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On Hole Cards, Or, “Drill, Baby, Drill”? Why? Is Canada Out Of Sand? May 25, 2011

In America, today, there are three kinds of drivers: those who look at the other gas pumps down at the ol’ gas station and think: “Oh my God, I can’t believe how much that guy’s spending on gas”, those who look at their own pump down at the ol’ gas station and think: “Oh my God, I can’t believe how much I’m spending on gas” – and those who are doing both at the same time.

Naturally, this has brought the Sarah Palins of the world back out in public, and once again the mantra of “Drill, Baby, Drill” can be heard all the way from the Florida coast to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But what if those folks have it exactly backwards?

What if, in a world of depleting oil resources, the last thing you want to do is use yours up?

To put it another way: why isn’t all our oil part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve?

Consider the inexorable logic of the Big Lie. If a man has a consuming love for cats and dedicates himself to the protection of cats, you have only to accuse him of killing and mistreating cats. Your lie will have the unmistakable ring of truth, whereas his outraged denials will reek of falsehood and evasion.

–From the book Ghost of Chance, by William S. Burroughs

So here’s the thing: we produce a surprising amount of our own oil right here in the USA (in fact, we’re the world’s third-largest oil producer), but we don’t produce enough to cover our current use, and that’s why we import about half of the roughly 19 million barrels of oil we use daily. The vast majority of that is used in vehicles or for heating; almost none is used to generate electricity.

Our largest suppliers of oil, despite what you might think, are not all from the Middle East: instead, it’s Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Nigeria, and Venezuela, in that order.

(Perhaps you’re thinking: “Canada? Oil?” Yes. Canada and Oil. They provide us with more than twice as much as Saudi Arabia from huge “oil sand” resources, primarily in Alberta; the exploitation of those resources has created a huge environmental controversy.)

Now if you ask me, an ideal situation would be one where we decided to get out of the business of using oil altogether – and to help make my point, we have some helpful numbers from a guy that you pay every day to figure this stuff out: Mark Doms; he’s the Chief Economist for the US Department of Commerce, and, to paraphrase Little Feat, he’s always handy with a chart.

According to Doms, 60% of our 2010 trade deficit (about $265 billion) represents the cost of imported petroleum products, and if things continue through December as they did the first three months of this year, in 2011 every American, man, woman, and child, will pay a “tax” of about $1000 to import all that petroleum.

Do you know what we, individually, spend on gas? In March of this year, the average household spent just over $300 on that month’s gasoline; 5 months ago that number was $56 lower. The way it works out, every time gas goes up 10¢ a gallon, it costs the average household another $7 a month.

And that’s not all: less than half of the total cost of imported oil is paid at the pump: about 44% of imported oil is used by businesses; another 15% is used by governments across the USA, and that means almost 60% of the cost of imported petroleum is “folded into” the price of everything else.

(A quick author’s note: you’ve seen the words “oil” and “petroleum” used liberally in this story; the exact literal reality is that in each instance we should really be referring to “petroleum products”, and that’s because we import and export not just crude oil, but a variety of other petroleum products. I get tired of using the phrase “petroleum products” over and over, and I’m probably using “oil” and “petroleum” more interchangeably than I should.)

So get this: if we were out of the importing oil business, we’d save about $300 billion a year – and as it turns out, over a 10-year period we could actually convert the entire US auto fleet to electric cars powered by windmills by providing $15,000 cash “buy-outs” for today’s 135,000,000 gasoline cars and building the wind generation and “smart grid” we’d need to support the effort…and doing all that would cost…wait for it…about $250 billion a year.

If I get the math right, 20 years after we first started building windmills and subsidizing cars, everything would be paid off; and every year after that the US economy would generate a $300 billion “profit” on our investment – unless the price of a barrel of oil goes up. If it does, the amount of money coming back to our wallets every single year from then on, obviously, also goes up.

And if we were out of the “using oil for driving” business, once everything was paid off we could put almost $4000 a year (in today’s dollars) right back in the pocketbooks of every family in this country – which, if you ask me, represents a pretty good “tax cut”.

Let’s also keep in mind that any new oil drilled on our public lands might not necessarily end up in the US; that’s because even if oil companies were 100% free to “Drill, Baby, Drill” in our waters to their hearts’ content…they’d also be perfectly free to sell as much of that same oil, anywhere in the world, to whatever entity might end up being the highest bidder – and today, our friends in places like India and China are desperate to be that high bidder.

Put all of this together, and you get back to the question I posed at the top of the story: why in the world would we be in a hurry to “Drill, Baby, Drill”, when we could, instead, put all our efforts into getting out of oil, which would save us so much money that the conversion pays for itself?

Then, when oil’s running $400 a barrel or so, let’s use our oil to pay China back the trillion dollars we owe ‘em…which, at current production rates, would only take about 400 days, assuming it were possible to divert all our production for that purpose.

To state it a bit more ironically, it may be that the smartest thing we can do right now is to conserve every possible drop of oil we have…until we don’t need it any more, and it becomes a sort of Strategic Cash Reserve that can help strengthen the dollar and reduce the national debt in the years to come, both at the same time.

Or to put it another way, the next time someone tells you they want to “Drill, Baby, Drill”…you can step right up, look them square in the eye, and ask: “Why do you hate America?”

And won’t that be fun?


On Being A Titan, Part One, Or, See It, Say It, Sue It March 9, 2011

Got a simple little story for you today of a multinational corporation that wants to build a great big cement plant in North Carolina really, really, bad, and the local opposition to what appears to be a corrupt and distorted decision process.

Two local activists in particular have drawn the ire of Titan Cement, the Grecian corporation who seeks to build the plant—and because the Company doesn’t like what the activists have been saying about what the impact of that plant will likely be or how the deal’s going down…they’re suing Kayne Darrell and Dr. David Hill, residents of North Carolina’s New Hanover County, and the two folks who are doing the complaining the Company dislikes the most.

The Company further claims that they were slandered and defamed by the damaging statements that were uttered by the two at a county commissioners’ meeting and that they have lost goodwill and the chance to do business with certain parties as a result of these statements.

But what if everything the Defendants said was not only true…but provably so—and the Company was, maybe…just looking to shut people up by sending teams of lawyers after them?

As I said, it’s a simple story today—but it’s a good one.

We have tomorrow
Bright before us
Like a flame.

Yesterday, a night-gone thing
A sun-down name.

And dawn today
Broad arch above the road we came.
We march!

–From The New Negro, by Alain Locke

So here’s the deal, as it sits today: for a number of years now Titan Cement has been looking to build this great big cement plant near the environmentally sensitive North Carolina coast (part of the site includes 600 acres of “pristine wetlands”), and part of running a cement plant is running cement kilns.

Ya gotta cook limestone, sand, and clay, along with some other ingredients, at very high temperatures (above 2700 degrees F), which sort of fuses everything together; that makes “clinker”, which eventually becomes cement, and that’s why you need giant kilns and, often, pre-heater towers.

You need fuel for those really hot kilns and towers, and our friends at the Army Corps of Engineers advise that, in the kiln fuel game, you can actually kill two birds with one limestone by burning hazardous waste as a substitute for anywhere from 20% to 50% of your original “fuel of choice” (which is often coal).

According to the Corps, you can burn 12 tons of fuel an hour in one kiln, and that means up to six tons of…

byproducts of pharmaceutical, cosmetic, and electronics manufacturers;
solvents and inks used to print newspaper and other publications;
solvents used to recycle paper;
dry-cleaning solvents;
paint thinners and paint residues;
sludge from the petroleum industry;
used motor oil;
agricultural wastes;
and scrap tires.

…might be going into the mix every hour—and as it turns out, that stuff might contain:

…arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, nickel, thallium, and zinc.

Now if you’re burning that stuff, it’s either going up the smokestack or out the door as a component of the clinker you just made, and if you live anywhere near this plant, you’re going to be at least a little concerned…and if you have the impression that the people who are trying to get the permits are running a big ol’ hustle to get those permits, you’re going to be even more concerned…and it looks like that’s what’s been going on…and if you put all this together, and you lived in the neighborhood, you might show up at a local County Commissioners’ meeting and say something like this

“From lawsuits for price fixing and court-ordered mine closures of Titan’s Florida plant, to allegations of corruption coming from Raleigh, to emails raising suspicion whether Titan was ever even considering any other location, which would make incentives completely unnecessary, the clouds of corruption grow dark as new controversies emerge almost daily.”

…or this…

“The bottom line is we know from numerous studies that if we build this thing, more children will get sick, a handful of them will die. We also know from the adult studies that more adults will get sick and quite a few more of them are going to die as well. Which ones? Can’t tell you. That makes it difficult, but there will be some.”

…which are the two utterances which are today at legal issue. (Ms Darrell is being sued for the first statement, Dr. Hill, the second.)

The reason we are all gathered here today is to figure out whether either of those statements are truthful or not…because if the statements are truthful, they cannot be either slanderous or defamatory.

So let’s break it all down, one clause at a time:

Ms. Darrell talked about lawsuits for price fixing, and sure enough, CemWeek (“Global Cement Industry. Knowledge”) ran a story in October of ’09 entitled “Nine US cement companies accused of price fixing”, describing a lawsuit filed for price fixing in which Titan was one of the Defendants.

Court-ordered mine closures? Coffey Burlington, attorneys at law, recount their success with a certain case on their website (Sierra Club v. Army Corps of Engineers, Rinker Group, Tarmac America, Florida Rock Industries, APAC-Florida and Miami-Dade Limestone Products Association), which did in fact result in a court-ordered mine closure of Florida facilities operated by Tarmac America, which is a Titan subsidiary.

Allegations of corruption? How about this, reported in January of 2010 by the Wilmington, NC, StarNews:

A corporation that shares an address and president with a Titan America subsidiary bought a Wilmington office building for more than twice its tax value from Democratic fund-raisers under scrutiny by state and federal prosecutors.

To add to this element of the story, the current Governor, Bev Perdue, has asked the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) to look into Titan’s permitting process, which is something that usually follows allegations, if I recall correctly.

Let’s move on: the folks in the Wilmington, NC, area have a private economic development committee that has negotiated secretly with Titan for some time; the result of that effort was the decision to provide $4.2 million in local government incentives to Titan.

But here’s the thing: if Titan never meant to build anywhere but on that one site, and they still hustled the community for the incentives by using the threat of building somewhere else…well, that’s why Ms. Darrell was talking about:

“…emails raising suspicion whether Titan was ever even considering any other location, which would make incentives completely unnecessary…”

In 2008, Keith Barber, he of Wrightsville Beach Magazine, documented Titan’s multi-decade interest in this particular location:

Titan has made very little effort to conceal the fact it plans to move forward with construction of a cement plant and limestone mining operation on the banks of the Northeast Cape Fear River. In a 2005 interview with Titan CEO Aris Papadopoulos in Cement Americas magazine, Papadopoulos confirmed the Greece-based company had been considering building a plant in Castle Hayne for nearly two decades…

… In addition, even though the permitting process is 18 months to 2 years out, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) Web site reveals that CSX Railroad is already constructing a new spur track at the site of the proposed Carolinas Cement Company.

The Charlotte News & Observer documents the existence of those pesky emails in a January 2010 editorial:

…[Titan lobbyist John] Merritt said he would talk to then-Commerce Secretary Jim Fain. Earlier, he had advised a company spokeswoman on how to respond to questions without raising suspicions that Titan might not qualify for a state grant.

“It is very important that the company not do anything that suggests that this is the only site you are looking at,” Merritt e-mailed. And sure enough, in its application for incentives Titan asserted that it was considering sites elsewhere.

Let’s jump in for just a second and take a look at where we are:

Ms. Darrell made this statement…

“From lawsuits for price fixing and court-ordered mine closures of Titan’s Florida plant, to allegations of corruption coming from Raleigh, to emails raising suspicion whether Titan was ever even considering any other location, which would make incentives completely unnecessary, the clouds of corruption grow dark as new controversies emerge almost daily.”

…and based on what we’ve seen so far, every single word of that statement turns out to be absolutely, provably true:

–There was a price-fixing lawsuit.
–There was a court-ordered mine closure of Titan’s Florida plant.
–It’s alleged that something funny was going on with that office building, and North Carolina’s SBI is investigating.
–We did in fact discover that emails exist raising suspicions as to whether Titan was considering any other location.
–And here we are, talking about one of the new controversies that emerge almost daily.

Today’s tale of legal bullying is running pretty long already, and we still have half of the story to go…so let’s take a break for today, and we’ll pick this up by looking at the statement made by Dr. Hill when we get together next time.

In the meantime, if you’re keeping score…I’m thinking that after Round One, it’s Defendants, 1, Titan, 0.


On Avoiding Blame, Part One, Or, Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Drill No Evil. September 2, 2010

I am one of those people who will actually watch those boring, boring, hearings on C-SPAN that most of us flip right on past while watching TV, and this past week I’ve been watching one of the longer events the channel broadcasts…but it’s been far from boring.

The Coast Guard and what used to be the MMS were in Houston looking into what caused the Gulf oil spill and they’re taking testimony from representatives of the involved parties…and let me tell you, this is more than just an accident inquiry—it’s also a warm-up for the lawsuits that are surely going to follow.

We’ve had dozens of trial attorneys basically conducting a deposition process, witnesses who can teach a master course in “plausible unawareability”©, BP employees who have taken the Fifth and refused to testify at all, and, overseeing the entire process, a retired Federal District Court Judge and a Coast Guard Captain who might very well be on the way to trading his eagles for stars one day soon.

Do you really believe all those “we’ll make it right” BP commercials?
If you watch this hearing, that impression may well change.

When I talk on the stage, people often have the impression that I make up things as I go along. That isn’t true. I know a lot of things I want to say, I’m just not sure exactly when I’ll say them.

–From Lenny Bruce’s book How to Talk Dirty and Influence People

So if we’re going to keep this story under any kind of control, we’ll have to compress a lot of detail into some rather broad and sweeping statements, otherwise we’ll be at 3000 words before we know it.

Here’s the scene: a nondescript conference room in Houston is set with a table for the several Board members, who are drawn from across the Federal Government, including the old and exceptionally dysfunctional MMS (the Minerals Management Service), which has sort of morphed into the brand-new Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (the BOEM) and the Coast Guard.

In front of them is another table for the witness and their attorney, and right behind them are three very, very, long tables that are set up for the possibly four dozen attorneys that represent all the “parties of interest” who are involved in the hearing and require a bit of desk space (among that group are lawyers for BP, Transocean, Halliburton, certain individuals involved in the incident, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, where the now sunken vessel was “flagged”; that Nation is conducting their own investigation). Behind that are rows of “gallery seats” for the interested public.

(You can see the entire thing by visiting the C-SPAN site…but do grab a beverage and some snacks first.)

The way this all works is that the Board begins the process of eliciting information by questioning the witness themselves. Next up is the attorney for the Marshall Islands; the witnesses’ attorney and employer’s attorney then “cross examine”, and then every other lawyer in the room gets a crack at the witness, should they so desire.

Wrangling” all of this from his Co-Chair seat is retired Federal Judge Wayne Andersen; the Coast Guard has a “good cop/bad cop” team on the Board (the Board’s Recorder, Lieutenant Robert Butts, and Co-Chair Captain Hung Nguyen, respectively). Mssrs. David Dykes (the other co-chair) and Jason Matthews, who are representing BOEM on the Board, are among the technical and regulatory experts who are also asking some very pointed questions.

Since many witnesses also represent Halliburton, BP, and Transocean, there is very much a “trial of the century” atmosphere in the air…and everyone is trying to protect their own interests at the expense of the others.

As is common in these situations, the witnesses are busily playing “duck and cover”…and I have been privileged to watch what has essentially been the construction of the “pyramid of denial” by a team of master craftsmen.

Now these folks don’t deny like you or I would deny, instead, they have far more sophisticated techniques of obfuscation that they employ.

The first method: imagine a group of people, sitting in a circle, each pointing a finger at the person to their left.

Later, we saw a new approach: imagine a group of people, sitting in a circle, pointing both fingers at the people sitting to either side of themselves.

Even later, it became a three-dimensional game, as some of those in the circle began pointing either upward or downward…and the most sophisticated of all had personal attorneys available at the witness table to do some of that pointing for them.

Another effective tactic is to never be the person actually in charge of whatever it is someone wants to know about…and if your company operates worldwide, there are lots of places to move from, and to, along with lots of potential “shifting responsibilities”; sure enough, there are witnesses here who seem to be “Johnny-not-on-the-spot” over and over and over again.

The Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination can also provide a shield that’ll keep you out of the witness chair; that’s why BP engineers Mark Hafle and Brian Morel and Deepwater Horizon’s BP day shift manager Robert Kaluza have not given testimony to the Board.

Now this is not something your normal “mom and pop” denier can typically pull off, and that’s why it appears that at least some of these companies require an entire corps of specialists who don’t actually know anything at all, just so they can appear before courts and investigative boards such as this one, where they either “don’t recall”, or they spend an astonishing amount of time not looking into this “casualty”, as it’s described by those involved in the investigation.

One example that leaps to mind is a certain BP executive who, even though he’s in charge of the “drilling and completions” operations on various BP owned and leased oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, reports he has never read any information regarding this accident that BP might have developed since the April 20th event, and has never spoken to a BP investigator to enquire as to whether any “lessons learned” exist that he can apply to the operations he oversees.

There’s so much more to talk about—and apparently we’ll need a Part Two to make that happen—but for today what we need to know is that there has been another week of hearings, that if you watch those hearings you’ll have seen basically a 1/12th scale model of the lawsuits that are already piling up in Louisiana, Texas, and Federal Courts, and that if you watch certain portions of the hearings you can see bombast, tough questions…and the kind of elbow bending and finger pointing that can only lead to severe arthritis later on in life.

Next time, we’ll be talking about “command and control” on the Deepwater Horizon (did you know an oil rig is actually a ship?), about what actually happens down a well, and about why things like “centralizers” and “channeling” matter—a lot.

In the meantime, if you want to get your homework on, all the hearings, in more or less backwards order, can, as we said before, be found at the C-SPAN site…which is why we appreciate them very much.

So either get deeply buried in what will become the legal soap opera of the decade…or run away, quickly, depending on your needs…and when we meet again, we’ll have quite a bit more story to tell.


At Black Tie Ceremony, Feith Passes Torch To Barton June 21, 2010

Honestly, I am absolutely sick of commercial air travel these days. Just dealing with security is bad enough, but then there’s the airlines, and…hey, all you really need to know here is that there has to be a pretty good reason for me to fly cross-country.

Well, I had one Saturday night, which is how I came to be in the Colonnade Room of the Fairmount Hotel, Washington DC with about 250 of my closest friends, in a classic shawl-collar tuxedo, attending one of the most exclusive “passing of the torch” ceremonies in recent Washington memory.

And when it was all over, Douglas Feith was a happy man.

Respect to your great place! and let the devil
Be sometime honour’d for his burning throne.

— Duke Vincentio, from William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

There are probably some of you who are thinking: “That Feith name is familiar, but why?”

You know the name because, as Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, he was the guy who basically planned how the Bush Administration would run the Iraq War.

To suggest he was not exactly a genius in the job would be the charitable interpretation; General Tommy Franks is famous for referring to him as the “dumbest mother@*&#er alive”, which is the official title he’s carried ever since.

But on Saturday night, the torch was passed.

And by the time the speeches had ended, and the applause had died down, Texas’ Congressman Joe Barton was the new keeper of the sputtering flame.

This was not the outcome most observers expected.

When my invitation arrived on Monday, it looked as though BP’s Tony Hayward would be wearing the sash and carrying the scepter (for those who don’t know, the scepter is a gold-colored three foot long extension cord…and if that’s the stupidest thing you ever heard in your life, you get the idea), having basically earned himself a “Lifetime Achievement Award” in a mere 60 days.

This was going to be tough for Hayward, of course, because he was already planning to skip his Farr 52 (I’m told he calls it Bob) in the 79th “Round the Island” race, back home in the UK on the same day (and he had a good race, too, coming second to Leopard).

But before BP could really address the question of who would accept the award on his behalf, Congressman Barton pulled off an amazing feat; eclipsing Hayward’s 60 days of corporate idiocracy in a mere five minutes by actually apologizing to BP for the Obama Administration’s insistence that they don’t go through all the necessary legalities before BP actually begins paying claims for damages.

Considering how he got the title in the first place, it’s fair to say Barton’s acceptance speech began with some classic “message confusion”…

“…Where I come from what we’d do about it would be take ’em out and string ’em up…We wouldn’t go through the legalities that we have to because of our due process…”

…and then went on to include a few more pearls of wisdom:

“…If homosexuality was normal we wouldn’t any of us be here…You have to have heterosexual behavior in order to recreate the species…”

“…In January 2009, I introduced the College Football Playoff Act of 2009. This isn’t a government gridiron takeover. It simply says that the BCS can’t call a game the “national championship” unless the participants are determined by a playoff. It doesn’t dictate what kind of playoff or how many teams have to be involved—those decisions would rest with the BCS or NCAA.

The biggest complaint about my bill is that Congress shouldn’t get involved. While this doesn’t rise to the level of healthcare reform or climate change legislation, it is more important than honoring the 2,560th anniversary of the birth of Confucius—one of dozens of resolutions passed by the House in the past few months (I voted against it)…”

Luckily for me, my own prior life experience as a caterer had prepared me for the evening; I had tipped our server at the beginning of the meal, and with the amount of wine available at the table, I was already well enough along that there were no “spit takes” during Barton’s speech.

Possibly the happiest person in the room was BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg. When I caught up to him over a glass of champagne he was happy to explain Hayward’s absence, although it’s clear he really isn’t a native English speaker:

“After it became obvious he wouldn’t be leaving with the award, I told him he needed to get back and replace Captain Neil; that he should handle the “Bob” himself, and I talked to him today, and he said he got all the way to second…”

At which point I just couldn’t take any more, and the interview came to an end.

And it’s at this point that I should say that while this story really didn’t happen, and that this was satire, Barton’s “acceptance speech” was actually assembled from his own very real words, found here, here, and here.

I should also say that in real life Doug Feith might have actually caught a break here; but with several months left until November, and the Republicans looking more and more “self-defeatable”, if I were Joe Barton I wouldn’t be building any expensive “shrines” for his new accoutrement, as another awards transfer ceremony could be coming up sooner than anyone thinks.

WARNING – Blatant Self-Promotion Ahead: It’s Netroots Nation time once again, and the fine folks at Freedom To Marry have chosen me as a finalist for their Blog 4 Equality contest. If I am one of the chosen, it’s off to Vegas…in July. You can vote for that Don Davis guy here, which is my “in person” name, once every 24 hours, so vote early and often. Voting ends June 25th. Thanks very much, and we now return you to your regular programming.


On Saving Louisiana, Or, Send Me Your Mud, Yearning To Be Free June 15, 2010

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is a story I originally posted in March of 2007 that seems so important right now I’ve brought it back for your consideration.

Let’s begin today’s discussion with a quick thought experiment.

What is the single most important thing necessary to ensure the survival of the State of Louisiana?

Improved government administration?
More and better levees?
The success of the “Road Home” project?

I submit it is none of these.

The single most important factor determining the future of the State of Louisiana is mud.

That’s right, mud.

Were you aware that the entire State consists of mud? When you look at a geologic map, there is nothing to be seen but sedimentary deposits dating back to the Cambrian period.

And the mud, it is a-sinking.

Katrina took out more than 57 square miles of land in Plaquemines Parish alone. That former land is now the Gulf of Mexico.

The Army Corps of Engineers has maps of the Mississippi river from 1998. When you get to the page, click on map 141. What you see is a portion of Plaquemines Parish. (Here’s the same place on Google Maps.)

Notice almost the entire map area consists of water, canals, and marsh. There’s only two narrow strips of solid ground evident. Now let’s pull out a bit. There’s just about nothing in the image but sinking ground. Now pull out just a little bit further, and guess what-there’s New Orleans.

This was the area of Louisiana most affected by Katrina.

It’s now time for you to meet Professor Oliver A. Houck. His essay “Can We Save New Orleans?”, published in the Tulane Law Journal, will be central to the remainder of this conversation, and I would encourage you in the strongest terms to take the time to read the document.

Here are some of the issues he brings to light:

–There is no consensus on what is to be done-should the emphasis be on maximizing the amount of developable land; or should the emphasis be on maximizing opportunities for natural processes to replenish the bayous? These are two mutually exclusive goals, and Houck suggests development is winning.

–The Federal government is responsible for maintaining navigation on the Mississippi, but flood control is managed locally. As a result of this and the huge amounts of money that are spread around through levee and other water control project construction, politics has more influence on the management process than science and inter-jurisdictional coordination.

–Environmental pollution-especially fertilizer runoffs-kill the marsh grasses that hold the soil together. As a result, the process of saving Louisiana starts in South Dakota, and is therefore a national, not just a State problem.

–It is easier to calculate the cost-benefit of industrial and commercial activity than the cost-benefit of saving lives-and safety advocates have fewer lobbyists.

–Money spent now, on non-development rights, for example, will be cheaper than money spent later on reconstruction or remediation.

And the most important of all:

–It’s the constant movement of silt down the river that makes it possible for there to be a Louisiana-and America’s history of “taming” the Mississippi has nearly brought that process to a stop. The River carried 400 million tons a year of silt 150 years ago, Houck reports, and today carries only 80 million. Without that “new” land to deposit in the Delta, there is no way to offset the erosion to the Gulf of Mexico.

That’s not the only reason the State is sinking, however. Pumping drinking water from aquifers has an impact, and the expansion of the ocean caused by global warming does, too. Even the weight of the levees themselves on the soft soil is affecting the situation.

Professor Houck, being a “fix-it” kind of analyst, has offered a ten-point prescription for Louisiana recovery. Here’s the “Reader’s Digest Condensed Version”:

1) Draw the map-in other words, there needs to be a set of decisions made regarding exactly where humans will be allowed to control the land, and where the river will have its say.
2) With a new map, reconsider the projects-Houck reminds us that Katrina changed everything, and that projects already designed or underway are probably the wrong solutions to today’s problems.
3) “Free the Mississippi 400 million”-open dams upriver to allow the 400 million tons of silt to do its thing downriver.
4) Free the rivers-the logical extension of point 3. Open the levees appropriately, and let the rivers do their thing.
5) Cut the upstream fertilizers-we discussed this above-fertilizer kills grass, and that kills land. This is where parties outside Louisiana have to step up to the plate-the EPA, the Corps of Engineers, the various States, and maybe even private actors such as the Nature Conservancy.
6) Heal the marsh-if grass holds the mud in place, then grass we must grow. Professor Houck uses a farming analogy-one in which Louisianans would essentially become “land farmers”.
7) Quit making it worse-dredging and filling for canals and subdivisions is the enemy. As we said above, prevention is cheaper than mitigation.
8 ) Make room for Nature-consolidate human development within protected areas to create room for natural restoration to work.
9) Dare to think retreat-Houck advocates completely removing residential development from threatened areas, through buyouts. He makes the argument that businesses can be sustained, however.
10) Global warming is real-Professor Houck suggests denial here just makes the problem much, much worse.

We have already seen the consequences of our desire to develop every inch of shoreline, and not just in Louisiana, but all along the Gulf Coast. And we already are beginning to understand that this is truly a national problem.

But if we hope to keep South Louisiana as a functioning economy or even as an above water piece of real estate, we better start talking about national solutions that help Nature’s solutions.


On Setting Things Straight, Or, An Open Letter To The United Kingdom June 14, 2010

Dear The United Kingdom,

I just wanted to take a minute to say hello and to see how things have been for you lately, and to maybe bring you up to date on a bit of news from here.

Well, right off the bat, we hear you have a new Conservative Prime Minister and that his Party and Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems are in partnership, which I’m sure will be interesting; you probably heard that us Colonials are again having Tea Parties, which has also been very interesting.

I have a Godson who’s getting married this September, so we’re all talking about that, and I hear Graham Norton was even better than last year at hosting Eurovision, despite the fact that it’s…frankly, it’s Eurovision.

Oh, yeah…we also had a bit of an oil spill recently that you may have heard about—and hoo, boy; you should see how the Company that spilled the oil has been acting.

So before we go any farther I figured I’d let you know that we did get that letter from John Napier over the weekend, and to tell you the truth, we’re not really sure John understands exactly what’s going on over here.

Now it turns out that it was some company called BP that’s been out there in the Gulf of Mexico operating the oil rig that blew up, killing eleven people and leading to that uncontrollable geyser of oil that you may be hearing about, and our dear Mr. Napier worries that when we say we’re angry with BP, we’re being anti-British.

If anyone should see John, would you please let him know that nothing could be further from the truth?

I promise you, you would be hard pressed to find one single solitary American getting up this morning, seeing the live feed from the oil leak on TV, and thinking: “That BP is scandalously representing Britain, and for that I hate the British”.

I’ll tell what we are thinking, though, is that as bad as this situation is, BP’s been making it a lot worse by, time after time, being either amazingly unaware of or brazenly dishonest about what’s been going on.

Remember back in May when BP said they were capturing 5000 barrels of oil a day with their new containment procedure—while still claiming on the very same day that the total amount of the leak was 5000 barrels a day, even though anyone who could look at the image from the leak could clearly see with their own two eyes that what BP was saying could not possibly be correct?

I don’t know how far the word’s gotten out over there yet, but now even the Daily Mail (not the “Guardian”, for God’s sakes… but the “Daily Mail”) says it looks like BP guessed low on the amount that’s leaking into the Gulf by somewhere between 15,000 and 35,000 barrels a day…which, to us, looks like either incredibly bad guessing or an incredibly bad effort to deny how bad things really are.

You’ll love this, United Kingdom: BP continues to insist that there are no underwater “plumes” of oil in the Gulf, even though the people on the scene measuring them, and the US Government agency mapping them, say there are.

The BP position, as I understand it, rests on the definition of “plume”…and when you consider that Americans still make fun of Bill Clinton, to this very day, for basing his impeachment defense on what the definition of “is” is, you shouldn’t be too surprised if we treat BP precisely the same way for doing the same thing.

This isn’t the first disaster for BP in this country, either. You may not remember, but just about five years ago BP blew up a refinery in Texas, killing 15 workers, and just afterward had another major spill, this time in Alaska.

The US Government levied an astonishingly large £53 million fine against BP in 2009 for not fixing the problems that led to the 2005 refinery disaster.

That puts the five-year casualty total for BP at way too many people dead, two habitats wounded, and one refinery in critical condition.

If you think that’s bad, United Kingdom, it now looks like BP just made up the spill response plan that they would be putting in place now…if they had been telling the truth about their ability to execute the plan in the first place.

Now if you put all that together…don’t you think somebody’s ass needs to be kicked? Mr. Obama does, and we find that a refreshing change from Mr. Bush, who would have likely done a “heckuva job” himself in the same situation.

Mr. Napier wanted us to know that we’re personalizing this a bit too much; he reminds us that:

“If you compare the damage inflicted on the economies of the western world by polluted securities from the irresponsible, unchecked greed and avarice of leading USA international banks, there has not been the same personalized response in or from countries beyond the US. Perhaps a case of double standards?”

John, babe…if you think we’re lacking in “anger personalization”, perhaps you’ve never actually heard of the Tea Party? I know the Daily Mail has, and I’m surprised you missed it.

Perhaps you missed the left-leaning protesters in San Francisco that want to put the CEOs of banks in jail, or the protesters in West Virginia, of all places, or in Boston?

Perhaps you don’t think there’s a reason to take it a bit personally when someone kills a couple of dozen people or so in some sort of preventable accident or another, but over here, whether it’s a mine operator or BP, we do take it personally.

Trust me, there’s no double standard: ask almost any American and they’ll tell you they’d be equally happy to see either a Wall Street or a BP executive forced to spend several years in a really tiny jail cell with someone who has a prior record of doing disturbing things to small forest creatures.

OK, United Kingdom, now here’s a chance for you to do the Company a favor: BP announced just a couple of days ago that they have no earthly idea why their stock price might be going down.

With just the least little effort, we could fix that problem right away.

If any of you might be in London, and don’t mind making a local call for me, would you kindly ring up BP corporate headquarters at +44 (0)20 7496 4000, and when they answer, just let them know that the stock price is going down because of the oil leak and what it’s doing to the perception that BP will be as profitable in the future as they had been in the past?

I’m sure they’d be so appreciative of the assistance that they might even give you a cool BP hat or something just for helping them out—I know I would, if I were BP.

Anyway, I’m hoping this will clear up some of Mr. Napier’s questions, but before I go, I have to ask you about something:

They tell me that BP stock is a huge part of the UK’s investment portfolio; and that lots of pension funds are dependent on the stream of revenue BP dividends represent.

So dependent, in fact, that there is a great hue and cry over the possibility that BP might not be able to pay a dividend to its shareholders.

So here’s what I was wondering: in the US, if a company in which you were invested suffered a loss that might reach beyond £30 billion, it’s supposed to have a negative impact on the stockholders. It’s almost certainly going to affect any potential dividend distribution, and a company like that might find itself taken over by a stronger competitor.

Doesn’t it work that way in the UK?

I’m sorry that those folks got caught in a bad investment, and maybe the UK Government wants to extend some sort of assistance to those affected; nonetheless I can’t understand the legal logic behind the proposition that cleaning up the mess that BP caused and the payment of compensation claims based on BP’s reckless actions should have a lower priority than the distribution of income to stockholders.

To put it as simply as possible: lots of players in the UK markets were happy to accept the profits from this investment, despite the risks, and now it’s time to accept a loss. That’s how investing works; and if no one else has told you that by now, well…welcome to investing.

And while UK pensioners are worried about losing some income, American workers—thousands of them—are worried that they’ll be out of work for months, and maybe years, with no income at all, except for that provided by BP…unless they go broke and can’t pay.

So that’s what’s been going on here since I wrote you last, and I hope you do get a chance to call BP about that whole stock going down thing, so they know, and I hope you don’t think we’re in any way upset with Britain at all, ‘cause we are truly not.

British Petroleum, however, is a different story; and based on the record we feel that our anger is entirely justified…but that would have been just as true if it had been Chevron or Anadarko or any other deepwater driller—just as it was true for Exxon after the Exxon Valdez incident two decades ago.

Anyway, I have to go now, but I’ll try not to wait so long before I write again; and I hope BP is able to contain this stuff before it begins washing up on your beaches, which, believe it or not, is a distinct possibility.

As always, your friend,



On Improbable Realities, Part One, Or, “I Want A Jet Car With Frickin’ Lasers…” September 23, 2009

When it comes to getting around, Americans love to consider the question of “what if…?”

As a result, our cars have evolved into “land yachts”, our trucks have become “monster trucks”, and the desire to drag our living spaces around with us has morphed into converted busses with rooms that pop out of the side, a Mini-Cooper hidden under the master bedroom floor, and self-tracking satellite dishes that fight for space on the roof with air conditioning equipment.

And for more than a few of us, “what if…?” has even extended to “what if my car…was a jet car?”

In today’s improbable reality I’m here to tell you that Chrysler engineers asked that exact same question, for roughly a quarter of a century, and as a result they actually designed and deployed seven generations of cars with jet engines—and they came darn close to putting the eighth-generation design on sale to the general public.

It’s a story of pocket protectors and slide rules and offices full of guys who look a bit like Drew Carey…but as we’ll see in Part Two, it may also be a story of technology that couldn’t be perfected “back then”, but could be reborn in our own times.

As so often happens, a bit of “setting up” is needed, and to get this story going we need to discuss exactly how jets—particularly gas turbines—work.

In the case of an automotive engine, the idea is that air is drawn into the engine, that air is compressed, fuel is added, and the air/fuel mixture is then set on fire with a spark plug. This rapidly heats the mixture, it expands, and the energy created by that expansion is used to turn a turbine (a variation on a fan) which is connected to the driveshaft that eventually turns the wheels.

Some aircraft and helicopter engines also use this design to turn propellers, but the majority of aircraft jet engines force the expanding air/fuel mixture out the back of the engine in the form of “thrust” that, to put it as simply as possible, “make airplane go fast”.

From an engineering point of view, there are a lot of advantages to a turbine engine.

In contrast to a design that requires pistons and valves and a crankshaft and a cooling system and a system for oil distribution, turbine engines have very few moving parts, are cheaper to manufacture, and require a relatively small amount of maintenance. They also have very long service lives compared to piston engines.

Beyond that, turbines start right up on very cold days. Because jets output lots of heat you never have to wait for the jet car’s heater to “warm up”, and they can burn virtually any combustible liquid or volatile gas as fuel.

Vibration is very low, and you get 100% of available torque at 0 rpm, which means you don’t have to “rev up” the engine to get the wheels to start turning (something that is also true of vehicles powered by electric motors).

“Eagles may soar, but weasels don’t get sucked into jet engines”

John Benfield

So that’s the why…now how about the “who did what when?”

1954, 1955, and 1956 saw Chrysler rolling out the first-generation CR-1 turbine engine. One vehicle was produced in each of those years; the ’55 version was designated the Plymouth Belvedere Sportone CR-1 Turbine Special. (The 1956 version of the same vehicle was rated at 100 horsepower and 13 MPG.)

By 1959 the CR-2 engine was in service, again only in “testbed” vehicles, and it had achieved ratings of 200 horsepower and, after a 1,200 mile demonstration run from Detroit to Princeton, New Jersey, a far more respectable 18 MPG.

Operating these vehicles had taught Chrysler a few things about the disadvantages of turbine designs:

–the gases that come out the back of the car are really, really hot (temperatures can climb above 1000 degrees F.).

–after you put your foot on the gas, there is an annoying delay before the turbines (and the wheels) start spinning faster.

–because you’re basically dumping fuel into the combustion chamber, fuel economy sucks.

–the CR-1 and CR-2 engines did not offer “engine braking”, which means there would be extra wear and tear on the brakes at the wheels, and, because the driver would be constantly “riding” the brakes, increased potential for a heat-related braking system failure.

An engine was coming along that would address these problems, and in 1961 it was dropped into the visually stunning TurboFlite, which looked like a cross between two famous automotive avians: an early 1960s T-Bird and a late 1960s Plymouth Superbird. This Chrysler-designed and Ghia-built car even featured a clear “bubble” canopy that lifted up to allow passengers to get in and out.

The CR-2A engine featured fancy new engineering that dramatically reduced the acceleration delay and provided engine braking, and in 1962 one of the two Dodge Darts that was fitted with this engine was taken on a 3,000 mile national tour (New York City to Los Angeles) to introduce the concept to the public. (Two other cars, both Plymouth Furies, were also fitted with turbine engines that year.)

At this point we need to talk about the most unusual characteristic of this type of car: its singularly unique sound.

If you can imagine the sound of a Learjet taxiing several hundred feet away you might have a pretty good idea of—well, actually, you don’t have to imagine it if you don’t want to. You can hear it for yourself by watching the film produced by Chrysler to document that 1962 cross-country trip.

By 1963, a fourth-generation engine had deployed new technology that recycled heat from the exhaust to “preheat” the intake air. This dramatically reduced the exhaust temperature while making it easier to set the intake air on fire, which significantly increased both fuel economy and horsepower.

Other improvements further reduced “acceleration lag” and provided better engine performance while idling.

There is just too much story for one day, so we will stop right here and pick up the rest next time. Before we finish, a quick recap of where we’ve been, and a preview of where we’re going:

Chrysler, among other manufacturers, was experimenting with using jet engines to turn turbines; the idea being to replace the piston engines used in virtually every car built from that day until this with something better.

Four generations of engine had already been produced, many of the problems that were associated with the original design had been either partially remediated or fully resolved, and a significant effort was underway to introduce the idea of “jet cars” to the motoring public.

In Part Two, Chrysler puts a turbine car in the hands of 200 lucky families, we continue a history that may not be over yet—and in a most unexpected development, we’ll discover the common heritage that links the 1956 Ford Thunderbird, the 1961 Lincoln Continental, the 1964 Chrysler Corporation Turbine Car, and the 2009 Dodge Challenger.

So how about that? A decade-long story of history, engineering geekery, and conceptualism…and all of it presented in the form of useful objets d’art.

And in Part Two: lots more to come.

What’s not to love?