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CAFE oh late
But better late than never

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
April 4, 2010

When Barack Obama opened up large tracts of the south Atlantic seaboard to oil exploration, my knee jerk response was, “Dammit, I thought he was a moderate. I wasn't expecting the spawn of Dick Cheney!”

Well, nobody expects the spawn of Dick Cheney. Nobody.

But upon reflection, I wondered just what Obama had actually done. There aren't any proven reserves in the areas he opened up for exploration, and contrary to what he said, the chances of finding vast areas of oil aren't that great.

But it sure kicked the supports from under the Republicans and their whole “drill, baby drill1” routine.

During the campaign, when McCain and Palin were howling that only by drilling in ANWAR and Santa Barbara could America be saved from Hugo Chavez and new agers in Birkenstocks, I suggested they should press for drilling in the American south, Florida in particular. After all, I argued, the place was unimportant, since it was Republican, and the shores were of the sort that would probably benefit from a thick covering of crude oil.

No, I don't plan on visiting the American south any time soon. Why do you ask?

Republicans were unamused by this. They only wanted to drill in areas that mattered to liberals, and they didn't much care that any oil extracted would go into the international oil bourse, and America wouldn't benefit at all.

With speculators (not demand) driving the price of oil up to over $80/bbl, the Republicans were gearing up for a new drilling offensive in order to save Alaska and Santa Barbara from the ravages of marine wildlife and make it look like they were doing something about a situation largely of Republican making.

Obama very neatly kicked the props out from under that, and appeared to be giving the oil companies what they wanted, without actually giving much away.

But it wasn't until the next day, when Obama dropped the other shoe, that it became apparent just how neatly he had outmaneuvered the Republicans. While they were loudly screaming about the oil drilling announcement (which, for some reason, they didn't approve of), Obama signed an executive order eliminating mountaintop mining, and another, jointly with the Harper government in Ottawa, raising the CAFE (fuel economy) standards for automobiles by 35% to 35 miles per gallon by 2016. The fact that the Canadian government, presently in the hands of the Conservative Party, had signed on suggested this one had been in the works for quite a while, and there is a large and comprehensive report (MY2012-2016_CAFE_PRIA.pdf) from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that it was very carefully planned.

Three days later, and right wingers are still too shocked to respond. Sam Kazman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Exxon “think tank”, howled that the smaller cars mandated by tighter fuel economy would cost nearly 500 lives a year. Sam missed a bet; driving mileage would increase, too, adding slightly to the carnage. 1.1%, assuming no fuel cost or economic fluctuations. Yeah, that'll happen. If it held up, it would be good for another 400 deaths a year, give or take.

But the report also noted that the main determinant in the death rate in small cars was the length and width of the wheel base, and that if it stayed the same while the car body became smaller and lighter, there would actually be about 480 LESS deaths a year.

An interesting thing in the new CAFE standards is that they don't really set fuel economy standards. What they do is curtail CO2 emissions – 250 grams of carbon dioxide a mile. Since internal combustion engines burn carbon, which is the act of mixing it with oxygen, this inevitably produces carbon dioxide. X amount of carbon and Y amount of oxygen will produce Z amount of carbon dioxide. Like gravity and wide ties, it's just one of those things the Universe does to be annoying. To keep reductions to 250 grams per mile, you must burn gasoline at the rate of 35.5 miles per gallon or better. (I thought about working the formula, but have no interest in using mixed American and Metric measurements. If JPL hadn't had to translate from furlongs per fortnight in its orbital calculations, there might be a couple of more Mars explorer craft operational today).

So if you can figure out a way to produce some sort of vehicle that gets four miles to the gallon but only produces 249 grams of CO2 per mile, then you are CAFE-compliant. Of course, whatever it is you do to “scrub” the exhaust would probably eliminate most of the other emissions problems, too.

Kazman, whose heart belongs to Exxon, failed to note that untold thousands of Americans killed or sickened by air pollution now might be healthier and live longer in the future. There was a ominous report a few years back establishing a direct linkage between childhood asthma and proximity to freeways in California. The report focused on particulates, rather than CO2, but better fuel economy reduces particulates, too.

The “ban” on mountaintop mining isn't exactly a ban, either. You can still apply for, and get, a permit to engage in mountaintop mining.

But under the new rules, you can't just roll the billions of tons of resulting scree into the adjoining valley. You have to ship it to the nearest EPA-approved dumping ground, which might be hundreds of miles away. Maybe you could work a deal with FedEx.

On of the surprise supporters of the new EPA regulations was Senator Robert “I've BEEN to the mountaintop and I NUKED that sucker!” Byrd, who spent the past 750 years in the Senate as a vociferous defender of strip mining. Even he admitted the income from that type of mining was outweighed by the environmental costs.

At this point, the GOP is utterly outflanked. The CAFE changes have widespread support, and the mountaintop mining ban nearly universal support, even in the states that derive small economic benefits from it.

There's other areas where Obama needs to take a more proactive role. He can begin phasing out government subsidies of ethanol. He needs to push for more federal involvement in an entirely new power grid for the country, one that encourages participation from alternative energy supplies. He needs to subsidize off-grid homes. And dozens of other things.

But this is a good solid start, and he played it well, politically, which in Washington is considerably more important than the simple question of benefits versus cost.

He needs to start moving forward on the issue of global climate change. (I have to grin at that, since it's Easter Sunday, and it's been snowing here like a mad bastard – two feet or more – since early yesterday). But the British House of Commons completed their investigation into the hacked emails from the Anglia University/Hadley Climate Research Centre, and to the surprise of any reasonably educated and honest person, found no evidence of any wrongdoing or intent to deceive on the part of any of the scientists, and no significant alteration of data – nothing to faintly suggest that the avalanche of data pointing to inexorable climate change brought about by a large increase in carbon dioxide.

The whole “controversy” was contrived, a crime that was exploited, heavily funded and publicized by the oil industries and all their puppet organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Rush Limbaugh, the Republican Party, and all the Murdoch “news sources”. It was nothing but bullshit, timed to sabotage the Copenhagen conference, and now that it has been proven to be bullshit, it's time to move on.

If, at this point, anyone says to you that “climategate” proves global warming is fake, it's safe to assume that person is ignorant, lying, or in all likelihood, both.

And, despite all the howls and whines about the January snowstorms back east, or the one we're getting right now, the data continues to pile in. Canada had its mildest winter on record. So did much of Russia. Globally, 2009 was the fifth warmest year on record, although cool compared to most years over the past decade.

It's still happening, despite the protests of the oil industries and all their little whores, and the Pentagon is dead right when they identify global warming as the greatest security threat to America. It is, in fact, the greatest threat we face, not because it will destroy the world (it won't) but because the resulting famines and floods and dislocations and fights over food and water could lead us, prickley apes with nuclear weapons, to destroy the world.

Obama's doing well. But he must do better.

Posted: April 9, 2010

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