The Weekly Carboholic: U.S. Chamber of Commerce files for EPA climate disruption trial (update #2)



Earlier this week, the LATimes reported that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (hereafter “the Chamber”) has petitioned the EPA to hold a trial-like hearing on the science of climate disruption. According to the article, officials for the Chamber want to make it “‘the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century.'”

EPA officials interviewed for the LATimes article are dismissive of the Chamber’s petition, referring to it in the article as “frivolous” and a “waste of time.” However, given that the Chamber has threatened to take the EPA to federal court to force them to hold this trial-like hearing, it’s unlikely that the Chamber considers their petition “frivolous.”

A ClimateWire article in the NYTimes clarifies the Chamber’s point and points out that the EPA’s public process has already been extensive:

EPA has hosted two public hearings and received more than 300,000 public comments on the matter already.

“They don’t have the science to support the endangerment finding,” Bill Kovacs, the chamber’s vice president for environment, regulatory and government affairs, said in an interview. “We can’t just take their word for it.”

This indicates that the Chamber’s chief complaint isn’t so much as that the science underlying anthropogenic climate disruption is wrong, but rather that the science supporting the EPA’s finding that climate disruption endangers human health is wrong. This same point was reported by the Wall Street Journal’s climate blog here.

The response from around the web has been rapid and fierce. Skeptic and denier sites claim that the EPA is cowardly for rejecting the proposed hearing and that, if the Obama Administration were really for change, they’d order the EPA to hold the hearing. Not all such sites think this style of hearing on the strengths or weaknesses of scientific hypotheses and theory is a good idea, however.

The Constitutional Accountability Center (CAC) is one of the many sites supporting the EPA’s position. They point out that the Chamber is making their appeal after the official public comment period on the endangerment finding has closed. During the official comment period, over 300,000 public comments were made on the proposed endangerment finding and two large and well attended public hearings were held, one in Seattle and the other in Arlington, Virginia. The CAC proposes that the main goal of the Chamber isn’t to actually “win,” but rather to delay the EPA’s action as long as possible, an opinion that Pete Altman, climate campaign director for the NRDC, shares at the NRDC’s Switchboard blog.

Ultimately, though, one of the most interesting points in all of this is the fact that the Chamber has equated their position with that of William Jennings Bryan, the once famed anti-evolutionist lawyer for the prosecution. While Bryan won trial and the conviction was overturned on a technicality, the Scopes trial represented the beginning of the end for creationism in the United States, whether due to the cynical reporting of H.L. Menken or the death of Bryan shortly after the conclusion of the trial. It took several more decades before anti-evolution laws were ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court, but it did happen.

On the other hand, perhaps the Chamber is hoping simply for the same kind of delay that the Scopes trial was able to produce – several more years or decades of no effective action against climate disruption. Or perhaps the Chamber is playing to a particular audience, namely the same people who look at the Scopes trial as a win for creationism or, in its more recent incarnation, intelligent design.

UPDATE: The Wonk Room has obtained a copy of the Chamber’s petition.

The petition, acquired by the Wonk Room, claims that scientific research demonstrates global warming has stopped, the oceans aren’t acidifying or warming, sea level isn’t rising, extreme weather events aren’t increasing, tropical diseases aren’t spreading, wildfires aren’t increasing — but even if the planet were getting warmer, then U.S. citizens will be healthier, air pollution will decrease, and U.S. agriculture will benefit.


GRACE satellites show water use in India is unsustainable

According to a new study reported in the BBC, the Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite has detected a significant reduction in the amount of groundwater in India. According to the BBC, the study finds the reason for the falling groundwater level is overuse for irrigation. According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory press release, the total loss from 2002 to 2008 was 108 cubic miles.

GRACE detected this change by monitoring the gravity of the Earth as it orbits. How much gravity affects one of the two paired satellites varies depending on how much mass is below the satellite. By very accurately monitoring the distance between the two satellites, scientists can detect the force of gravity and create a gravity map of the Earth. By monitoring changes in the Earth’s gravity over time, scientists can detect what parts of the Earth are gaining or losing mass. In the case of India, GRACE detected a loss in mass over land even though records showed that monsoon rains were relatively constant during the study period.


Since GRACE was launched in 2002, it has made a number of other important observations, two of which are critically important. The first was confirmation that Greenland is losing ice mass. Specifically, a paper confirmed that Greenland lost approximately 240 cubic kilometers of ice per year between April 2002 and November 2005. This was compared to 225 cubic km per year based on satellite radar.

The second observation was that, from 2002 to 2005, the Antarctica ice sheet lost approximately 150 cubic km of ice per year. Prior to GRACE, scientists didn’t know whether Antarctica was overall gaining or losing mass – there was widespread agreement that West Antarctica was losing mass, but no agreement over whether East Antarctica was gaining mass fast enough to compensate for the loss in the West – or if the East was also losing mass. What GRACE discovered was that the East was maintaining it’s overall mass while the West was losing mass.

So long as the two satellites continue operation, we can reasonably expect that more discoveries like the three mentioned above will continue to be made.


Biofuel crops may become next invasive species

According to a ClimateWire story, scientists are becoming concerned about the potential for biofuel crops to become invasive weeds. The problem, as the article points out, is that the best cellulosic biofuel crops are going to need very little water, little to no fertilizer, and produce high yields. You know, like kudzu in the South or bindweed here along the front range.

Hey, here’s an idea – can kudzu or bindweed could be made into cellulosic biofuel feedstock? Kill two birds with one stone and all that.


chevy-voltIs GM’s 230 MPG Volt claim real?

A couple of weeks ago, General Motors announced with great fanfare that the Chevy Volt was so energy efficient that it would get 230 MPG. According to the NYTimes, GM used an EPA-approved methodology, but the number itself hasn’t been verified or independently tested. According to an interview with Larry Nitz, GM’s executive director of hybrid powertrain engineering, at, the EPA methodology is a baseline that is based on a statistical traffic study done in 2001 that measured how the typical vehicle will be used. Since the first 40 miles in a Volt uses no gasoline at all, it turns out that you’ll get 230 MPG if you drive precisely 51.1 miles. Any further than that and you’re gas mileage drops – at 80 miles, you’re down to 100 MPG.

Ultimately, though, figuring MPG for a mostly-electric vehicle is a challenge. If you never drive over 40 miles, you won’t consume any gasoline at all, and so you’re MPG is effectively infinite. But you’re still consuming energy. The difference is that the energy is coming from the electrical grid and whatever coal, natural gas, nuclear, or renewable generator is closest to you. For that reason, it’s probably more accurate, and certainly fairer, to compare the Volt’s overall energy consumption to the energy consumption of other vehicles.

Of course, given that GM has a vested interest in continuing to tout the MPG numbers, it’ll probably be third parties who perform those calculations and not GM.

For a more amusing take on the whole Volt MPG thing, check out satire site Smooth Operator.


tubularTubular Rail aims to invert train and rail

Let’s perform a simple experiment. First, find a pen. Second, put it on the edge of the table and scoot it slowly off the edge. If you watch it closely as it starts to tip over, you’ll notice that it doesn’t start to tip until about it reaches about the middle. This is because the pen’s center of gravity is supported by the table until you reach approximately the pen’s center. But as soon as the pen’s center of gravity is unsupported, it starts to tip over and will eventually fall to the floor.

This fact – that a cantilevered beam doesn’t start to fall until it reaches it’s midpoint – is the basis behind a new form of train that the developers claim will cost 60% less than traditional rail. It’s called tubular rail, and its developers are at Tubular Rail, Inc. (TRI)

According to the website, it will cost less partly because components can be prefabricated, it has a lower footprint (and so would need fewer easements or use of eminent domain), and lower overall construction costs. And it’s a very interesting idea. The trains turn very gradually as they pass through the support tubes (that also provide power to the train cars) and since they’re suspended over roads and existing rail, they could be used pretty much everywhere.

The website is reasonably slick, but I couldn’t find any indication that their idea has any significant money behind TRI. And by “significant money” I mean enough money for TRI to develop their idea beyond the website stage and turn it into a demonstration project. Hopefully I’m wrong, since this technology could change the game for intermediate and long distance transportation around the country. If it lives up to the hype, that is.


July global ocean temperature sets two records

The Associated Press has reported that the average global ocean sea surface temperature in July set a record for the hottest July since measurements started. The ocean was 0.5924 °Celsius over the previous record, set during the strong El Niño in 1998, of 0.5761. This is according to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) July 2009 highlights page. What the AP didn’t report, however, and neither did the NCDC, is that the preliminary data from July shows that July 2009 was the hottest sea surface temperature anomaly since recording started 130 years ago. Previously, the warmest month was December 1997 (0.5776 °C), as the 1998 El Niño was starting.

UPDATE: Skeptic Dr. Roy Spencer believes that he’s found a significant error in the NOAA SST dataset. He’s posted some data on his website that appears to show a warm bias to the NOAA data as compared to two different satellite datasets. It’s certainly possible that he’s correct, but it’s also possible that undetected errors/biases in the satellites are responsible. However, that there is an unknown error between the satellite and in-situ NOAA measurements appears to be pretty likely. I look forward to finding out the real story here when the source of the error(s) is discovered and corrected.

Additional information from the NCDC that bear mentioning is that, while the United States has been having an unusually cool summer (the 27th coolest on record), the global land plus sea surface temperature anomaly for July was the 5th warmest on record, the January through July 2009 period is tied for 6th warmest on record with 2004, and this July was the 33rd July in a row that was over the 20th Century mean for combined land and sea surface temperature anomaly.


To put this into perspective, let’s do a few simple calculations. It takes a lot more energy to heat up a kilogram of water one °C than it does to heat up one kg of air – about 4.2 times as much energy, in fact. But a cubic meter of water has a LOT kg of mass than a cubic meter of air – about 854 times the mass of air at sea level.

So let’s take the volume of the lowest kilometer of atmosphere (roughly representing the land surface temperature region), multiply that by the mass of air at sea level, and then multiply that by the amount of energy it takes to increase that volume of air by 1 °C (aka “heat capacity”), and we get approximately 6.1×1020 Joules (J). A really, really big number.

If we take just the top meter of the global ocean (roughly representing the sea surface temperature), multiply that volume by the mass of seawater, and multiply that number by seawater’s heat capaciy, we get about 1.6×1023 J. An even bigger number.

Divide the energy in the top meter of the ocean by the energy in the lowest kilometer of atmosphere and you find that the ocean holds approximately 262 times more energy. And this is a conservative estimate, as I didn’t take into account the reduction in atmospheric pressure from sea level to 1 km in altitude, nor did I estimate the actual volume of the wave/wind mixed surface layer of the ocean, which is probably several meters to tens of meters deep. A real calculation would produce an ocean surface heat capacity that was much higher than my quick-and-dirty calculation.

Given that ocean covers more than 70% of the Earth’s surface and just how much more energy the ocean can store than the atmosphere, perhaps the most interesting point made by the NCDC was this, about this year’s El Niño:

El Niño persisted across the equatorial Pacific Ocean during July 2009. Related sea-surface temperature (SST) anomalies increased for the sixth consecutive month in this ENSO domain, where July SSTs were more than 0.5°C (0.9°F) above average. If El Niño conditions continue to mature, as now projected by NOAA, global temperatures are likely to exceed previous record highs.

For your information, the warming water trend is called “El Niño” because it historically peaks in December, which is why it’s named after the Spanish name of the Christ child.

Image credits:
NASA/Trent Schindler and Matt Rodell
Pacific Northwest Weed Management
Motor Trend

5 replies »

  1. To the best of my knowledge, any plant matter can be made into cellulosic ethanol. The real problem is that all of them will require more energy/land than we get out. In my opinion, the only realistic biofuels will be algae diesel and the possibility of harnessing the photosynthetic process to produce hydrogen. (other forms of bio diesel are possible; in fact, the diesel cycle was developed for non-petroleum fuels. But i still think we run into negative returns because of the time/land input being greater than the fuel we get)

    GM is unfairly getting the stink over the Volt claims. This is a far better, more efficient and more elegant application than the strong-hybrid of the Prius (which is, quite frankly, crap greenwashing. A similar diesel – with only one drive train – gets equivalent mileage; and check real world mileage for hybrids in northern climes…thought to be fair, all battery systems will suffer in that situation).

    The difference is that in the Volt the gasoline engine (should be diesel or natural gas) never drives the vehicle, so it is never subjected to acceleration/deceleration. The engine is just a generator and so can be tuned to maximum efficiency in the rpm band used for generation, and unlike the Prius, all the transmission bits needed to convert the ICE energy to the wheels are gone. It is an electric car with an onboard generator.

    Moreover, the generator is not programmed to fully charge the battery. It kicks on when the battery drops to 30% charge and works only enough to keep it there. Yes, the mileage will drop (and you may never get equivalent 230mpg) on a cross country road trip, but if you drive normally and for normal commuting distances, the engine will hardly run at all.

    On the other hand, unlike plug-in concepts this one won’t leave you stranded when you run out of battery power…nor will you need to wait hours to continue your trip.

  2. I’m ambivalent about the whole hybrid thing – I’m not convinced that the payoff is worth the cost, in terms of pollution or energy consumption. And part of my problem is exacerbated by the Volt – batteries. NiCd, MiMH, and Li-ion batteries aren’t as polluting as standard lead-acid 12 V car batteries, but they’re not all sweetness and light either.

    Efficient diesel in the U.S. would be great thing, though, from what I can tell. I’ve read a few reports that the reason we don’t have those vehicles here in the U.S. is because California hasn’t decided whether diesel is going to be even more heavily regulated than it already is. The problem is supposedly the particulates created in diesel consumption.

    Cellulosic biofuels could be made to work if scientists can engineer good enzyme or artificial catalysts, but cellulose is hard to break down for a reason – it’s the structural matter that supports the plants. I agree that algae could be the way to go, especially if engineers can figure out how to get the water out efficiently (getting algae to make a biodiesel or something similar is a biological sciences problem – purging the algae of water is an engineering problem).

  3. Yeah, the battery aspect may well be cutting from one end of the rope to splice onto the other. We’d be far better off reducing vehicle weight (if only the government would mandate that we all drive race cars!) and increasing public transportation use. My question would be just how long these battery packs will actually last (real world) and how easy it will be to really recycle them.

    I’ve heard so many “reasons” why we can’t have diesels. None of them make the least bit of sense to me. Let’s take the Prius and the diesel Fiesta (all Euro numbers). The best the Prius can get is 67 imperial mpg, while the Fiesta gets 76. And the Fiesta comes in at 98 g CO2/km. The particulate emissions are an issue (though not for semi-tractors, apparently) but the Fiesta also has lower NOx numbers too. And some of the tech like urea injection cleans diesel like a catalytic converter cleans gas engines.

    And as far as i know, even the most modern diesels can be cut (weather depending) with up to 50% strained fryer oil. Put a little, clean diesel that can run 50% recycled into a hybrid and now we’re starting to talk.

    I totally meant to respond to the invasive weed question. Honestly, it’s hard to tell because it will depend on what varieties are selected. I can’t imagine researchers choosing an annual crop, which means that with grasses the fields could be contained with rhizome barriers. And i would think that harvest would be pre-seed setting (like mowing your lawn) It could be a good excuse to reconstruct prairie grass lands…except that in making ethanol things change with inputs (if i’m not mistaken), so the goal will probably be monoculture. Shameful really.

    Maybe we could start grazing livestock on huge midwestern pasture land again and find a way to collect cow farts…and then periodically eat our methane generators (though grass fed cows fart less than grain fed cows).