EPA Dodges Responsibility on Ethanol

The EPA is mandated by law to analyze the impacts of biofuels and report to Congress every three years, but its inspector general acknowledged that the agency has failed to complete such a report since 2011. A Denver Post editorial lists several negative impacts of using ethanol made from corn in fuel, which is the likely reason the required reports haven’t been filed. Mandating ethanol in fuel hasn’t reduced oil imports or improved air quality; two reasons given for imposing its use.

The list of negatives about ethanol is extensive. Farmers jumped on the corn for ethanol bandwagon by plowing up 6.5 million acres of conservation land in the process of planting an additional 19 million acres of corn. Massive amounts of water have been used to irrigate the larger fields of corn and more water is required to process the corn into ethanol. Fuel efficiency is less for gasoline mixed with ethanol. The higher prices for corn naturally resulted in higher prices for food. Top that off with the “…growing evidence that the mandate reduces greenhouse gas emissions much less than originally forecast, if indeed at all.”

Just guessing, but maybe the EPA doesn’t want to submit the required report because they can’t think of anything positive to say. Is it possible they’re working to protect a political agenda and not to protect the environment?

Go Berserk

Several sources including Phrase Finder explain a ‘Berserker’ was a Viking warrior who fought with wild ferocity. “The berserker fighting tradition, in which the warriors took on the spirit (or even in their belief, the shape) of bears whilst foaming at the mouth and gnawing at the edge of their shield, is the source of the Vikings’ fierce tradition.” It is believed the word is derived from “bear sark,” which means “bear coat.” The Vikings would show their bravery by going into battle with their bear sark jackets open. Sir Walter Scott wrote in 1822 that “The berserkers were so called from fighting without armour.”

Nuclear Waste Disposal

Activists have successfully fought nuclear power generation by preventing a national solution to disposing of the waste. A Denver Post article describes how federal officials worked to open a central disposal facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Nevada politicians opposed after the money was spent to prepare the site, and Obama declared Yucca Mountain as an “unworkable solution” early in his Presidency. The result was that about 70,000 tons of waste (increasing by about 2,000 tons per year) is now stored at 99 power plants and 14 closed plants around the country. Guarding the spent fuel is expensive and the waste will eventually have to be repackaged if a permanent solution can’t be developed. I’ve never heard that anyone claim that what we are doing now is safer than what could have been accomplished by opening Yucca Mountain.

There is a long list of positives about nuclear energy. Advocates of reducing carbon dioxide emission to combat climate change should be thrilled that nuclear plants don’t emit carbon dioxide. Nuclear power generates about a fifth of the electricity in America despite the fierce opposition that has successfully impeded its development. Wind power might catch up with that amount by 2020. I was surprised to read that John Kotek, acting assistant secretary for nuclear energy, also added, “We benefited from the nuclear deterrence.”

The federal government convened a meeting in Denver to discuss the problem of nuclear waste. Kotek said, “We’re not at all at the stage of looking at locations. We’re developing a process.” He also added, “…having a waste disposal path would make nuclear more acceptable.” In my opinion, he doesn’t get it. Opponents fully understand that solving the problem of waste disposal would make nuclear energy more acceptable. That’s exactly why they will never agree to any solution. Plans to drill an exploratory bore hole thee miles deep under North Dakota for nuclear weapon waste were scrapped in the face of objections from residents. The problem won’t be solved until we find some politicians with the courage to do the right thing. Considering our latest crop of politicians, I’d say we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Paint the Town Red

History.com explains the phrase “…owes its origin to one legendary night of drunkenness.” The Marquis of Waterford led friends on a night of drinking in the English town of Melton Mowbray in 1837. There was a spree of vandalism, including painting a tollgate, the doors of several homes, and a swan statue red. Another theory about the origin is that it refers to men in the American West behaving badly as if the entire town is a red-light district. One final theory is that it came from the sight of a town being burned by angry Native Americans. I prefer the first theory.

Flood Insurance Needs Tough Love

I’m going to say something that may sound heartless – it’s time to stop insuring properties that repeatedly flood.

This morning I listened to a report on NPR from Marketplace. The Federal flood insurance program is $20 billion in debt and Congress must take up reauthorization next year. It’s time for a change.

A mere 0.6% of properties have received 10% of payouts. These are properties that flood repeatedly – one property had flooded – and received payment – 40 times. It’s insane to keep paying owners to build in high risk flood plains. And taxpayers must also cover the costs of emergency responders and infrastructure repair.

Now I’ll sound a little less callous. There is a proposal for the Federal government to simply buy an insured flooded property at its pre-flood value. Demolish structures, remove expensive utilities, and return it to whatever sort of landscape nature intended – this last bit is from me. This would save money in the long term and keep faith with owners whom we – the government speaks for us – lured into building in flood plains with below-market-priced insurance.

I propose the buy-out and get-out approach be extended to all Federal flood insurance, and I’d include wildfires – allow private insurance companies to charge whatever they want to re-insure properties that burn. I say this as a person and volunteer firefighter living on the edge of the Gila National Forest, in the wildland-urban interface (the WUI or woo-e as it’s called.) I could be one of those people forced out if a wildfire sweeps through my area – though I do practice Defensible Space.

I can hear my liberal friends saying what I propose would destroy neighborhoods – it would be cruel to allow circumstances to force people away from the homes they love. I can hear my right-wing friends, too – the government wants your land – they want to force everyone into high density cities. I hear these concerns and an honest debate can address them. Just keep in mind that at some point nature will win, and it will be better for everyone if we plan ahead of disaster.

As sea levels rise and droughts intensify, marginal locations become more dangerous. Here’s where I’ll claim some moral high ground. Artificially low insurance premiums lure people into harm’s way. Recovering from a flood is painful and stressful as well as expensive. And people die in floods and fires.

We need to find a decent way to back out of the problem we’ve created.

BTW – There’s a second meaning of Defensible Space that has more to do with urban neighborhoods. It’s interesting enough that I have to mention it, even though it’s off topic: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defensible_space_theory.

Atoms in the Family: My Life with Enrico Fermi

I obtained this book by Laura Fermi published in 1954 by my usual method of interlibrary loan. It is an excellent book that gives personal insights into Enrico and many other of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project. This is an excellent companion to the book by Leona Woods reviewed last week, and readers shouldn’t become accustomed to having a review posted each week. I’m doing more writing than reading lately. Also, I once again am posting a summary of the book complete with page numbers for reference, which is how I usually save information to be used in my book about the history of the development of nuclear weapons and the Rocky Flats Plant.

The first sections of the book introduce Laura Capon and Enrico Fermi in Italy when they first became acquainted in Italy. It progresses to their wedding and the beginning of the troubles for Jews imposed by Mussolini (Il Duce). Laura was a non-practicing Jew, so she and the children were all at risk. She tells of how their lives became increasingly dangerous until the family left Italy by travelling to Sweden to accept Enrico’s Noble Prize and made it to the United States. The “becoming Americanized” is fascinating reading. Laura’s father, an Italian naval officer, was at first not concerned about the actions that Mussolini took in the early days. “Il Duce knows what he is doing. It is not for us to judge his actions.” 5-6

The book describes the childhoods and families of the Capons and the Fermis. As an example, a traumatic loss struck the Fermis when Giulio, the oldest son, died of complications from an abscess in the throat. (Laura and Enrico would name their son Giulio.) The family moved into a melancholy existence and Enrico filled his life with studying and outdoor activities. It wasn’t long before his teachers declared that he was “exceptional.” His academic achievements and early career are described. 15-32 Much of one chapter is devoted to his yellow Peugeot, which is described as having a top speed of 20 mph. The next chapter describes the Fermi’s early married years 33-68

Fermi began to achieve wide recognition for his brilliance and was named to the Royal Academy of Italy in 1929. Enrico and Laura spent two months of 1930 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. They also spent some time in New York City, where Laura was astonished to note “…with a shock the existence of tattoos…on the bare arms of summer riders, in the most civilized city in the world.” (What would she think today?) They were often asked what they thought of Mussolini, which was “…indicative of the great interest fascism had aroused in the United States. Those were good times for fascism, which was looked upon with tolerance, often with sympathy, both inside Italy and abroad.” 73-81 Continue reading

Dead Heat

The two words together don’t seem intuitively to result in a meaning that an election or a race has resulted in a tie. Word Wizard says the expression was first used in horse racing. Dead “…means absolute…complete, from the idea of finality of death.” Heat can mean “…a single course or division of a race.” From the fourteenth century heat was taken to mean a “…a single intense effort or bout of action” and the “…single run of a race.” From that explanation, the two words together meaning that something resulted in a virtual tie makes more sense.