills, refinery accidents, oil spells and exploding fertilizer plants have occurred lately across the nation.

With all due respect, I disagree with the oddly lax attitude of the governor (he sure sounds like a Republican to me). Making sure the water supply is healthy and communities are livable should be a major goal of every state. But making sure the United States has a responsible energy and global warming plan going forward for the coming decades should be the highest priority of our nation.

It's a fact of life that we now have two critical issues facing us. No one in the world is more impacted by the two critical issues than the United States. We are, first of all, the world's biggest energy user per capita. So the need for new forms of energy is crucial. If we wish to remain economically healthy, we need over the next 10 to 25 years to turn to other forms of energy in a major way.

We are also one of the largest countries in the world. It would be an illusion to think that global warming will not affect us. We have three large climate change issues and a not so small issue. The not so small issue is in Alaska where the permafrost in the north is melting and homes and communities are literally sinking into the ground.

A big second issue is that the American West is having repeated bouts of drought, and the computer models expect more of them. Keep in mind that in places like California, the weather tends to be feast and famine. In the years that California gets rain, it gets far more than it wants. This may happen more often in other areas of the country.

Actually, the Gulf states and the Eastern seaboard at times will also have an increased number of the largest hurricanes, but possibly not more hurricanes in general (the science of our new changing climate isn't always going to be able to read exactly the changes and timing of what will come; but the energy pouring into the Earth's various climates is already having measurable consequences; and one of the major consequences is the way warm water is moving north in the late summer — warm water fuels hurricanes).

The final issue involves our coastlines. One part of the issue is already here: the rising seas are sending a great deal more water inland when big hurricanes and even thunder storms drive water inland. But the seas will continue rising and over the next few decades we will lose a certain percentage of our coastal lands. No one can precisely predict what will happen and when for a number of reasons; the biggest wild card is when the production of fossil fuels will begin to significantly drop.

The reality is the age of light sweet crude is over. We can no longer produce the best quality oil cheaply. Cheap oil is gone and is not returning. One call also see growing stresses in the refinery, fossil producing, and chemical sectors. And keep in mind that fossil producers have known about climate change for at least two decades. Most of them made a political choice to ignore the science. The smartest thing many of these companies should have done was take their enormous wealth and diversify. Some did, but most chose not to (curiously, there is still time to diversify but the window is on the edge of closing).

We have many politicians in the United States, particularly on the Republican side, who are currently in the back pockets of fossil fuel producers. Many of these producers interested in politics have been warned for years. Or rather decades. They have largely chosen not to listen. They refuse the evidence of global warming. And they refuse the evidence of the older issue: that we need new sources of energy. The first call for diversifying into other forms of energy, made purely on economic grounds, came in the 1970s. Here's something many people don't know: many of those calls came from those in the fossil industries, particularly those who had been in the business for 20-40 years.

In the end, maybe Gov. Tomblin is right, it's your decision. It's the decision of every American. Except the decision involves more than West Virginia. Do we push harder to begin the changes we need (there are exciting changes for cheaper sources of energy happening for those who are observant), or do we let the United States slip into irrelevance? I can virtually guarantee other nations will push for the new forms of energy that are falling rapidly in prices while we let fossil producers fantasize about dreams that have no relevance during the growing crisis we are facing. American genius is still alive. But the ground has shifted. The future no longer lies in fossil fuels that now cost four more times than what they cost just in the early 21st Century.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Faux Outrage from the Right?

I think we've all been aware of an incredible amount of anger coming from the far right. Even common sense Republicans who have more in common with Goldwater or Reagan than the Teas have commented on this from time to time, though perhaps using politer language in public. I happen to sympathize with common sense Republicans since sometimes the anger of the Tea Party is specifically directed at them, and is just as irrational as the anger directed at progressives.

In any case, articles show up from time to time that puzzle me. For example, there have been a lot of articles around oil, natural gas and fracking that are head scratchers. Here's an item from the Daily Camera in Colorado:

Founder and CEO Jonathan Sawyer [of XetaWave] said the Lafayette Community Rights Act, which was passed by voters in November and bans all new oil and gas drilling within city limits, puts a business like his in questionable legal territory

XetaWave provides radios to oil and gas operators that can relay information about operational aspects at remote sites, such as condensation tank levels or flow rates at the well.

Because the charter amendment states that it is illegal in Lafayette to "engage in the creation of fossil fuel, nuclear or other non-sustainable energy production and delivery infrastructures," Sawyer said it's not clear to him if a company like XetaWave could be prosecuted even if it doesn't extract energy itself.

Now maybe Mr. Sawyer was misled or misunderstood, and maybe the writer of the article is just writing the facts as they came to him. In the comments, a city attorney is also mentioned who may also be part of the story. But what I see is something that I see too often that looks like a phony tempest in a teapot that is designed to make those "dangerous left wingers" look like idiots. However, in our country, our communities still have some latitude on organizing their communities how they see fit (and yes, sometimes local politics go the other way). Now as I understand it, the right to drill whether anybody likes it or not is not one I see in the U.S. Constitution. 
Now the law in Lafayette was legally passed and was intended to stop oil drilling within the city limits. That much is clear. 
But a claim seems to have been made (by opponents of the law?) that anything remotely associated with oil drilling whether inside the city or outside is somehow illegal according to the new city ordinance. This of course is ridiculous. The logic of that interpretation might mean that if a candy factory inside the city limits supplied their product to an oil company's vending machines outside the city, they would be in violation of the city ordinance. A broad interpretation by right wingers would be a classic example of right wingers looking for controversy where none exists. I've heard a phrase for it in recent years (since 2010, in fact): "Faux Outrage." Sometimes, because we hear such things so often on Fox News, I've seen it as "Fox Outrage."
The irony is that many oil companies have full-time lawyers who clean up numerous and serious company violations of the law on the quiet. It would not surprise me if the more conservative oil executives find Faux Outrage a convenient utility in their legal tool box, though of course in this particular case, the motivations of the company may simply be informational. Nevertheless, the question remains: how is it that such a trivial story came to be in the Daily Camera? And why is it that such phony stories of late have so often managed to be printed?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Fossil Fuels Have Served Their Purpose

I had an older relative who was involved in building one of the first long distance natural gas pipelines. He finished the pipeline around 1930, long before I was born. Natural gas was much cleaner than coal and was considered an improvement in that era. The truth is that coal, oil and natural gas, in their time, created the modern age. It's a simple historical fact that oil made possible victory for the allies in World War I and World War II. Without oil, the automobile age would not be possible.

But we now know that fossil fuels are a major source of the carbon dioxide emissions that are responsible for causing global warming. The Arctic is melting. Temperatures are rising (particularly in the oceans). Megastorms are beginning to appear. And we know these things sooner than we might have because coal, oil and natural gas were instrumental in helping create a huge world population increase as well as massive industrialization throughout large areas of the Earth.

But there's a second story that has been getting little attention: the decline of cheap fossil fuels. The age of cheap light sweet crude is over. It's been over for almost ten years now. We now rely on heavy crude, Fracked oil and gas, and tar sands. Coal, over the last hundred years, has been just getting lower and lower in grade. Only natural gas is holding its own and that's only if the prices stay up, but many regard natural gas as experiencing a production bubble that cannot be sustained.

The reality is that the costs of fossil fuels are rising. And more and more energy needs to be invested to bring fossil fuels to market, thus defeating some of the important value of fossil fuels. Many of the companies who produce fossil fuels are currently in denial. That's a long story I'll leave to others to explain. Some of the dominant figures in coal and oil, for example, have political agendas that they try to tie to their businesses in ways inconsistent with who we are as a nation and not consistent with our needs.

The truth is that we've known for a long time that fossil fuels are in trouble. The crucial issue, above all others, is oil. One of the largest producers of oil in the world, the United States, reached maximum production a long time ago, back in 1970. We had a resurgence because of the North Slope but we never again reached maximum production. Because of fracking in places like Texas, North Dakota and elsewhere, oil and natural gas production are once again rising in the United States. We may even surpass the totals from 1970, but it's likely to be short-lived and we are doing it at considerable cost to our future.

There are two issues. First, global warming cannot be ignored. For anyone who has looked at the science, that ship has sailed. Second, we cannot wait until the last shipload or trainload of fossil fuels to begin the transition to fossil fuels. That second issue is now crucial given the eroding circumstances of fossil fuels.

Here's a story from Cleantech about a coal terminal — a story we are seeing more often in all areas of fossil fuels:

The Gateway Pacific Terminal, near Bellingham, Washington, is poised to become the West Coast’s biggest coal export project — but it will no longer have the backing of New York-based, international banking behemoth Goldman Sachs.
On Tuesday, Goldman Sachs sold its stock back to the companies proposing to build the terminal, which would transport 48 million tons of coal from Wyoming to Asia annually.
The banks are starting to see the writing on the wall. Alternative energy is clean and competitive. And because of a host of brilliant scientists and researchers, the prices for alternative energy will continue to improve.

Monday, September 30, 2013

I'm Back

My mom died last year and there was a great deal to do. I think she was meant to live to a hundred like her mother did, but she smoked most of her life and didn't quit until age 64. She died of lung cancer three weeks shy of her 90th birthday. But she lived a full life and she was a life giver in all the ways human beings can be. And fiercely independent.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Republicans Fighting for the Heart of the Republican Party

Santorum won the Iowa caucus after all, despite some alleged last minute shenanigans by the Romney supporters. But Romney clearly won New Hampshire, which is basically in his backyard. And, surprise, Newt Gingrich may pull out a squeaker in South Carolina. It's only January, and already there's been three primaries and possibly three different winners. We'll know the results by Saturday night... hopefully. The good news is that Republicans are trying to redefine their party. The bad news is that a lot of Republicans want a candidate who's as far to the right as possible.

It's clear the Republican party, after years of blunders and incompetence by George W. Bush, needs to go back to the drawing board. More important, the conservative ideas of the last thirty years simply don't work anymore. To put it bluntly, the Republican party needs to reform itself.

Of course, the notion of a Republican reformer is still a bit of an oxymoron. As so often happens in Washington, yesterday's right wing Republican vanguard is today's establishment. As an example, Santorum was a rebel when he was elected Senator from Pennsylvania. After two years, he became an establishment Republican protecting the business as usual interests of wealthy conservative Republicans, bankers and Wall Street high rollers. Hey, it's lucrative being a member of the establishment. And now, Tea Party favorite Eric Cantor is pulling the same stunt: after only one year this time, a Republican rebel has once again discovered the advantages of being part of the Republican establishment. Listen to what he says on TPMLivewire:
At a time when the Republican presidential nomination contest is growing increasingly nebulous, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) urged his party to “coalesce around a single vision with a nominee.”
It's not hard to read the tea leaves in Cantor's words. Instead of supporting an open primary process, he's telling voters to support the establishment candidate—meaning: someone who might be able to get elected. Everybody knows that neither Santorum or Gingrich is electable. Santorum represents a draconian right wing vision and Gingrich's reckless behavior does not make him fit for the oval office.

So the tea party big shots, who stopped mentioning the name of George W. Bush in 2008, want to continue Bush's policies by supporting Mitt Romney. Yep. Just what the country needs, two Republican businessmen in a row making decisions in the Oval Office according to what the hot shots on Wall Street want.

Hang on to your seats, folks. Until the leaders of the GOP reform the party, it's going to be a wild ride.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Contrarian Post on the Keystone XL Pipeline

I'm going to say some things in this post about the Keystone XL Pipeline that are likely to irritate liberals and conservatives. So let me begin with some premises about what's going on in the world.

1) Global warming is a real threat. Exactly what will happen in the next 100 years is not certain at this time. Maybe global warming won't be so bad. Maybe it will be our worst nightmare. The potential downside, however, is enormous if we do not take steps to control global warming. I'm reminded that we were told by industry experts and hotshot conservatives that nuclear energy poses no significant problems. The accident at Fukushima was supposed to be a once in a thousand year incident. It's rather odd how once in a hundred year events or once in a thousand year events keep happening. The worst case scenarios for global warming are too dangerous not to be taken seriously.

2) The fossil fuels we're using today are not only more expensive, but they are much dirtier and more prevalent than they were sixty years. Even if global warming were not an issue, it is pretentious to think that pollution from fossil fuels is not an issue. The growing acidification of the oceans is a major issue. The sulfurous clouds hanging over Asia are also an issue. These issues concern everyone, particularly the U.S.

3) The exploitation of tar sands, despite many measures taken to address environmental concerns, is proof that we're in trouble if we have to turn to such a dirty and expensive fuel. Light sweet crude is in decline and has been for several years.

4) The oil industry has convinced millions of Americans that global warming is not real, that alternative energy is a job killer and that oil can continue indefinitely to solve our energy needs. All three assertions are lies and are propaganda paid for by the oil industry, with considerable help from the people who control the Republican party.

5) The hour is late. We have put off the inevitable since the 1970s. Given the lateness of the hour, it will take an enormous amount of investment and work to create an economy based on alternative energy. And it will take time. I have seen very little that puts a number on how long it will take to cut our use of fossil fuels worldwide by 50%. Here I do not have the facts, but my guess is that it will take 15-30 years.

6. To power the transition, we will need a strong economy. It very likely will take the burning of more fossil fuels to power the transition to that economy. If we abruptly stop burning fossil fuels, the transition probably will not happen. Of course, as the use of alternative energy goes up, the use of fossil fuels can go down, but the consumption of fossil fuels cannot decline too fast.

7. The use of fossil fuels may possibly drop rapidly due to declining reserves of usable fossil fuels. Though the oil industry is beginning (just barely) to admit that fossil fuels other than coal will soon become much more difficult to bring to market, we again have wasted decades by not turning to alternative fuels sooner.

8. If by chance, or through incompetence of the far right, the economy of the U.S. collapses, or even if it simply declines, it is likely more fossil fuel will go to power the economy of Asian countries. Countries like India and China show no signs that they will be cutting the use of fossil fuels any time soon. The leadership role, by default, goes to the United States. It's true that Europe can be helpful but the continuing monetary crisis in Europe shows how difficult it can be for the Europeans to lead. Keep in mind, however, that over the last thirty years, Europeans have done a much better job than the U.S. of turning to alternative energy. But they are vulnerable to swings in the oil and natural gas markets. Europe has twice the population of the U.S., and if one does not count Russia, their oil reserves are considerably less.

Okay, here it goes.

I have very mixed feeling about the Keystone XL pipeline. Despite everything, we may need it. Republicans have handled our energy problems with such extraordinary incompetence that they have threatened our future.

I find it curious that some proponents and critics of the pipeline say the building of the pipeline won't significantly bring down the price of oil. Actually, the pipeline will bring down the price a small amount—not necessarily something to cheer about. It is politically not feasible, but I believe we need to make sure the price doesn't come down too far. Better yet, we need to slowly raise prices to match the real cost of oil, including clean up and CO2 emissions. We need to stop passing on the real cost of fossil fuels to our children and grandchildren. And Republicans need to stop indulging in the fantasy that some scientist will come up with some magic solution—this is ironic given how little Republicans have faith in science and how little they are willing to pay for major buildup in research. Right wingers cannot keep cutting the budget for science while expecting miracles.

Republicans have been bad-mouthing Detroit for almost four years, but Detroit is actually moving more and more toward efficient cars. What Republicans fail to understand is that Americans need both jobs and more efficient cars and transportation (don't anyone pretend that the pipeline will create a huge number of jobs; they will create some, but that's all). That the current Republican leadership would let Detroit go under says a great deal about the incompetence of Tea Party Republicans and other right wingers.

It is ridiculous, as some 'experts' have argued, that the building of the pipeline will make us dependent on Canada. Oil from Canada is a far safer bet than depending on keeping the Straits of Hormuz open. Yes, our navy can keep the straits open and probably will have to continue to do so. But having a secure supply of oil should not be discounted. There are going to be energy disruptions in the next twenty years. I despise the tar sands, but we may need those reserves to fuel the transition.

Now I'm going to really be contradictory. To a large extent, I support the protests against the pipeline. It is disgusting that we are relying on tar sands and talking as if oil is forever and that global warming is of no concern. The protests are a sign that Americans are at last waking up to concerns about our future. The obstructionism and incompetence of Republicans will continue for some time to come until somebody starts rebuilding the party on more pragmatic lines. In the meantime, I would like to see the protests geared more towards actually getting more green energy projects installed. But no one should pretend that we can quickly go without oil.

In some respects, I find it more urgent to start going after coal. Coal is tar sands in its worst form. If Congress had any sense, no more coal plants would be built. Again, it will take time to transition, but coal plants that go offline should not be replaced. This is where green organizations should be focusing. Not just closing coal plants, but replacing them with green energy. The money is potentially there. If progressives can raise money for political causes, they can raise money to build windmills, solar roofs and other forms of alternative energy.

UPDATE:    Jan. 21, 2014

It's two years later and much has change. The only thing useful about the tar sands is that it's proof that the fossil industries are dying. The energy return on the tar sands is criminal. Why? A high energy return on fossil fuels generates wealth for society as a whole. A very low energy return, as is the case with tar sands, only helps the very rich.

The other problem is that fracking is a bubble, nothing more. One can already see major problems in North Dakota. Production will continue to climb, in some months, but the number of months when production actually falls is continuing. North Dakota is simply running into a wall. Every land owner receiving money from the oil companies should look seriously into wind turbines and the necessary power lines to send electricity to out of state markets.

Secretary of State John Kerry should not approve the pipeline. That pipeline is not in the interest of our future.

President Obama should be doing as much as he can to get alternative energy moving along as quickly as possible. Prices in alternative energy are falling. As they continue to fall, alternative energy is America's best hope for an energy future and a healthy economy.

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Sunday, January 08, 2012

The Sociopaths on Wall Street

The ideal corporation through most of the 20th century was one that pursued profits while being reasonably responsible toward workers, the community, and consumers. Since about the 1960s, corporations have also, at least in theory, been more responsible when coming to the environment.

However, since the 1980s—some would argue sooner—there has been a deterioration in corporate ethics in many sectors. Certainly the S & L crisis, the ethical failures of the Exxon Valdez episode and the deaths and lack of financial responsibility associated with the Union Carbide Bhopal disaster—all three occurred in the 1980s—makes it clear that the interpretation of deregulation in that era was far too often synonymous with ethical lapses in the executive suite. From the end of the Reagan era until the end of George W. Bush's time in office, the interpretation has only gotten worse. Actually, in very little time, deregulation went from a need to adjust regulations to make them fairer and more sensible to becoming an outright license to break the law and defraud people in various sectors of society.

There have always been lapses among corporation and there has been debate about how much or how little a corporation should do. There have also been corporations, all along, that cut corners in order to gain an advantage over other corporations. A general rule of thumb in business is that competent people can always make money as long as everybody plays by the same rules. Unfortunately, people who are not very honest or competent or both are generally the first to look for short cuts, including favors from politicians.

The reality is that both parties are susceptible to influence peddling. Unfortunately, Republicans have pretty much made deregulation, as well as other ethically challenged ideas, pillars of their political philosophy. In addition, if an ethically-challenged business executive makes enormous profits, many Republican politicians, are notoriously slow to recognize that there is a problem (e.g., Kenneth Lay and George W. Bush). The most telling sign is that when a rational and honest Republican prosecutor tries to uphold the law, that prosecutor may find himself without a political future in the Republican party.

One of the problems with today's business world is the number of ethically challenged people who are allowed to rise to the executive suite in the first place. In Bloomberg, William D. Cohan has an article that discusses a theory by Clive R. Boddy about Wall Street psychopaths:
Clive R. Boddy, most recently a professor at the Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University, says psychopaths are the 1 percent of [people who] ... "lack a “conscience, have few emotions and display an inability to have any feelings, sympathy or empathy for other people.”


He says [psychopaths] seem "to be unaffected" by the corporate collapses they cause. These psychopaths "present themselves as glibly unbothered by the chaos around them, unconcerned about those who have lost their jobs, savings and investments, and as lacking any regrets about what they have done. They cheerfully lie about their involvement in events, are very convincing in blaming others for what has happened..."

It worth recalling that John Dean has written a book called "Conservatives without Conscience." Dean was not talking specifically about psychopaths, and certainly not corporate psychopaths, who are basically a class of very smart criminals who are much more sophisticated than ordinary criminals without conscious (who in any case frequently end up in prison). But Dean was very much talking about people who are authoritarian by temperament. I would also add that people like Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush strike me as extraordinarily narcissistic and are clearly among the type of people Dean talks about. For both Bush and Gingrich, life is all about them.

But today's Republican party has other other problems as well. What is it about the Republican political class that they look the other way when a Republican politician obviously lies? And why is it that they refuse to set the record straight when others obviously lie about Barack Obama (birthers) or lie about John Kerry (swift boaters)? And why is it that the Republican political class failed to notice the obvious economic disaster we were heading for as Wall Street and the banks were allowed to engage in reckless behavior?

Here's the scholarly link to Boddy's paper.

And here's a link that provide a more accessible version to Boddy's paper.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The Republican Establishment Is Weighing In

It looks like the Republican establishment—the bankers, the Wall Street people, the billionaires, multinaires and the privileged—are going to nail the nomination down for Romney. Or least try. These are the same guys who backed George W. Bush and supported all his policies. The guys who got us into the worst recession since the 1930s want to get back to business as usual: more jobs to China, even lower taxes for the rich, money for defense toys we don't need, and nickel and diming the middle class for those million dollar bonuses.

Already the money is beginning to pour. The establishment finds elections a little more expensive than lobbyists, but from their point of view, buying a few hundred million dollars worth of ads is still a bargain.

It almost doesn't matter which Republican gets nominated: they will all pretend that Barack Obama is the one we need to fight against. Here's a reality check: the more Obama tried to compromise, to stabilize the economy, and stabilize the country, the more Republicans revealed how right wing and out of touch they are becoming. We need pragmatists in Washington, not obstructionists, not extremists, and certainly not the type of people who got us into the mess in the first place.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bizarre Comment By Mitt Romney

Some politicians are tone deaf. I came across an item in Talking Points Memo that Romney made a bizarre comment in Iowa today at a campaign event:
...Mitt Romney took on President Obama for saying the economy could be worse, saying: “When the president’s characterization of our economy was, ‘It could be worse,’ it reminded me of Marie Antoinette: ‘Let them eat cake’”...

Wow. Never mind the awkward phrasing. It was a weird thing for Romney to say, given that he owns the cake.