Author Archives: bob

Electrifying Transportation

As of 2017, the United States regained the position of the world’s top oil producer. We now produce 15 million barrels per day (mmbd) of crude oil. That’s the good news, the bad news is that we consume 20 mmbd. The difference is made up from imports. Dependence on imported oil puts our markets at risk to forces beyond our control. A supply disruption in any overseas market would affect the price of oil here as oil is traded internationally.

As an example, we don’t buy oil from Russia or Iran, but if some or all of their production is taken off the world market, the price we pay for even domestically produced oil will rise. Oil is a fungible commodity and the price is set by international supply and demand.

Virtually all the crude oil we use goes to the manufacture of fuel- gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel for transportation. Conflict overseas could cost us dearly at the pump. All our other energy sources such as natural gas, nuclear, and renewables are produced exclusively here in the United States and therefore much less subject to the vagaries of the international markets.

The sensitivity of our transportation system to price fluctuations could be greatly reduced by a rapid conversion to electric powered vehicles because crude oil is not involved in the production of electricity.

Intense research is increasing the efficiency of renewable batteries. At the same time, economies of scale from increased production is lowering the cost. The technology already exists or is in pilot scale production for everything from passenger cars to big rigs like 18-wheelers.

Most automakers are already producing plug-in hybrids. These are really electric vehicles with a limited range, up to 50 miles. They also, however, have small gas engines that act as generators to power the vehicle after the battery charged from the grid is exhausted. Less common but in production are more exotic vehicles like the Tesla or the more mundane Chevrolet Bolt. These vehicles are total electric cars with ranges between charges of over 250 miles. As charging stations are built out, these total electric vehicles will rapidly replace the passenger vehicle fleet.

The production of electric light-duty delivery trucks trails passenger cars but not by much. Fleet delivery vehicles with limited daily range requirement are an ideal market. Daily round trips back to a station house for overnight recharge would actually help the electrical grid, as excess power already exists at night. Ryder Trucks has just ordered hundreds of electric trucks from a start-up company in – where else – California.

Buses for everything from rural schools to urban transportation systems are coming into play. Blue Bird Bus Company is now taking orders for electric buses to be delivered this year.

Most surprising is the advent of all-electric Semis. Elon Musk of Tesla and Space-X fame is now building prototypes of electric Semis with 80,000 lb Gross Vehicle Weight. These are the industry standard currently fueled by diesel that fills the interstates and move over half the freight in the United States. Tesla’s Semi is designed for a range of 500 miles and a recharge time of half an hour.

Troubled Water – The Buffalo National River

Section 303(d) of the federal Clean Water Act requires the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) to compile a biennial list of impaired bodies of water in the state. A number of physical, chemical and biological parameters gathered by the ADEQ and other participating agencies are used to determine impairment.

Examples include physical impairment such as sediment, chemical impairment from any number of things but likely nutrient overload, and biological impairment such as fecal coliform bacteria. The standard for any given water body is not uniform but depends on the designated use of said water body.

The highest standard involves extraordinary resource waters, drinking water and water where there is primary (swimming) and/or secondary (wading, fishing) human contact. At the other end of the scale would be cooling water for industry. The objective of the standards is always to protect both human health and the environment in the least restrictive way.

Problems occur when these objectives clash. The ADEQ recently released its 2018 draft 303(d) list and for the first time, a section of the Buffalo National River was listed as impaired. A section of our national treasure and a tributary, Big Creek, are impaired due to elevated E. Coli (bacterial contamination) and low Dissolved Oxygen.

Notably, the area of impairment is adjacent to the controversial C&H hog farm. This farrowing operation raises several thousand hogs a year. Although the farm itself is locally owned the hogs are raised under contract with Brazilian giant JBS S.A, the world’s largest processor of beef and pork. The farm generates about two million gallons of feces and urine annually which is temporarily stored in lagoons before being sprayed on surrounding pasture and hay fields.

The farm was originally permitted by the ADEQ in 2012 and controversy was immediate. Opponents of the farm claimed that there was little to no public notice as required by ADEQ regulations. The farm was shortly thereafter sued for failure to conduct a proper Environmental Assessment (AE) as required by the US EPA.

Upon expiration of their initial permit, a renewal was requested. This was denied and to this date, the farm has been allowed to continue operations during their appeal of the permit denial.

The State has taken several steps to study the issue. First was a scientific group, the Big Creek Research and Extension Team, BCRET funded by the Governor’s office. This study was begun by Governor Beebe and continued by Governor Hutchinson.

More recently created is a type of public interest group, the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee, BBRAC. This ad hoc committee created by Governor Hutchinson is comprised of the heads of several state agencies.

In a considerable irony, this committee which was created for the sole purpose of addressing the clamor surrounding the hog farm, decided not to include the farm in its purview. At the last public meeting of BBRAC, a member of the audience commented that every one in the room was there because of the issue surrounding the hog farm yet the action plan did not address the farm.

The declaration of impairment of a 14-mile segment of the river and an adjacent tributary is a black eye for the state of Arkansas for its failure to protect the watershed of the Nation’s first federally protected river.

Trump, Military at Cross Purposes

Recently, President Trump without acknowledging the actual name of the bill signed into law the “John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019.” The omnibus military spending bill outlines how over 700 billion dollars will be spent by the Pentagon. A number of interesting expenditures will address Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) which continues the trend begun by President Obama to ready the military for the effects of global warming.

Language in the bill calls attention to sea level rise and the impact on coastal areas of erosion and possible contamination of drinking water via salt intrusion. Currently, the Naval Academy in Maryland is experiencing increased flooding due to storm surges. The bill specifies that for any new military construction in a 100-year floodplain, the design must include an additional two feet above previous base flood elevation.

Also in the bill is concern for the warming Arctic. The rapid warming has created an increased focus on the north pole as a theater of concern. Both China and Russia have shown increased military activity in the area. Whereas Russia has a fleet of twenty-five icebreaker vessels, the US has only two. Six new icebreakers will be funded in the bill.

A recent Pentagon study discusses not only the ravages of sea level rise but also the effects of drought, wildfires, heat stress, and other extreme weather events at US bases here and around the world. Increasing calving of glaciers means an increase threat of icebergs. A warmer climate is increasing the spread of insect disease vectors which will impact military personnel.

At the same time that Congress is funding military concern for AGW, the white house continues to deny. During the 2016 presidential campaign then-candidate Trump famously decried concern for global warming and climate change by calling it a Chinese hoax, cooked up to make us spend money unnecessarily and thereby put us at an economic disadvantage. As president, Trump has acted on his belief by working to roll back regulations meant to address AGW.

President Trump’s position flies in the face of the global scientific consensus. Every scientific body around the world has agreed that AGW is real and needs to be addressed. Every government around the world agrees and has signed on to a collective effort to address AGW, with the singular exception of the world’s largest economy, the United States. Actually, we are signed on, but President Trump has expressed his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in 2020, the earliest possible date outlined in the agreement.

The regulations being challenged are meant to reduce the use of fossil fuels which release greenhouse gases that contribute to AGW. Regulations include the Energy Star rating system, increasingly strict emissions standards for cars and light trucks, and the Clean Power Plan.

These absurd conflicting interests, military spending to mitigate AGW and President Trump’s actions to aggravate AGW, do harm to our economy and make us look foolish to the rest of the world. Just another day in Trump’s America.

Controlling Carbon

The United States is responsible for over 20 % of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, essentially Carbon Dioxide. Our 6 billion tons produced annually comes from electricity generation, transportation, and commercial uses of fossil fuels. There are numerous strategies to reduce carbon emissions, the simplest being energy efficiency and the substitution of wind and solar power for burning fossil fuels. Regulatory actions to reduce carbon emissions can take several forms.

Carbon emissions can be regulated via a tax. If energy production by burning coal, oil and natural gas becomes more expensive, use of carbon-free energy production will be favored. This is basically a national sales tax on carbon usage. The tax rate on carbon for the desired reduction of carbon emissions is adjustable, raising the tax rate would lower carbon emissions. The income generated from the tax could be used to increase energy efficiency via subsidies, thus lowering costs. Increased transportation costs could be at least partially offset through infrastructure improvements.

Rather than use the income from a carbon tax for public works, the tax could become revenue neutral with a fee and dividend approach. The increased cost of energy to consumers could be offset by an equivalent reduction in income taxes. A negative income tax would ensure that the poor aren’t disproportionately impacted. Alternately the income could be put in a trust fund which then would be returned directly to consumers via a monthly dividend.

Yet another approach to regulating carbon emissions is cap and trade. Basically, the government sets a maximum level of carbon emissions, the cap, then issues permits to emitting industries. The emission permits could be traded on an exchange. If company A wants to expand an emitting activity, they would have to go to the marketplace and buy additional permits. Company B could profit from increased efficiency by selling their unneeded emission permits. Total carbon emissions would be lowered as the maximum emission cap is reduced.

Both a cap and trade mechanism and a carbon tax can be an effective way of lowering carbon emissions as long as they provide a clear economic incentive to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Of the two cap and trade is more complex in its implementation but can better ensure target emission reductions are met.

For cap and trade, the costs are a little murky because that is determined by the trading market.
Carbon taxes are the opposite. The cost is clear but the amount of emissions reduction is iffy.

Some will argue that the government should not be picking winners and losers. This would be a fair argument except not including the external costs of burning fossil fuels gives it an advantage over cleaner alternatives. Added costs to burning fossil fuels can be thought of as a mechanism to include those costs and level the playing field.

The chance of doing anything to slow the train wreck of global warming seems unlikely with the current administration. In fact, just the opposite is occurring. Trump has stated his desire to undo many policies put in place by previous administrations such as fuel efficiency standards, the energy star rating system and President Obama’s clean power plan.

Iceland – Fire and Ice

When it comes to countries with the lowest dependence on fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – the hands-down winner is Iceland. Because of abundant rainfall, about 80 inches annually, and considerable topographic relief they are able to produce over twenty percent of there energy needs from hydropower.

More important however is the production of energy from geothermal heat, almost seventy percent of their usage. Much of this is harnessed to generate electricity but a considerable amount of the geothermally produced steam is process heat for industries and for district heating. The steam is delivered to much of the populated portion of the island via underground piping.

The availability of geothermal heat is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in terms of the energy available, but a curse do to volcanic activity. In 2010 Eyjafjallajökull erupted. The ash cloud disrupted air travel across Europe for several weeks. This was only a nuisance, but even larger eruptions have occurred.

In 924 CE a volcanic eruption was calculated to produce over 700 billion cubic feet of ash and lava. Human life was impacted only slightly as the island was only first settled in the 9th century, so the population was minuscule. Even today, the population is small for a nation, about 350 thousand. Compare that with the population of the urban area in and around Little Rock, Arkansas at over 400 thousand. Two-thirds of the population on this island the size of Ohio is in the capital, Reykjavik.

The most disastrous eruption was the event from June 1783 to February 1784. Rather than an eruption from one point, a volcano, a rift 15 miles long opened up and spewed lava, ash, and toxic gasses such as Sulfur Dioxide and Hydrofluoric acid. Ninety percent of livestock and twenty-five percent of the citizenry died immediately or over the next year due to starvation. Twenty villages were buried under lava.

All the geologic activity is due to Iceland’s straddling both the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. They are moving away from each other at the rate of nearly an inch a year. Tourists can stroll through the rift zone in Thingvellir National Park. You can even scuba dive in a lake with your hands in a narrow crevice, one hand on North America and the other on Eurasia.

On the opposite side of the globe these and the Pacific plate are colliding, one subducting under the other. This type of subduction causes the volcanoes in Alaska to Central America and western South America and earthquakes in both California and Japan.

Iceland, as the name implies is far north in the Atlantic. Reykjavik is the world’s most northerly national capital, a scant two degrees south of the Arctic circle. Considering just how far north it is, the climate is surprisingly moderate.

Along the coast, especially the south, the summertime highs are in the mid-fifties and winter lows only in the upper twenties to low thirties. The ocean current known as the Gulf Stream delivers warmer water from coastal Florida to moderate the climate in this otherwise northerly clime. The interior of the island is as expected, colder. Eleven percent of the interior is covered with glaciers.

Science Denial

The scientific perspective is that global warming is real, it is causing harmful changes to the climate, and it is caused by human activity. A strong majority of Americans believe the planet is getting warmer, and most believe that humans are the cause. A disconnect occurs however when Americans are asked about risk. When asked will global warming harm us, that majority gets much more narrow. When asked will global warming harm you personally, all of a sudden the majority disappears.

We know it’s happening and it might impact others but we don’t believe it is a risk to us personally. Like so much else, the political divide over global warming is widening. As time goes on Democrats and to a lesser extent independents are becoming more convinced of global warming while Republicans less so.

Numbers are slowly increasing over time and across the political spectrum that global warming will have an impact in the future. Not surprisingly there is a strong inverse correlation between age and belief in the risk of global warming. Younger generations express much more concern than their elders. Women are more concerned than men, and the more educated express more concern than the less educated.

Denial of scientific evidence has been around since, well, science. Denial is strongest when the evidence challenges a particular worldview. Evolution of life on earth, especially the part about humans, is still denied by a significant minority of the public. A lot of folks learn their religion long before they learn science and among some religions, evolution is anathema.

John Scopes wasn’t prosecuted for teaching the atomic weight of Carbon. He was prosecuted for teaching that humans have an ancestor in common with apes’ ancestors. This has always been misunderstood as humans evolved from apes.

Galileo wasn’t convicted of heresy for showing that gravitational acceleration was constant (his famous dropping of dissimilar sized balls from a tower in his hometown of Piza.) No, his sin was to challenge the orthodoxy of the church about the sun circling the earth. Work with his invention, the telescope, led him to accept and promote the Copernican view of a heliocentric solar system. It took the church over 350 years to admit that he was right.

Reasons for denial of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) range from simple ignorance to a purposeful deceit. Surely we puny humans can’t have an impact on the global climate (yes we can.) There is no way we could know what the temperature or atmosphere was like millions of years ago (yes we can.)

Slightly more sophisticated, but equally wrong, are some pseudoscientific arguments. One is that volcanoes emit much more Carbon Dioxide (CO2 ) than human activities, therefore it isn’t our fault. Nope, humans produce orders of magnitude more. A true, but immaterial statement is that water vapor in the air absorbs more heat than CO2 . The amount of water in the atmosphere is dependent on the temperature hence it is a result, not a cause of warming.

So why all the denial? H L Mencken put it nicely: “It is the nature of the human species to reject what is true but unpleasant and to embrace what is obviously false but comforting.”

Dark Skies

The Russellville City Council has recently taken a look at providing lighting for the four interstate interchanges. Studies show that the incidence of nighttime accidents can be reduced by better lighting. A study in Minneapolis showed that the ratio of nighttime to daytime automobile accidents at intersections is reduced by twelve percent by providing intersection lighting.

The Council approved half a million dollars for the project. To illuminate the entire interstate corridor through Russellville would cost on the order of two million dollars. Reducing accidents is a good thing but it comes at the cost of dark skies.

NASA has published numerous composite photos showing just how illuminated the planet really is. The eastern half of the United States, the west coast, western Europe, Japan, even India are clearly outlined by lighting. In one photo from over a decade ago, Russellville shows its own little speck on the nighttime.

With the exception of the extremes of the polar regions and the abyssal plains in the ocean, all life is adapted to regular day-night cycles. Disruption of the circadian rhythm enforced by day-night cycling can have effects on everything from plants to humans, especially humans.

Franz Halberg in 1959 coined the term circadian, from the Latin words “circa” (about) and “dies” (day). The rhythm is provided by the day-night environmental cue, called “zeitgebers, ” German for time givers. Time rhythms in animals are entangled with biochemistry through the production of the hormone melatonin produced by the pituitary gland.

Although sales of melatonin as a sleep aid is a multi-million dollar business, there is scant evidence of any effect. At least when properly controlled studies are considered. What there is strong evidence of is the untoward effects disruption of the circadian rhythm on humans.

Disrupted circadian rhythms due to shift work have long been known to have negative consequences. Elevated health threats include cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, ulcers, and depression. Most obvious is the increase of work-related accidents from shift work schedules.

Light pollution is not a new phenomenon, records from the 1800s describe birds flying into lighthouses. A current problem is bird kills from illuminated buildings and especially cell towers.

Among insects, two effects have been observed. Nocturnal pollinators are less effective as artificial lighting confuses the pollinators and makes finding the flowers more difficult. Additionally, predators such as bats find easy pickings among the confused nocturnal insects.

The advent of Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) has made the problem of light pollution worse for two reasons. Because LEDs produce light more cheaply, their use is expanding. Also, the wavelength of light produced by LEDs seems to cause greater behavioral changes in animals compared to the Sodium Vapor lights used for street lighting until recently.

The city council should think long and hard about just how much light is needed and what type of lighting is employed to minimize negative environmental effects.

Seas are Rising Faster

Predictions about global warming by the experts come in three flavors. First, the warnings we are being given are overblown and we need do nothing. Option two is that the warnings are real and we need to act to mitigate climate change. Option three is that scientists are being conservative about their predictions and things are actually worse than predicted. By worse, I mean all the negative outcomes are getting worse faster than anticipated.

By one measure, sea level rise, it appears that option three is in the works. The previous predictions as to the rate of sea level rise seem to have underestimated the actual rate. Scientific studies conducted around the world show that sea level rise over the past century amounted to about a 19 centimeter (7.5 inches.) Recent studies show however that the rate of rise is quickening.

The rate of rise for the 20th century was 1.7 millimeters (mm) per year. Since 1993, however, the observed rate is 3.2 mm per year. At this rate sea levels will rise over a foot this century. People alive today will oversee hundreds of thousands of people driven from their island homes in the South Pacific. Possibly millions more in low lying coastal areas such as Bangladesh will become displaced, exacerbating the problems of human migrations.

The above is predicated on sea level rise being constant throughout the 21st century. There is no indication that that is true. Sea level rise is accelerating. Rates observed today will increase in the future. That foot of rise will be happening much sooner than the end of this century. This is a real existential threat to people everywhere, not only those displaced but also to those who have to deal with the displaced migrants.

The threat is not just from submerged land, higher tides and storm surges can cause salt infiltration which threatens fresh water supplies and cropland. The rest of the world recognizes this and has begun to act. The governments of every nation on earth came to an agreement as to the actions needed, essentially the decarbonization of economies. We here in the United States, however, decided not to participate. Even though we represent only five percent of the world’s population, we produce almost a quarter of the world’s pollution.

Rather than lead the world with our science and technology in finding sustainable energy solutions, we go blithely on our way dragging the rest of the world down.

The issue is real, the science is sound, and settled. Science is not infallible but it is self-correcting. There is not a global cabal of scientists lying to us. Science just doesn’t work that way. Yes, there are occasional errors and even outright fraud. We know this because of, you guessed it – science. Let me explain with a personal anecdote.

As a young graduate student studying the shapes of certain molecules, I noticed a significant error in the data of a senior scientist at another institution based on work I had done with related materials. I contacted him and to make a long story short, he wrote back thanking me for finding his error. How cool is that? A grad student gets to correct a senior scientist. That is the way science works, if you’re right you’re right.

Keep the Families Together

Yep, he went there. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the difference between the United States and the Nazis was that the Nazis were trying to keep the (Jewish) migrants in while his office is trying to keep (mainly Central American) migrants out. That’s a difference? Really? Keeping those fleeing persecution and violence IN or OUT is cruel in the extreme. It goes beyond inhumane, we treat our pets better. Who takes children from their parents as a threat, as a bargaining chip in negotiations over legislation?

President Trump has made numerous false and inflammatory claims in order to rally support for the construction of his border wall and the cruel treatment of migrants here already. He has claimed that we are being flooded with illegal migrants. The reality is that immigration has been down dramatically over the past couple of decades.

Trump has claimed that the immigrants are violent “murderers and rapists.” The reality is that immigrant populations are less violent not more than documented citizens. Yes, there are violent gangs such as MS-13, but they are the exception, not the rule. In science we have a saying, anecdotes are not a substitute for data.

Trump has disingenuously claimed that he hates separating children from their parents but must under the law. As several senior Republican Senators have pointed out, he could end his policy with a phone call. Separating children from their parents as a matter of enforcement is a policy, his, which could be ended in the blink of an eye.

Even though he claimed while campaigning in 2016 “I alone can fix the problem,” he continues to blame the Democrats for the law and even asks that they, the minority party, fix it.

He claims that the immigrants are here taking our jobs, yet unemployment is at a near all time low. His lies even cross oceans. He recently tweeted that due to Angela Merle’s immigration policy that crime in Germany is up, when in fact the crime rate is down.

Evangelical Christians are at the core of Trump’s support, all the while faith leaders are calling for an end to his inhumane policy of separating children from their parents. Leadership in the United Methodist Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the United States Catholic Bishops all recently said no to the policy.

With all the outcry from both left and right support for Trump’s policies remain strong even in the face of the knowledge that mistreating children is abhorrent. There seems to remain a level of racism in this country sensitive to claims that the immigrants aren’t people, they’re animals. Asylum seekers aren’t families, they’re murderers and rapists.

We should be working in Central America to to change the conditions which are driving refugees out of their homes to seek asylum within our borders. We should be working to assist asylum seekers, not tearing their families apart.

Have we forgotten that we are a nation of immigrants? We are over 325 million strong. We are ethnically, religiously, and politically diverse. We are arguably the most economically and militarily powerful nation on earth. Morally and ethically we can do better.

Bezoar Stones

Bezoar Stones also called mad stones, have a considerable history in American folklore. They were thought to have the power to treat or neutralize poisons or venoms in wounds. Those wounds may be from insect stings, poisonous plants, snake bites, and even the bites of rabid animals. Treatment consisted of simply holding the stone up against the wound.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac published a story about mad stones in a 2010 edition. The story referred to a number of instances dating to the 19th and into the 20th century where the stones were used for snake bites and especially bites from rabid dogs.

Also clear from these stories is that the stone only worked if obtained directly from an animal or was received as a gift. Buying and/or selling destroyed the power of the stone, and if stolen would actually cause harm to the thief.

Bezoars are usually golf ball sized concretions of hair and calcium salts taken from the gastrointestinal tract of ruminants. Farm animals such as goats and sheep and wild deer are often a source. Hair is difficult to digest, especially by ruminants. The material can persist in the gut of these animals for months to years. Gradually calcium salts bind to a wad of hair. Peristaltic action, the muscular churning in the GI tract, forces these masses in to the shape of a ball.

The name bezoar is taken from Persian, Padzahr. This word and the concept date to the classical period of Persia, around 500 BCE (Before the Current Era), or over 2000 years ago. The Persian word means “protective against poison” A Persian pharmacopeia of the time listed bezoars as effective in the treatment of not only insect stings and snake bites, they were also considered an antidote to various mineral and vegetable poisons.

By the 16th/17th century their purported efficacy had extended to treating diseases or conditions from epilepsy to smallpox and bubonic plague. Bezoars came to be prized possessions in Europe at the time. For one special use, the stones were encased in ornate gold cage-like containers complete with a several inch long chain attached. These could then be dipped into a goblet of wine for instance, to remove any and all added poisons.

Certain Europeans, Catherine de Medici, and Lucrezia Borgia to name just two were thought to be heartless poisoners who gained and held power by poisoning their political enemies. Poisoning at the time was somewhat of an art. Arsenic was often the poison of choice, and the better poisoners knew how to disguise the poison to make it less detectable.

Interestingly there is a good reason to think that in this particular case of poisoning by Arsenic, the bezoars may have worked to prevent poisoning. Nerd alert – chemistry digression. The physical composition of a bezoar includes hair, and hair is loaded with a class of chemical compounds known as sulfides. The presence of sulfides makes for the foul odor when hair is burned. More importantly however, the sulfides are known to chemically bind to many heavy metals including Arsenic.

For a goblet of wine with Arsenic, adding the bezoar stone could adsorb the poison. Remove the stone and remove the poison.