Numbering the Discontent

The graphic accompanying a recent New York Times article seems to capture in numbers the sentiments so many have been trying to express lately. Among 31 OECD countries ranked on social justice, the United States is among the bottom 5 overall (just ahead of Greece, Chile, Mexico and Turkey), and in the bottom 5 or 10 countries on 7 out of the 8 indicators ranked. For those of us who were (a) once children, (b) enjoy remaining healthy, or (c) hope to grow old someday, the news is a sobering reality check.


Washington Initiative 1183

I find the stark differences between the distribution and retailing of alcohol on the one hand, and almost any other consumer product on the other hand, to offer a fascinating commentary about US society. No doubt the contemporary wine and spirits industry remains a potentially interesting, if unwritten, chapter in the history of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.

In a previous post, I discussed the bizarre shipping prohibitions that still encumber many wine buyers. Today, my attention was drawn to a Wall Street Journal article on a ballot initiative in Washington state aimed at replacing “hundreds of state-run liquor stores with private retail outlets” while also allowing “retailers to buy liquor directly from distillers and negotiate volume discounts.”

To add to the intrigue, rather than an instance of grassroots mobilization, the initiative is being sponsored primarily by corporate interests. Costco has funded almost the entire “Yes” effort, while the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America have funded almost the entire “No” effort. The State is involved too, seeing privatization as a chance to generate more revenue. As a result, “[i]t isn’t clear whether a consumer buying a bottle of whiskey would see prices go down.”

In other words, no matter who wins the initiative, consumers may not come out ahead, even though their “interests” are allegedly at the heart of the matter. Instead, what appears to be at stake is simply how the liquor pie gets divided. Costco and Washington state want a bigger piece, while the existing wholesalers and retailers are reluctant to give up what they have had since the end of prohibition. How’s that for reform?

US Energy Flow

While I’m on the subject of flow charts, I thought this visual from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory brings into relief the changes we are facing in terms of energy supply.

First, there is the sheer inefficiency of the overall system — of 105,000 petajoules (PJ) of energy consumed, some 57,943 PJ are wasted. Second, despite all the debate about nuclear, wind and solar, together they amount for very little of our energy supply. It is a world of coal, natural gas and oil. According to the analysis:

The national energy balance sheet reveals a number of pertinent facts. First, coal-fired power plants generate almost half of our electricity and are responsible for nearly 2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year—equivalent to the emissions of the entire transportation industry. Greenhouse gas emissions from coal, and to a lesser extent natural gas and oil, explain why the electric power industry is the single largest contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Second, although there has been explosive growth in solar, wind and biomass power in recent years, renewable generation still provides a small amount of our generating capacity. Third, the current electricity system, from generation to end-user, wastes vast sums of energy; for example, a light bulb receives less than half of the energy contained in a piece of coal. Finally, the U.S. transportation sector is almost wholly reliant on oil, more than half of which is imported.

United State Energy Flow (Petajoules, 2007)
United State Energy Flow (Petajoules, 2007)

From GHG Volumes to GWP Weights

The Montreal Protocol entered force in 1989 and was initially designed to phase out ozone depleting CFCs. It was later amended to also phase out the use of HCFCs.

More recently there have been renewed discussion about amending the Montreal Protocol to reduce the use of HFCs, a class of high global warming potential (GWP) gases. According to the EPA, “the global warming potentials of HFCs range from 140 (HFC-152a) to 11,700 (HFC-23).” In particular, Canada, Mexico and the United States recently proposed a phasedown (as opposed to a phaseout) to 15% of baseline. So far, 91 countries have indicated their support for such an amendment. (See also: Recent International Developments in Saving the Ozone Layer)

In light of these discussion, I thought it might be worth re-considering the somewhat dated World GHG Emission Flow Chart below (which is based on data from 2000). Instead of depicting volumes of emissions on the right-hand side, if the chart were re-configured to weight emissions by GWP, things would look a lot different. In particular, CO2’s share would fall dramatically, while the share for CH4 (i.e., methane, a.k.a. natural gas), HFCs, PFCs and SF6 would all grow significantly.

World GHG Emissions Flow Chart
World GHG Emissions Flow Chart

EPA Fuel Economy Labels

The EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are in the process of revising the fuel economy label that is required on all new cars and light-duty trucks sold in the U.S. Two prototypes — a horizontal and a vertical version — are the primary label designs under consideration.

Recently, Siegel + Gale, a leading strategic branding agency, completed user testing on both of the proposed label designs. Neither was perfect, but overall the horizontal label tested as more usable.

EPA Fuel Economy Labels

EPA Fuel Economy Labels

Mapping Gas

National Geographic recently published a Special Report on “The Great Shale Gas Rush.”

Although I’ve not made my way through the entire package of articles yet, one of the accompanying infographics maps the gas boom. Of note, this is one of the first maps of the Marcellus Shale and hydraulic fracturing I’ve seen that shows the extent of drilling on Federal and State lands. It also includes shale wells for the period January 2007 to October 2010.

Marcellus Shale Map

Marcellus Drilling Visualized

Today the Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research posted a series of animated visuals based on data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. For example, the number of permits issued has climbed from 99 in 2007, to 519 in 2008, to 1,985 in 2009, to 2,108 through the first 8 months of 2010 — a total of 4,711 permits.

Based on data released by Range Resources on the chemical cocktail used, as well as data from Chesapeake Energy on the 5.6 million gallons of water used during drilling and fracking, I estimate that some 30,000 pounds of hazardous and/or toxic chemicals are required per well.  Others have put the quantity at 80,000 pounds. At this point, given the general lack of regulation and disclosure, there is necessarily some uncertainty in the estimates. Nonetheless, even using my lower estimate, these permitted wells are likely to result in the injection of something like 141 million pounds of hazardous and/or toxic chemicals into the ground. It is believed that somewhere between 50% and 85% of these chemicals never come back out again, but instead remain in the ground. It is a matter of some controversy as to whether they might effect the water table. Having just seen GASLAND on Sunday night, it strains the limits of credibility to assert that such contamination of water never happens.

Of course, at the present time, all of the above is entirely legal. But even considering the lax regulatory environment, the industry has managed to rack up plenty of violations. In the last 2-1/2 years, Marcellus Well drillers were cited for more than 1,600 violations, a rate of more than 1.5 per day.