Science at the SCOTUS: Clean Power Plan in the dumpster.

There are many ways in which the sudden and suddenly-political death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has the potential to impact the ordinary lives of every citizen. So far, no one has declared an upside, which is a statement unto itself. We here at DFE decided to take a look from the perspective we know best.

There are a number of cases either before the Supreme Court right now, possibly held up over the threatened year of inaction between now and Election Day, or heard but not yet ruled on. Many of those either rely on the legal interpretation of science or affect interests of the scientific community.

One big story that’s not really getting a lot of play in mainstream channels is the fate of the Clean Power Plan. The Clean Power Plan is the Obama Administration’s EPA plan for cutting emissions at power plants. Power plant hydrocarbon emissions make up a substantial 40% of the total for the United States. The Obama Administration plans to leave as its environmental legacy a system aimed at cutting those emissions by 2030.

But the bombshell from just a week and a half ago was that the Supreme Court ordered the program halted pending a hearing in the Court. That hearing could be pending for quite some time if Republicans make good with their post-election nomination plans. And if a Democrat wins the White House, they may find some new excuse to stall longer.

The Clean Power Plan is a fairly modest proposal that doesn’t even set the goal of the program for another four years. It stipulates that emissions in 2030 will not be more than 16% less than those in 2020. Legally loopy enough for you? Well, get ready for the reason the SCOTUS put the Clean Power Plan on hold:

The various parties challenging the Clean Power Plan, which include multiple states and energy companies, raise several disagreements with how the EPA has interpreted its own authority to regulate under the Clean Air Act. The most difficult question presented by this case, however, isalso the most absurd. A quarter-century ago, Congress enacted two conflicting amendments to the Clean Air Act. One of these amendments arguably prevents the EPA from moving forward with the Clean Power Plan, the other does not.

It is as if Schrödinger’s cat were written into the United States Code. The cat is both alive and dead. The Clean Power Plan is both legal and illegal.

In other words, there is nothing about the letter of the law that is unconstitutional. This is only a matter of which cat gets to exist, based on neither random chance nor on cosmic coincidence. Purely – exclusively – based on politics. And now the politics of the Supreme Court may be changing. Will be changing, one way or the other.

Rochester Science Technology

RIT project spreads wind farms across Kosovo

Imagine trying to farm under the pall of lignite coal smoke. Imagine what that dairy must taste like, since the cows are breathing the same acrid air as you.

In the newly-independent Kosovo, dairy farmers are dealing with just such problems. And on top of that, the coal-burning electric plants that pollute the air often don’t even meet the needs of their customers, dropping service routinely. But a group of boffins from RIT plans to help transition local farmers over to small personal wind farms that will provide enough constant power that, like their American counterparts, may even allow farmers to sell unused electric back to the grid.

It’s an exciting program that likely will reveal processes and efficiencies whose usefulness will extend well beyond the Central European nation. For example, the project has already developed a system of transient recorders to monitor the power output of individual wind mills and report that data back via cellular comms.

Winds of Change: Kosovo – RIT News.

Rochester Technology

FULL TEXT: An Energy Highway? Really, Drew?

I’m just thrilled to pieces about Andrew Cuomo’s new economic agenda. Really. And I mean that. But there’s a part here that seems.. well, you read it:

Cuomo to call for sweeping new economic agenda in State of the State address – NY Daily News.

The governor will announce a plan to build an “energy expresssway” to send electricity and renewable energy from upstate and western New York to the downstate region.

Without providing specifics, Cuomo will say the energy expressway will be financed by more than $1 billion in infrastructure investments by private sector companies.

The energy thruway, he’ll say, will ensure New York’s power needs are met for the next 50 years.

You know: an expressway is used to go past the shit you don’t care about. You know that, right?

So, in 200+ years of history, our state returns once more to its origins: an expensive city-state sucking up resources from everything north of it. And a bunch of useless yokels, just trying to keep up with demand. This is what our economic commissions were setup to facilitate, then? Thanks, Danny Wegman.

UPDATED: read the full text of the speech here. (infuriating bits on page 12)

UPDATED: Ok, I’m getting pissed. Check this line out:

We have an excess of generation capacity and tremendous wind power potential in Upstate and Western New York and north of the border in Quebec. We have tremendous energy needs Downstate.

Got that? Tremendous wind power potential in our barren, windswept no-man’s land, ready for exploitation by New York City, where its needed.

Politics Science

Electric Cars: Gasoline Cars Needed Infrastructure, Too

Great op-ed in the NYT from Seth Fletcher, a senior editor of Popular Science, on the road to an electric car fleet and the roadblocks along the way:

Electric Avenue –

The thing is: we take gas stations for granted in this country, because these days, you really could just decide to run one as a small business if you wanted to. Owning a gas station is yet another Republican dream of America. But gas stations were not always so common and it took a lot of government money to make them ubiquitous enough for long distance travel.

When that money was being doled out, it was because making the United States the #1 consumer of oil was in our nation’s best interest: it was the dawn of an oil hegemony. Now that hegemony is in danger of crushing our economy and its time to move on. Will we invest with the same sense of purpose as we did all those years ago? My fear – and Fletcher seems to share it – is that we won’t.

There is another major hurdle to an all-electric fleet: new cars are expensive. Whereas automobiles were relatively cheap things to produce and buy back in the 50’s, the same cannot be said of our current fleet, much less the Chevy Volt. According to this Bureau of Transportation Statistics chart, nearly three out of four cars sold in the United States is a leased vehicle.

How many years do you think it will be before you can buy a Volt for $300? Because that’s how long it will take to get an all-electric fleet on the road. We can certainly encourage new car buyers with incentives and tax deductions. But this is still a long-term battle for which only escalating prices on oil are likely to produce the necessary will.

Politics Science

Yucca Mountain is on a Fault Line

The below-linked article has some great thoughts and information about the ongoing crisis – which appears to be taking a nasty turn towards full melt-down – in Japan’s Fukushima nuclear facility following the tsunami and subsequent seismic events there. But the real kicker for me is yet another example of Bush Administration ineptitude that could potentially have cost us dearly:

Guest Blog: Failure of Imagination Can Be Deadly: Fukushima is a Warning.

Getting rid of nuclear waste is an issue that continues to plague the industry. In the United States, the Yucca Mountain waste repository project in Nevada, (with an estimated budget of $96 billion, of which over $13.5 billion was spent) was finally canceled by the Obama Administration amid concerns that the expense far exceeded the benefit of transporting spent fuel and storing it at the site. Nevada is one of the most seismically active states and it was discovered that the Yucca Mountain project was placed on a fault line.

So, I’m guessing that, while this is a score for the Obama Administration, it kinda puts the brakes (doh! sp! ed.) on any future energy independence plans that might have involved nuclear power, wouldn’t you say?


Bailout du’Jour

I have not yet commented on the impending doom from Detroit and the efforts to bail them out.  It’s been the talk of the Sunday news programs, however, and since I’ve been using today to catch up on the blogging I’ve not been able to do during my busy week, now seems the time to comment.

I have to start out by saying that Meet the Press this morning was, as ever, an exercise in false equivalence.  The guests where Carl Levin of Michigan and Richard Shelby of Alabama.  A guy who is in the tank for automakers and a hard-line Conservative who wouldn’t agree to tax-payer funded water if his hair was on fire.  This is not a useful discussion, since neither man is in a position to compromise, but compromise is exactly what is needed in this case.

Because if ever there was an industry I would be in favour of letting crash and burn – hoping that we could finally then let more innovative minds and more cost-effective business models take the lead – it would be the auto industry.  Nowhere in American business is there a more completely ass-backwards group of companies. . .  and that’s saying quite a lot.  Still, its not an industry we can expect to let drop without having huge and probably unpredictable consequences on the rest of the economy.  There are simply too many people working in the industry and too many subcontracting companies tied to it to think we can let the automakers drown themselves.

What is required is that we yes, do bail out Detroit.  But we do so in a way that guarantees us a better chance of a viable auto industry in the future.  It’s not a simple question of letting them go or handing them a blank check.  Carl Levin said today that the auto industry might have had problems “ten or twenty years ago,” but that they’re making changes.  Bullshit.  They’ve made half-assed efforts at going hybrid – itself not a solution to our energy problems – only in the last two years.  And what have they produced?  Hybrid SUVs.  Hybrids which get a paltry 34 miles a gallon, compared to the 40-50 MPG of Asian counterparts.  This hardly represents a true effort at reform, particularly when there are plenty of minds working on the issue in garages and backyards whose ideas are not being listened to.

So, we need not a bailout package, but an investment plan in our auto industry which considers the future as a primary means of growth.  We should demand that Detroit automakers actually engage small private businnesses working on energy-smart cars and use their industrial might to produce those cars.  Similar things are commonplace in the record industry, where small indie labels like Interscope or Def Jam are distributed by Sony or Warner Brothers, but exclusivity has plagued the auto industry.  Yes, I’m aware that there are downsides for Interscope.  But the point is that Detroit has gone out of its way – Microsoft style – to crush competition in its infancy, and it is precisely those infant companies that are generating the ideas we need.

And of course, we need leadership.  Barack Obama has been trying to stay off the stage and work on his cabinet, since after all, he’s not yet the president.  But the problems we face currently are much beyond the ability – and let’s be honest, the desire – of our current White House resident for him to handle.  As hard as it undoubtably must be, Barack Obama is going to need to find a way to represent a leadership role – even if that leadership is only a Senate-bound leadership – to help steer the ship as best he can in the next few months so we can get things done in something approaching a rational way.


Drilling Our Way Out: Quick and Sexy Math

Since the announcement that Governor Sarah Palin would be the Vice Presidential pick for the Republican ticket, a lot of people have had drilling on their minds.  Many people, including Sarah Palin, seem to think that if we just keep drilling – deeper, harder, faster and in more places – our nation could finally find the satisfaction its been craving, without having to rely on foreign pipes.

But as hard as we drill, we only produce about 10 percent of the gushers in the world, while we receive the fruits of about 25% of gushers worldwide.  That’s a lot of extra pumping for one nation to do, almost twice as much, if we’re going to give as good as we get.  In fact, the Adonis of oil drilling, Saudi Arabia, only produces about 12% of the gushers in the world.  Do we really think we have that much stamina?  Just because we can do the pumping doesn’t mean we’ll get the gushers we’re looking for, anyway.

Because if you ask other nations honestly, they’ll tell you that after a certain point, too much drilling is just a bad thing.  It’s a tiring waste of resources that damages the environment and just gets kind of sad after a while.  Worse than that, once you’ve drilled one hole dry, even if you’re allowed to go for another hole, it’s not really going to produce any gushers and it’s probably just going to be a shitty situation for everybody.

In fact, most nations would tell us that if we were just a little less selfish, we wouldn’t need to work so hard in the first place.  If we didn’t spend so much time trying to show off and act cool around our friends, we wouldn’t have to worry about living up to an impossible image or dealing with our inadequacies. If we just appreciated what we have a little more, took it less for granted, maybe we might find out that quantity is no substitute for quality.

After all the latitude and patience we’ve been given, to insist that finding new and interesting places to drill – especially those we’ve worked so hard to keep clean – just isn’t the right answer to the problem.


Keep Laughing

Newt Gingrich is still giggling over the whole Obama + tire inflation “controversy,” apparently not aware the joke – such as it was – is over.  Never mind the stupidity of thinking, as he does, that the oil industry also has a cartel on tire pump air.  Note, rather, that the 2008 Saturn Aura has had tire inflation gauges in it for quite a while, now.


Life is Full of Surprises

Well, whaddaya know?  CNN Money is reporting that oil prices are holding steady at around $119 a barrel despite a major pipeline in Turkey being cut.  If you recall just last month back, every time a pipeline anywhere was damaged, the price went up by five bucks at minimum.  So, what accounts for the sudden change in the market moves?  Well, most experts point to declining demand in the U.S. . .  Demand goes down, prices go down.

So, John McCain, tell us about your drilling plan again?


Let them eat (mud) cake

I shouldn’t make light of this situation at all, the title of this post just came to me.

Haitians are going through convulsions as a result of the food and fuel shortages and rising prices across the globe in a way very few of us here realize.  Their prime minister’s position has already been toppled; their food prices have jumped 80% in a year; the food provided as relief by the U.N. is running out.

And now, they’re eating mud cakes.  It’s a revolution and a humanitarian crisis, right on our doorstep, folks.


Get a New Act

When it comes to trumpeting the failed policies and anaemic strategies of the national Republican Party, our local Republican Representatives never fail to live up to expectations.  Randy Kuhl and Tom Reynolds (who?) are both making public statements in favour of more drilling to solve our nation’s oil crisis.

Where is the pressure – from either party – on American auto makers to produce energy-efficient cars?  Where is the effort to bring manufacturers together around the idea of creating energy-efficient home appliances?

Debating the efficacy of drilling or bitching about coal isn’t getting us anywhere.


High Gas Prices Aren’t All Bad

With luck, perhaps they’ve finally put the nail in the coffin of those goddamned SUVs once and for all:

Rising Gas Prices Finally Kill The Once-Mighty SUV | Autopia from

Need more proof the SUV is a goner? Ford’s venerable F150 pickup ended its 17-year-run as the best-selling vehicle in America last month, dethroned by the Honda Civic and three other Japanese sedans. General Motors is looking to unload Hummer, the epitome of gas-guzzling excess, after sales fell 60 percent in May. The number of Civics sold in one month exceed the number of Hummers GM expects to sell all year.

Now, the question is: does this mean an increase in production of more fuel-efficient cars? My continuing chagrin with my car manufacturer of choice, Saturn, has been that they only make two hybrids: a hybrid SUV and a luxury car. I appreciate the effort, but spending the extra dough for a hybrid only to get 35MPG is hardly worth the trouble. I’m getting about that now.

So I’m beginning to look elsewhere, with my term on my current vehicle edging ever closer to completion. And by “elsewhere,” I mean something other than American cars. The trouble is that, while I’m hardly one to be defined by my car, there’s a certain lack of – oh, let’s just call it “testicular fortitude” – in the available options. The Prius has gotten better looking as it goes on, but a $25k price tag makes it hard to take. Not impossible, though. The new India-produced TaTa (to be marketed as the “Mini-Cat,” its English translation, in the States) looks like it might be OK, but what the hell is up with the 1Lakh? And the “Smart Car?” It’s only smart if your working towards a life of celibacy. And while I lived in the city, I considered buying a Vespa scooter until I realized I’d look like an English schoolmarm with a hickory switch up her keister.

As a person whose favourite car of all time was the Dodge Shadow, I hardly require a “penis-mobile” of any variety. But come on! These things just make you look stupid driving around in/on them. The manufacturers are doing the environment and the world economy a great service by even producing these vehicles, but they’d be doing an even greater service if they made the vehicles just a little bit more approachable for the average American.

But then, vehicles that appeal to an American sensibility would be more likely if American producers would produce the vehicles, wouldn’t they?