Letter to UC Berkeley’s “Daily Californian”

Here’s a letter I sent off to the Daily Californian:

On the Daily Californian’s opinion page on July 26, 2010 (Berkeley-BP Deal Only Looks Worse Post-Spill), Miguel Altieri writes, “This Berkeley-BP deal was signed without wide consultation with the faculty and despite warnings from a great number of faculty…”

At the nub of it, his fundamental complaint appears to be the administration’s exclusion of staff from the decision process. Of course he raises a number of other distracting arguments such as excess nitrogen in the gulf caused by fertilizing crops, BP’s poor safety and environmental record, the downside of biofuels, and the fact that the administration accepted lucre from an energy company for research to “find new, more sustainable energy technologies.”

Whether faculty input provides more politically correct donors is arguable and of no concern to me. Rather, my interest is in the subtext of the op-ed: that funding sources affect the research process. Funders can and do try to inflict their biases into studies. Whether the funder is BP or an environmental group, there is always a possibility that the funder will try to influence the findings. I personally know a forester contracted by the Sierra Club to do research regarding the (then) proposed Sequoia National Monument. When preliminary findings did not support the Sierra Club’s preferred results, the project was discontinued. I know another researcher contracted by the National Audubon Society; when his preliminary findings did not support their bias, they confiscated his camera and halted the study.

The faculty, student body, and the university’s administration recognize that the state’s funding of the university’s research needs will only continue to decrease, at least in the near term. Focusing on flaws in funding sources does not solve that problem. Rather, focusing on firewalling research from biases in design, implementation, and results, is a discussion worth having.

Norm Benson
Lower Lake, CA

UPDATE (3 August 2010):

I have been contacted by the Daily Californian. They will “strongly consider publishing” my response. Stay tuned…


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BP oil spill: A teachable moment?

“I want to really challenge the idea that we can’t move into renewable energy sources a lot faster. We put a man on the moon pretty fast…What is really sad now is that Obama is not using this moment as a teachable moment to bring the country together.” – Arianna Huffington (on KCRW’s Left, Right, and Center).

The challenge President Obama faces, if this is indeed a teachable moment, is what to teach.

I took the liberty of drafting a speech for President Obama a while ago. He chose not to use mine, but you can see what might have been.

Draft: “Our Energy Future

My fellow Americans, I know there’s a Boston-L.A. playoff game on tonight and you want to see it and not me on the screen so I will be brief.

I have heard the talk about America’s need to use this moment to decrease our dependence on the burning of fossil fuels. That we if can put a man on the moon, certainly we can put science to work to develop ways to put oil, coal, and other fossil fuels into the dustbin of history.

The BP (BP stands for “Bad Planning”) disaster has quite literally placed a black mark on our environmental record for offshore drilling. Oil continues to spew from a pipe a mile underwater. Birds and turtles are already washing ashore covered in oil. Fish die by the score. Shrimpers, oystermen, and fishermen  can’t work. In all, it will cost billions in lost revenue and cleanup. This is the second largest spill into the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a big mucking deal.

Therefore, I am declaring the affected coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida disaster areas and as such they are entitled to federal funds for help. I’ll be sending BP the bill to reimburse the costs.

Offshore oil drilling carries risks, but risk also comes with other forms of energy. Ever since humans climbed out of the trees and used fire to cook their food, warm themselves and ward off animals they’ve recognized the dual nature of energy: using it carried risks and rewards. Over time we learned to use other forms of energy. Through the ages, humankind has worked toward more getting more power from smaller packages until we succeeded in harnessing the power of the atom.

Let me be clear: getting free of petroleum by 2050 using renewable energy sources like wind and solar ain’t going to happen. Expecting renewable energy to grab a greater share of production over the next 30 to 40 years when it has declined over the past 60 years, despite tens of billions in subsidies, is wishful thinking.

Let’s consider wind turbines popping up on hillsides like toadstools. Every state and every country that has tried wind turbines has learned they do not lower carbon dioxide emissions while also being poor investments that hurt their economies. Wind requires massive subsidies and erases more than two jobs for every one wind power job created. That is a recipe for failure.

My fellow Americans, math, chemistry and the laws of physics are stubbornly non-partisan. They care not a whit whether you are conservative or liberal, right or left, green or tutti-frutti. The Energy Information Administration released projections on the Waxman-Markey “American Clean Energy and Security Act” that passed in the House of Representatives last June; if our nation adopts the bill’s 25 percent renewable power electricity standard, the EIA estimated carbon dioxide reduction of a paltry 4.9 percent. This does not cut the mustard.

Natural gas and nuclear power plants are magnitudes more efficient than wind or solar, while emitting far less carbon than coal. So, in the future, we’re going to move toward natural gas and nuking the renewables. Nuclear energy is safe, reliable, and proven technology that works now, not a century from now. Let us invoke the ancient prophecy of Isaiah and “turn our swords into plowshares” and use nuclear energy for the good of our nation and our planet.

Thank you, God bless America, and Go Celtics!

The speech is a pipedream on my part; obviously the low power density approaches of wind, solar, and ethanol will reap huge subsidies in the wake of Blunder Petroleum’s accident. Robert Bryce, managing editor for the Energy Tribune sums up the choice this way: “(Political leaders) want to replace high power density sources that are dispatchable, reliable, and relatively low cost with low power density sources that are not dispatchable, highly variable, and high cost. This makes no sense. I’d call it insane but it’d be an insult to crazy people.”

Reference and Source material:

Bentek Energy, “HOW LESS BECAME MORE…Wind, Power and Unintended Consequences in the Colorado Energy Market (http://ipams.org/wp-content/uploads/BENTEKStudy_How_Less_Became_More.pdf)
Congressional Budget Office. “How Policies to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions Could Affect Employment “

David L. Greene and Paul N. Leiby, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, “Oil Independence: Realistic Goal or Empty Slogan?” (http://lugar.senate.gov/energy/links/commentary/08_greene_full.cfm)

Carl Mortishead and Angela Jameson, Times online, “Green energy levy would add £20 to bills”

C. le Pair & K. de Groot, “The impact of wind generated electricity on fossil fuel consumption” (http://www.clepair.net/windefficiency.html)

Hugh Sharman and Henrik Meyer, CEPOS: Center for Politiske Studier. “Wind Energy – The Case of Denmark.” (http://www.cepos.dk/fileadmin/user_upload/Arkiv/PDF/Wind_energy_-_the_case_of_Denmark.pdf)

US Energy Information Administration, “Energy Market and Economic Impacts of H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009” (http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/servicerpt/hr2454/execsummary.html)

US Energy Information Administration, “International Energy Statistics.” (http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/cfapps/ipdbproject/iedindex3.cfm?tid=5&pid=54&aid=2&cid=&syid=1989&eyid=2009&unit=TBPD)

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