Saturday, June 30, 2012

Derecho Wake Up Call

Our region got an experience- a thunder storm on steroids moving at violent speed.   It is called a derecho (duh-RAY'-choh), a straight line wind storm that sweeps over a large area at high speed. Working outside for over 40 years I have seen some hot filthy air and weather.  I gather this may have some reason why latter we got slammed by hurricane winds.  Last night I felt like a tornado was coming. 

This storm created havoc in for tens of millions of Americans after its Friday evening June 29th impact. Coming from the Midwest, it produced tornado-like damage packing wind gusts of up to 90 mph. You can go to to see the graphic pictures of the gust front of "arcus cloud of a derecho front. These storms stretched 750 miles from Chicago to the Atlantic Ocean, causing at least 900 reports of wind damage as well as numerous fatalities and injuries.

My experience with the after effects of this storm is that we are so vulnerable with our dependence on a centralized electric grid and fossil fuels. Both back-up air conditioning systems and bare bone electric battery battery storage technology needs to excel. Ironically, the energy that we power our lives may also be an accessory to stimulating these “heat waves.” Is this a wake-up call for us or will we return to our summer sloth? 

Developing decentralized back-up energy systems has major national security ramifications.  Also we may find “cooler” returns on our vital environmental investments. If we continue to bury our heads in the ground maybe we will find out the earth is getting hotter.  

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Conserving a Private Empire

Steve Coll’s recent book about Exxon Mobil, “Private Empire,” exemplifies the lobbying might of big oil. As so sadly how we may be robbing Peter to pay Paul.  The company’s profits were $21.3 billion first half of last year shows how money talks in DC.  

Such a special interest hires some 20 additional former senators, representatives, legislative aides and others to influence decisions. When a corporation operates in over 200 nations how do you separate it from our own foreign policy? This firm would rank among the top 30 countries if revenue were counted as gross domestic product

Americans’ belief in climate change also was reframed as a hoax by Exxon Mobil executives. This book documents the undemocratic power of wealth determining our future carbon economy.  Also how our environmental leaders are sleep at the wheel.

ExxonMobil used the argument of lessening poverty in the third world instead of addressing global climate change as the most pressing environmental problems.  Years ago, the ExxonMobil chief said in Beijing. “Addressing these problems will require economic growth, and that will necessitate increasing, not curtailing, the use of fossil fuels.” Coll portrays how in a speech to the Chinese Communist government they show its self-interest at being on top when it comes to annual profits and revenue.

While this Irving, Texas-based oil giant is the one of the most secretive major public corporations in the world, Coll uncovers evidence how ExxonMobil’s dangerously risks with the future of world’s natural resources so to individually profit.

More strike in this book shows how major environmental leaders (e.g. Carol Browner gave no consideration to such an alternative) ignored the opportunity of adopting a favored carbon tax instead for a “cap” and “trade” scheme that was poorly devised.  ExxonMobil cites that cap-and-trade would create a bureaucracy bigger than the IRS.  Here the number one corporation was not brought into some consensus-building compromise on this vital policy.  It is sad the so called “environmental” lobby was out to lunch. 

Also this book tells how former CEO Lee Raymond’s was rewarded with a retirement package of just under $400 million as well as other lucrative packages given to senior managers and executives.

Interesting is how the current CEO  Rex Tillerson revises this company’s position on climate change with showing maybe there is a link between greenhouse gas emissions and raising temperatures when he said, “We know our climate is changing, the average temperature of the earth is rising, and the greenhouse gas emissions are increasing.”  ExxonMobil has done a massive multi-million dollar ad campaign to recruit children to learn science. While ironically this firm has spent similar amount in opposing the findings from 97% of climate scientists about global warming.

Finally Rex Tillerman second assignment as Exxon engineer was working on a drilling technique  recently the rage of Wall Street called hydraulic fracturing or ”fracking”.   Presently, we have an inexpensive, unregulated way to get gas with little understanding of its environmental risks thanks to big oil’s influence.

Gasoline expenses where as little as 2 percent of the American pretax household income in the late 90’s while last summer this has approached 10 percent of household income.   While changing gasoline pricing with impose heavy costs on working- and middle-class homes such apparent economic pains must be balanced with environmental costs if we do not create some type of long term safeguards for our planet.  Who is minding the store?

Interestingly, Standard & Poor’s gave ExxonMobil AAA mark superior to the United States AA meaning our ability to repay lenders is in question.  The greater question who is going to repay future generation’s environmental debt since big oil is quickly cashing in now on what we humans will have to pay latter. 

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Let’s Take Full Inventory of Our Economy

I am always amazed how we talk of economy however pay little attention exactly how we account for stuff. For examples hydraulic frac­tur­ing or "fracking" for natural gas is becoming popular however we still in the dark about its by-products and how they impact our environment. We do understand the price of gas yet we know nothing about their true environmental cost. Few Americans have any idea the value of conservation since we have invested little in profiting from pollution prevention by advocating waste reduction.

Years ago World Resources Materials Flow report (DONALD ROGICH, AMY CASSARA, IDDO WERNICK, MARTA MIRANDA 2008,WRI:ISBN 978-1-56973-682-1 tracked the ebb and flow of how stuff goes through our economy and out into the environment. For example of these 169 materials are toxic substances— such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, and others—whose life cycle, reflect the strengths and weaknesses in our national regulatory policies and procedures. Material flows are key indicator of the amount of materials consumed to produce a dollar of GDP.

According this study the U.S. showed more efficient use of fossil fuels, metals and minerals, and renewable resources. However, the trend in per capita consumption of material (a coincident indicator) is increasing, with a rise of some 23 percent over the study period. If the U.S. economy were solidly on a path to sustainability, this indicator would be declining. Meanwhile, total consumption of materials (a lagging indicator) grew 57 percent over the study period, to 6.5 billion metric tons in 2000.

If the United States had been a sustainable economy during this period, we would have avoided the creation of 25 billion tons of waste (and its subsequent disposal into our air and water and onto our land). Certainly in the last few years our economy has not grown and thus we have wasted less. When we become motivated to improved resource management and to shift to environmentally preferable materials a new prosperity will follow. Meeting this challenge will require new approaches and increasingly complex, far-reaching partnerships among government, business, and civil society.

Material flows accounting can provide the common scorecard that all the parties need to facilitate these collaborations and make them successful over the long haul. What is lacking is the political will to conserve. Ironically you would think this be the case since sustainable and efficient economy would be something valued by we, the American people.

The United States needs, and deserves to have, official accounts that capture material flows (and their environmental consequences) as well as they do financial flows. For example if we explore the life cycle of a material like petroleum then we will also see the ramifications of heavy metals and other materials that is hazardous to human health and the environment. Such data on wastes released to the environment in the United States are still largely nonexistent.

It is wise to incorporate material flows analysis since these accounts for the goods into and out of the economy. Also this inventory can act as a fire alarm for potential threats to human health and undesirable changes in natural resources. Without such a detailed database on materials use and consumption, we will continue to be in the dark regarding environmental matters.

 It is time our country takes a deeper inventory of what natural resources we have. Establishing a national material accounting system could enable more effective decision making in both the public and private sectors. Once we can best fully capture the physical and chemical changes observed in materials across time and space in our country we will understand why true full cost accounting is vital for our future economy.