Monday, December 29, 2008

US Government: climate change happening faster than anticipated

Those darn scientists at that super-liberal group known as The United States Government. Once again, they're letting a little thing like science get in the way of politics and ideology. How dare they?

The USGA has determined that climate change might be occuring more quickly than anticipated. Sea levels could rise by as much as four feet within the next century. The American Southwest, which has been under an incredible drought for the past decade, will get drier.

I'm just glad that I won't be around for the worst of this climate change stuff. It'll be my kids' problem. Good luck to them.

Arsenic and mercury-filled coal sludge inundates Tennessee town. Feds say everything is okay. Nothing to see here.

Here's the background: a TVA-run coal-fired power plant in the eatern Tennessee town of Kingston was depositing their coal ash waste into a giant retaining lake. The earthen dam holding it together gave way, and the sludge poured out (more than a billion gallons of it), covering an immense swath of land (and draining into the Emory and Tennessee rivers). The sludge contains mercury, lead, and arsenic. But the EPA says there's nothing to worry about. The locals are at no risk. And their drinking water is fine. And the Tennessee Valley Authority is arresting people taking pictures of the site.

I just love that clean coal technology!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Say it ain't so! Oil drops below $40 a barrel.

Oil has dropped below $40 a barrel. My friends at OPEC and Exxon Mobil are freaking out, no doubt. I'm freaking out, too. With every penny that the price of gas drops at the pump, I get a little less smug as I'm driving around in my station wagon that's powered by waste grease I get for free from a local restaurant. Who cares if I'm radically reducing my carbon footprint?

China sending three warships to battle the Pirates

Yes, China is conducting the largest mission of the People's Liberation Army Navy abroad ever by sending three warships off the coast of Somalia. This extension of Chinese military power has to be sending a shiver down the spines of some folks at the Pentagon.

It's about China protecting its ships. It's not about the oil, which isn't even mentioned in this Associated Press article. It's never about the oil.

For some context yet again. Most of the pirates are former fishermen, who looked for other work after the big fish disappeared off the coast of Somalia, thanks to foreign commercial fisheries. About 90 percent of the world's big fish have vanished in the last 50 years--any fisherman can pretty much confirm this for you.

I'm not condoning the acts of the pirates. But this is a tiny example of what happens when resources become depleted...

Yes, we've sunk that low

How sad is it that people are excited simply because Obama's new cabinet members are experienced and competent at what they do.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Especially when it's inconvenient.

“The truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us."

Friday, December 19, 2008

Land speculation, anyone?

If the sea levels rise a couple of feet over the next few decades, where can I buy cheap property that's inland now, but will be awesome oceanfront property sometime in the near future?

New science advisor understands that the sky actually is falling

Obama's new science advisor is John Holdren, the director of Woods Hole Research Center, and director of the Program on Science, Technology and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He's one of the world's leading global warming experts. Judging by the president-elect's staffing choices, he's as aware--and unnerved--by the potential of global warming as anyone. And his advisors aren't going to let him do nothing, or they won't be around for long.

Here's an op-ed Holdren wrote for the Boston Globe this summer, called "Convincing the Climate Change Skeptics."

He writes: "The extent of unfounded skepticism about the disruption of global climate by human-produced greenhouse gases is not just regrettable, it is dangerous. It has delayed - and continues to delay - the development of the political consensus that will be needed if society is to embrace remedies commensurate with the challenge. The science of climate change is telling us that we need to get going."

Thursday, December 18, 2008

This just in: low-flow shower head revelation!

I've made a great new discovery about my low-flow shower head: my showers can be twice as long before I run out of hot water from my 50-gallon hot water heater. So instead of taking 15-minute-long showers, like I did with the old shower head, I now take 30-minute-long ones before the water runs cold! Brilliant!

Joe the solar panel installer

The basic philosophy of the upcoming stimulus package goes something like this: our old-school manufacturing base, born at the turn of the 20th century, is dead. The model T isn't coming through that door again, folks. USS Steel ain't gonna be ramping up jobs in Pittsburgh--and as far as the textile industry goes, I think even "Made in America" tags are now stitched in China.

We're a country that buys more than it produces. (In this global market, that's almost like a household constantly spending more than it makes. Hmmm...) Now this system is imploding, because the false wealth of real estate is gone.

So government investment will focus on infrastructure, to make us more productive--so we can create goods more cheaply, competitively, and efficiently. And it'll push forward (through incentives, and research dollars) an agenda to make us less dependent on foreign fuel (to reduce the trade deficit, among other things) and put us in the lead in manufacturing and creating green technologies. Maybe America's Model T of this century is the solar panel. Or the wind turbine. Or some other technology not yet even created. The people behind the upcoming stimulus are hoping to kick-start American manufacturing dominance for a new "green" world.

For an example of the green economy's potential, here's an article from the jobs section of the Times, talking about all of the new work being created by the solar industry. It says that even during this recession, business is booming for solar panel makers and installers.

But here's the big, troubling question: Is it possible for a government to be able to kick-start a new manufacturing industry in a country? Has it ever succesfully happened before? Or does such a process have to happen naturally and organically, through market-driven means? (Meaning, if times are tough enough, American entrepreneurs will bootstrap themselves up to dominance through their own ingenuity--and not through government stimulus and intervention.) Is the artificial creation of a green economy kind of a Soviet-lite philosopy? Or, given the situation--both economic, and in terms of the looming environmental catastrophe--do we have no choice but to follow this route?

We Americans often think we can change the world just by exerting our will--whether it's about democracy and human rights around the world, or even economically (home and abroad). But change and growth comes through a natural process. You can throw fertilizer on a seedling in a flower garden to make it flourish more quickly, but you can't put a gun to it and say "Bloom now! Or else!" The last eight years should have taught us that.

Ouch, this all makes my head hurt. I make a promise to all 16 of you regular readers (hi mom and dad): only low-calorie posts from now on.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Story of Stuff

Have you seen this yet? It's called "The Story of Stuff." An amazing video of the environmental impact that goes into the stuff we consume and then throw out. The system is called the materials economy. The narrator follows our stuff from extraction, to production, to distribution, to consumption, to disposal. Be forewarned: it's 20 minutes long.

Shaping young minds

Today I'll be videoconferencing with 71 students enrolled in the "Literature and the Environment" course taught by Richard Kentz at Union Mine High School near Placerville, California. Mr. Kentz actually assigned them to read "Greasy Rider." Unfortunately for his students, there's no Cliff's Notes for Greasy Rider. At least not yet.

That's right, I'm shaping young minds (although in fairness, it should be pointed out that the book is far from being classified as "literature").

Not to be alarmist, but...

Enough water has melted from the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greenland since 2003 to fill the Chesapeake 21 times. That equates to trillions--with a 't'--of gallons of water.


But all of this is reversible down the road if we use ingenious ways to block out the sun, and create global cooling, right? Surely we can control nature if we really, really want to. Let's wait until there's a huge crisis and see...

What would Michael Pollan think?

Tom Vilsack from Iowa named as Obama's agriculture nominee. That's good for corn-based ethanol. (If corn-based ethanol is your thing.) As for corn subsidies and the prevalence of high-fructose corn syrup--which could be linked to the obesity epidemic in America--that's probably not going anywhere, either.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

How can you reduce water consumption? Eat more fiber.

Another entry from the Greasy Rider column on Outside magazine's web site:

Q: What one equipment change can I make in my home to reduce my water usage most?

A: For the average American, it's throwing out the sprinkler. There's no doubt a special place in eco-hell for the guy with the greenest lawn in Las Vegas, probably in a spot next to the designer of the Bellagio's Dancing Waters (though I do so love watching those 1,200 fountains ejaculating spray hundreds of feet above that 22-million-gallon, eight-acre man-made lake in the middle of the desert). A study by the AWWA Research Foundation tells us that 58 percent of household water consumption in America goes to irrigating our yards.

If you insist on a green lawn, look into a graywater system, which recycles from sinks, bathtubs, showers, and the washing machine to irrigate the yard and garden. The installation cost usually runs from $1,000 to $5,000, but like so many other environmental measures, it'll eventually pay for itself in savings.

Inside the home, it's the toilet. About one-quarter of the water we use is flushed down the drain, which amounts to about 18.5 gallons per person a day. A low-flow toilet slashes that number. For those of you who complain that you usually have to flush twice with low-flows—thus negating the water savings—I’ve got two suggestions: 1) eat more fiber, and 2) look at the AWWA survey. It found that homes with low-flow toilets barely flushed more times per day than homes with regular ones, and consumed half as much toilet water.

Pirates, we'll get that oil tanker back!

Riding high from its many successful armed interventions with other failed states around the world in the past seven years, the current US administration has suggested conducting military raids into Somalia to stop the pirates.

Condi is going to try to put together a Coalition of the Willing for it. Good luck with that one.
Remember: it's about the safety of ships, it's not about the oil. It's never about the oil.

What? The Interior Department cooked the books on endangered species? That can't be possible!

I know it sounds incredible, but it's true: a top Bushie official violated ethics codes (if not the law) to cook the books on environmental information to meet the administration's political agenda. Yes, shocking. This time it's regarding endangered species, according to the Interior Department's own inspector general. The official, Julie McDonald, had no background in natural science, yet the Associated Press says she...

"...did pervasive harm to the department's morale and integrity and may have risked the well-being of species with her agenda, Interior Inspector General Earl Devaney said in his report out Monday.
The Interior Department last year reversed seven rulings that denied endangered species increased protection, after an investigation found that MacDonald had applied political pressure in those cases. The new report looked at nearly two dozen other
endangered species decisions not examined in the earlier report. It found MacDonald directly interfered with at least 13 decisions and indirectly affected at least two more."

Apparently, her name has turned into a verb at her office. If you're a senior career worker in the Interior Department, and she comes down hard on you to lie or withhold information, you've been "McDonalded."

Devaney said "MacDonald's zeal to advance her agenda has caused considerable harm to the integrity of the Endangered Species Act program and to the morale and reputation" of the Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as potential harm to animals under the Endangered Species Act.
"Her heavy-handedness has cast doubt on nearly every ESA decision issued during her tenure," from 2002 until 2007, the report said.

In a way, I'm really going to miss these people. The polar bears aren't, though.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The "green dream team"

Obama's set to announce his environmental "dream team" of cabinet nominees today. Here's my concern with B.O.'s top officials so far: yes, they're all immensely smart, passionate and skilled. But do they know how to be managers? That'll be the key to whether or not they can really do a heckuva job. Has any of them, say, been the Judges and Stewards Commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association--or something similarly challenging?

Low-flow shower update

I'm getting used to it now. I'm now waiting for the water cost savings to start leaving me flush with cash. I think I'll buy an Escalade with the money.

What's greener, a fake Christmas tree or a real one?

Get the real deal. Fake trees are made with PVC, which doesn't biodegrade. They also often contain lead. Real trees do biodegrade, and new trees are then planted in their place, soaking up carbon dioxide.

Though cutting down one of those 200-year-old spruces to plop into Rockefeller Center is truly a sin.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Consider the refrigerator

There's a great New Yorker story on Obama's next energy secretary (who happens to be a Nobel prize winning physicist). Over the summer he gave a talk on energy efficiency and related a story about the refrigerator. It consumes 15 percent of household electricity. In the 70s, California raised efficiency standards, and the fridge makers got pissed off. They said it couldn't be done, and it would hurt the consumer. Soon, standards were set nationwide. Then, as he says, the job was passed "to the engineers from the lobbyists, and this is what you get:"

The size of the average American refrigerator has increased by more than ten per cent, while the price, in inflation-adjusted dollars, has been cut in half. Meanwhile, energy use has dropped by two-thirds.
The transition to more efficient fridges, Chu pointed out, has saved the equivalent of all the energy generated in the United States by wind turbines and solar cells. “I cannot impress upon you how important energy efficiency is,” he said.


Here's the video of the talk he gave. It's interesting stuff. He'll be the first energy secretary who recognizes the dire urgency of combatting climate change--from an economic, security, and humanitarian perspective. He also understands the immense economic opportunities we can reap from carbon-friendly technologies.

Lost Greasy Rider video footage discovered!

Here's the long lost footage of Iggy and me finally reaching the BioFuel Oasis in California in the wagon, after begging for oil across the country, only to find it closed. (Iggy is the one riding shotgun.) Pardon the ripe language at the very end.

Auto bailout dead? We'll see

The car companies say they need $25 billion in loans--or about 3 percent of what Congress is dropping in the laps of the financial industry, with almost no strings attached.

One in ten jobs in this country is connected to the auto industry.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The veggie car is flooding!

We've had about two inches of rain over the last day, with another inch or two expected to fall. And for some reason, water is flooding around the floor mats. Enough so that the kids need to wear rain boots in the car, and they keep dropping pencils on the floor to see if they float. (To answer your question: we now know that pencils do float.) I'm at a loss for a solution.

Are you planning to buy a GM car anytime soon? Didn't think so.

You get the feeling that the big loan to GM is more about preventing a panic in the markets at this critical time than actually bailing out the company? The GM we know right now is a goner.

I've covered the auto industry a little in various capacities. It takes years and years for car companies to build owner loyalty. (And car owners by nature tend to be loyal to one or two brands. This is a fact of the business that the companies constantly obsess over.) It takes years and years for car companies to lose owner loyalty, too. (In the case of GM, it took decades.) Even if they started making amazing cars (not SUVs or trucks, but cars), it would take a very long time before consumers bought into them (or bought them) on a mass scale. (Let alone the fact that people aren't buying cars right now.)

GM will either need to file for bankruptcy, or find a way to reorganize completely without the government officially calling it bankruptcy (this new bailout plan does nothing of the sort). This is inevitable. In the meantime, we'll be dishing the company more bridge loans to nowhere until the rest of the economy starts to turn around.

Do you really see any other course for this wreck? Happy 100th Birthday General Motors.

The truth

The Green Commando

A guy (or woman) broke into the most highly guarded power plant in the UK and shut it down--in the process, he reduced Britain's carbon footprint by 2 percent. The power plant is coal fired. It was back up running after four hours. The person left a card saying "no new coal." No one knows who did it, but he's being called Climate Man.

What do you call this? Eco terrorism? Civil disobedience? Both?

It underscores just how nasty coal-fired plants are for the atmosphere. It's also a scary reminder of just how vulnerable even Great Britain's infrastructure is.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I guess it means less shoveling, though

New England is losing 8.9 snow-covered winter days per decade right now, according to a study just published in the Journal of Geophysical Research. Think about it: that's nearly one less snow-covered day per year. What a breathtaking (and scary) statistic.

Green humor

Mr. Obama, meet the last Democrat to win the presidential popular vote

Al Gore met with Obama yesterday in Chicago, to talk about climate change. Personally, I think Obama's already aware of it. No word on whether the two discussed whose mansion sucks more energy: Gore's or the White House.

Also no word on what transportation Gore used to get to Chicago for the meeting. Maybe he took his biodiesel-powered yacht.

The Skeeter Beater

Taken from my Greasy Rider column for Outside magazine's web site:

Q: Is there a DEET alternative I can really trust when I go hiking in the Costa Rican jungle?

A: I can't speak for Costa Rican insects, but I can tell you what the mosquitoes and no see 'ems in my back yard don't like—and my back yard happens to hold the unofficial title as Buggiest in Asheville, North Carolina. Last summer, whenever I let my five-year-old daughter and four-year-old son run out the back door for more than five minutes without bug spray on them, they'd come back inside covered with welts. Forget DEET, I was ready to dip them head-first into a pool of DDT—like the baby Achilles in a chemical River Styx—if it meant that their arms and legs would no longer make them look like smallpox victims. But Dr. Wife, MD, is much heavier into the whole "organic" thing, and wants our kids' DNA to remain relatively humanoid, so she instructed me to find a natural alternative.

The National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides—not a fan of DEET—recommends an herbal repellent like All Terrain’s pleasantly scented Herbal Armor, which is sold at many natural food stores. It employs citronella, peppermint, soybean oil, and lemongrass to scare off bugs. On the other hand, the Centers for Disease Control approves of only one natural remedy for mosquitoes: oil of lemon eucalyptus, like what’s found in the pungent and aptly named Repel Lemon Eucalyptus. (The CDC recommends that kids under three years old shouldn’t be exposed to Lemon Eucalyptus, though.)

After buying these two products, my logical next step was to perform a controlled test on the kids. So I sprayed one arm and leg on each of them with Herbal Armor and the other arm and leg with Repel. (Neither had any idea what was going on. Kids are so trusting.) The results: After a half hour of solid protection, the bugs began devouring the Herbal Armor-covered side like entrants in a Coney Island hot dog eating contest, while nearly three hours passed before Repel began losing its potency. When Dr. Wife, MD, came home that evening, she was mystified to see that the kids were suffering from bug bites over only half of their bodies. ("You’re right, honey, that's awfully strange. I have no idea why that happened.") As a result, my anecdotal conclusion is that a lemon eucalyptus-based solution like Repel will probably be effective for you in Costa Rica, as long as you’re more than three years old, and you reapply after a couple of hours. Though to be safe, I'd carry along a something with DEET in it as well.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The latest on those pirates

Yesterday, the EU placed an armada of military ships off Somalia to combat the pirates--so the pirates have moved their operations further south, expanding their base of operations, and giving the armada a nearly impossible amount of sea to protect.

One of the biggest ironies of this whole piracy thing is that there's an environmental angle: Many of the pirates are former tuna fishermen who say they had to find another line of work because all of the tuna stocks off the Somali coast have been depleted. (Nearly 90 percent of the world's big fish have disappeared over the past 50 years from overfishing. This isn't alarmism. Any honest commercial fisherman will acknowledge this. They want a sustainable solution for this problem as much as anyone.)

It's an age-old formula: a depletion of natural resources leads to war, violence, and crime. That's why the federal government believes perhaps the biggest threat to our national security in the long-run is climate change.

Got some extra cash?

If you're among the few who actually has money to invest in the stock market's (hopefully) rock bottom prices--the best bet in the renewable energy industry is said to be First Solar.

Here's what Forbes says:

For now, almost everyone's favourite pick remains First Solar (nasdaq: FSLR - news - people ), which has everything going for it except perhaps valuation, they say. The company is often compared to Intel Corp (nasdaq: INTC - news - people ) , on which it has modelled its manufacturing strategy for making solar cells.
First Solar produces solar cells used to form photovoltaic panels at a cost approaching $1.00 per watt compared to the $2.50/watt industry average, analysts say. Gross margins remain intact around 50 percent while other players face compression.
"If you want to play one stock in the U.S., Europe or China, it has to be First Solar," says Mark Bachman of Pacific Crest Securities in Portland, Oregon.
Valuation has long been First Solar's thorn. But the stock, which traded above $300 earlier this year and at a valuation as high as 140 times forward forecasts, has seen its valuation sink to 17.5 times next year's consensus profit forecast.

What global warming?

I understand the motivation of many climate change skeptics. There are the oil people. There are the scientists paid by the oil people. There are the car company CEOs, who thought that making fuel-efficient vehicles would somehow put them out of business. (Whoops, their bad.) There are the people at Fox News and on the Wall Street Journal editorial page who'd be out of a job if they weren't climate change skeptics. I understand these people.

The ones I don't understand are the run-of-the-mill media hacks across the country who spread this nonsense. What's in it for them? They're not getting a piece of the Exxon-Mobil profits (I don't think). No one is specifically paying them to be knuckleheads (I don't think). Meanwhile, two American cities have been completely wiped out by hurricanes in the last five years. The Great Lakes are being drained because they're not freezing nearly as much in the winter. Droughts have plagued island countries (more affected by changes in ocean temperatures) from Ireland, to Cyprus, to Australia. The desert has crept into Spain. African insects are now flourishing in southern Italy. European ski resorts at lower elevations in the Alps now have to make snow to survive.

Can someone explain this to me? Are they all trying to audition for Fox or the Wall Street Journal? What's going on here? Why is it a liberal versus conservative thing to admit the obvious, here? Even China acknowledges the causes of climate change. They just don't care to do much about it. To me that's a much more intellectually honest approach.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Good news and bad news

The good news is that in 2008, public transportation saw the largest increase in ridership in a quarter century. And despite plummeting gas prices, people are still riding buses and trains.

The bad news. The freefalling economy has ruined the demand for recycled materials. Bigtime. (For instance, a ton of tin is worth $5 now. It was worth $327 earlier in the year.) The fear is that if cities and towns aren't making money off their recycling programs, some could stop offering them. Can we blame George Bush for this too? Please?

'Greasy Rider' praised in the New York Times Book Review!

The exact quote was "An entertaining combination of 'On the Road' and 'An Inconvenient Truth.'”

Yes, I had to look up the word "pedantic."

Remember the Saturn!

It's really not that tough to mandate that American cars be the most fuel-efficient in the world. It's quite a bit harder to ensure that we make un-crappy cars that capture people's attention and imagination the way Toyota and Honda do.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Big news! I took a shower!

Against my better judgement, I took a shower this morning. Dr. Wife, MD, forced me to do it. She gave me some nonsense about "proper" hygiene, and made some not-so-veiled threats about the guest bedroom. Well, at least the shower gave me the opportunity to test out the new, eco-friendly low-flow shower head.

For background: I installed a Waterpik Ecoflow shower head earlier this week. (Or was it last week?) Of course, it was made in China, and it came in one of those giant plastic bubble containers that are almost impossible to open without a chainsaw. (Millions of years from now, long after the human race has perished, the vast populations of intelligent, highly evolved cockroaches that rule the earth will send out their archaeologists, and I'm sure one will find this Ecoflow container, completely unbiodegraded.)

For the sake of my sustainable argument, lets overlook the carbon imprint of my driving to Home Depot to buy the new shower head, and the greenhouse gases produced by Waterpik to manufacture, package, and ship it. (Environmentalists are so good at casting a blind eye--or two--at such trifles.) Instead, I'll highlight its benefits. The output of a standard shower head is 5 to 8 gallons of water per minute. The Ecoflow puts out about 2 gallons a minute. That should save my house about $75 a year on water bills, and $50 a year on water heating bills.

In other words, the shower head should easily pay for itself within six months, and then rack up hundreds of dollars in energy and water bill savings in the next few years. On top of that, I'll be conserving more than 7,000 gallons of water a year, and untold amounts of energy.

So how did it work, you ask? Well, it didn't exactly feel like a fire hose. More like a gentle but steady rain shower overhead. It took me no more time to, say, rinse shampoo from my hair (which, by the way, I've begun to notice is vanishing at an alarming rate) than with a normal shower head, but the lower output was noticeable. People who would rather get pummeled with a Swedish massage-type spray in the shower every morning than save the earth from extinction will be disappointed. People who actually want a better life for their kids and grandkids won't think it's so bad (if they overlook the whole packaging, shipping, and manufacturing thing, of course).

Deep thought part 2

You're gonna have a hard time attracting the nation's best and brightest to take the helm of (and turn around) any troubled companies if the compensation is $1 a year.

Deep thought

Bill Gates' net worth today is about $56 billion. The net value of the Big Three auto companies combined is about $12 billion.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Chalk one up for the tree huggers (or in this case, rock huggers)

After an onslaught of negative publicity, the Bushies have pulled back their last-minute plans to allow oil and gas drilling in Nine Mile Canyon in Utah. For background, this place is nicknamed the "longest art gallery in the world" because of its thousands of rock art panels and relics left by the Anasazi.

To quote a great man named Donald Rumsfeld, "Is it possible there were really that many vases?"

Low-flow shower head update

Still haven't tested it out yet. Not sure if I'll get around to bathing until Sunday--whether I need it or not. Very French of me, isn't it?

A head-scratcher

Obama has quietly dropped plans for instituting a windfall profits tax on oil companies on his policy web site,

Cynics, insert your comments now.

Rest easy ship owners

Blackwater, everyone's favorite merry band of mercenaries, says it's willing to take care of the Somali pirates. For a price, of course. I'm not sure which group this flag would represent in that battle.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Thanks for nothing, Dr. Wife, MD

In yet another effort to get us to reduce our footprint, Dr. Wife, MD has forced me to install a low-flow shower head in our bathroom. This is probably TMI, but one of my few vices in life is a long, water- and energy-hogging shower. The shower head, pictured here, cost about $50, and is supposed to pay for itself in water savings in about four months. It had better work, though. And work well. Or else this green living stuff might finally break me. You'll receive an honest appraisal tomorrow. (That is, if I take a shower today. I usually only bathe on Sundays. Oops, is that TMI again?)

Pirates update, part 23.

The Somali pirates just released a Yemeni ship without ransom. The wise and all-knowing Greasy Rider Blog has predicted from the start that they'll eventually release the big Saudi oil tanker without ransom. Could this facilitate that? Maybe they're trying to save face by releasing this ship first--and then say something like how they're not going to hold any boats owned by Muslim countries. If that's their game, they'll also be saving their lives in the process.

It's not about the oil, though. It never is.

Cape wind to be approved?

The Cape Cod wind project might be given a big stamp of approval from the federal government this week. That'll no doubt piss off people like Bobby Kennedy, Jr., who's been against it from the start. (He's all for saving the planet as long as no efforts hurt the property values--or views--from the Kennedy Kompound out there.) Mind you, even the Audubon Society in Massachusetts is for this thing, so that lame argument about protecting sea birds can be thrown out the window. The Audubon Society! And this guy is lobbying to become the EPA chief.

The turbines will be placed about five miles offshore, so it's true that they will be clearly visible from shore quite often. The picture above is a rendition of what it'll look like. To be honest, if I lived on the Cape or the Vineyard, I wouldn't want to see this every day, either. And I sure as heck wouldn't want to see the value of my multi-million dollar property potentially drop because of it. But if I'm a diehard environmentalist, I've got to suck it up for the greater good. Hypocrisy hurts the cause.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Grease Power Power

Whole Foods uses 1,200 gallons of canola oil a week in its commissary, to fry the prepared foods that go to 43 stores in the Northeast. It's now recycling that grease to generate all of the commissary's electricity (enough power for 200 homes).

So let me get this straight: Whole Foods is generating electricity for this building from a free fuel source, and reducing their waste by 18 tons a month. Those darn tree-hugging hippies at Whole Foods, using their liberal spotted-owl-saving ways improve their bottom line.

The Supreme Court will be killing us for years to come

So there's this federal law, created by Congress of course, that says power plants have to upgrade to minimize their damage to fish and aquatic life. (Consider that power plants use 214 billion gallons of water a day for cooling in the US. Yes, 214 billion.) The Bush administration and utility companies have sued to exempt old power plants from this law. (And basically, only the old power plants are the ones threatening fish. The new ones are actually fairly eco-friendly with their water use.) Their stance is that it's too cost-prohibitive. (They're saying they shouldn't have to make changes if the cost of the upgrade is greater than the environmental benefits.) The Supreme Court hears arguments on the case today.

There's more to this case than just protecting our waterways from an ecological catastrophe. If the Bush administration wins, it means that environmental laws will become immensely harder to enforce. (Think of factories that don't want to adhere to clean air standards, for one example.)

Let me guess how judicial activists--um, I mean defenders of the Constitution--Alito, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas will vote on this one. Sorry speckled trout, you don't stand a chance.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The answer man

The first batch of advice from the weekly Greasy Rider eco-advice column on Outside magazine's web site...

Q: Why do you drive a grease-powered car, and should I do it too?

A: Before you read the next sentence, please follow this one simple instruction: go jump off a bridge. Okay, it appears that most of you aren't taking my words as direct commands. That's unfortunate. (To those of you who actually did just jump off a bridge, I hope it was a low one, and I offer you my sincere thanks as I try to live up to my role as your eco-messiah.)
I originally thought that converting an old diesel to run on vegetable oil was some hippy-dippy thing that only young trustafarians did when they weren't too busy making their clothes out of hemp. My wife Ann Marie—who just graduated from medical school and I shall respectfully call Dr. Wife, MD, from this point forward—told me otherwise. She said the process was fairly simple and it would save us money. She made the point that many restaurants pay for someone to dispose of the dregs from their deep-fat fryers, so they're happy to unload the stuff on grease-powered drivers for free.

Suddenly a lightbulb (a compact fluourescent, no doubt) illuminated over my head: Ha! The chance to get free gas and flip the bird at the oil companies. Sign me up! Dr. Wife, MD, was actually more gung-ho about the potential environmental benefits, which are immense. Consider that biodiesel made from virgin vegetable oil reduces NREL life-cycle carbon emissions—all the emissions it takes to produce a product—by 78 percent compared to dino-diesel, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. And then take into account that french fry grease is a waste product.

So the two of us bought an old, half-dead Mercedes, fixed it up, ordered a kit from, and paid someone to install it. I thought of trying to install the kit myself, but Dr. Wife, MD, said no. She pointed out—correctly—that I'd mess everything up and would ultimately have to pay someone to install it anyway, so I might as well skip that first time-consuming step. The kit and installation cost a little more than $2,000, and I've easily made that money back in gas savings over the past couple of years.

Now to answer the second half of the question: Should you do it too? Before deciding to convert an old diesel, find a good grease supplier. Someone who's willing to set the stuff aside each week in sealed jugs, so it's not exposed to the elements and so you don't have to suck it from a dumpster in the restaurant's back parking lot. Given the growing demand for grease across the country, securing a reliable supply is harder than you might think. Here in Asheville, North Carolina, I get my stash from the Early Girl Eatery, one of the best restaurants in town. They use high-quality oil, and since they don't fry many meats in it, it's high-test stuff without a lot of impurities to filter out.

I'd also recommend that you have a garage where you can store the grease and filter the particles out of it. (For me the filtering process involves heating the grease under the sun in a black gas can, and pouring it through a felt sock filter.) No matter how meticulous you are, grease is messy, and you need to have a designated area where you can contain it.
If you can meet these criteria, and if you're willing to set aside the 45 minutes a week—give or take—for gathering the oil and filtering it, by all means go for it. Though I'm skeptical that you'll heed my advice, seeing how you didn't jump off that bridge.

Utterly predictable Kristol: US should declare war on piracy

Political shill William Kristol declares that we should go to war against the pirates. (The man apparently doesn't realize what a caricature he's become.)

Let's go through the chrology of events, as we've so diligently followed them here.

--Somali pirates hijack ships for several years, without drawing extensive media coverage.
--A couple of weeks ago, Somali pirates sieze a Saudi oil supertanker. GREASY RIDER BLOG then sagely predicts world outrage, media coverage, and threats of military action. GREASY RIDER BLOG also sagely predicts that oil will barely be mentioned, if at all. It's never about oil. It's always about freedom.
--GREASY RIDER BLOG, so aware of his own knowlege and wisdom, then wonders aloud why he's not running the world, or at least given some powerful job in the government.
--India's Navy then says that it has sunk a Somali pirate mother ship, and unfortunately no survivors are found. (But it turns out that there actually was one survivor, who clung to a metal barrel for several days at sea before being rescued. And he and his shipmates actually weren't pirates. They were fishermen from Thailand. Ah well.)
--Rhetoric and media coverage ratchet up on piracy, and Kenya prepares for the inevitable ecological catastrophe that will come when the oil tanker is siezed back from the pirates by special forces and tons of black gold spill into the sea.
--Political hack William Kristol, starts the drumbeat for American military action against Somali pirates in a Weekly Standard Column. Oil is never mentioned. It never is.

Kristol's words:
"Perhaps (President Bush) could tell various admirals to stop moaning about how difficult it would be to deal with the pirates off the coast of Somalia (isn't keeping the shipping lanes open a core mission of the Navy?) and order the Navy to clobber them. If need be, the Marines would no doubt be glad to recapitulate their origins and join in by going ashore in Africa to destroy the pirates' safe havens."

The Marines would be glad? Is he sure? Maybe he should talk to a Marine general about that. (Yet one more reason why Bill Kristol's relevance and influence as a political thinker has sunk to somewhere just below Geraldo Rivera's.)

Check back here for future pirate updates...

Son of Kyoto

The two-week UN-sponsored meeting to create the successor to the Kyoto Protocol has begun. Not much is expected to come from it, although you'll be hearing all sorts of dire predictions pouring out. Instead, the world is waiting to see what Obama's actions will be once he takes office. That's right, the world is waiting--and praying--for the US to lead on climate change (just as it has for the past decade).

People will say that given the economic climate, now isn't the time to worry about carbon emissions. But what's that saying about "an ounce of prevention?"