Labor Day Simplicity and Hypocrisy

By Mark Trodden | September 4, 2006 5:56 pm

It’s Labor Day here in the U.S., and I’ve been taking a bit of time off, hence the couple of days with no posts here on Cosmic Variance. Nevertheless, I thought it would be worth just pointing to the silly comments that our “President” has taken time out to make.

When you hear that Bush is advocating reducing our dependence on oil, one might be tempted to think that he has finally come around to listening to scientists about one of the most critical issues facing the planet, rather than, say, the renowned climatologist Michael Crichton. Unfortunately, your optimism would be short-lived, because the completion of the statement exposes his usual simplistic world-view and cockeyed reasoning, even as he reaches a rare correct conclusion

”The problem is we get oil from some parts of the world and they simply don’t like us,” Bush said. ”And so the more dependent we are on that type of energy, the less likely it will be that we are able to compete, and so people have good, high-paying jobs.”

But even the original statement is hard to believe

As Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Bush didn’t mention one proposal aimed at easing U.S. addiction to foreign oil: Upgrading fuel economy standards from levels set in 1975 to reflect nearly 30 years of new technologies.

”President Bush’s willful disregard of imposing tough new fuel economy standards is hobbling our national security, our economy and our environment,” Markey said. ”And proposing nuclear power as an answer to cars, SUVs and trucks burning oil shows that the president isn’t serious about our dangerous Middle East oil dependence.”

Keep fiddling Mr. President.

  • Haelfix

    Honestly there shouldn’t be a single scientist out there that disagrees with the nuclear power option. Its a painful no brainer, that hasn’t been utilized b/c of the publics 1950s perception of what it actually means. So Bush has that part right.

    Losing the oil dependance, otoh can only be gradual and there again its obvious that one can make some of the process more efficient and more environmentally friendly (new filter technology and so forth), but I think the vibe coming from Washington is that such a move should be more on the state level, like what California just did. Which isn’t so unreasonable.

  • Maxwell’s Daemon

    It is important to realize that in the US, 70% of the oil consumed is used in transportation so setting new automobile fuel economy standards could make a substantial cut in our oil dependence. While I agree with the previous poster on nuclear energy, it only marginally connected with oil. Nuclear power should be seen more as an alternative to coal which is used almost completely in electricity generation.

  • Spoonful

    I don’t think you are taking Bush seriously enough. Not a lot of people realize that prior to rising to the presidency, he had been working on a nuclear automobile engine for many years. Although he is still fiddling around with the equations when he can find the time, his stint in office has really slowed things down. I really do expect an announcement though within the next couple of years that Bush has achieved his goal, and that we will be driving around in nuclear powered cars by 2010.

  • Robert McNees

    A few years ago I was a post-doc in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is very near Detroit. About once a month or so I would have dinner with a family friend, who often visited Detroit as a consultant to the “big three” auto makers. This person is a materials scientist. He would offer the auto makers his opinion on issues like the best material to use in the crumple zone in the front of the car, or which substance offered acceptable dent resistance without increasing the weight of the car too much.

    We often talked about the issue of fuel eficiency standards, and what the real obstacles were. In his opinion, as a scientist who worked closely with the manufacturers on several aspects of design and production, there are no technological obstacles that would prevent the major US auto makers from increasing effiency by up to 4 mpg in the next year. That may not sound like much, but it would add up to significantly more than we would obtain from drilling in, say, ANWR.

    The problem with implementing increased fuel efficiency in the short term has to do not with the technology, but with the production facilities. For the most part, the U.S. auto makers finished paying for them many years ago. This represents a huge investment, and they are unwilling to make a significant investment in more modern facilities until the old ones have to be abandoned.

    A good deal of the design process, I was told, has to take into account the capabilities of these facilities, which are not equipped to really implement the existing technology that could bump up fuel efficiency. Now, that is not to say that all manufacturers rely on outdated facilities; everyone has seen ads where they talk about opening a new factory in some small town that could really use the jobs. But for the most part, he seemed to think that it was an unwillingness on the part of these companies to invest in any significant new production infrastructure that was keeping fuel efficiency so low.

    This is not a problem that you encounter with, say, Japanese or Korean auto makers. Their companies operate with long term strategies in mind. They are more than willing to invest in new production facilities that will allow them to take advantage of new technology if it will improve their product. Sure, it might be expensive for them over the next few years, but their improved product will eventually address that. And if, three or four years from now, they come up with some fantastic new composite material that allows them to drop 200 pounds off of the weight of their car while maintaining safety standards, they are positioned to take advantage of that.

    So, Bush could demand higher fuel efficiency. American auto manufacturers could provide it. It wouldn’t even take very long. If Bush was serious about it he could offer the companies a tax break designed to offset the cost of investing in production facilities capable of implementing the necessary technologies.

  • Bob E.

    What is happening to the ethanol solution? What does it say about the US if Brazil can make it work and we can’t? De-emphasize Alaska – all this clean energy is sitting in Iowa. And we would have even more of it if we could eat lower on the food chain (feed our autos, not animals to be butchered).

  • macho

    Does anyone know the breakdown of the “transportation” oil consumption?
    What percentage of that 70% goes to trucking and airline industries vs.
    individual passenger vehicles (cars, SUVs, etc.)?

  • David E

    ”The problem is we get oil from some parts of the world and they simply don’t like us,” Bush said.

    I agree that dependence on oil is a problem, period. But it sounds like Bush would be happy to get the oil from internal sources (e.g. ANWAR)

    They may not like us, but they do seem to like our money. Threats aside, is there any evidence that any of the foreign suppliers who “don’t like us” are refusing to sell us oil?

  • Stu Savory

    I believe that Dubya has hung an absentee notice on the door of the oval office. But I can’t decide if it is Bushco’s plan for an an Iran invasion or if it is his Domestic Energy policy; it reads “Goin’ fission” 😉

  • cv

    Robert McNees,

    I’m not sure it is about infrastructure. If you look at the amount of work needed to retool a specific factory for a significant model change, I would think that would be a non-issue. One of the big three plants near me shut down for at least three weeks this summer for a retooling on the types of seats that would go in the vehicle.

  • Robert McNees

    I’m not sure it is about infrastructure. If you look at the amount of work needed to retool a specific factory for a significant model change, I would think that would be a non-issue. One of the big three plants near me shut down for at least three weeks this summer for a retooling on the types of seats that would go in the vehicle.

    Well, let me preface by re-emphasizing that I am basing much of what I say on the time-honored blog comment tradition of paraphrasing the opinion of a well informed friend. I also agree that the big three all have some newer facilities which probably are a lot more agile when it comes to accomodating new technology. But, as I had it presented to me by someone with a bit of inside info, who actively consults for these companies, one of the major impediments is an unwillingness to give up on enough of the infrastructure that is already paid for, so that they can build the new facilities that would allow them to deploy existing technology on a wide scale.

    I also think there is probably a big difference between converting a production facility to use a different material for a seat, and converting a facility to build bodies and frames from a new class of materials.

    Something that I didn’t mention is that there may be reasons for this that go beyond stodginess. Given the situation many of these companies are in with regards to pensions and retired employees, I don’t know if they have the kind of capital they would need for big infrastructure overhauls. I honestly don’t know how or if these things are related, I’m just trying to acknowledge the fact that these don’t seem like especially healthy times for these companies.

    Anyway, my overall point was this: it’s not as if our fuel efficiency standards are low because the necessary technology doesn’t exist, or because some other country has a secret technique that we don’t have access to. It’s primarily because the parties involved aren’t willing to do what it takes. Without the proper facilities the car companies can’t build cars that get more mpg. Maybe it’s as simple as them making decisions based on minimizing cost in the short run, or maybe there is some complex set of relationships between the manufacturers, employees, and suppliers that keeps it from happening. I don’t know enough about how it all works to answer that. But it seems clear that, if it were really a priority, Washington and Detroit could make it happen.

    Maybe I’m wrong and they have the capacity. That seems even more disheartening than the present situation.

  • macho

    A few numbers from

    Transportation accounts for 27.4% of all energy use. (Essentially all of transportation energy consumption at this time is petroleum; minor amounts of other sources). What’s interesting is that this hasn’t changed much in the past 40 years or so. In 1960 transportation accounted for 23.5% of energy consumption. Our total energy consumption has more than doubled in this same period.

    In 2003, 70% of the transportation energy consumption was by passenger cars and “other 2-axle 4-tire vehicles” (which I read to mean SUVs, vans, small pick-ups, etc). So in improving the effieciency of these vehicles we can hope to impact 19% of our current comsumption (not 70).

    Trucking and commercial jets came in at 16% and 7.5% of transportation energy consumption, so the focus on private vehicles is appropriate.

    Average mpg for all vehicles (includes passenger, bus, truck) is 17.1 in 2004, essentially unchanged since 1991 (16.9). There were some dips in that period but nothing significant.
    1960 12.4 mpg

    stayed relatively flat through 1975 (12.2 mpg) when it started to climb (for obvious reasons):

    1980 13.3
    1985 14.6
    1990 16.4

    The numbers for passenger cars are a little higher:
    2003 22.2 mpg on average

    The “other” category which I assume includes SUVs and pickups
    2003 16.2 mpg

    For new cars it’s much higher; 2005 cars, both domestic and imported, have an average rating of 30.0 mpg.

  • thm

    What is happening to the ethanol solution? What does it say about the US if Brazil can make it work and we can’t?

    Principally, that they use a lot less energy than we do. Brazil is a major petroleum producer, which is the main reason they’re (currently) energy independent. Ethanol accounts for about 17% of their motor vehicle energy usage.

    With a population of about 190M, Brazil used about 660M barrels of oil last year. The US has a population of about 300M, and used about 7.5B barrels of oil. So while the US uses about 25 barrels of oil per person per year, Brazil only uses about 3.6. If we really want energy independence in the US, this, not the ethanol production, is the way we need to emulate Brazil.

    Brazil, a tropical country, has much more land suitable for growing sugarcane than the US does. Currently, the US uses about 360,000,000 gallons of gasoline each day, and an additional 160,000,000 gallons of diesel fuel. Exercise for the reader: for each potential crop, how much land would be needed to grow crops to replace this with Ethanol?

    Ethanol also offers an exercise in thermodynamics. First, the corn is fermented to produce a beer-like mixture of roughly 10% ethanol and the balance water. This has to be distilled to produce 96% ethanol and 4% water, and this distillation takes a whole lot of energy. You might remember the uproar a few months back when a new midwestern ethanol plant decided to use a coal-fired distillery instead of natural gas. Another exercise for the reader: what fraction of the total energy in the end-product ethanol is the energy required for distillation?

    Of course, 96%/4% water ethanol is not good enough for transportation fuel. (E85 means 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline). Remember, the reason that ethanol can’t be sent via pipeline is because it’s too hygroscopic and would take on too much water. So the remaining water must be filtered out, and that has an energy cost as well.

  • Louise

    The CAFE standards were introduced in 1975, causing the big automakers to “downsize” all their product lines. (That was before downsizing was applied to people.) During 8 years of Clinton-Gore CAFE standards were not updated, leading to the rise of SUV’s. This administration owed a political debt to auto unions. Only in the Bush 43 administration have the CAFE standards been raised.

    In 2003 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finally raised CAFE standards for light trucks and SUV’s. In August 2005 President Bush proposed setting mpg standards for light trucks. In April 2006 he asked Congress for authority to raise CAFE standards for cars.

    It has not been easy, but elected officials are coming to our side.

  • PK

    What about vegetable oil? A diesel engine runs on sunflower or rapeseed oil almost just as well, and if you run the extraction plants on this fuel you might become completely carbon neutral. Incidentally, some people in Wales (in the UK) use sunflower oil in their cars, because a litre of sunflower oil costs less than a litre of diesel.

  • mxracer652

    the low energy density of ethanol can be *almost* made up with an increase in compression ratio. Ethanol carries an octane rating of 114 (if memory serves correct). Compression can be upped to ~12:1 with no detonation when using alchohol based fuels, and as we all know, CR is a driving factor for Otto cycle efficiency. The thermodynamics of ethanol use is a non-issue if vehicles are designed to run on it from the start.

    OTOH, fuel efficiency starts @ home, check your tire pressures once a week, use synthetic fluids (yes, they really do reduce drag), a manual transmission is 2-10% more efficient than an automatic, keep your air filter & spark plugs clean.

    The internal combustion engine is already running as fuel lean as possible. The only savings to be had are to reduce weight and drag until electric catches up.

  • Stephen Uitti

    In the 70’s ‘energy crisis’, most of the gains came from conservation.

    Bring back the double nickles. Driving at 55 MPH saves 10% to 20%.


  • Robert McNees

    Bring back the double nickles. Driving at 55 MPH saves 10% to 20%

    Did Sammy Hagar teach us nothing? :)

  • http://PK:re:vegetableoils Bob E.

    I know a professional truck driver who claims the use of vegetable oils invalidates the warranty on his truck.

  • Aaron S.

    a small amount of people are going to great lengths to reduce thier out of pocket… this much is true. And there are even a handfull of individuals who are making great efforts out of concern for the enviroment. But I would have to say that the magority of people who are using alternate fuels are doing so for the out of pocket savings.

    Until an alternate fuel that is:
    A. Readily available
    B. Mass Producible
    C. Cost effecient
    D. And creates no extra effort on the consumers part(“pump and drive ready”)

    there is no real way to get people to follow behind an idea.

    For instance, you can tell a million people that something is bad for them, but until the see results and a viable alternative, they will all agree that it is bad, but continue to use the path of least resistance, even if it is a path to destruction.

    A fuel needs to be developed that can be used in the Airline Industry, The shipping industry. Something that can be used in mass quantities with consistant results.

    Making vegtible deisel in your garage saves you money, but i don’t forsee every SUV and V10 Truck owner filling thier garage with 50gallon vats of old frying grease.

    So now that I have complained about the problem and stated the obvious… what can we do? Well I would start by forbidding the oil companies to lobby… lol…

    no really, Solar Power is a REAL and VIABLE solution. Hybrid cars although extremely profficient, still rely on oil. A Solar Dependant car can run for 3 hours at like 55 miles an hour. All those speed freaks can still go fast on the highway, just make sure that there is a limit on how much gasoline consumption is allowed per person. Turn gas stations into charge stations, pay a fee for a charge, and still buy snacks… you know. Hey its an idea

  • spyder

    The issues are huge, and getting more so by the day. The longer we “postpone” actually doing something about it as a nation, society, citizenry, the more costly and detrimental it becomes. Most of the remaining petroleum reserves (including the “wow, look what we just found” Chevron off-shore gulf fields) are comprised of heavy to super-heavy crude stock. These cost considerably more in energy, and oil, to refine, while producing more toxic residues, etc. The need for fuel to produce and transport food also becomes highly counterproductive for our economy and for our lives. Natural gas, a majority of which is converted to fertilizers, has risen dramatically, exponentially in price in the last three years. Coal, though plentiful, is also of more inferior quality and thus requires more and more investment in protecting air and water quality to extract and convert to energy.

    It is becoming quite clear that a crisis of some magnitude will develop forcing change upon us whether we like it or not. Those, who follow some of the suggestions above, will suffer less than those who are content for the time being in living in costly convenience. This lack of action will lead to a US that looks much like Eastern Europe and China in the next thirty to forty years; massive clouds of hazardous pollution (from coal burning), national sacrifice zones for the depositing of nuclear and other toxic energy by-products, vastly expensive food and other essentially necessary commodities, and so forth. Science isn’t going to be able to come up with sufficient and timely technologies to offset these processes. We need to act, and act now, in our own best interests if we care at all about the future. And, though it need not be said, nothing above even begins to talk about reacting to global climate change.

    Damn, it sure would be nice to be super wealthy rich, so i could build my own little bio-dome, nuclear-powered, private yacht, and protect it with private security forces well fed and stocked with the best equipment. Then i could have my Alfred E Newman moment.

  • http://WindandTides? Bob E.

    I do not hear much about using wind any more. Living in Dallas one becomes aware of the power of wind. Seems to me that if the wind can almost blow my car off the road at times, its energy density must be fairly high. The conversion via windmills to electricity also seems fairly straightforward – rotational motion with minimal coupling, no fueling required, no pollution. Why aren’t we building windmills (not “of the mind” kind)? Ditto for tidal-driven hydroelectric.

  • Johan Richter

    Better to raise the tax on gasoline than to raise fuel economy standards. Raise the price of gasoline and then let the market decide which sector of the economy that can cut its consumption of oil the cheapest.

    Fuel economy standards will raise the cost for consumers just like a tax so you might as well have a tax.

  • Elliot

    Here is a brand new organization addressing the issue of scientific integrity in government.




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Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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