SciTechBlog
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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December 19, 2008

Internet 2008: Thank you and good night

Posted: 01:14 PM ET

My love for technology began in 1988 when I enrolled in my high school’s radio production class. Yes, my high school had its own radio station. How perfect was it to be doing air guitar while listening to stacks and stacks of my favorite vinyl records –- and getting class credit? The science of radio hooked me from the start. It was accessible. It was fun. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. That is, until a few years later when the World Wide Web arrived.

What are your favorite Web sites of 2008?

Oh, Internet. How I love thee. You have given us so much this year. And I’m not just talking about that webcam of the puppies. But as those dogs in a box and so many other time-wasters sucked up so much of your life, there were so many other Web sites that you probably missed. Here are five of my favorites you should visit before the credits roll on 2008:

Grooveshark.com: Free streaming tunes. But here’s the kicker: You can buy any track you want and part of the proceeds goes to the artist, while part goes to the registered user who uploaded the track.

Instructables.com: The ultimate how-to on the Web. Fun, relatively easy instructions on making everything from gift bags from cereal boxes to animated LED snowflake window decorations.

Safesurfer.com: Teaches kids safe surfing habits while trying to keep things fun. Blogs, games, computer shortcuts. It’s all there. Parents will learn a lot, too.

Gasbuddy.com: Gas prices are pretty low now. But who are we kidding? They’ll be frustrating us sooner than we can say “fill 'er up.” Gasbuddy.com gives you real-time prices from some 750,000 volunteer price spotters.

Etsy.com: Handmade, one-of-a-kind items of all sorts. And if you’re hip to the DIY scene, you can sell your wares here, too.

Now it's your turn. What Web sites could you have not done without this year? Submit yours here!

- Stephen Walsh, CNN.com

Filed under: computers • Gasoline • Internet


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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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July 25, 2008

Big Clean-Up in the Big Easy

Posted: 11:14 AM ET

On Wednesday, a 600-foot tanker and a river barge collided on a spot of the Mississippi River that I, as a Louisiana native and frequent New Orleans visitor, know well.

Tugboats hold up parts of a barge that collided with a tanker. The collision spilled 419,000 gallons of oil.

After splitting in half, the barge proceeded to spill an estimated 419,000 gallons or 9,980 barrels of oil into the mighty Mississippi. According to the Coast Guard, the pilot of the tugboat pushing the barge was not properly licensed. Crews are working to contain and clean up the spill, but the environmental damages of the accident are still unknown.

Concern is growing over the quality and supply of drinking water in parishes downstream from the accident. Many of these areas normally pump from the Mississippi River for their drinking water supply but are now trucking in bottle water to help ease concerns of shortages.

(Ironically, one of these parishes, St. Bernard Parish, was not only one of the areas ravaged the worst by Hurricane Katrina, but also the same parish soaked in more than 1 million gallons of oil after the storm’s winds dislodged an above ground storage tank at a nearby oil refinery.)

Oil spills from transportation vessels are nothing new. Most of us remember the Exxon Valdez accident off the coast of Alaska in 1989 which spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Fortunately, legislation like the 1990 Oil Pollution Act has contributed to a substantial drop in both spill incidents and volumes, but vessel spills still happen frequently. According a 2007 American Petroleum Institute study, 174 vessel spills occurred in 2005.

With river shipping halted, and drinking water and the environment threatened, many Louisianans are upset that accidents like this one still occur. But events like Wednesday’s spill are extremely rare relative to the amount of oil refined and transported in our state and nation everyday. If anything, it’s in the Louisiana oil industry’s interest to keep spills at a minimum. No one wants to see our $65 billion-a-year industry be saddled with any more bad press or regulations.

So here’s the crux of the situation. Its no secret that, while rare, pipellines can break, tanks can be blown over, and ships can collide. Is there truly anyway we can eliminate these risks or are they simply the cost of doing business?

Julia Griffin, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: environment • Gasoline • oil spills • science


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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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