Total Drek

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Eccentric Environmentalism

Today the Bush administration is rather prominent in the news for its environmental stands. I know, I know- you're expecting these stands to be along earlier lines when they wanted to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This idea has been widely condemned, including on this blog, and so I don't want to renew discussion of that idea. Despite expectations, however, the administration is actually on the pro-environment side of the fence- hypothetically.

In the first case, we find federal action against two men who are challenging the Clean Water Act on constitutional grounds. The reason? They want to build on wetlands. In one case the man seeking to develop the wetlands, John Rapanos, has the dubious distinction of having been convicted of violating court orders preventing him from developing land. In both cases the men are claiming that the Clean Water Act does not pertain to them, since their land is not itself a navigable channel and, in any case, that the clean water act is itself unconstitutional. The reasons for that latter statement are somewhat unclear to me but seem to revolve around the act's purported violation of states' rights, and of private citizens' rights to use their property in whatever manner they see fit. In the case of the former objection Rapanos and Company have a problem, since 34 states have sided with the Federal Government. In the latter case the argument is troubled for the simple reason that governmental regulation of the use of property is quite common. Regulations preventing the burning of leaves provide one innocuous example.

No, the stronger argument is that the land these men own is, indeed, far from a navigable channel and, so, the Act may not directly apply. Still, it's a hard call- since their property drains to a navigable channel, we're confronted with a de facto reality that doesn't match a de jure idea. So, I don't know what is going to come out of this case, but it is nice to see the Bush administration not interfering with environmental protection.

Even if their reasoning may be related to the Hurricane Katrina debacle- in short, if the government's power to prevent the development of wetlands is challenged, it may be very hard to keep people from building in areas that are, in a word, stupid.

Yet, if this environmental policy seems at least reasonable, the next one is not. Bush is at present out stumping for his new energy policy. In particular, in a recent speech he advocated the development of electric cars and ethanol as a way to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. This is approximately enough to make my head explode. As we've discussed previously, electric cars are a dramatically stupid idea if you're interested in either pollution control or reducing fuel consumption. This is simply because batteries are a less efficient means of storing and delivering power than fossil fuels are. So, if we all had electric cars tomorrow, our consumption of foreign oil would actually have to increase in order to generate enough electrical power to operate those "clean" electric cars. Thus, from a national security standpoint, electric cars could charitably be referred to as "problematic." From an environmental standpoint they're probably stupid too, as the extra toxic byproducts of producing and disposing of all those batteries would likely exceed any pollution reduction resulting from centralizing the burning of fuel to large fossil fuel plants. Hell, it's fairly likely that the extra pollution generated by the need to burn more fuel would overwhelm any pollution reduction you gained from centralizing emissions to large plants- so, with the batteries added on top, you'd have a net increase in pollution. Oops. So how about the ethanol? That's a good idea, right?

Well, probably not. While Tom has made a convincing argument that some forms of hybrids may produce significant fuel savings over market alternatives, the problem with ethanol is that it takes more energy to manufacture it than the end fuel contains. It's a simple physics problem- you never get something for nothing, and a fuel cannot contain more energy at the end of refining than you spent in the act of refining it in the first place. So, what Bush is advocating is a set of initiatives that would actually increase our consumption of fossil fuels while not noticeably improving environmental quality. Double oops.

Bush is advocating other things, at least in theory, that could deal with these objections- like solar power and nuclear energy. If our power was generated by the sun, or by nuclear fission then yes, certainly, electric or ethanol powered vehicles might be practical. These all have problems, however: nuclear energy is not (however much I'd like to claim to the contrary) clean. It produces substantial amounts of waste that is more difficult to handle than standard fossil fuel emissions. Moreover while I actually think that solar power is, unavoidably, the future of mankind it's also a limited form of power. Even if our solar cells were vastly more efficient than they are, and even if we covered every available surface with them, the Earth only receives so much energy from the sun per square inch per second. In other words, there's a ceiling on how much solar energy we can collect, even if we ignore foul weather. There are ways around this problem, but at the moment they're largely impractical, even if they're likely to also prove to be inevitable if our population and technology continue to expand. The fundamental truth is simple: there is a limit to how much consumption we can sustain.

No, the only real option is to simply reduce consumption. Efficiency and a rational use of resources is the true solution to many of these problems. And, I suppose, at least in theory, Bush seems to be advocating for that. Sort of. The problem is, our attempts are eccentric at best. We propose spending more on alternative fuels that don't really help, and then give a tax break for luxury SUVs. We try to prevent folks from building on land that drains into a waterway, and then we consider drilling for oil in a protected wildlife refuge. Is it any surprise that our initiatives aren't working?

The Bush administration is more concerned with appearing to be responsible stewards of the environment than actually being such stewards and that's worse than just not caring in the first place.

If we recognize a problem, at least we know it's there. But if we pretend we've solved a problem that still exists.

Well, that's something else.


Blogger Tom Bozzo said...

If you haven't yet seen it, you should check this out at the blog formerly known as Mark Kleiman's, as well as the linked article in Science (and backup material as time permits). It takes on the task of trying to harmonize various studies of the ethanol energy balance, but suggests (correctly) that fuel substitution is the real issue.

So a big problem with electric cars, and to a different extent ethanol -- at least until the energy balance becomes more favorable -- is that both involve fueling "green" cars with coal. (In the case of ethanol, more than for base load electricity generation, there's also substitution of natural gas for petroleum; natural gas is no longer relatively cheap fuel.)

Obviously, I'm with you that Bush energy "policy" is about ten parts platitudes to two parts cutting research funding at the tip of the proverbial spear. But I try to keep my cranium intact, as the health insurance consequences are dire.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006 2:34:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

A reasonable point, although for me the issue is less one of market cost, and more one of actual fuel usage. If we start manufacturing ethanol via coal or natural gas, we're still using one fossil fuel to produce a less-than-comparable amount of energy in a different form. So, it isn't a sustainable choice and will, at best, merely put off the ultimate problem for a period of time. Perhaps worse, it leaves people with a false sense of security.

That said, if it is possible to get an emissions savings using ethanol, I'm not necessarily opposed to it. I'm just unimpressed at the "Alternative fuels are always better!" sort of logic we are often exposed to.

As always, Tom, I'm grateful for your insight.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006 5:41:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Bozzo said...

Drek, it would be easy to overstate the difference in our positions. Coal is relatively cheap and available for the foreseeable future (long enough to get working fusion power? maybe) but only green in a coal lobbyist's fantasy world.

I would say that even with 'cellulosic' ethanol -- funding for which the Bushies are cutting -- the idea that you can substitute ethanol for gasoline 1 for 1 is dangerous. Only so much land that can be planted for fuel...

Tuesday, February 21, 2006 6:52:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

Hey Tom. No worries, I know you and I actually agree a lot of the time, and I really do think you have a good point about market value.

Keep commenting when you have something to say- it's a service to my readers (you know- all six of them) as well as to me.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006 10:17:00 AM  

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