SciTechBlog
April 24, 2009

Biofuel loses fight with California pollution regulators

Posted: 10:00 AM ET

The biofuel industry has lost its battle against California regulators over rules aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from various fuels, including corn-based ethanol.

artcorngi

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) late Thursday approved the controversial Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which would force fuel producers to lower their “carbon intensity” of their products by 10 percent by 2020.

“They have made a huge mistake in demonizing first generation biofuels,” said Brooke Coleman of the New Fuels Alliance, a biofuel lobbying group. Coleman called the new rules a “biased regulation that drives investment away from all biofuels.”

Carbon intensity is what fueled the controversy. It’s a rating system meant to classify each fuel by how much greenhouse gases they produce for every unit of energy that they create.

CARB Chairman Mary Nichols touted the board’s decision, predicting that the new rules will reduce air pollution, create new jobs and “continue California’s leadership in the fight against global warming.”

Makers of ethanol said the rating system unfairly ties their U.S.-made corn-based fuel to mass deforestation – not in the United States – but in developing nations. Ethanol critics say the entire biofuel industry should bear global responsibility for clearing of trees to make farmland to grow crops that will be used to make the fuel.

The rules have taken on a pretty high profile since they were proposed. Several U.S. states are considering similar measures and even the European Union watching with interest.

In the months that the debate has been raging, people have been voicing a lot of strong opinions about this issue. So, what do you think about the ruling? Fire away!

In other news, CNN's iReport wants to know what you think of iPhone apps. How do you use them? What's your favorite? Tell us about your iPhone app experience!

Filed under: climate change • Energy • environment • Ethanol • Fuel • Uncategorized


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March 20, 2009

California regulators rile ethanol producers

Posted: 12:52 PM ET
Some ethanol producers are unhappy with California's proposed low carbon fuel standards.

Some ethanol producers are unhappy with California's proposed low carbon fuel standards.

California wants to take a big-picture look at decreasing carbon emissions from transportation, and in doing so, it has managed to step on some toes, mainly some ethanol producers. Since California is often a trend-setter on these type of things, this case could be a good example of what the rest of us might see in our own states down the road.

Biofuels play a big role in this, but it’s the way they’re doing it that has some people riled up. I’m a biofuel fan myself and have two vehicles (both 25-year-old-plus diesels, one of which was featured on CNN.com’s American Road Trips special) that I run on biodiesel, so I find this all quite interesting.

California's proposing a “Low Carbon-Fuel Standard” aimed at decreasing carbon, not only from tailpipe emissions but also from the overall production of fuels and their use. As part of this, it has proposed a rule limiting the use of ethanol in the strategy, mainly because it says ethanol from corn (because of its land use and impact on food crops) can have a higher impact than regular gasoline produced in the state (according to the Los Angeles Times).

Supporters of the proposal claim they aren’t trying to ban ethanol or anything; in fact, according to the fact sheet I linked to above, they’re advocating going from an ethanol blend fuel called E5 (5 percent ethanol, 95 percent gasoline) to E10 (10 percent ethanol, 90 percent gasoline) and E85 (85 percent ethanol) for flex fuel vehicles.

Mainly they’re stressing the change from corn-based ethanol to cellulosic-based ethanol (ethanol made from agricultural waste or switchgrass are cited examples), which the sheet says can have four or five times lower greenhouse gas emissions than corn.

The ethanol people don’t really like that. Tom Koehler of Pacific Ethanol told the Los Angeles Times that the proposal was a “perversion of science and a prescription for disaster.” And Wesley Clark (yes, that Wesley Clark), the co-chairman of ethanol lobbying group Growth Energy, told SFGate that in addition to bad science, it would be “bad policy to adopt a regulation that creates unfair standards” and would continue California’s reliance on fossil fuels.

If you live in California, you have until April 23 to comment on the proposal, when the Air Resources Board will vote. And I'm sure the rest of you will have plenty to say on this controversial topic. Fire away in the comments.

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Filed under: Cars • climate change • environment • Ethanol • Fuel • Gas • Gasoline • Road trip


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November 25, 2008

Gas prices are down - will car mileage go back up?

Posted: 11:43 AM ET

On the eve of the busiest travel day of the year, AAA is predicting an overall drop in Thanksgiving travel.   The projected 1.2-percent dip in holiday trips would be the first decline since 2001 and 2002, the first post-9/11 Thanksgivings.

In recent weeks gas prices have fallen to less than half of what they were last summer.

But this year is also the first holiday we'll celebrate in the grips of the financial meltdown, and the first in the wake of this summer's $4-plus-a-gallon fuel prices.  It'll be interesting to see who flies, who drives, and who stays close to home over the long weekend ahead.

It's also a good time to take stock of The Year in Petroleum so far:

The gas-price spike really hit home in July, with about a three to five percent decline in vehicle miles traveled over the previous July.   The American Public Transit Association also reported that midsummer commuter bus and train trips jumped about 5 percent over last year.  (Althought the Los Angeles MTA and its commuter rail counterpart, Metrolink, just announced that ridership is back down by as much as 3 percent since mid-summer). 

The summer also saw two more correlated pieces of healthy news:

As prices rose in early '08, the National Safety Council noted a 9 percent drop in vehicle-related deaths (See, OPEC and the oil companies were just looking out for our safety!).

And the EPA reported that ground-level ozone levels (a.k.a. "smog") fell this summer in all but two major metro areas in the U.S.  Ground-level ozone is a warm-weather pollution threat, caused mainly by tailpipe emissions reacting with heat to create smog.  Fewer tailpipes on the road = less smog.   (This one may also be due in large part to very active wind patterns through the summer, according to CNN Meteorologist Jacqui Jeras).

Here in the Southeast, we've seen perhaps some of the wildest price swings in gas:  The refinery shutdowns following Hurricanes Gustav and Ike caused widespread shortages in September, and prices shot up to $4.30 a gallon in my neighborhood.   Yesterday I saw one of the same stations selling the same gasoline for $1.62.  Which begs the question:  Did you change your driving habits this summer when prices went through the roof?   And are you changing back now?

I'll start:  I'm finding it a little harder to drag myself to the bus stop and am driving more often.   What about you?

–Peter Dykstra, Executive Producer, CNN Science, Tech & Weather

Filed under: Cars • climate change • environment • Fuel • Gasoline


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October 13, 2008

Book tracks four decades of energy errors

Posted: 12:42 PM ET

My part of the country is recovering from re-living the gas lines of the 1970s.

Thanks to Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, refinery shutdowns brought gas lines back to much of the Southeast U.S. Here in the Atlanta area, most stations were shut down for the past few weeks, and when one got a rare delivery, the tanker truck driver attracted petroleum paparazzis - drivers who follow a delivery truck to its destination. Long story short: Although the gas crisis has eased, it's changed people's behavior, and really gotten inside everyone's head.

Along comes a book that recounts four decades of good intentions and failures in US energy policy. A Declaration of Energy Independence, by former Energy Department official Jay Hakes, is in equal parts a prescription for U.S. energy self-sufficiency, and a pageant of recounting the errors of the past seven Presidential administrations. The book does a good job of staying readable, with Hakes navigating between the dense economics and policy-wonk detail that are a part of our ongoing energy drama. He points out the sins of Republicans and Democrats alike, with each President back to Richard Nixon promising energy independence and then dropping the ball.

Hakes is most charitable to Jimmy Carter, whose earnest and early embrace of conservation and alternative energy was lost in the Reagan Revolution. (Note that Hakes's day job is running the Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta). But he also gives a nod to Ronald Reagan, whose early policies won a short-lived drop in US oil imports. The Reagan Era also saw abrupt reversals in alternative and conservation programs spawned under Nixon, Ford, and Carter.

The author also connects the indisputable dots between oil imports and U.S. foreign policy adventures, from support for the Shah of Iran, the Iranian revolution and hostage-taking that helped bring down Carter, and the subsequent support of Saddam Hussein. Back when Iraq and Iran were at war, we were for Saddam before we were against him. Most telling and prophetic is a quote from President Eisenhower, who said half a century ago that "should a crisis arise (in) Mid East oil, we would have to use force."

The back half of the book focuses not on the sins of the past but on the path to the future. Both liberals and conservatives need to get over their reflexive impulses, says Hakes: The left has to stop demonizing corporations that hold many of the keys to solutions, and recognize that the free market just might have a role in fixing this; the right has to stop viewing any effort to challenge fossil fuels as a sinister conspiracy from Al Gore's Secret Mountain Laboratory, and keep an open mind to energy taxes as another path to solution.

Hakes calls for making energy conservation a "patriotic duty" (I think I recall that from many past good intentions), increasing energy storage capacity, and starting over on how we deal with our cars.

–Peter Dykstra, Executive Producer CNN Science, Tech & Weather

Filed under: Energy • Fuel


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July 24, 2008

Is oil our heroin?

Posted: 09:39 AM ET

Having grown up in a major southern city in Brazil in the late 70s and 80s, I can vividly remember going to any fuel station and the attendant asking my father if he wanted gasoline or "alcool" - ethanol made from sugarcane.

A worker cuts sugarcane at harvest. Source: Getty Images

When I moved to the U.S. in 1989, I realized that American drivers didn't have the same choice as we did in Brazil, but gasoline here was so cheap and abundant that there was no need for an alternative.

Well, you don't need me to tell you that times have changed. While politicians try to spread the blame and try to feed us ideas that will get them elected or re-elected, gas prices continue to go up.

Most Republicans in Congress want to drill in Alaska's ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) as a solution. It sounds sexy enough to say let's drill on our own turf and flip the middle one toward the Middle East, but the reality is that it would take years for any of us to see a drop of that oil in our tanks and there isn't enough there to suppress our addiction to it.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi says the immediate solution is to open up our oil reserves, which we've already paid for as taxpayers, and make it available right now instead of drilling in ANWR. That sounds like a great idea, in theory. But if oil is our heroin, Pelosi is basically saying let's make more of it available to all addicts so that their withdrawal is mitigated. How about when the reserve is gone? What are we going to do then?

I'm not suggesting we follow in the footsteps of Brazil and mass produce our own ethanol. We're trying it with corn, which is driving the prices of food and basically everything way, way up. What works in Brazil may not work elsewhere. Besides, Brazil has its share of problems with ethanol - the Amazon rainforest continues to be cut down to grow more sugarcane. This year, 24 ethanol producers were fined in the millions for planting sugarcane illegally and operating without licenses, among other things.

We must look toward other solutions, be it hydrogen, electricity, solar power or even water. Whatever the answer, our children and grandchildren will either suffer or benefit from the decisions we make today.

What do you think is the answer to our oil addiction? Do Republicans and Democrats have a solution or are they sidestepping the real issues? And how are you coping with the high gas prices?

Paulo Nogueira - Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Posted by: ,
Filed under: Cars • environment • Ethanol • Fuel • Gasoline


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July 15, 2008

What's wrong with electric cars?

Posted: 05:36 PM ET

Thomas Edison with his electric car in 1913.

They produce zero emissions.

Electricity is cheaper than gas, and can come from renewable resources such as wind and solar power.

EV engines are far more efficient than internal combustion engines, are more reliable, and require less maintenance.

So what gives? Why don’t we buy and drive electric cars?

Program Note: Watch Miles O'Brien's report on EV's on CNN TV, Thursday morning.

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Filed under: economy • environment • Fuel • Gas • Gasoline


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July 14, 2008

Energy questions for Republicans and Democrats

Posted: 12:18 PM ET

I want to thank everyone for the hundreds of smart comments on T.Boone Pickens and his wind/natural gas energy plan.

oil.rig

AFP/Getty Images

By contrast, the Pickens plan generated precious little feedback from policymakers and others you'd expect would have a direct stake in this. Not a peep from the White House, nor the candidates, nor Congressional leadership. Virtually nothing from the business community, or from environmental groups.

So let's keep our part of the bargain, and continue this great discussion. Today, President Bush is addressing another part of the Energy Hunt, by lifting a partly-symbolic Executive Order banning drilling off most of the U.S. coastline. Whaddya think? Is it long overdue? Or, as Pickens said, is it a problem we can't drill our way out of?

Posted by: , ,
Filed under: climate change • economy • environment • Fuel • Gas • Gasoline • Oceans • oil spills


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July 10, 2008

Questions for T. Boone Pickens

Posted: 12:00 PM ET

T. Boone Pickens talks energy on CNN in May

T. Boone Pickens talks energy on CNN in May

T. Boone Pickens, the legendary oilman, tilted at windmills the other day. With an extensive media campaign that looked a lot like he was running for office, he rolled out an ambitious scenario in which U.S. energy policy is turned on its head. His proposal: replace the 20% of our electricity supply that comes from natural gas with wind power - abundant and there for the taking from the Canadian border to the Mexican border through the middle of the country. The natural gas that's freed up would then replace oil as a major source to power our transportation fleet, according to the Pickens plan.

Pickens has an astounding track record at anticipating U.S. energy demand - including a prescient warning a few years back that oil was going to be mighty costly about now. Like the old E.F. Hutton ads, when he talks, investors listen. And if he says wind is in, investors will line up.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on his plan.
To start off, here's my own two cents (bear in mind that I could be out buying one-third of an ounce of gasoline with those two cents):

1. Pickens is neither an altruist nor a treehugger trapped in the body of an oilman. He sees money in this, and has been perfectly transparent about that.
2. It's a plan - at least a partial one - which is pretty much more than we've got now.
3. It may be a plan from a shrewd, battle-tested business tycoon, but it's probably not as easy as it seems. Wind energy gives out when the wind stops blowing, and there's no existing technology to store it in large quantity. Wind-dependent power plants would need a robust backup system. We'd also need a much better electric transmission infrastructure than we have right now, in order to move the wind power from the Great Plains, where it's available, to the population centers, where it's needed.
4. Wind as a main power source would have an uneven impact in replacing natural gas. About half of California's electricity comes from natural gas. In Ohio, it's about 2%.

Your turn - blog away: Is T. Boone Pickens a genius, or is he just spittin' in the wind?

Peter Dykstra Executive Producer CNN Science, Tech & Weather

Filed under: Cars • climate change • economy • environment • Fuel • Gas • Gasoline • Politics


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July 9, 2008

Saving money on gas prices

Posted: 10:45 AM ET

Yeah, another bad headline - doesn't sound possible, you say?  You may be right.  But I just saved $350 outright because gas prices are so high.

Getty Images

A decade ago, we opted to move pretty far away from the center city:  27 miles from the driveway to CNN Center in Atlanta.  The decision was largely due to the prospects for our three school-age kids:  A shaky, in-town school district versus a well-regarded one farther away.  And since the State of Georgia always finishes in the Top 50 among State Educational Quality, we went for it.

The kids have had a good shake in their schools, so no regrets.  But the costs for Daddy driving to work have included up to two-hour commutes, plus more recently, brutal gasoline costs, even with a 32MPG car.

A few years ago, in a nod more to traffic burdens than to energy or environmental concerns, Georgia rolled out commuter buses to far-flung places like Conyers, GA.  Five per day, from the commuter lot next to the Rockdale County Jail into downtown Atlanta.  So yes, I go to the County Jail at least twice a week.

Being in the 24-hour news business, I feel obligated to give you the Bad News First:  The last bus in is at 8am; the last bus back is at 6:15pm.   This does not always fit the bipolar nature of covering 24-hour news.  Bottom Line:  I can't always rely on the bus - not for late nights, or weekend work.  The Good News?  My employers have had the foresight to let me keep my parking privileges for when I have to drive, plus a part-time pass for the bus.

With minor inconvenience, I can take two bus trips a week to work, with little or no compromise to my workload,  saving 2 gallons of charitable donation to the oil companies per day, plus environmental benefits, per round trip.  But I called my insurer (GEICO), and they also told me that the reduced mileage on my car would save me about $350 a year on insurance costs.   Whoa!! Just think how much extra gasoline I can afford now!!!  I won't have to take the damn bus!!! (Just kidding).

Actually, the bus isn't bad.  It's still only about half full each day, which is amazing to me.  I can listen to my IPod on the way in (it has a lot of songs on it, and you wouldn't like most of them....), and I arrive at work bearing no anger to all the Barbarians and Fools who would tailgate me or cut me off on Interstate 20 on the way in (full disclosure:  It's never my fault as a driver; to quote Dustin Hoffman, I'm an excellent driver.) .  Oh, and on the way in,  I read stuff, too.  One more note:  They're considering Commuter Rail from many towns like Conyers, but 'round here, the feelings still run strongly about General Sherman tearing up the railroad tracks 144 years ago, so it may take a while longer for the State Legislature to warm up to the idea.

So I'd like to thank the Oil Companies, OPEC, the shrinking dollar, the increased international demand, the speculators, the guys who blow up the pipelines in Nigeria every week, and everyone else who's been blamed for high oil prices for making my ride to work more relaxed and a tad cheaper, at least twice a week. 

Peter Dykstra    Executive Producer   CNN Science, Tech & Weather

Filed under: Cars • climate change • environment • Fuel • Gas • Gasoline


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June 26, 2008

Gallons per mile?

Posted: 02:40 PM ET

It may sound backwards, but that is how two Duke professors suggest we gauge fuel economy.

MPG to GPM Conversion Chart

Richard Larrick and Jack Soll of Duke University's Fuqua School of Business say the phrase ‘miles per gallon' misleads consumers.

The premise of their study, published recently in the journal Science, is that you save more gas by switching from a 10 to a 15 MPG car than by trading in your 25 MPG ride for, say, a 50 MPG Prius.

If you're scratching your head, consider the following equation:

Driving a 10 MPG SUV for 100 miles requires 10 gallons of gas, while one that gets 15 MPG will burn 6.7 gallons of gas on the same trip. So the jump from 10 to 15 MPG is a savings of 3.3 gallons of gas.

On the other hand, the 25 and 50 MPG cars burn 4 and 2 gallons, respectively, on a 100-mile drive. That is a savings of only 2 gallons compared with the SUV driver's 3.3 gallons. You see?

So when it comes to saving money, Larrick and Soll say it's less about buying the most fuel-efficient car, and more about removing the most inefficient vehicles from the road. They recommend fuel efficiency be displayed as ‘gallons per 100 miles' (GPM) instead of the traditional MPG.

That way, instead of aiming for a car with the highest MPG, consumers would be striving for the lowest GPM rating.

The point is to help consumers easily understand the amount of gasoline they will save when they trade in a car.

It's simple math. To calculate gallons per 100 miles, simply divide 100 miles by the vehicle's MPG rating. However, this calculation is not one consumers seem to do when considering a new car.

For example, Larrick and Soll asked participants in their study to decide whether replacing 15 MPG vehicles with 19 MPG ones was better or worse than exchanging 34 MPG vehicles for those with 44 MPG ratings.

Groups given the vehicles fuel efficiencies in MPG chose the wrong answer of 34 to 44 MPG 75% of the time. On the other hand, people given fuel efficiency choices in GPM made the wrong decision only 36% of the time.

So yes, it's still true that driving vehicles with the highest fuel efficiency possible is still best for the environment, but as gas prices rise will consumers be making their trade decisions for Mother Nature or their wallets? If it's the latter, they may need GPM instead of MPG to make the best choice.

Test your MPG understanding at: http://www.fuqua.duke.edu/news/mpg/mpg.html

- Julia Griffin, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Cars • economy • environment • Fuel • Gas • Gasoline • Uncategorized


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About this blog

Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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