Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Around the horn: on coal, cars and corn

Dear friends,

We are taking a break from enjoying the record success of fellow Baltimorean Michael Phelps to bring you a brief update on several issues never far from mind – coal, cars and corn. (The item at the bottom is perhaps the most disturbing.)

Coal calls: One of the real running themes of the Bush administration is its almost slavish devotion to the coal-burning electric power industry. And one key result has been the astonishing delay often afforded some of the worst polluters. And darned if they aren’t at it again. As you probably know, the Bush administration has not only asked a federal court for more time to decide if it should appeal the decision which struck down its interstate pollution rule, but now is asking the US Supreme Court for more time before deciding whether to appeal the court decision which shot down the industry-friendly Bush mercury plan. (There is virtually no one who would believe even this Supreme Court would touch this. It’s a stall tactic pure and simple.)

At least the state of North Carolina isn’t sitting on its hands. The state has joined the Sierra Club to ask a court to expedite action on the state’s attempt to invoke part of the Clean Air Act that permits states to petition EPA to take action against big sources of pollution in upwind states. http://www.newsobserver.com/102/story/1173142.html

As for the mercury mess, our friend, John Walke of NRDC, has some thoughts at http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/jwalke/epas_clean_air_mercury_rule_an.html

Coal hard truth: On a related topic: The presidential campaign has been marked in recent weeks by debate over gasoline prices and drilling. But there’s another energy issue out there of at least equal long-term importance: what will be the role of coal in our energy future. It could take on new prominence as Barack Obama names his running mate. Eric Schaeffer, head of the Environmental Integrity Project, and I look at the record of several people supposedly on the Veep “short list” in a commentary at http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2008/8/11/124924/011


Cars and corn: You will recall last week’s controversial call by the EPA to reject Texas’ request to reduce ethanol mandates.

And now we have even more bad news to report. The Des Moines Register reports that mainly ethanol E85 fuel is still very hard to find – even in Iowa! (There is a touching anecdote about a fellow who bought a flex-fuel Silverado “as a way to support corn.” ) http://www.desmoinesregister.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080810/BUSINESS/808100333/1029/BUSINESS

So where the heck is all the ethanol going?

Kiplinger’s Biofuels Market Alert reports that some oil companies and fuel distributors appear to be putting more than the legally permissible 10% ethanol in gasoline. (Is that why smog levels generally are somewhat worse this year?) To quote from the story:

Auto manufacturers, some state regulators and a maker of gasoline dispenser
parts say concentrations ranging from a bit over 11% to as much as 20% are
showing up in spot tests. Moreover, an independent analysis of Energy Department
monthly data suggests that in the first five months of 2008, there was an excess
of 500 million gallons of ethanol. This amount cannot be readily explained by
either the amount of E10 blending, as gathered from Energy Department reports,
or the meager E85 market.

What's at stake?

cheating distributors, a $32,500 a day fine from EPA, though, so far, the risk
of being caught has been miniscule.

For the ethanol industry, its
reputation and future sales. Blends of more than 10% haven't been proven OK to
use in cars or small engines -- lawn mowers, snowmobiles and so on. Any jump in
poor engine performance reports is likely to be laid at the doorstep of the
ethanol industry, scotching chances of an official blessing for higher

For consumers, there's a risk that illegal blends will
damage motors.

The US EPA reportedly is going to step up its enforcement against illegal levels of ethanol.

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