Clouding the Debate

Amid the conservatives blaming the oil spill on Obama and liberals blaming it on America’s auto addiction, journalist Robert Samuelson gets it right, noting that one of the most worrisome consequences of the Gulf oil spill is a “more muddled energy debate.” All the proposals to end oil consumption, such as one to convert the U.S. to 95 percent renewables by 2050, are mere “pipe dreams,” says Samuelson in a possibly unintentional pun.

Of course, some people think we should build huge wind farms. But winds are so unreliable that Britain is paying wind farms to stop generating electricity when the wind is blowing because the electrical grid can’t handle it. (Winds in many places blow harder at night when demand for electricity is lowest.)

Meanwhile, someone from the Associated Press actually wrote a non-hysterical article about the oil spill. “The Mississippi River pours as much water into the Gulf of Mexico in 38 seconds as the BP oil leak has done in two months,” says the reporter. “The amount of oil spilled so far could only fill the cavernous New Orleans Superdome about one-seventh of the way up.”

Moreover, notes the Straight Dope, oil is biodegradable and nature will take care of most of the spilled oil. I don’t want to minimize the environmental problems with the spill, which are real, but we shouldn’t exaggerate them either. Nor should be base energy policy on a single event.

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25 thoughts on “Clouding the Debate

  1. the highwayman

    “Of course, some people think we should build huge wind farms. But winds are so unreliable that Britain is paying wind farms to stop generating electricity when the wind is blowing because the electrical grid can’t handle it. (Winds in many places blow harder at night when demand for electricity is lowest.)”

    Battery banks?

  2. bbream

    Antiplanner,

    In what I believe is your third post on the oil spill, you still have yet to offer any details about the process of the clean up. You’ve always asserted that we will clean up the oil and the environment will recover (which, frankly, I’m not sure if I agree with–the environment might recover but certain species might not, and I think that merits some attention), but you’ve never said who will be responsible for the clean up. Are you frustrated with the federal government’s response? Do you think states should have more flexibility in trying different methods? Do you agree with the $20 billion escrow account to help pay for damages? PLEASE offer some details. I think you’ve set up the precedent of avoiding general platitudes like “economic development will come if we build a streetcar,” and I am likewise dissatisfied with your statement that “we” will clean up the oil.

    And for the record, this quote comes from the Straight Dope article: “Who or whatever deserves the credit, most of the Exxon Valdez spillage did eventually disappear. Not all of it, though — biodegradation has its limits. Oxygen is key in much bacterial action, and once oil gets buried under sediment things really slow down. …Do oil spills mostly go away on their own? Yes. Does that mean we’re better off leaving them alone? Of course not.” So what do you think we should do and who should be responsible for it? I know BP has the containment cap in place, but is that enough for you?

  3. Dan

    I guess if someone’s self-identity is tied to autocentrism, one would expect apologia.

    And how strange that we don’t see any mention of the technological wonderment and free-market** research into renewable energy storage.

    Its coming, if one believes that technology is the answer. If you don’t think humans are smart enough to figure it out (despite mouthing that markets are the answer) then we are in trouble.

    DS

    ** http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/article/2008/06/storage-boosts-the-power-of-renewable-energy-52716

  4. Scott

    Petroleum is used a lot more than just for personal vehicles.
    Consider electricity (small), goods transport (planes, trucks & trains), plastics, toiletries, chemicals, fertilizer.

    So, car use is not large.
    A guess would be <20% of oil consumption.
    Anybody have stats on that?

    Regardless, if one were to avoid any items where accidents happen in deaths & enviro damage, then nothing would be left.

    Hunting & gathering only, is the final solution for most types of extreme enviro thinking.

    If it wasn't for enviro-selfism & NIMBYism, there would not need to be drilling in deep water.

  5. ws

    You’re right, alternatives are pipe dreams.

    But you’ve been fighting realistic solutions to our oil consumptive habits by promoting automobile transportation and sprawl policies, all the while flat-out denying that these forms of living/transportation are huge energy consumers by muddying the waters with false logic and cherry picked data.

    You’re part of the problem, whether you want to deny it or not.

  6. Borealis

    The funny thing about “sprawl” is that people recognize it has problems, but they overwhelmingly vote with their feet for “sprawl” over most planning dream alternatives. There have been hundreds of subsidized “demonstration communities”, but they never seem to get replicated when they had to pay their own way. Why is that? Why can’t all the intellectual power of universities design a better landscape then sprawl that can actually exist without totally re-engineering society?

    In the current era, “sprawl”, “big box stores”, and “strip malls” have indisputable overwhelming success. You can easily criticize it and hate it, but that is what the real world generates. It might hurt the elite intellectual class, but billions of people making their own judgments of what is valuable to their lives. It is hard to predict except in hindsight. But it is pretty clear that people have voted with their feet. Democracy and freedom does not equal logical and intellectual decision making.

  7. bennett

    Borealis said: “The funny thing about “sprawl” is that people recognize it has problems, but they overwhelmingly vote with their feet for “sprawl” over most planning dream alternatives.”

    The funny thing about antiplanner perceptions of “sprawl,” is that it is somehow antiplanning. Many of the “sprawl” communities are actually “master planned communities” and “planning dream alternatives,” many of which are not high intensity, do not exist because of euclidean zoning schemes and growth management plans.

    Sprawl is not a product of unfettered free markets, it’s a product of top down government planning. Y’all are not “antiplanners.” You are Anti-stuffwedon’tlikers. I suppose we all are.

  8. ws

    Borealis:

    I don’t think you can hold up auto-sprawl-suburbia as a complete success as you are. It’s not a tested way of developing and is quite new in terms of the entire history of civilization. It has not stood the test of time yet and is so nascent. Urbanism and cities have lasted for some time and are proven examples and patterns of development. Every advanced civilization, to an extent or another, builds in similar patters and we have only deviated from those patterns greatly only in the last few years of them.

    Auto-centric sprawl has been around for 60 years or so. Even if this model of development “crashed and burned” 30 years down the road from now, it would still be considered a complete failure as it is a mere blip in the history of all human civilization and development.

    It will be interesting to see what the future holds for suburbia/sprawl in the wake of changing times we have experienced just in the last three years alone (energy crisis and financial crisis). A lot of has happened in just three years! Do you really think strip malls are going to be around much longer, let alone getting financing for new ones?

    I sure don’t.

    Meanwhile, I conjecture we’ll still be building in our cities and sticking to the tried-and-true methods of urbanism as we have for many years now no matter how many technological advances we come up with. That right there shows what we value as humans. Suburbia is ephemeral imo. Urbanism has just taken a slight hit in recent years, but it’s coming back.

  9. Scott

    Additionally, for oil consumption, don’t forget that most (2/3 ?) of public transit uses diesel. Natural gas for vehicles is expensive & still has emissions & is extracted with petroleum. About 3/4 of electricity comes from fossil fuels.

    For energy per passenger-mile, vs.cars, public transit does not have much advantage, some routes do worse.
    In increasing ridership, energy efficiency will worsen, most likely, because riders/vehicle-mile will lessen, due to increasing the route frequency & area coverage.

    Low density (aka derogatory “sprawl”), created mainly because of gov, is ridiculous. For just one thing, about any suburb has multi-family dwellings. The low density is not primarily because of large yards; many suburbs have plenty of nature & undeveloped areas.

    Consider density levels. For mass transit, the daytime population density needs to be above ~15,000, for the core city, which might be, roughly, on avg, about 1/3 higher than the standard, living density.
    Less than 10% of the popultaion live at densities over 10,000.
    What density does sprawl start? 5,000? 8,000?
    All urbanized US land averages a density of a little over 3,000.
    The LA UA has a 7,000 density (most dense).
    Cram & jam people in, & many problems increase, particularly congestion.
    The “flight from blight” has many reasons.

    Many people like the many advantages of a more spacious lifestyle. With 80% of the US population living in UAs occupying <3% of contiguous states, land is not a problem.
    Low density exists in just about all countries.
    It's more prevalent in the US because of more land & more income.

    Do people really think that the preferred home has no yard, 4 adjacent units (sharing walls/floors).
    For houses, the median parcel size is 1/3 acre (based upon 2000 Census). The preference has got to be even higher, but money & availability limits yard size.

    I have not read any valid negatives for low density, only perceived & implied shortcomings.
    The lack of public transit is just a condition for low density.

    A fairly easy solution to reducing personal transport is to live close to one's job. That is not a priority though, & involves many trade-offs, including acceptable housing [to taste & income], & moving fairly often, etc.

  10. Borealis

    I explicitly said that “sprawl” has many problems. It is far from ideal and I won’t defend it as ideal. But if you step back and look at over the last few decades, it is inescapable that people overwhelmingly in many cultures, countries, continents, economic systems and tax systems chose that system of development.

    I don’t like Walmart, but it is inescapable that people overwhelmingly in many cultures, countries, continents, economic systems and tax systems choose Walmart. Yes, you can make many arguments as to why shouldn’t have the advantages they have. Just like you can make many arguments why any World Cup game should have ended differently. But there is only one real world.

    I completely agree with all the arguments that if the world was different, then there would be a different world. But in the one world where I live, there is clearly a preference by the masses. It may not be the most efficient or the Pareto optimum.

    But to the extent that the Antiplanner is fighting the ideas that “experts” should decide the aesthetics of development, and that “experts” should decide how much money should be extracted from people to produce those aesthetics, I support the Antiplanner. Real culture is chaotic, not an intellectual exercise of academics. Why would a government planner not spend more on aesthetics than the customers would want to spend?

    Walmart and “sprawl” defines our era. Love it or hate it, but don’t deny the overwhelming reality.

  11. Scott

    Self correction on negatives for low density:
    I inaccurately, semantically, tried to differentiate a “condition” from a “shortfall”. A “condition”, can obviously be +, -, or neutral, or even both.

    So, low density has basically one negative (for a few), lack of mass transit, which is a given. Other -s for some. However, most people don’t care & like to drive. Those that want transit, need to live in high density. Otherwise, it’s like demanding high precip in the desert. It’s unrealistic that mass transit can be widespread in low density & come close to the many benefits that cars offer.

  12. ws

    Borealis:

    I think if Walmart and “sprawl” defines our era, then Kunstler’s theory is right. We’ve created a country not worth defending. Are people going to risk their lives for a Walmart? Probably not. The arguments are beyond aesthetics, but aesthetics is more than just good looks, it shows what we value as people. And when what we value is hyper-consumption and absolute environmental degradation for very little in return to us and our habitats, then the questioning of aesthetics is vital to our existence.

    You also assume that people who live in suburbia-sprawl necessarily enjoy it as it is. Maybe they just enjoy a house and a yard and maybe the price it comes at and whatever else they get along with that isn’t necessarily something they approve of? Maybe they live in a crappy metro area with little in terms of urban life and their only decent option is the suburbs. I’m going to make assumptions here too: the typical suburbia dweller would enjoy their house and yard exponentially more if their neighborhood and suburb city were arranged in similar pattern and scale as typical traditional neighborhoods are.

    But the fact of the matter is, these ways of developing are illegal to even build!

    And as others mentioned, we don’t need to go back and forth ad-naseum about the cost of sprawl or its market forces. It’s expensive and the denizens do not pay 100% of its cost, and a litany of regulations or zoning dictates the built environment. Yes, there’s subsidized “example” TOD projects that cities throw their moneys at to correct for the homebuilder-bank-ownership society dominated “market” because no projects can get reasonable financing.

    Last I checked, the banker-homebuilders-ownership society took it on the chin and scammed an entire country with their greed into a downright recession (if not a depression).

  13. bennett

    ws said: to Borealis “You also assume that people who live in suburbia-sprawl necessarily enjoy it as it is.”

    I didn’t take that from his (I think Borealis is a he) position. He’s stating that people choose suburbia because they enjoy it more than the alternative, not that they wouldn’t change it if they could.

    I would submit that suburbia is often chosen because local governments effectively disallow viable alternatives through implementation of antiquated growth management and zoning policies. If it is elitism that creates smart growth and new urbanism, then it is elitism that created suburbia. Why is it when “experts decide the aesthetics of development…” that result in an “urban” form, antiplanners slam it as elitism, but when the experts decided on suburbia, twas the free market?

  14. Borealis

    It seems to me that what kind of city/neighborhood you want depends heavily on how much wealth you have. The discussion seems to be about what to do once a community has sufficient wealth to argue about. I don’t like Walmart, but if I lost my job I would shop there exclusively. If I have enough wealth to choose not to shop at Walmart, is it ethical to eliminate that option for others?

    I pretty much agree with bennett. If local governments effectively disallow viable alternatives through implementation of antiquated growth management and zoning policies, then I am against it. And I think bennett agrees with me that the most important aspect of policy is democracy tempered by very limited constitutional concerns. Democracy doesn’t result in the optimum outcome. It is deeply flawed in terms of making intellectual decisions, but it does result in undermining an elite forcing their view on the public. I could improve the design of most neighborhoods, but then again I am not paying for it.

    There are many niches that a smart planner can design a neighborhood that is better than democracy would produce. I admire and applaud that accomplishment. That niche can make planners very valuable. But I think designing a society should be a democratic process, with all the ugly, irrational process that the view entails. Democracy is terrible and irrational, but it is better than the alternatives.

  15. Scott

    There seems to be some preoccupation with WalMart.
    People like to shop for many products, at low prices. That can be done at Kmart & Target too. In the recent past, it was done more often at Sears & other department stores. So what? Large stores have many efficiencies & advantages.

    ws, Strip malls are endangered? Ridiculous.
    Put peoples’ shopping into 6 categories:
    1.online
    2.huge regional malls
    3.strip malls (~4 to 20 stores)
    4.big boxes
    5.small stores in hoods, mostly walk-ups
    6.stores in CBDs, many pedestrians, expensive parking

    You think that will go down to 5?
    People will only drive to large malls or downtowns?
    Or for some, walk to stores?
    Many people really value trunk space & even truck beds.

    Retail space is overbuilt, so there will not be much added for many years. It could even take 20 years to just re-gain the standard of living of 2006, based upon BO’s & the other statists’ path to destruction.
    See Cloward & Piven Strategy:
    http://boortz.com/nealz_nuze/2009/08/heard-of-professors-cloward-an.html
    http://frontpagemag.com/?s=cloward+piven
    http://www.examiner.com/x-25466-DC-Independent-Examiner~y2009m11d22-ClowardPiven-Government
    http://www.infowars.com/obama-the-cloward-piven-strategy-and-the-new-world-order/
    And Saul Allinsky:
    http://www.crossroad.to/Quotes/communism/alinsky.htm
    http://vcn.bc.ca/citizens-handbook/rules.html
    Rahm E-manuel even said ~”make crisis & make fundamental changes”
    Oh, I’m off-topic.

    So, what are the negatives for low densities? And how are those negatives eliminated in dense cities?
    There are only about 6 dense large cities.
    Are those cities great? Affordable? Have many extra benefits?
    NO! That’s a fail right there for the anti-sprawl.
    How do those 6 large cities “subsidize” the ~75% of people who live at low densities? (the difference at medium density)

    Back to oil. Connection to density?
    It’s a huge hoax that a lot of of oil is saved at higher density.

  16. ws

    Borealis:

    I don’t wish to ban something or limit people’s options to. I think it is acceptable for people, even libertarians, to question things on aesthetics. Aesthetics is important, among other things. That’s all I was trying to say in regards to that matter.

  17. the highwayman

    The Autoplanner; Moreover, notes the Straight Dope, oil is biodegradable and nature will take care of most of the spilled oil.

    THWM: With that said Mr. O’Toole, I hope the pipes in your house are lead.

  18. Dan

    I think it is acceptable for people, even libertarians, to question things on aesthetics. Aesthetics is important, among other things. That’s all I was trying to say in regards to that matter.

    And decent aesthetics doesn’t drive the unit price way up so only the snobbish elites can consume the product. Not hard to do decent design at all at the unit level, but it is hard to educate enough people to make competence widespread.

    DS

  19. Scott

    “Question things on aesthetics”?
    ??? WTF!?
    To what end?
    For what purpose?
    For buildings, if one does not like, don’t purchase/rent.
    Would a person be so picky that if a building is “unattractive”, not to shop or visit an office there?
    Is there a suggestion to mandate what looks good. Well, of course that is often done now.
    How much liberty is taken?
    How far will this go?
    People have to look good to appear in public?
    Only certain clothing & hygiene are allowed in public?
    Hey, things can be offensive? Overly sensitive people should stay home.
    Frickin statists get the hell out of here! Keep to yourself; don’t impose on others; your standards are not necessarily others.
    If you don’t like certain appearances, avoid.

  20. prk166

    “I’m going to make assumptions here too: the typical suburbia dweller would enjoy their house and yard exponentially more if their neighborhood and suburb city were arranged in similar pattern and scale as typical traditional neighborhoods are.” -ws

    Maybe it’s the people I hang out with but I don’t often here them wishing they could walk down to the store for a gallon of milk. I do hear them make a lot of comments about wishing for more space in their yard, wishing they didn’t have to be so close to that house next door cuz the neighbors that moved in are noisy, etc, etc. Maybe you’ve found things to be different? Either way, it seems like a pretty big assumption, an exponentially big assumption (sorry, couldn’t pass that up :) ), to be making and seemingly basing a lot of stuff on.

    “Last I checked, the banker-homebuilders-government-cheapMoneyFed-TheFannies-ownership society took it on the chin and scammed an entire country with their greed into a downright recession (if not a depression).” – ws

    Fixed your quote.

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