Thursday, March 28, 2013

Ted Cruz's Shoes
Published in the Sun March 27, 2013

“You know, in West Texas the EPA is trying to use a lizard to shut down oil and gas production.  You know my view of lizards?  They make dern fine boots.”


So stated Senator Ted Cruz in his keynote speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington DC on March 16.  That statement set me wondering what kind of lizard made such fine boots.  A quick Google search revealed that the senator was referring to the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard, also known as Sceloporus arenicolus.  Mr. Cruz must have little bitty feet, because this lizard is just three inches long.


The Dunes Sagebrush Lizard lives only in New Mexico and a few counties in West Texas.  Unfortunately, his habitat requires a certain miniature oak tree and a certain type of sand, both of which sit right on top of the Permian Basin Oil Field, a location which could explain why Mr. Cruz is so eager to have the tiny lizard decorate his footwear.


Actually the lizard is not currently on the Endangered Species list because of voluntary conservation agreements with many of the landowners in the area, but the real question persists:  Why should we care about tiny lizards in West Texas, or salamanders in Williamson County, or migrating songbirds, or Houston toads, or any other obscure species that very few people have ever seen?  Would it matter if they all disappeared forever?  Do we miss the passenger pigeon or the dodo bird?


The problem, as I see it, is that every species exists in a delicate balance with all the other creatures in its ecosystem.  When that balance is upset, consequences always result.  If you take away the mountain lions, the deer will multiply until they have nothing to eat except the flowers in your yard.  If you scare away the hawks, legions of grackles swarm the trees and poop on your head.  When the fire ants invade, children can no longer catch horned toads and put them in shoeboxes.


There probably aren’t many people of either political persuasion who are overly attached to the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard in particular, but the world is losing thousands of species to extinction every year, many of which we have never even studied.  We don’t know what miracles of biology might be lost.  We could lose half of all wild plants, animals, and birds on the planet by 2100.  The United Nations estimates that the population of wild vertebrate species (those with backbones like birds, mammals, and reptiles) fell by 31% between 1970 and 2006.  Bird populations in North American grasslands decreased 40% from 1968 to 2003.  Wild fisheries are declining.


If we keep going this direction we could end up with billions of people growing acres and acres of genetically modified crops to feed ourselves and our factory farms crowded with cows eating chicken waste.  Oh wait, we already have that.  I meant we could end up with nine billion people and no other living creatures except the ones we raise to eat and the species that live off our detritus, like rats and cockroaches.  Fire ants would probably survive too.


It’s not just oil versus lizards; jobs versus environmentalists.  Not every choice is about profit.  We make uneconomical decisions all the time.  When you buy shoes, you don’t always get the cheapest pair off the bargain rack.  Usually you pay more for comfort or style.  When you buy piano lessons for your child, do you really expect to get your money back when your prodigy plays at Carnegie Hall?  Of course not.  You are investing in a quality future, in values beyond dollars and cents.


The same principle holds for the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard.  The price of Permian Basin oil goes up and down, but what is the worth of a world we can share with wild creatures?  Priceless.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Chimney Swifts Welcome at Southwestern University
Published in the Sun March 16, 2013

Erin Johnson and Bob Mathis

Erin Johnson began her college life in musical theater but was soon disillusioned by the world of artifice.  Drawn instead to the natural world, she took a job at a wildlife rehabilitation center in Birmingham, Alabama.  Every summer, hundreds of orphaned baby birds were brought to the center, many of them chimney swifts.  Swifts make fragile nests on the inside of uncapped chimneys.  When the babies hatch they make a lot of noise begging for food.  Hearing a racket in the chimney, many homeowners would use a broomstick to flush out the noisemakers, breaking the nest, and causing baby swifts to tumble into the fireplace.


The tiniest chimney swifts were the hardest ones to save.  Barely hatched before falling from the nest, the baby birds were hairless and their eyes were not yet open.  Erin not only had to hand feed them every fifteen minutes, but, prior to feeding, she had to swab the food through the mouth of an adult chimney swift in order to soak up some of the salivary enzymes essential for the babies to develop a normal immune system.


The rehabilitation center was amazingly successful at raising these chicks, and when they were old enough to fend for themselves, the swifts were released into the wild.  Swifts are a vital part of the ecosystem, keeping flying insects such as mosquitoes under control.


Chimney swifts spend most of the day in the air catching bugs.  They are unable to sit on a branch or wire and can only perch on vertical surfaces.  They attach their nests to the rough inner surfaces of hollow trees or old-fashioned brick and mortar chimneys.  As old chimneys are replaced by modern ones, the swifts are having difficulty finding proper nesting sites.  New chimneys are capped so birds cannot enter, and are often lined with metal to prevent fires.  The slick metal prevents the birds from perching or attaching nests.  The scarcity of nesting sites has caused a serious decline in population.


When Erin came to Southwestern University to study animal behavior, she did not lose her interest in chimney swifts.  She knew that conservationists are replacing lost habitat with towers built especially for nesting swifts, and she noticed that the vegetable garden on the edge of campus was a nice location for a chimney swift tower.  Erin applied for a SEED grant (Student Environmental Engagement and Development) to pay for materials, and then enlisted Bob Mathis, associate vice president for Facilities and Campus Services, as her general contractor.  Erin had already acquired a plan for an ideal swift habitat from an Austin conservation group, the Driftwood Wildlife Association.  Erin gathered a few of her friends from the animal behavior society, and Mr. Mathis cajoled some associates who liked to build things, and the group put together a combination chimney swift tower/information kiosk.


Chimney swifts winter in South America, and then come north to breed in the spring.  The migration is increasingly difficult because many of the Central American forests that used to provide sustenance during the trip have been cut down.  Swifts that successfully complete the trip arrive in our area by the middle of March, so the tower project was on a strict deadline.  Now that Southwestern University’s first chimney swift tower is complete, Erin will be watching every day to see if her guests arrive.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Prius Problem
Published in the Sun March 9, 2013

It wouldn’t be fair to write about the advantages of alternative energy and never mention the disadvantages.  Last week my 2006 Prius was heading to the airport when the “Red Triangle of Death” popped up on the dashboard.  Stopping and restarting the car didn’t make it go away.  The manual warned that the “Red Triangle of Death” required immediate professional help.  The airport trip was aborted and we headed to Classic Toyota in Round Rock, where the service department confirmed our worst fears.  The hybrid battery pack, the nickel-metal-hydride miracle that lets a Prius get 50 miles per gallon, had gone on the fritz and needed to be replaced.


Replacing the battery pack is no small matter.  Scott Backus, my service representative, was sympathetic.  “You’re not going to like this,” he said.  “How bad is it?”  “With labor, about $4000.”


Holy moly!  My first thought was that this car barely had 100,000 miles on it.  My second thought was, “There goes all the money I saved on gasoline.”


Later at home when some of the despair had worn off I got out the calculator and did some figures.  If you assume the Prius gets 48 miles per gallon and gas averaged $3 per gallon since 2006, I spent $6249 on gasoline over the lifetime of the car.  If I had been driving a Honda Civic that got 30 mpg, the gasoline would have cost $10,000, a difference of $3751.  So yes, a new battery pack would eat up all my gas savings.  Of course my carbon dioxide emissions are still less than they would have been in the Honda, but nobody pays me for that.


On the other hand, over the course of 100,000 miles a Ford F-150 pickup truck would use about $20,000 worth of gasoline, so it’s all relative.


I got interested in finding some data on how long these battery packs usually last.  Paul Alberson, the Master Diagnostic Technician at Classic, told me stories about taxis in Montreal and San Francisco that have logged more than 300,000 miles on their original batteries.  The Toyota warranty covers the battery for 8 years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first.  Paul himself has owned several Priuses and thinks they are generally a pretty low maintenance vehicle.  He feels like a Prius that is driven hard, like a taxi, gets more life out of the battery than one that is driven less.  In other words, the passage of time is more detrimental to the battery than the actual mileage driven.


I still wanted some hard data on the battery lifetime, so I called the Toyota customer service hotline to ask the statistics on the 4 million Priuses that have been sold worldwide.  They told me “that is proprietary information,” which is not a very good sales pitch.


Anyway, I forked over $3903 for a new hybrid battery pack and Classic gave me a complementary carwash.  The old battery is on its way to California for recycling.  Driving away from the dealer I was musing about how nice it would have been to get the new battery under warranty.  I glanced at the odometer to see how narrowly I missed the 100,000 limit.  Oh my gosh, the odometer is at 99,369!  Because the battery had been out, the odometer wasn’t working when we took the car in, and they had written down my guess that the car had 110,000 miles.  A quick U-turn on IH-35 rushed me back to Classic, where Mr. Backus took a picture of my odometer and confirmed that I was indeed still under warranty.  Oh happy day, all my money was refunded, my gasoline savings are intact, and the Prius has a brand new battery pack.  Thank you so much, Toyota!  Maybe this one will last 200,000 miles.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Sun City Democrats Discuss Moving America Beyond Coal
Published in the Sun (with some editorial changes) March 6, 2013

Dr. Al Armendariz displays heat waves in Texas and the Southwest
photo by George Flynn

“We need to be very careful about monkeying with nature.”  Dr. Al Armendariz, senior representative of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, warned 133 Sun City Democrats that continued use of coal for electricity generation will worsen climate change and contribute to the devastating droughts, heat waves, and fires that are already occurring right here in Texas and the rest of the Southwest.


Dr. Armendariz went on to explain that carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere will soon reach 400 parts per million (ppm), after 600,000 years of fluctuating between 180 and 280 ppm.  Increasing CO2 levels trap heat from the sun and prevent it from radiating back into space, just as a greenhouse remains warmer than the outside air.  The increased CO2 comes from burning fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum, a practice which has accelerated since 1800.


Texas is number one in CO2 emissions of all the states; emitting more than twice as much CO2 as any other state.  About one third of all greenhouse gases emitted in the United States originate from power plants generating electricity, and 81% of that amount is from coal-fired power plants.  In addition to greenhouse gases, burning coal also releases disease-producing particulate matter and mercury into the air.  Whereas coal used to be mined from underground tunnels, these days entire pristine mountaintops, euphemistically call “overburden”, are dynamited away to expose the coal seams.  Mountaintop removal destroys whole landscapes, including the streams that flow into the valleys.


The Sierra Club considers coal “an outdated, backward, and dirty 19th century technology.”  The Beyond Coal grassroots campaign would like to see one third of the nation’s more than 500 coal plants retired by 2020 and replaced by clean energy sources such as wind and solar.  A member of the audience at Sun City asked about the current trend toward using natural gas to generate electricity.  Dr. Armendariz explained that although natural gas releases fewer greenhouse gases and pollutants than coal when burned at the power plant, the mining process for natural gas leaks methane into the atmosphere, and methane itself is a very potent greenhouse gas.  The benefit of reduced CO2 emissions at a gas-fired power plant is negated if as little as 4% of the natural gas leaks from the wells.


Dr. Armendariz, a native Texan, was a professor of Environmental Engineering at SMU before becoming chief of the south central region of the Environmental Protection Agency in 2009.  His passion for clean air regulation led to some well publicized conflict with the business community.  In illustrating how strict punishment of environmental violators could act as a deterrent for other companies, Dr. Armendariz unfortunately chose the example of ancient Romans crucifying a certain number of Turks to keep the Turkish population compliant.  Since the word crucify is most commonly used in reference to a particular innocent victim of the Roman judicial system, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma concluded that the statement proved the EPA was eager to prosecute innocent energy corporations just to restrict oil and gas development.  Although Dr. Armendariz regretted his choice of metaphor, he resigned his position at the EPA amid the furor.  He quickly found a home at Sierra Club, where his zeal for controlling air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions were in line with the philosophy of the organization.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Leander School Buses Running on Propane
Published in the Williamson County Sun March 2, 2013

When gasoline prices hit a peak in 2008, most of us just wearily pulled out our credit cards.  Kirby Campbell, the very forward-thinking director of transportation at Leander Independent School District, was tired of grumbling.  LISD had a half million dollars budgeted for fuel in 2008, and when diesel prices doubled, that money was gone after six months.  Mr. Campbell decided to fight back and strike a personal blow for energy independence.


He knew he had to look at alternative fuels.  He discovered that running just one bus on propane instead of diesel could save $2140 every year in fuel costs.  Not only could he save on fuel, but because propane is considered clean energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Railroad Commission would offer grants to defray some of the costs of new propane buses.  He promptly bought eleven brand new yellow school buses and soon added 26 more.  LISD now saves $80,000 a year on fuel, and they plan to gradually add more propane buses to the fleet.
Kirby Campbell shows off one of his propane-fueled school buses

If you took high school chemistry you might remember that propane is a three carbon chain that is liquid under pressure.  Even if you slept through chemistry you are familiar with propane.  It can be hooked up to your barbecue grill for a tasty supper, and is available in just about every small town in America.


You might not know that propane is the hottest thing going as an alternative fuel for cars and trucks.  Worldwide over 17 million vehicles run on propane, also called autogas.  In Japan, 90% of taxis run on autogas.  South Korea has 1.7 million autogas cars on the road, and in Turkey autogas has surpassed gasoline as a transportation fuel.  Propane is not only cheaper than gasoline, but engines that run on propane also require less maintenance and last longer than diesel engines, another plus for the Leander school district.


In addition to the financial advantages of propane school buses, there are some tremendous environmental benefits.  Children can now ride to school without being gassed by diesel exhaust.  A diesel exhaust particle is a microscopic grain of carbon wrapped in some toxic organic compounds and heavy metals.  On conventional school buses, diesel particles routinely seep into the cabin, exposing the unsuspecting children.  Waiting in the bus line is even worse.  When inhaled on a regular basis, diesel particles can contribute to asthma, chronic bronchitis, and even lung cancer.


Compared to an old diesel bus belching black smoke, propane buses emit almost no asthma-producing particles, less carbon monoxide, and fewer smog-producing chemicals and greenhouse gases.  Mr. Campbell started up one of his new buses and we stood by the tailpipe to check it out.  I could detect no visible exhaust and no odor.  I had to put my nose 6 inches from the tailpipe before catching the slight whiff of a camp stove.  (Please don’t try this at home.  It’s low emission, not zero emission.)


Since propane is a byproduct of drilling for natural gas, the gas boom is creating an abundance of propane right here in Texas.  Propane is refined right on our home territory, and we have enough left over to export.  Since automotive transportation will remain dependent on fossil fuels for a while yet, we might as well burn our own fossil fuels, rather than importing petroleum from countries that may not have our best interests at heart.


A final factor influenced Kirby Campbell’s decision to try propane.  It turns out that Georgetown is home to an entrepreneur who has been successfully promoting the use of propane for the last 20 years.  Curtis Donaldson got his energy bona fides at Conoco where he was Coordinator of Alternative Fuel Marketing.  In 1993 he took off on his own and started Clean Fueling Technologies (now CleanFUEL USA) right here in Georgetown.  Mr. Donaldson’s company perfected a liquid phase injection system for trucks and buses which allowed increased engine power and lower emissions.  CleanFUEL USA is certified to do after-market conversions on a variety of trucks and SUVs at the company’s offices on Halmar Cove.  The company is also building and installing propane fueling stations all over the country, so Mr. Campbell could easily get his own propane fueling station and have it maintained locally.  Mr. Campbell says for LISD propane was a win-win-win situation:  environmentally friendly, economical, and made in America.  He looks proudly at his yellow bus, “I just don’t know why every school district doesn’t get involved in this.”
Curtis Donaldson and Crystelle Markley of CleanFUEL USA
are installing propane dispensers all over the country