Friday, October 31, 2008

Election 2008: Science Funding

Today we continue our look at the two presidential candidates' positions on environmental science issues. Yesterday we talked about their alternative energy proposals, and on Wednesday we spoke of their non-renewable energy proposals. Today we're talking about how they will fund science research, and next Monday we will conclude with their positions on climate change and my endorsement.

America has prospered in the recent decades due to scientific, technological and engineering advances. Since the Second World War, America has been home to the worlds most advance science research, a situation which is expected to change within the next decade as China and Europe pass the United States.

The Case for Science
Education. America is no longer producing men and women educated in math and science in numbers necessary to run the engines of our economy and perform world class research. America is importing young scientists from foreign countries to perform research, many of whom get their education for free from America and then return to their home countries. It is important that we develop math and science programs in middle school, high school and college that produce students capable of contributing to the nation.

National Security. A strong national math and science program is needed to develop the engineers and scientists who work for national security programs, developing weapons and technology to keep American’s and America’s servicemen and women from harm.

Pride. America’s pre-eminence in the space program has been a point of pride for our nation, that has driven our technological advances and propelled many a great scientific career. Today the success of the United States space program is threatened both by government budget cuts and the rapid advances being made in China and Europe.

Recent History
While the United States debt continues to spiral out of control, research funds for science have remained flat or declined in the past 15 years. I realize that web comics are generally not a great source for data, this comic taken from PhD comics is a well researched and properly cited reference.

Although there are a lot of lines on this chart, but a couple lines tell the picture. The blue and red lines represent genetic research and health research funding. Both begin increasing in federal support in the later half of the Clinton administration and continue growing through the first half of the Bush administration. At the same time the yellow, purple and pink lines, which represent space research, environmental research and energy research begin decreasing, and continue doing so to the present. The government has increased health research at the expense of science research. Military research which had declined from 1988 to 2000, has been increasing rapidly, exceeding the total research spent during the cold war.

So in general the government has decreased research funding to hard sciences, while increasing research funding to health and military.

Candidates Positions
The candidates explained their positions on science research and innovation at Here are some highlights.

Philosophies. To those of you paying attention to the election the candidates perspective on science research follows along with the candidates economic plan. Senator McCain favors removing wasteful earmarks, and reallocating those funds to science and reducing government oversight to allow unfettered research. Senator Obama favors increasing research funds for the hard sciences, and promoting educational programs for young scientists. This is as close as you get to the stereotypical “Regan Limited Government Disciple” vs. “Liberal Tax and Spend” positions on the entire campaign.


• Appoint a Science and Technology Advisor within the White House to ensure that the role of science and technology in policies is fully recognized and leveraged, that policies will be based upon sound science, and that the scientific integrity of federal research is restored;

• Eliminate wasteful earmarks in order to allocate funds for science and technology investments;

• Fund basic and applied research in new and emerging fields such as nanotechnology and biotechnology, and in greater breakthroughs in information technology;

• Promote greater fiscal responsibility by improving the scientific and engineering management within the federal government;

• Ensure U.S. leadership in space by promoting an exploration agenda that will combine the discoveries of our unmanned probes with new technologies to take Americans to the Moon, Mars, and beyond;

• Grow public understanding and popularity of mathematics and science by reforming mathematics and science education in schools;

Senator McCain appears to continue the trend set by President Bush of funding health research. President Bush also gave NASA a mandate to increase the space exploration program, and land a manned vessel on Mars. While this is a noble goal, NASA ended up redirecting funds from Earth based environmental research into the Mars project, as no additional funds were allotted by the Predient or Congress. Senator McCain appears to support President Bush’s Mars mandate, and it is unclear if he will provided additional funds to NASA so that they can accomplish this without decreasing Earth based research.


My administration will increase funding for basic research in physical and life sciences, mathematics, and engineering at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade. We will increase research grants for early-career researchers to keep young scientists entering these fields. We will increase support for high-risk, high-payoff research portfolios at our science agencies. And we will invest in the breakthrough research we need to meet our energy challenges and to transform our defense programs.

A vigorous research and development program depends on encouraging talented people to enter science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and giving them the support they need to reach their potential. My administration will work to guarantee to students access to strong science curriculum at all grade levels so they graduate knowing how science works – using hands-on, IT-enhanced education. As president, I will launch a Service Scholarship program that pays undergraduate or graduate teaching education costs for those who commit to teaching in a high-need school, and I will prioritize math and science teachers. Additionally, my proposal to create Teacher Residency Academies will also add 30,000 new teachers to high-need schools – training thousands of science and math teachers. I will also expand access to higher education, work to draw more of these students into science and engineering, and increase National Science Foundation (NSF) graduate fellowships. My proposals for providing broadband Internet connections for all Americans across the country will help ensure that more students are able to bolster their STEM achievement.

In 2005 I received an honorable mention in the NSF Graduate Fellowship program. I would have received three years of tuition and support, had the program been fully funded by the Clinton and Bush administrations. Instead I have been supported by teaching assistantships from the university, which has greatly slowed my academic progress as I have to teach in order to recieve my tuition and stipend. So, I understand first hand what the budget cuts to NSF have meant to young scientists. Hearing Senator Obama support this program, is heartening to me, although I am the first to admit that I am quite obviously biased about this issue.

Senator Obama also mentions that he would increase the support to the physical sciences, and increase support into new energy development, which is in my opinion greatly needed after years of funding cuts to these programs.

Conclusion I don’t think I can offer an objective analysis of the two positions. It will come down to voter preference of government philosophy, should the federal government step back and be a “small” government or should it increase funding of sciences and be a “large” government. Personally I feel that since if the government doesn’t fund this research, no one will, so we need to invest in science and engineering for the future of our nation. But I do respect the opinion of those who feel that the federal government is too large, and we need to cut spending and programs.

Senator Obama gives specific examples of programs that will encourage young scientists, and moreso than that also provide financial support that will ensure American Universities will continue to provide competent scientists and engineers to power our economy. As such I favor his position here, but must admit that I am badly biased. I would love to hear from you if you disagree.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Election 2008: Alternative, Renewable Energies

One of the more striking impressions I’ve gotten from the presidential candidates is what their motivation for their environmental stewardship is. Senator John McCain appears to be passionate about protecting the environment. It’s obvious that he cares deeply about the environment and protects it out of moral concern. Senator Barack Obama also takes great interest in the environment. But it appears, to me at least, that he views the environment as an economic issue. We should do what’s right for the environment because it will cost us in the long run if we don’t, and if we do it correctly it might actually help the economy. I’m not sure which is the better philosophy, nor am I sure if that even matters. Both candidates seem to have their hearts in the right place, even if how their heart got their varies greatly. It would seem that environmental advocacy has come a long way.

Alternative, Renewable Energy Policy

If you’ve been watching television ads during the election, you’ve no doubt been bombarded with pictures of windmills and solar panels on verdant rolling fields. Both candidates have come out strongly endorsing alternative energies as an important means for achieving energy independence. So our task today is to understand the nuisances of each candidates' policies, to see who has a better feel for what alternative, renewable fuels are.

First some definitions. An alternative fuel is any energy source that provides an alternative from traditional fossil fuels. Thus “clean” coal is not an alternative fuel, as it is a fossil fuel. A renewable fuel is one that is regenerated quicker than humans consume it. Solar, wind, hydro-electric, tidal power are all examples of renewable fuels.

Today we’re going to talk about a couple of alternative energies possibilities, we’ll look at ethanol, a biofuel on which the candidates differ in opinion greatly as well as solar and wind power, on which both candidates have only slightly different platforms.


The positions: Here a major philosophical difference between the two candidates is evident. Senator Obama is for government mandates and Senator McCain favors government incentives. John McCain supports producing biofuels from cellulosic ethanol, and cutting the massive corn subsidies from the Federal government. Barack Obama supports producing ethanol from corn, and continuing corn subsidies to ensure the price of corn stays low.


John McCain Believes Alcohol-Based Fuels Hold Great Promise As Both An Alternative To Gasoline And As A Means of Expanding Consumers' Choices. Some choices such as ethanol are on the market right now. The second generation of alcohol-based fuels like cellulosic ethanol, which won't compete with food crops, are showing great potential.

Today, Isolationist Tariffs And Wasteful Special Interest Subsidies Are Not Moving Us Toward An Energy Solution. We need to level the playing field and eliminate mandates, subsidies, tariffs and price supports that focus exclusively on corn-based ethanol and prevent the development of market-based solutions which would provide us with better options for our fuel needs.

Senator McCain supports biofuels, but not a continuation of our current policy. He would end massive corn subsidies, and place the focus on cellustic ethanol production with would reduce the impact of corn based ethanol production on food costs.

Barack Obama has little to nothing to say about ethanol on the “energy and environment” section of his website. He mentions biofuels time and time again, but leaves the specifics out of how exactly he would produce the ethanol.

Senator Obama comes from Illinois, one of the leading corn producing states in the nation, as the table shows below. One can imagine that his historical support for producing ethanol from corn is at least partly a result of his states reliance on corn for its economy. It’s unclear what he would do as president, but his voting record clearly suggests that he supports federal subsidies for corn and the production of ethanol from corn.

Table. Corn yield by state in 1,000 of bushels. Data from 2004, from the Center for Transportation Analysis at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

This article from msnbc, scroll down from to the “fact file” and click on energy in the environment, states that Obama would:

“Expand federal requirements for ethanol from 36 million gallons to 60 million gallons a year with increase coming from non-corn sources.”

The Case for Ethanol
Portability. As a society we will likely need a liquid fuel supply to support our transportation system. Generation of alcohol from biomass is a great way of generating liquid fuel. No other alternative energy sources produce liquid fuel (others produce electricity).

Energy Independence. The Great Plains of America produce, not surprisingly, lots of grains. Biofuels represent an excellent way to reduce our dependence on foreign supplies of energy.

The Case Against Ethanol
Using Food for Fuel. Americans are used to inexpensive food. Using food products that are widely used in commercial food preparation negatively affects the average American, as reflected in increasing food costs.

Celluistic Ethanol Production. The way to go in producing fuel from biomass is likely through transformation of waste biomass, like corn husks. These are products that are not used as food, thus it would not increase food prices.

Government Subsidies The government provides massive subsidies, in the form of payments and tax breaks to corn farmers. While well intended, this policy is not helping small farmers, and has focused nearly all of our efforts on producing biofuels from corn, which may not be the best source for such fuels.

Low Energy Yields Corn based ethanol is lower in energy yield than sugar cane based ethanol. Put another way, it takes more corn to produce enough energy for your car than other potential fuels. Switchgrass and sugar cane are better materials from which to produce ethanol. The federal government needs to fund research on these other crops, and reduce corn subsidies so if these crops are superior, they can exert their economic superiority in the free market.

Producing Fertilizer. Corn requires massive quantities of fertilizer and water irrigation to grow. Fertilizer requires fossil fuels to be produced. In effect we are using fossil fuels to produce biofuels, which does not help us achieve energy independence or reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. We need to utilize crops that require less fertilizer and less water irrigation to make biofuels economically and environmentally feasible.

Over Fertilization. Massive fertilization of corn leads to fertilizer running off the surface in stream water, and ultimately to the Mississippi River. This leads to the grow of marine algae in the River, which eventually die. As they die they are respired, consuming oxygen. This oxygen is not available to marine organisms like fish and shrimp. This is known as eutrophication and is negatively affecting the fishing industry along the Gulf Coast.

In the picture below you can see lifeless, low-oxygen water pouring out of the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. A major reason for this low oxygen content is over fertilization of fields for corn harvesting. Image source: NASA.

Conclusion: Both candidates favor increasing the quantity of biofuels available for American consumption. However, Senator John McCain has the superior proposal for biofuels. Senator McCain stresses the use of cellusistic ethanol, which would not place a burden on our food system. Senator McCain would eliminate corn subsidies, which make for an uneven playing field. As a nation we need to develop a biofuel that is sustainable, and energy rich. Government subsidies are providing a massive advantage to corn, which means our nation may grow to depend on an inferior fuel source. Let the free market determine what the best biofuel source is. Here Senator Barack Obama is potentially sending our nation down a perilous path, with his continued subsidies for corn.

Wind and Solar Power

A better discussion of the issue than I can present is presented here at

Both candidates have expressed large vocal support for wind and solar power. Wind and solar power have been stressed more by Senator Obama, than Senator McCain, who prefers nuclear and coal technology in the short term. Senator Obama has voted consistently in favor of wind and solar power in the senate, whereas Senator McCain has missed a number of key votes on the subject.


Ten-year, $150 billion fund for biofuels, wind, solar, plug-in hybrids, clean-coal technology and other "climate-friendly" measures.

Senator Obama lays out a clear plan for developing these technologies.

Senator McCain talks a great game about wind and solar power, but his policy page doesn’t have much to say about how exactly he would implement them. He has also not supported these energy sources in the senate, missing a number of key votes on the issue. This is surprising to me given how much Arizona and their abundant sunshine would benefit from increased solar power technology.

Case for Wind & Solar
Environmentally Friendly. These options are the most environmentally friendly option of producing energy as they do not produce any greenhouse gasses.

It’s Necessary. If not today, in 10 years or 20 years we’re going to need these sources of energy as our domestic oil and gas reserves dwindle, and the global price of oil and gas increase. Whomever wins the election, the next president will sign an international agreement limiting carbon dioxide emissions, and we will need these technologies to be producing large portions of our energy.

Green Economy. As a nation we must develop solar and wind technology faster than China, India and Europe. Over the next 50 years the global energy economy will shift towards these sources, and its in our best interests to be an exporter of this technology, and be able to manufacture such components.

Case Against Wind & Solar
Technology. The technology for generating electricity from solar energy is lacking, and needs to be developed. Wind technology has improved by leaps and bounds in the past 10 years, but more improvements can be made. The government needs to invest in research on wind and solar to ensure America remains a technology leader.

Infrastructure. As previously discussed in the blog, where the greatest wind and solar power potential is, our national electric grid is unable to handle the energy generated. The next president will have to spend federal funds improving the grid if wind and solar power are to be developed.

Conclusions Senator Obama’s proposal is a good start, but does not go far enough in my opinion. Wind and solar power provide energy we can generate domestically for eternity. We need to develop these technologies. Senator McCain’s proposal is lacking in specifics. His voting record is not strong on this issue.

Okay, today the candidates split the issues, McCain has a better biofuel plan and Obama has a better alternative energy plan.

Tomorrow, we’ll check in on how the candidates plan to fund science research.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Election 2008: Non-Renewable Energy

Non-Renewable Energy Policy

It’s usually easy to identify the candidate who has sounder environmental policy, scroll to the Democratic ticket row of your voting machine, and pull the lever. But not this year. It’s a crazy political year, I daresay. Red is blue, blue is red and up is down. The Republicans have nominated a senator who proposed the first legislation to fight global warming and the Democrats have nominated a senator who has made his support of coal and nuclear power a major portion of his energy bill. In my opinion neither candidate would be an environmental disaster, which is a stark change from the past few elections. Both candidates have good environmental records, and we owe it to them to consider their policy in detail. With that in mind, let’s take a close look at the candidates environmental policy on Non-Renewable Energy. I think there are a lot of things we could talk about, but in the interest of time we’re going to focus on coal burning, nuclear energy and off-shore drilling.

I’ve already talked about the difference between alternative and renewable fuels, but here is how we define a renewable fuel.

A renewable energy source is one that the fuel or energy source is rejuvenated quicker by natural processes than we consume the fuel.

As such all fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) are non-renewable. As is nuclear power, as the fuel (uranium or plutonium) does not regenerate.

Coal Burning

The positions: Both candidates support additional development of coal fueled energy.

McCain: McCain says:

John McCain Will Commit $2 Billion Annually To Advancing Clean Coal Technologies. Coal produces the majority of our electricity today. Some believe that marketing viable clean coal technologies could be over 15 years away. John McCain believes that this is too long to wait, and we need to commit significant federal resources to the science, research and development that advance this critical technology. Once commercialized, the U.S. can then export these technologies to countries like China that are committed to using their coal - creating new American jobs and allowing the U.S. to play a greater role in the international green economy.

The McCain-Palin website mistakenly identifies coal use as a both “clean” and an “alternative” energy source. Coal energy is neither clean nor it is an alternative energy source as it is a fossil fuel.

McCain has expressed steady support for coal technology through the years. This position is fairly popular with the large American oil companies, who have strongly supported McCain this election cycle. If McCain wins the election there is no doubt that coal energy will be a major point in his energy policy.

It is unclear from his policy point if this coal energy development would be subject to McCain’s proposed market driven cap-and-trade system for carbon credits (we will discuss this in the future).


Whereas McCain professes unwavering support of coal energy, Obama appears to be tying his support of coal into the development and deployment of clean coal technology. Coal use would also be subject to regulation from the carbon permit trading program.

Obama appears particularly interested in developing technologies that convert coal to oil or gas. This application is also strongly supported by the U.S. military.

The case for coal:
Abundance. Both candidates favor “clean coal technology” as a major part of their energy plan. A major reason for such thinking is our abundant energy reserves of coal could make coal an excellent way to achieve energy independence. At our current consumption rates, it is estimated that we have well over 100 years of coal reserves in North America, as opposed to about 15 years of oil and 50 years of natural gas.

Infrastructure. We have the infrastructure in place to utilize our coal reserves. There are many, many coal burning power plants (especially east of the Mississippi). No federal funds would be required to continue using coal, and industry has plenty of economic incentive to invest in additional coal plants because the energy is so cheap.

It’s cheap. Because it’s so abundant and we have the infrastructure in place, coal energy will produce cheap energy, which is a very important factor given today’s economy.

Swing States. The table below shows that a number of the major coal producing states are considered in play by both candidates. By my estimation West Virginia (#2), Pennsylvania (#4), Montana (#5), Colorado (#7), Indiana (#8) and North Dakota (#10) are all being actively campaigned in by both sides, and all of these states are major coal producers.

Table. Coal production by state in 2007. Coal production in thousands of short tons. Data taken from the Department of Energy. States of interest highlighted in red.

Home State Influence. Senators Biden and Obama (IL - #9) both come from states where coal is an important industry, and thus are under tremendous pressure to support it in the senate. (Little known fact, Joe Biden grew up in Scranton, PA., they really should talk about that more.) Senator McCain represents Arizona which is the #18 coal producing state, and Governor Palin hails from Alaska which is then #22 coal producing state.

The Case Against Coal:
Coal is filthy. Coal is the dirtiest form of energy available to man for consumption. Burning coal produces ash (particulate matter) which possess a major threat to human health. Burning coal produces air born mercury, which is highly toxic and accumulates in fish before humans consume it. Burning coal produces loads of sulfur dioxide, which in the presence of water vapor in the atmosphere produces acid rain. Burning coal produces nitrogen dioxide, which contributes greatly to ozone formation, which is a major air pollutant.

Coal mining is environmentally unsound. The process by which coal is removed from the Earth is terribly dangerous to coal mine workers. The process by which coal is removed from the Earth is incredibly environmentally destructive to the mountains from which it is removed, often as a product of strip mining, which can lead to acid mine drainage into local waterways.

Clean Coal Technology. First of a definition. Clean coal technology is any technology that reduces the quantity of pollution produced from coal burning. The most common form of "clean" coal technology is scrubbers, which remove fly ash from coal plants. Clean coal technology isn’t actually clean. Today, clean coal technology reduces the amount of fly ash (and other particulate), mercury (and other toxic metals), and to a lesser extent reduces the amount of sulfur dioxide (leads to acid rain) and nitrogen oxides (leads to ozone formation) produced from coal burning. However, today these “clean” coal technologies do not remove these pollutants from the emission process, just reduce them. Most of the time, even with “clean” coal technology coal burning plants still produce tremendous quantities of air pollutants, greatly exceeding that produced from natural gas.

Greenhouse Gasses. Coal burning produces prodigious quantities of carbon dioxide. As such coal burning is a major contributor to global warming, increasing especially quickly in China. Both McCain and Obama support investing in carbon sequestration, a process by which carbon dioxide is removed from the coal driven pollution, and returned to the ground. These technology has not yet been produced, and the environmental impacts of the sequestration is poorly known.

Portability. Coal burning produces energy for electricity, but is not used to produce fuels for transportation so it’s utility is somewhat limited at the current time.

Conclusion. I support neither candidates platform on this issue as both candidates support this environmentally unfriendly process. Obama attaches more conditions to the development of this energy source, but both would feature clean coal technology in their energy plan.

Nuclear Energy

The positions: Both candidates support additional development of nuclear energy.

Obama supports development of nuclear power, but only after we have developed a system for handing the waste process. This position puts Obama at odds with his more liberal supporters, who in general strongly oppose the development of nuclear energy. He opposes the use of Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a repository.

Illinois is home to many nuclear reactors, six plants with a total of 11 reactors. This no doubt impacts Senator Obama’s position on the issue.


John McCain Will Put His Administration On Track To Construct 45 New Nuclear Power Plants By 2030 With The Ultimate Goal Of Eventually Constructing 100 New Plants. Nuclear power is a proven, zero-emission source of energy, and it is time we recommit to advancing our use of nuclear power. Currently, nuclear power produces 20% of our power, but the U.S. has not started construction on a new nuclear power plant in over 30 years. China, India and Russia have goals of building a combined total of over 100 new plants and we should be able to do the same. It is also critical that the U.S. be able to build the components for these plants and reactors within our country so that we are not dependent on foreign suppliers with long wait times to move forward with our nuclear plans.

McCain expresses unwavering support for nuclear energy. He proposes constructing 45 new nuclear plants by 2030. This number is thought by engineers to be unreasonable, as there are no industrial facilities in the United States presently capable of constructing commercial nuclear power facilities. Also, at present the United States does not have sufficient nuclear engineers needed to run 45 additional nuclear power plants. Senator McCain supports use of Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a repository of spent fuel.

Arizona is home to a nuclear plant, with three reactors. Arizona has a large portion of our nation’s uranium ore. Development of nuclear power would likely provide a boost to the Arizona economy.

The Case for Nuclear:
The Only Alternative. Nuclear power at the present time represents the only alternative fuel capable of meeting America’s electric power consumption at the present time. It may be a viable short term solution between now, and when alternative, renewable energy sources (i.e. wind, solar, tides, geothermal…) are available and technically feasible.

It’s safer. Technological developments have made nuclear energy safer than ever. Reactors used at Chernobyl or Three Mile Island are now obsolete and have been replaced with much safer designs.

The Case Against Nuclear Energy:
Cost. Nuclear energy is significantly more expensive than energy produced from fossil fuels, and even some alternatives.

NIMBY. Not in my backyard. It is very difficult to find a location for a nuclear power plant, since no communities want to take on the risk of nuclear incidence.

Nuclear Waste. Upon use, nuclear fuel produces a radioactive waste stream. At the current time, the United States has no central location to handle nuclear waste. Instead it is stored at the site of the nuclear power plant. This represents a security and health risk. It would be advisable to store all nuclear waste in a central location that could be monitored, and the nuclear waste health impacts limited to a small location.

Lacking Infrastructure. When fuel is used in a nuclear power plant, a percentage of the fuel that is produced as waste is recoverable and could be used as reprocessed fuel in the future. At present, this excess fuel is dumped in with the waste fuel and not recovered. The United States needs to develop a central re-processing plan to handle this nuclear fuel, and recover as much usable fuel as possible, if we are to develop nuclear energy on a federal level.

Transport of Waste. Even if the United States develops a central repository and reprocessing center, many states have regulations forbidding the transportation of nuclear waste through their borders. A safe transportation system would have to be developed.

Nuclear Proliferation. Even though the threat of global nuclear winter has been reduced, regional nuclear wars are still possible (i.e. India-Pakistan). Increasing the number of nuclear plants increases our countries ability to produces new nuclear weapons, which may be an obstacle to the bi-lateral weapon reduction program we are entered in with Russia.

Yucca Mountain. The United States has spent a tremendous amount of money developing Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository. There is some debate as to whether or not Yucca Mountain is a safe place to store nuclear waste, due to the possibilities of earthquakes in the region.

Conclusion: Despite the risk, I am personally strongly in favor of additional utilization of nuclear energy. I realize this is not the popular environmental sentiment, but I believe the risk can be minimized, and positive from the reduction in greenhouse gasses outweighs the negative. Both candidates agree with my position. I prefer Senator Obama’s proposal because it includes a comprehensive discussion of the need to develop a repository and reprocessing plant, which would be vital if our nation moves in that direction.

Off Shore Drilling

The positions: Unlike the previous two energy possibilities, the two candidates differ strongly on this issue. Senator McCain has expressed strong support for off-shore drilling. Senator Obama has tepid support for it, and appears to intend to use it as leverage to get his energy legislation advanced.

McCain: “Drill, baby, drill.”

John McCain Will Commit Our Country To Expanding Domestic Oil Exploration. The current federal moratorium on drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf stands in the way of energy exploration and production. John McCain believes it is time for the federal government to lift these restrictions and to put our own reserves to use. There is no easier or more direct way to prove to the world that we will no longer be subject to the whims of others than to expand our production capabilities. We have trillions of dollars worth of oil and gas reserves in the U.S. at a time we are exporting hundreds of billions of dollars a year overseas to buy energy. This is the largest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind. We should keep more of our dollars here in the U.S., lessen our foreign dependency, increase our domestic supplies, and reduce our trade deficit - 41% of which is due to oil imports. John McCain proposes to cooperate with the states and the Department of Defense in the decisions to develop these resources.

Senator McCain strongly supports the exploitation of marine resources for the production of domestic oil. This is in strong contrast to his senatorial voting record where he has voted against his party on the exploitation of ANWAR.

Governor Palin is in strong favor of development of oil reserves off-shore and in Alaska.


Obama appears to be pandering to public support of offshore oil development. His written policy supports development of these oil reserves in a limited capacity and only as part of a larger energy plan that includes alternative fuels.

Both Senator Obama and Senator Biden have voted against drilling in ANWAR.

The Case for Offshore Drilling:
None. There is no good reason to increase offshore drilling.

The Case Against for Offshore Drilling:
It won’t help soon. Oil from offshore drilling won’t arrive for 7 to 10 years, and will represent only a fraction of our oil consumption.

It won’t appreciably reduce the cost of fuel. The economic impacts of this additional oil income would be on the order of cents per gallon of gasoline.

False promises. A number of proponents of offshore drilling are suggesting that there is more oil present than what government studies performed in the 1970’s estimated was present. Likely the amount of oil reserves lies somewhere in between the two ranges of numbers.

The figure below shows proven oil reserves off the coast. The additional oil that will be tapped is a very small fraction of that which we are already drilling for. It would represent a drop in the bucket. The data for this figure is from the Department of the Interior, but I'm not sure exactly where this figure is taken. Please advise if you know the proper citation.

Addition Feeding. The U.S. reserves represent somewhere between 2% and 3% of the worlds oil supply. We consume 25% of the world’s oil use. Spending federal money to develop these supply only feeds our addiction, and will prolong our use of petroleum. We will not move towards producing alternative energies. This will prolong our addition to foreign oil, not sever it.

Environmental Impacts. Governor Palin’s famous quote about offshore oil drilling been clean and safe is untrue and unfounded. During both Hurricane Ike and Katrina large quantities of oil were released, entering the marine environment, causing extensive damage.

Conclusion: Neither candidate professes an environmentally friendly perspective on offshore oil development. Senator McCain’s policy represents a much greater threat to the environment than Senator Obama’s policy, however neither is ideal.

Tomorrow, we will move onto the candidates positions on alternative energies.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Election Special

So as promised, we’re about to begin our Election 2008 coverage here. We’re going to discuss the candidates stance on four issues, partly as decided by your votes:

Wednesday: Non-Renewable Energy
Thursday: Renewable Energy
Friday: Funding of Science and Science Research
Monday: Climate Change

Also on Monday, I’ll conclude with my endorsement of a candidate, based on their environmental policy.

So please check back over the next couple of days!

MLB Drops the Ball, Blames Meteorologists

Don’t like the result of your decision? Blame science!

Major league baseball made a very poor decision and attempted to play a baseball game during a strengthening coastal storm and is now blaming faulty forecasts from weathermen for their poor decision.

(Last night at the World Series, Jason Werth couldn't quite make this catch at the wall, and Bud Selig couldn't quite read a radar. Image to right from yahoo, Photo by Brad Mangin/MLB via Getty Images)

Last night Game 5 of the World Series between the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Philadelphia Phillies was suspended in the sixth inning due to rain. This was a noteworthy moment as never before in the history of major league baseball had a world series baseball game been suspended in progress. Rapidly strengthening nor’easters are not to be trifled with, so it’s not surprise that the game wasn’t completed. Except to perhaps running major league baseball, who blamed the game suspension on poor weather forecasting. (Aside: Now you can see that I’ll take any excuse to write about baseball, as in realitly, I spend the majority of my days checking various excellent baseball blogs.)

Though Monday opened as an overcast but dry day in Philadelphia, the forecast grew progressively worse. The three meteorological agencies used by Major League Baseball all recommended to Selig at approximately 7:45 p.m. ET that there would be 1/10th of an inch of precipitation until midnight, and all parties involved voted to play.

"Given the weather forecast we had, and we had monitored it over and over again, it was a decision that we made," Selig said. "And obviously I made it with some significant trepidation, but had the forecast held, we would have been OK."

Rain began falling significantly in the fourth inning, and Selig met with the groundskeeper in the fifth inning. The sand-based field of Citizens Bank Park absorbs water well, but the condition deteriorated over the next 1 1/2 innings, prompting Welke to wave the teams off after the top of the sixth.

The only problem with mlb’s position is that the forecast was actually RIGHT, as reported by national weather online:

Commissioner, Bud Selig, cited faulty forecasts for the unfortunate premature halt of the game. He mentioned that the clearly erroneous forecasts had only called for a tenth of an inch of rain between 8 PM and midnight. For most who won't check their facts, this sounds like an atrocious error by meteorologists! But, a check of the numbers yields .13" of rain by the time the game was called. Though this means there was an error of three hundredths of an inch of rain at that time - and ten hundredths of an inch of rain by midnight when the official amount was .23" of rain, many would agree that's a pretty darn good precipitation forecast.

The weather forecast for last night called for a strengthening nor’easter to start blowing up the East Coast. Anyone who lives along the Atlantic knows that when a nor’easter is getting going, it’s a good night to stay inside with a warm drink and a nice book. Needless to say I was shocked when the game started last night. I was actually tuned into Monday night football instead of the world series because I assumed that the game was canceled. And so did Joe Posnanski:

They never should have started the game. That was obvious from early Monday evening, when a light rain began to mist in Philadelphia. The weather radars, at least according to a local weatherman who was on television in the press box, showed that a hard and cold rain was gonna fall. The TV meteorologist said that rain would start falling right around 10 p.m. Eastern time. That figured to be right around the fourth or fifth inning.

Let’s take a look at those radar images to see if we can notice anything ominous looming.

Here is the radar at 7pm, when Bud and crew were sitting around chatting about whether or not to play the game. An expansive region of light to moderate rain sits just off to the west moving slowly towards the east. Only 5 to 10 miles west of Philadelphia, a narrow filament of moderate rain appears to be building. And according to surface observations, it’s already raining in Philadelphia.

Now it’s 8pm. It’s raining lightly. Just about time for the game to start. The narrow filament of moderate rain sits just to the west of Philadephia. This filament continues to grow slowly. The large swath of light rain has moved a bit further east, now almost connecting with the narrow filament. It’s clear now that this rain will reach Philadelphia in the next hour or so. The area of rain is large, and slowly growing more intense. There is no reason to expect the rain will end anytime soon. Why start the baseball game?

Now it’s 9pm. It’s raining lightly, with a temperature of 45 F. The heavier filament of rain has pulled off to the north, which is good news. However, now the entire Philadelphia region is encompassed in the light rain shield that has moved in from the west, with heavier rain off to the southwest, slowly moving towards the ballpark. It’s not going to get any better from this point out.

Now it’s 10pm. The rain has picked up a bit in intensity, and the temperature is down to 43. The metro region is encompassed in a band of moderate rain, with more off to the southwest to come. Shortly after this Bud and company cancel the game.

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing, and you don’t need three weather forecasting firms to tell you that it was going to rain more and more in Philadelphia last night. It was obvious to anyone paying attention that it was a lousy night in Philadelphia for baseball. Give us a break here. The game should not have been played.

The talking heads, baseball’s apologists on ESPN, had a slightly different take on the events:

“There’s nothing they could have done any different.” – Peter Gammons

“Are we going to see some snow on Tuesday?” – Karl Ravech
“We might!” – Tim Kurkjian

Is there hope for the rest of the world series? Here’s what mlb has to say about today (Tuesday’s forecast):

Bob DuPuy, Major League Baseball's chief operating officer, made comments after tonight's game: "The weather tomorrow is supposed to be worse."

Where are you getting that from Bob? As of 9am this morning the worst was over in Philadelphia and all that remained was a bit of light rain on the west side of the storm, that should pull out by noon or so.

Sorry Bud! This one is on you Bud, just like with the '94 strike, and the '02 all star game. You made a poor decision, accept it and don't blame weathermen.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Happy Yom Kippur!

Not sure what that horn thing is on the right, but I think it has something to do with Yom Kippur. The Jews for Jesus website wouldn't sue me for using their picture, would they?

I hope that you are enjoying Yom Kippur, which translated from Hebrew to English reads (from right to left) as the period during which every year Owen goes camping. While you are reading this, I am either on my way to or in the Catskills with some friends, hiking up and down mountains, and probably being rained on, since it always rains when I’m camping. If you are an academic advisor and you are reading this, please don’t think I’m lazy, Friday will be my 7th day taken off from work all year.

One thing that anyone who cares about the environment should appreciate about New York is the amazing amount of land that is in preserves and parkland in our great state. The Catskills and the Adirondack Park are massive reserves of land (the Adirondack Park is comparable in size to the entire State of Vermont and Catskill Park is about ½ the size of the State of Delaware for comparison), much of which is open to hiking and camping.

On this trip, some friends and I are hoping to climb two more firetowers in the Catskills. The Catskill’s are old mountains, and as such the summits have been rounded by erosion over the years. As such many mountains lack scenic vistas, taking away somewhat of the splendor of the mountains. Luckily on five mountains in the Catskills there are firetowers that extend high above the treeline, which have recently been restored and are open for climbers to use.

So far my friends and I have conquered Basalm Lake and Red Hill. This trip I am hoping to climb both Hunter (the highest) and Mt. Tremper. We’ll see if there is enough time for both.

For those who can dedicate more time to hiking and climbing there is a climbers challenge put on by the Adirondack Club to climb 18 fire towers in the Adirondacks and all 5 in the Catskills. So far, I’ve done 2 of 5 in the Catskills and only Bald Moutain (aka Roundaxe) in the Adirondacks.

I’ll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, enjoy pictures from last years trip where we climbed Red Hill.

The "ranger station" on Red Hill

The Red Hill fire tower

View from atop the tower!

It was a real humid day so visibility was limited. Otherwise you could see for 50 miles or further.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Why Write a Science Blog?

You may ask, “Owen why are writing a blog on environmental issues?” Easily, you could also not ask that question. I don’t really care if you ask the question or not, I’m going to tell you either way why I’m doing this.

First, it seems like most people who inform the public about the environment are biased. A majority of reporting comes from non-profit organizations with stated environmental objectives. Even governmental organizations report of what they’ve done or hope to do, not what’s important. A minority of reporting on the environment comes from objective media outlets, like newspapers.

Secondly, science and environmental blogs are rare, compared with other academic and societal disciplines. Here is what I wrote in my Schubel Fellowship application about the need for science blogs.

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, in 2006, 39% of Internet users or 57 million Americans read blogs regularly, a number that is growing rapidly. However, Americans looking for a scientific perspective on topical environmental issues may be out of luck. While blogs about politics, business and sports are abundant, blogs about science are exceedingly rare, and blogs about environmental science even rarer. Furthermore, in a preliminary search for environmental blogs I found that the majority of environmental blogs had a strong geopolitical bias in one direction or another and were authored either by individuals or non-government organizations with well documented biases. At present there are no blogs focusing on Long Island’s environment. There is a need for a subjective scientific discussion of key environmental issues that the public can trust, especially one that discusses environmental issues on a local level.

I would like to create such a blog, with the intentions of updating it about three times a week. The blog would focus on environmental issues affecting the New York metropolitan region, but many of the blog articles would be general as to attract a much larger crowd. I would like to keep a healthy mix of environmental theory (e.g. population growth, global energy needs and sources), discussion of basic scientific facts about topical environmental issues, local environmental issues (e.g. Broadwater, The Long Island Wind Farm) and major research findings that have environmental impacts (highlighting in particular work done by SoMAS personnel). As is traditional in the world of blogging, the created blog would link to a number of outside blogs, journalistic articles and academic articles, thus not only connecting the general populous with my take on the issues, but encompassing the broad scientific consensus.

Third, it seems like the people reporting on science, aren’t necessarily the experts on the issues they are writing about. While I’m far from an expert, a bachelor and masters degree along with a few years of graduate school does give me a bit of insight into a lot of issues, that I’d like to share.

Fourth, most scientists communicate poorly with the public. I am hoping to have a career in science at some point in the near future, and I’d like to be able to successfully communicate my research results with the public. While my writing so far has been relatively poor, with most subjects poorly described (wait what valley? There’s a city in the valley?!?), full of grammatical errors and poorly constructed metaphors, I am hoping to get better an improve my written communication. To that effect, consider yourself guinea pigs.

Fifthly, sometimes the public needs a translator from “science research talk” to “plain English.” Often with good intentions many authors can do good research that is completely incomprehensible to the public. (See as an example the image to the right, which is a figure in a scientific journal article summarizing how science blogs work). I’d like to do my part in translating good work from “science” to “English” so the public can use the research (because what are we doing science research for if not for improving the quality of life for everyone).

Lastly, I think the general public really wants to understand science. I truly believe it. Many people have a negative perspective on science research because they feel like scientists are talking down to them or that scientists are coming up with nonsense because they don’t understand how scientists could do the research they perform. Or perhaps the public doesn’t have a good grasp of basic environmental science theory, and misinterprets results.

I bring up this point because of a scientific paper that Lee forwarded to me sometime last month. The article entitled “The roles, reasons and restrictions of science blogs” by Dr. John S. Wilkins, a philosopher from the University of Queensland in Australia, discusses the role of science blogs in society and in science academia today. (It should be noted here that Dr. Wilkins himself is a blogger, so his views may come from his own personal experiences.) It’s a very interesting read and I encourage all you loyal readers out there to download it and take a gander.

Dr. Wilkins, first describes what a science blog is and who typically does this blogging:

A blog is fundamentally a continuously updated web page, with entries (‘posts’) that have date, time and, if many authors contribute to the blog, author-name stamps (Figure 1). Each post may be commented upon by the readership, and the discussions can range from a few humorous one-liners to complex and well-written rebuttals or contributions, and everything in between. Blogs typically have a general theme, and most blogs are personal diaries organized around these. Many are focused on single issues, such as politics, religion or scientific topics. Science blogs are blogs whose main focus or intent is disseminating or commenting upon science.

Many science bloggers are graduate students, but a number are practicing teachers and researchers. It is unclear so far how the scientific and educational communities regard blogging. Some graduate students and early career researchers have complained that they are being told by advisors and supervisors to stop blogging and concentrate on ‘real’ work, whereas others have drafted up later-published papers on their blogs, and taken advantage of an informed and enthusiastic readership for critique and suggestions. At times, readers offer references the author might not have found otherwise, especially from cross-disciplinary fields. In this article, I argue that there are also many other reasons for scientists to enter the blogosphere.

Here is a short list of motivation Dr. Wilkins gives for scientists having personal science blogs:
• Blogs are “intimate and responsive,” often addressing recent publications nearly immediately, offering a response very different than hyped up press releases.
• Science blogs are a mechanism by which to “demythologize science”. If those writing about science are the ones performing it, they are best able to discuss the manner by which research was done and what the limitations of the work are.
• Bloggers are able to identify science politics, and make clear to readers why some research is covered by traditional media in the way that it is covered.

Dr. Wilkins also notes that there are certain benefits to blogging, that I greatly appreciated reading:
• That blogs, if archived can represent a history of the evolution of scientific thoughts and knowledge on a particular issue.
• That bloggers can bridge the ever growing gap between science and humanities, and in some cases lead to policy changes by making clear to those outside of science (i.e. politicians) what the practical results of government spending on research may be.

Blogging also has personal benefits for the blogger. A blog that represents a scientific community or subdiscipline will become a community in itself. Through back-channel forums, personal contacts, and commenting, an isolated researcher can become part of a wider social network. Occasionally, conferences result, such as the North Carolina Science Blogging Conference ( that has now been held twice. And science bloggers can even find jobs via their blogging. At least three members of the blog community at the Seed Magazine Science Blogs ( have reported that they have been offered or gained positions partly on the basis of their science blogging.

Not all things blogging are a positive to Dr. Wilkins he notes:

There are also downsides to blogging. Quality control, rewriting and editing are usually lacking, and some blogs that purport to be science based are often merely apologetics for pseudoscience or quack medicine, especially when issues are politically charged (e.g. anti-global warming, anti vaccination, creationism, homeopathy and so on). Many blogs also act as ‘vanity publishing,’ that is, self-serving outlets for ideas the author is unable to get past peer review. Blogs fall prey to the same failures as websites in general, with much of the ‘information’ being false or one-sided. For example, if you google ‘evolution,’ most of the top hits are creationist sites such as the Discovery Institute.

This blog was recently a victim of such “fake science” when someone put a link in the comments to an anonymous web-blog that seemed to evoke an extremely anti-scientific tone.

Dr. Wilkins concludes with:

In conclusion, blogging remains an individualistic, sometimes anarchistic and convention-breaking form of communication. There are gems in the rough, but there will always be a lot of rough. Sites that continue to deliver interesting reports will tend to survive, but ultimately it is up to each blog reader to find the blogs they like and trust. The academic research and teaching communities for science and related fields need to see blogging as more than a casual hobby, as core outreach for their science. It is an effective way for scientists to counter the misunderstandings, deliberate and otherwise, of popular culture. Not only graduate students, but more tenured professionals, need to engage in this to ensure that their science, and the science of others, is in the public eye (for an example, see Massimo Pigliucci’s blog at In this way, we can ensure that the quality of the science that is communicated to the public is high, while the personality of working scientists humanizes science.

There is a certain irony to Dr. Wilkins journal article, that I find most humorous. While describing how and why science blogs should exist, he relies on antiquated science article clich├ęs, including a flow chart (see image above, and an aside box in which he describes how to start a blog like a physicist describes the methodology of their experiment).

No matter how you look at it, we need young scientists to get out on the web and write about science in ways that their peers could understand. If anyone out there wants to write an “editorial” or “letter to the editor” on this blog, we’d love to share your thoughts. If anyone out there wants to start your own blog, we’d love to give you a link and a shoutout to get people reading your stuff. Those articulate folks in the shadows, step out and share your knowledge and love of science with the rest of us!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Peer to Peer Lecture Tonight

Chris Mims, who founded Science Blogs which is the most read science blog on the interwebs will be speaking at Stony Brook University as part of the Peer to Peer Lecture series, which focuses on science communication. The lecture will be at the Wang Center in Stony Brook University in Lecture Hall #1 at 6pm tonight, if you happen to be in the region. Mr. Mims talk will be on new and emerging media and is entitled, "If new media were an ecosystem, it would be the Amazon." Definitely worth checking out if you have the time.

Whales observed in New York Harbour

Humpback whale at right, image courtesy NOAA

Anyone up for a whale watch? Let’s hop on the circle liner sometime soon and do a tour of New York Harbor and see what we see.

Whales capture the human imagination. Whales are large, intelligent and hideously ugly beasts of the sea. As a species we have written about whales, drawn whales, hunted whales, watched whales and now today we are protecting whales. Part of the majesty of whales is their mystery. Where do whales live, travel, eat and breed? How many are left? How likely is it that whales will still exist in 2100 or 2200? Everyday we are learning more and more about whales, yet we still know very little.

Recently, it was discovered that Humpback, Fin and North Atlantic Right Whales all reside near or travel near New York Harbor. In addition to the Times article linked previously, the story was also covered on NPR (click on the red speaker like button on the NPR webpage to listen to their story).

Fin whale, at right. Image courtesy of NOAA.

“To me, it’s extraordinary,” Dr. Clark said. “People wouldn’t think of going out of New York harbor to see whales.”

Of course, scientists knew that whales were passing by somewhere off New York. The endangered northern right whales migrate between New England and Florida each year, but scientists did not know if the migration route hugged the coastline or if the whales took the straight-line route from Rhode Island to Cape Hattaras via the deep ocean. “There has been a real gap in our knowledge,” Dr. Clark said.

The Cornell researchers and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation collaborated on a project that placed three recorders 13 miles from the harbor and seven more off Fire Island from March to June.

Dr. Clark put the data on the computer and started listening.

“It was like, bingo, we’ve got whales,” Dr. Clark said.

Not just a few, either. Right whales were migrating past the microphones during all three months. Not just right whales, either. Humpbacks were also passing by, and fin whales appear to be residing in the area. “We basically have fin whale singers basically 24/7 off New York Harbor,” Dr. Clark said. “That was a surprise.”

The researchers also heard blue whales, minke whales and sei whales.

These findings are important for a number of reasons. All three species of whale found in great abundance are considered to be endangered species, and shipping routes in the harbor may put these creatures at risk. By learning more about where these whales live, travel, feed and breed we can help identify regions of coastal waters that need to be protected. It’s also an important finding because it captures the imagination of New Yorkers. Perhaps people will think a bit more about the waters that surround the great city knowing that whales populate the waters that most take for granted.

For more information about monitoring of whale activities, check out this website.

North Atlantic Right Whale, at right. Image courtesy of NOAA.

The previous two posts have discussed offshore drilling for oil and natural gas. A good argument for proceeding cautiously with respect to drilling is that we don’t yet know enough about the ocean to accurately assess the potential harm of offshore drilling. (That and we don’t know how much oil or gas is actually out there, and how much it would reduce the costs of energy for consumers.) The finding of whale populations around New York City is a reminder of how little we know about the ocean. How can we asses the risk of erecting oil rigs along our continental shelves when we still do not know what the effects of such an erection might be?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Register to vote

Are you registered to vote yet? If not, you need to act now! The deadline to register to vote is October 10th in New York State. All registration forms must be postmarked on October 10th and received by your county board of elections by October 15th. Registering is quick and easy, all you need is a printer, an envelope and a stamp.

Follow this link to learn more. You'll need to download a pdf, print it, fill it out and put it in the mail by this weekend.

Once you register, you will receive notice of your polling place by mail. This is the location at which you will cast your vote.

On a completely unrelated note, one of the vice presidential candidates shoots wolves from helicopters for fun! You can argue about the ethics of shooting wildlife from aircraft all you like, but the scary thing is how easily Sarah Palin ignores the advice of scientists, scientists armed with data, to go along with a politically popular idea.

Seriously people you need to register to vote.

When NIMBY meets Drill Baby Drill

What happens when an irresistible force meets and immovable object?

“Drill, Baby, Drill” is the Republican rally call for extensive exploration of continental shelves for additional oil and natural gas resources, and eventually construction of offshore platforms to extract these fossil fuels from the depths. “Drill, Baby, Drill” is gaining traction nationally with many conservative and moderate voters who would like America to become energy independent, or non-reliant upon foreign nations for our energy needs.

Take a peek at the crowd response at this year’s Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Certainly energy independence is a great goal for the United States to achieve in the next 10 years. Drilling for offshore oil is obviously popular with the American people. But also popular with the American people are clean, beautiful oceans. Citizens of coastal regions are also quite protective of their ocean views, sometimes voting down offshore windfarm proposals that could reduce their property values. Will voters change their support for offshore oil and gas drilling when it’s their backyard ocean and harbors that are being drilled in?

There is precedence for such a switch in support. Environmentally minded folks refer to this phenomena as NIMBY, or Not In My BackYard.

The Philadelphia Inquirer looks into the possibility of offshore drilling off the coast of New Jersey. The results of their inquiries suggest that local residents are not suffering from a case of NIMBY when it comes to something that could* affect gas prices.

A 62 percent majority of likely New Jersey voters polled this month by Quinnipiac University Polling Institute said they favored drilling in protected offshore areas.

An even higher percentage of Jersey Shore voters - 70 percent - supported lifting the ban, polling spokesman Pat Smith said. The poll released yesterday did not ask specifically about drilling off the New Jersey coast.

Look, I’m not here to argue the merits and flaws of offshore drilling**. All I’m trying to say here is that, people are really supportive of the idea, even those who would most likely be negatively affected by such activities. This strong sentiment, that of keeping gas prices as low as possible, regardless of the environmental costs is just something that people and politicians need to keep in mind.

* - You know it could affect gas prices, in like 10 years or so.

** - But just for the record, offshore drilling is in my opinion not worth the risk right now. We don’t yet know the environmental impacts of the construction of offshore oil rigs. We’ll have to invest a lot of resources into offshore exploration, to find the reserves. Then we will have to construct new infrastructure to extract the oil and natural gas. By the time we get a steady flow of oil and natural gas, it will be 10 years later, and oil prices will likely be outrageously high. Additionally, the amount of energy we get from such an endeavor will be very small compared to our consumption rate.

Additionally, if we do invest in offshore drilling infrastructure, we will be committing a tremendous amount of money into something that will probably only be viable for a short period of time. There is a limited amount of fossil fuels off the US coast, and it is not likely to meet our energy needs for a long duration of time. Instead, doesn’t it make sense to start investing in alternative energies, technology that will work for the US forever?

Friday, October 3, 2008

V.P. Debate Remix

Last night's much anticipated debate had only a few minutes of climate and environmental policy discussion. But for the sake of argument, let's take a look at how each of the debaters did.

Clean Coal Technology
Both candidates came out in strong favor of using clean coal technology to drive our energy policy in the next administration. Clean coal technology is an example of hard path energy policy, a policy that increases our use of fossil fuels in an attempt to meet energy demands.

Here is what Senator Biden had to say:

The way in which we can stop the greenhouse gases from emitting. We believe -- Barack Obama believes by investing in clean coal and safe nuclear, we can not only create jobs in wind and solar here in the United States, we can export it.

If Senator Biden is imply that clean coal technology will reduce greenhouse gas emission, he’s wrong – dead wrong. If anything increasing the United States use of coal, will greatly increase our greenhouse gas emissions.

So let’s spend a minute or two discussing clean coal technology. So I’ve heard, it’s useful to use metaphors to describe science to large audiences. Well, clean coal technology is like putting lipstick on a pig…um wait, no that one has been used. Clean coal technology is filthy. Clean coal burning still produces amazingly large quantities of green house gasses. Clean coal technology is only clean when compared to coal burning, which is horrendously bad for the environment.

* Clean coal technology does not reduce the amount of CO2 emissions
* Clean coal technology does not reduce the amount of green house gasses produced from burning coal
* Clean coal technology does not reduce the impact of harmful strip mining for coal
* Clean coal technology is not an alternative fuel
*What clean coal technology does is reduce the quantity of fly ash and SO2 (sulphur dioxide) produced from the burning of coal
* Fly ash is a major constituent of particulate matter, small solid particles that float in the air and are harmful to human health
* Sulphur dioxide is a major constituent of acid rain
* Clean coal technology may or may not reduce the quantity of mercury emitted from coal burning
* Mercury is a toxic metal, which is quite harmful to human health

What clean coal technology is, is American. We have tons of coal. Literally, billions of tons of coal. It’s an energy supply that American has in spades. Too bad it’s dirtier than oil, dirtier than natural gas and not even in the same league as solar and wind power.

Climate Change
Ms. Palin had a few interesting things to say when it came to the causes of climate change:

I'm not one to attribute every man -- activity of man to the changes in the climate. There is something to be said also for man's activities, but also for the cyclical temperature changes on our planet.

But there are real changes going on in our climate. And I don't want to argue about the causes. What I want to argue about is, how are we going to get there to positively affect the impacts?

Once again Ms. Palin goes on the record as doubting that climate change is the result of man’s continual emission of CO2 and methane. Ms. Palin states that she wants to “positively affect the impacts,” and to be clear the only way to do this is to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gasses. But if you don’t believe that man has caused this problem by producing greenhouse gasses, how can you craft good policy to reduce said gasses?

Senator Biden follows up with a rather cogent point:

If you don't understand what the cause is, it's virtually impossible to come up with a solution. We know what the cause is. The cause is manmade. That's the cause. That's why the polar icecap is melting.

For contrast, what does Senator Biden accredit climate change to:

Well, I think it is manmade. I think it's clearly manmade. And, look, this probably explains the biggest fundamental difference between John McCain and Barack Obama and Sarah Palin and Joe Biden -- Governor Palin and Joe Biden.

That he goes on to say that clean coal is a way to address climate change is only a minor deduction compared to the major fault of not being able to assert that climate change is driven by man.

Clean Green Natural Gas?
Ms. Palin later refers to natural gas as “clean and green:”

They know that even in my own energy-producing state we have billions of barrels of oil and hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of clean, green natural gas. And we're building a nearly $40 billion natural gas pipeline which is North America's largest and most you expensive infrastructure project ever to flow those sources of energy into hungry markets.

Again, to clear up potential misconceptions, burning natural gas results in greenhouse gas emissions. Anytime you burn a fossil fuel; oil, coal or natural gas, you will produce greenhouse gasses. There is very little that is “green” about tapping into the Earth in environmentally sensitive ecosystems like the Arctic and sub-Arctic by drilling for oil and natural gas.

”Environmentally Friendly Drilling”
The debate increased in its intensity as the debaters discussed off-shore drilling. Off shore drilling is a potentially disastrous exploitation of resources on under-studied continental shelves.

Ms. Palin was not impressed with the Biden-Obama position on off-shore drilling.

Barack Obama and Senator Biden, you've said no to everything in trying to find a domestic solution to the energy crisis that we're in. You even called drilling -- safe, environmentally-friendly drilling offshore as raping the outer continental shelf.

There -- with new technology, with tiny footprints even on land, it is safe to drill and we need to do more of that. But also in that "all of the above" approach that Senator McCain supports, the alternative fuels will be tapped into: the nuclear, the clean coal.

I was surprised to hear you mention that because you had said that there isn't anything -- such a thing as clean coal. And I think you said it in a rope line, too, at one of your rallies.

There is a lot of hesitation to drill on continental shelves because we know far too little about these remote regions and their ecosystems to assess the impact that drilling would have on them. As a nation we have devoted precious little funding to ocean exploration and marine sciences research. I think this debate reminds us of how important it is to increase our knowledge of the oceans.

Oh and Ms. Palin, Senator Biden noted that there isn’t such a thing as clean coal because there is no such thing as clean coal. There is only slightly-less-filthy-but-still-loaded-in-greenhouse-gasses-coal.

Additional Resources and Transcript
Here are some additional resources for those of you interested in learning more about what the debaters had to say. The times had a good running blog of each question and the response from each debater. The Times also links to a blog reporting on clean coal and caps, which I haven’t had a chance to read yet but greatly look forward to reading.

What follows here is Biden and Palin’s brief discussion of climate and energy, from the vice presidential debate last night. The full transcript can be found here.

IFILL: Governor, I'm happy to talk to you in this next section about energy issues. Let's talk about climate change. What is true and what is false about what we have heard, read, discussed, debated about the causes of climate change?

PALIN: Yes. Well, as the nation's only Arctic state and being the governor of that state, Alaska feels and sees impacts of climate change more so than any other state. And we know that it's real.

I'm not one to attribute every man -- activity of man to the changes in the climate. There is something to be said also for man's activities, but also for the cyclical temperature changes on our planet.

But there are real changes going on in our climate. And I don't want to argue about the causes. What I want to argue about is, how are we going to get there to positively affect the impacts?

We have got to clean up this planet. We have got to encourage other nations also to come along with us with the impacts of climate change, what we can do about that.
As governor, I was the first governor to form a climate change sub-cabinet to start dealing with the impacts. We've got to reduce emissions. John McCain is right there with an "all of the above" approach to deal with climate change impacts.

We've got to become energy independent for that reason. Also as we rely more and more on other countries that don't care as much about the climate as we do, we're allowing them to produce and to emit and even pollute more than America would ever stand for. So even in dealing with climate change, it's all the more reason that we have an "all of the above" approach, tapping into alternative sources of energy and conserving fuel, conserving our petroleum products and our hydrocarbons so that we can clean up this planet and deal with climate change.

IFILL: Senator, what is true and what is false about the causes?

BIDEN: Well, I think it is manmade. I think it's clearly manmade. And, look, this probably explains the biggest fundamental difference between John McCain and Barack Obama and Sarah Palin and Joe Biden -- Governor Palin and Joe Biden.

If you don't understand what the cause is, it's virtually impossible to come up with a solution. We know what the cause is. The cause is manmade. That's the cause. That's why the polar icecap is melting.

Now, let's look at the facts. We have 3 percent of the world's oil reserves. We consume 25 percent of the oil in the world. John McCain has voted 20 times in the last decade-and-a-half against funding alternative energy sources, clean energy sources, wind, solar, biofuels.

The way in which we can stop the greenhouse gases from emitting. We believe -- Barack Obama believes by investing in clean coal and safe nuclear, we can not only create jobs in wind and solar here in the United States, we can export it.

China is building one to three new coal-fired plants burning dirty coal per week. It's polluting not only the atmosphere but the West Coast of the United States. We should export the technology by investing in clean coal technology.

We should be creating jobs. John McCain has voted 20 times against funding alternative energy sources and thinks, I guess, the only answer is drill, drill, drill. Drill we must, but it will take 10 years for one drop of oil to come out of any of the wells that are going to begun to be drilled.

In the meantime, we're all going to be in real trouble.

IFILL: Let me clear something up, Senator McCain has said he supports caps on carbon emissions. Senator Obama has said he supports clean coal technology, which I don't believe you've always supported.

BIDEN: I have always supported it. That's a fact.

IFILL: Well, clear it up for us, both of you, and start with Governor Palin.

PALIN: Yes, Senator McCain does support this. The chant is "drill, baby, drill." And that's what we hear all across this country in our rallies because people are so hungry for those domestic sources of energy to be tapped into. They know that even in my own energy-producing state we have billions of barrels of oil and hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of clean, green natural gas. And we're building a nearly $40 billion natural gas pipeline which is North America's largest and most you expensive infrastructure project ever to flow those sources of energy into hungry markets.
Barack Obama and Senator Biden, you've said no to everything in trying to find a domestic solution to the energy crisis that we're in. You even called drilling -- safe, environmentally-friendly drilling offshore as raping the outer continental shelf.

There -- with new technology, with tiny footprints even on land, it is safe to drill and we need to do more of that. But also in that "all of the above" approach that Senator McCain supports, the alternative fuels will be tapped into: the nuclear, the clean coal.

I was surprised to hear you mention that because you had said that there isn't anything -- such a thing as clean coal. And I think you said it in a rope line, too, at one of your rallies.

IFILL: We do need to keep within our two minutes. But I just wanted to ask you, do you support capping carbon emissions?

PALIN: I do. I do.

IFILL: OK. And on the clean coal issue?

BIDEN: Absolutely. Absolutely we do. We call for setting hard targets, number one...

IFILL: Clean coal.

BIDEN: Oh, I'm sorry.

IFILL: On clean coal.

BIDEN: Oh, on clean coal. My record, just take a look at the record. My record for 25 years has supported clean coal technology. A comment made in a rope line was taken out of context. I was talking about exporting that technology to China so when they burn their dirty coal, it won't be as dirty, it will be clean.

But here's the bottom line, Gwen: How do we deal with global warming with continued addition to carbon emissions? And if the only answer you have is oil, and John -- and the governor says John is for everything.

Well, why did John vote 20 times? Maybe he's for everything as long as it's not helped forward by the government. Maybe he's for everything if the free market takes care of it. I don't know. But he voted 20 times against funding alternative energy sources.