Monday, September 29, 2008

Bravo! European Diesels impress Consumer Reports; Diesels for U.S. Market on the Way

OK, car buffs. How would you like to drive a 2009 Audi A4 that has 236 horsepower, shove-you-back-in-your-seat acceleration of 369 lb-ft of torque and still get 36 miles per gallon? You would?

Better get on an airplane, then. This Audi isn't sold in the U.S. Neither is the 2008 Mini Cooper D, (the "D" stands for diesel), that gets 60 mpg, or a 2007 BMW 123d hatchback, another diesel, which gets 45 mpg. (These are European mpg ratings.)

In fact, in 2007, Europeans had a choice of 113 vehicles that got 40 mpg or better, according to a report from The Civil Society Institute's All were made either by U.S.-based manufacturers or those with substantial U.S. sales operations like Nissan and Toyota.  Many, if not most of these were diesels; half the new cars sold in Europe these days are diesels. 

The car wonks from Consumer Reports got to test-drive a sample of these European vehicles recently at the annual International Motor Press Association track days at Pocono Raceway, and they were mightily impressed. They gave the 2009 Audi the highest marks, and their only objection to the other diesels was that they weren't "quite as smooth as the best gas engines." 

I've been driving a 2002 Jetta diesel since 2004, when I bought it used. The advantage of a diesel like mine over hybrids like the Toyota Prius is that it has better acceleration and handles like a big car on an Interstate, keeping up with the traffic, at 80 mph. And gets 43 mpg all the while. (No, I'm not being paid by Volkswagen!) Hybrids like the Prius, which I've test-driven, are best in stop-and-go city driving, especially where the terrain is flat and the gas engine doesn't have to go to work. 

We've been languishing without new diesel car choices in the U.S. for years now, mainly because California's air resources board put human health over conservation, a position it's hard to argue with. In smoggy California, the pollution created by old-technology diesels, particularly emissions of tiny particles implicated as a cause of asthma, outweighed diesels' better mileage and lower emissions of carbon dioxide of about 20 percent. So they banned sales of new diesel cars in California, and when other big states like New York followed their example, the manufacturers stopped selling them even in states where they were not banned.

That's changing now as car manufacturers have finally met California's air quality standards. About a dozen new diesels are now available, according to the Diesel Technology Forum. Unfortunately, this group is heavily skewed toward high-priced luxury cars like the Mercedes E320 Bluetec, which will knock you back nearly $60,000 once you pay the taxes and other fees. And its fuel economy is only 23 mpg, city, and 32, highway.

The only reasonably priced model yet available is the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta, which gets 30 mpg, city, and 41, highway. (Compare that to 21 city, 29 highway for the gas version.) You also get a $1,300 fed tax credit if you are one of the first 60,000 people to buy the car.  But wait a year or so, and there will be a lot more choices.

Of course, diesel car fuel is now more expensive than gasoline. But the difference in price, at least in my corner of Long Island, New York, is no more than 15 percent. (About $4.55 a gallon versus about $4, or a bit less, for regular gasoline) Diesels extract a lot more than 15 percent more miles from a gallon, so you're still way ahead. Beyond the dollars, however, you'd also be conserving a great deal of oil and cutting CO2 emissions 20%. The same model car with a diesel engine instead of gas gets between 20 and 40% better mileage. Furthermore, diesel engines just run and run and run, often to 200,000 or 300,000 miles.

Of course, it was my hope that I'd be filling my car with truly clean biodiesel now; that prospect is what tipped me into buying my used Jetta. That hasn't happened yet because this alternative fuel is still scarce in my part of the world. But that's another story...

Friday, September 19, 2008

Who said being a citizen is easy?

I usually blog about newsworthy issues like liquid natural gas and offshore drilling. But not today. Here we are in the  final weeks of what seems like the most important national election of my lifetime, and people in my circle of friends are complaining that the political competition is tiring them out, confusing, or boring.

Usually they finish their complaint by asserting that it doesn't matter anyway, that whoever wins, it won't make a difference. 

I'm here to say, suck it up and stop copping out.

No one ever said it was easy being a citizen. 

Of course, no one ever really instructs us in what's expected of citizens of this great country. We take for granted that we not only get to vote, but also to write, phone, email our representatives if we so choose. Likewise, our ability to run for office, or, unwilling to take on the job ourselves, to support candidates we favor with our money and time. We even get to engage in public demonstrations--sometimes, these days fenced in by hostile police, sometimes beaten or arrested, but at least there's always an outcry when that happens and some resolution of the matter later on.

For comparison, just ask the people of China what it's like not to have the freedoms we citizens of America take so lightly. Start with the Chinese citizens who applied for permits to protest during the Olympics, and got arrested for just asking. Or the people of Myanmar, better known to us as Burma, where even outside aide to tsunami victims was blocked by the military government. I could go on...and on, but you get my point.

With Wall Street collapsing while the top executives walk away unscathed, with health care out of reach for so many, with our infrastructure falling down, a ruinous war still in progress, now is the time to make being a citizen a top priority in our lives. Above watching our favorite sports teams, tuning in reality shows, getting our nails done, shining the car, and any of the other optional diversions on which we spend time.

Now is the time to bother to listen carefully to the competing claims, and anyone who does look at the platforms of the Republicans versus the Democrats, or at Obama's resume and positions versus McCain's, will find it impossible to claim both will bring about the same future. Who gets elected matters, and I don't just mean who gets to be president, but who gets into the Senate and House of Representatives.

Inform yourself and then use the tools we have as citizens. Donate money to your favored candidates. Could be the best investment you'll ever make, one that might actually protect your portfolio and the Social Security benefits you hope will be there when you need them. Stop avoiding political discussions with your friends (how many times have I heard people stop conversations with the flat assertion--I never talk politics? Well, why not?) Such discussions help us clarify our thinking.

If you feel strongly, go make phone calls to voters in other states or otherwise assist in the campaigns. Or, go help with a voter registration effort.

Give it a try. You just might discover that this reality show has all the others beat.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Oil Industry PR Campaign Uses Phony Bin Laden Quote to Promote Offshore, Alaska Drilling

First they used a venerable civil rights organization, the Congress on Racial Equality, to attack efforts to reduce America's reliance on oil. Now they're using a phony quote from America's favorite terrorist, Osam bin Laden, to try to convince Americans that drilling off our coasts and in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge is patriotic. 

"They" are the oil industry folks behind Americans for American Energy (AAE), and they've been poisoning the Internet with broadcast emails full of lies. The bin Laden one hit my inbox today with the catchy headline: "Osama bin Laden says 'America must not drill for its own oil. They must be kept dependent on ours.' " 

Did bin Laden really say that, I wondered? So I phoned Greg Schnacke, who signed the email, and, by golly, he picked up the phone right away. Introducing myself as a journalist, I told him I'd received the email and would like to know the source of the quote.

"That's our view," he answered. But is it a quote, I asked? It's presented as one. "I'm very well aware of what we are doing," he said, finally adding, "It's not a quote."

Ahh. Ethics anyone? Obviously not at AAE which is funded by Pac/West Communications. Pac/West received a $3 million no-bid contract from the State of Alaska to campaign for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That bit of information comes from Source Watch, which monitors media frauds like this one.

This comes after another round of email publicity by AAE  for  a July rally in which the once proud civil rights organization, CORE, became a shill for the oil industry. Not caring that their action would actually hurt the people they supposedly represent, CORE's leaders attacked environmental groups as responsible for high energy prices. 
Tell me, can these people sleep at night? I'm all for asking them directly, so here's Greg Schnacke's phone number so you can call him up and ask him: 866-416-0659. It's toll-free, so dial away, folks. 

Friday, September 5, 2008

TV News Misleads About Offshore Drilling

Recent polls show that 51% of Americans believe that opening up coastal areas to offshore drilling would significantly lower gasoline prices. But the U.S. government agency that reports data on energy issues says it's not so, that the impact of new drilling would be minimal.

So how come so many Americans think otherwise? They heard it on TV,  in the mouths of their favorite newscasters.

 A study of transcripts of 267 news programs between June 16 and August 9 found that only one--that's right, just one-- bothered to mention that the Energy Information Agency (EIA) predicts that increased offshore drilling would have no significant effect on oil prices. At peak production in 20 years, the new wells would yield 200,000 barrels a day, two-tenths of one percent of world production.

The study of the newscasts was done by the Center for Economic & Policy Research, an independent, non-partisan think tank whose advisory board includes Nobel Laureate economists.

So what's going on here? Nothing less than an abdication of journalistic responsibility.

Reporting on the government prediction would have meant contradicting assertions by Republican presidential candidate John McCain that we urgently need to risk our coastal environment for the sake of more oil.  CNN, for example, mentioned the proposed drilling 139 times, but only once also bothered to mention the EIA forecast. None of the other broadcasts studied--ABC World News Tonight, NBC Nightly News, CBS Evening News, etc.--ever referred to it at all. 

Neither did Fox News, behind only CNN with 86 reports on the proposed drilling.

These newscasts treated the issue as simply open to opinion because the falsehood about the benefits of new drilling came out of the mouth of a man running for president. To have knocked him down would have incurred the wrath of Republican leaders with ready access to the owners of the major media. Rather than take any heat that might have come, the editors and anchors of these broadcasts simply sat on their microphones.

Remember that the EIA is like the Labor Department and the Federal Reserve, an agency that is non-partisan and whose mission is to gather information for everyone's benefit, including corporations. This is one of the legitimate reasons why we pay taxes, folks, so armies of bureaucrats can go out and collect data. We don't guess about the employment or inflation rates, and we certainly listen to the economic forecasts from agencies like the Federal Reserve. Energy forecasts are no different. 

It bears repeating that the most important function of the media is to provide the public with the information we need  to be engaged in the running of our democracy. That's why the founders of our country enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment. Shame on the TV newscasts for failing us so badly.