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Disaster And Dishonesty

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The recent earthquake in Japan caused one of the worst nuclear accidents in history.  At the aptly-named Fukushima nuclear facility, two reactors (#1 and #3) reportedly experienced “partial meltdowns” and hydrogen blasts while a third (#2) experienced “cooling problems”.  Since the Fukushima nuclear crisis began, we were given spotty, uninformative reports about the extent of the damage to the critical equipment, despite assurances that the “reactor vessels remain intact”.  The video depicting the explosion of the containment building for reactor #1 immediately raised questions about the risk of radiation leakage.

Within minutes after the earthquake struck, we were informed about “an incident” at Fukushima reactor #1, involving “overheating”.  We later learned that people within a 6-mile radius of the plant had been evacuated.  Shortly thereafter, the evacuation zone was expanded to 12 miles, resulting in the evacuation of 180,000 people.  Because the cooling systems for reactors #1 and #3 were not operating properly, it became necessary to pump in sea water to cool the fuel rods.  Despite government assurances that there had been no radiation leakage hazard, we later learned that there had been deliberate releases of reactor steam containing radioactive cesium.  The Union of Concerned Scientists provided this bit of information about cesium:

Cesium-137 is another radioactive isotope that has been released.  It has a half-life of about 30 years, so will take more than a century to decay by a significant amount.  Living organisms treat cesium-137 as if it was potassium, and it becomes part of the fluid electrolytes and is eventually excreted.  Cesium-137 is passed up the food chain.  It can cause many different types of cancer.

The news reports concerning the nuclear facility often seemed idiotic.  One article began with an explanation that the explosion at reactor #1 damaged the containment building only, causing the roof to blow off.  Later in the story, we were assured that although a “partial meltdown” may have been taking place within the reactor core, the reactor vessel remained intact.  Then came the remark that even if the reactor vessel began to leak radioactivity, the containment building would prevent the dissipation of those contaminants into the atmosphere.  The reporter apparently forgot about the statement a few paragraphs earlier that the containment building no longer had a roof.  Whoever wrote that story did an obvious, “cut and paste job” without realizing that the reassuring remarks about the containment building were no longer valid.  This was typical of the sloppy reportage of the Fukushima predicament.   .  .  . But hey – it was a weekend! Another tactic frequently employed in the lame coverage of the radiological situation would involve beginning a report with a stale factoid about reactor cooling problems and shifting the focus of the story over to the earthquake itself or to the tsunami.

A good deal of the frustration experienced by those attempting to ascertain the status of the potential nuclear hazards at Fukushima, was obviously due to the control over information flow exercised by the Japanese government.  I began to suspect that President Obama might have dispatched a team of Truth Suppressors from the Gulf of Corexit to assist the Japanese government with spin control.  An article by Norimitsu Onishi, Henry Fountain and Tom Zeller Jr. of The New York Times provided this history of how nuclear power hazards have been handled in Japan:

Over the years, Japanese plant operators, along with friendly government officials, have sometimes hidden episodes at plants from a public increasingly uneasy with nuclear power.

In 2007, an earthquake in northwestern Japan caused a fire and minor radiation leaks at the world’s largest nuclear plant, in Kashiwazaki City. An ensuing investigation found that the operator — Tokyo Electric — had unknowingly built the facility directly on top of an active seismic fault.  A series of fires inside the plant after the earthquake deepened the public’s fear.  But Tokyo Electric said it upgraded the facility to withstand stronger tremors and reopened in 2009.

Last year, another reactor with a troubled history was allowed to reopen, 14 years after a fire shut it down.  The operator of that plant, the Monju Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor, located along the coast about 220 miles west of Tokyo, tried to cover up the extent of the fire by releasing altered video after the accident in 1995.

Such a track record suggests that the lack of information concerning the Fukushima episode is the result of a lack of probity.

Nevertheless, after an entire weekend of attempting to find out what was transpiring in Fukushima, I finally came across an informative article by Thomas Maugh of the Los Angeles Times.  Here is the answer to the question no other media outlets were willing or able to address:

The worst that could happen if all cooling stopped is that the fuel would melt and fall to the floor of the containment vessel.  The containment vessel is designed to hold the hot fuel in, but the type of nuclear reactor in danger at the Fukushima plant —General Electric Mark One boiling water reactors — has been widely reported to have a vulnerability in its design that would let the fuel burn through the floor of the vessel.  If that happened, radiation could spread through the environment, but on a much more limited basis than happened at Chernobyl, where there was no containment vessel and the core contained graphite that burned, dispersing radioactivity widely. A massive plume of radioactive smoke and ash could spread from the site, exposing people for miles away, depending on the wind and weather.

Most news outlets provided us with “answers” from know-nothing politicians such as Chuck Schumer who — when asked about the future of nuclear power in America — seized the opportunity to trumpet the bogus narrative about “foreign oil”, despite the fact that oil is not used to produce electricity.

We are witnessing the hazardous consequences of entrusting unreliable individuals with authority over the use of nuclear reactors.  It’s not looking good.


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Debunking Oil Industry Propaganda

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The political crisis in Egypt is being used by tools of the oil industry to – once again – put the scare into people about our dependence on “foreign oil”.  Stephen Moore was on Fox News talking-up the old “drill baby, drill” sentiment on February 2, lamenting our lack of “energy independence”.  I just wish Moore would restrict himself to a diet of Gulf shrimp.  I doubt whether it would change his mind, although it might make him more fun to watch on television as the hydrocarbons gradually work their karmic magic.

The myth of “foreign oil” is one of my pet peeves for several reasons – not the least of which is the fact that the one foreign oil company, which has done the most harm to the United States is British Petroleum, rather than some enterprise from the Middle East.

Much as been written to dispel the myths of “foreign oil” and “energy independence”, although the spokestools of the oil industry do all they can to pretend as though such information does not exist.  Take for example, the essay written by David Saied for the Ludwig von Mises Institute entitled “America’s Economic Myths”, wherein he debunked the myth of “dependence on foreign oil”:

This myth basically suggests that the problem with oil prices is due to America’s “dependence” on foreign oil.  One of the worst economic myths, it plays on economic nationalism and on xenophobic feelings that are sometimes pervasive in the United States.

The high price of oil has nothing to do with its origin; the price of oil is determined in international markets.  Even if the United States were to produce 100% of the oil it consumes, the price would be the same if the worldwide supply and demand of oil were to remain the same.  Oil is a commodity, so the price of a barrel produced in the United States is basically the same as the price of a barrel of oil produced in any other country, but the costs of labor, land, and regulatory compliance are usually higher in the United States than in third-world countries.  Lowering these costs would help increase supply.  Increasing supply, whether in the United States or elsewhere, will push prices lower.

Importing a product does not mean you “depend” on it.  This is like saying that when we “import” food from our local supermarket we “depend” on that supermarket.  The opposite is usually true; exporters depend on us, since we are the customers.  Also, importing a product usually means buying at lower prices, whereas producing in the United States often means consuming at higher prices.  This point is proven when we see the cheap imports we can purchase from China and the higher prices of many of these same products manufactured in the United States.  The amazing thing is that the protectionists claim, on the one hand, that America should be “protected” from cheap imports, but when it comes to oil, they say we should be “protected” from “expensive imported” oil.

Most, if not all, of the higher price of oil can be explained by the expansion of the money supply or the debasement of the dollar.  The foreign producers are not at fault; our national central bank is the culprit.

As a fan of the Real Clear Markets section of the Real Clear Politics website, I was pleased to see this recent commentary by John Tamny, wherein he had a good laugh at T-Bone Pickings for accidentally revealing the absurdity of the “energy independence” meme:

As this column has shown more than once, the price of a barrel of crude tends to revert to 1/15th of an ounce of gold, and as of Tuesday, oil’s price increase merely brought it in line with its historical cost.

*   *   *

Oil is oil is oil, and it’s a commodity whose price is discovered in deep world markets.

Canada is seemingly “energy independent”, but assuming ongoing Middle East uncertainty, its citizens will – like us – buy gasoline the price of which is based on the cost per barrel set in global markets.  Much as we might like to naively fantasize about walling ourselves off from international market realities, we’ll never be immune to the activities around the world that impact oil’s price.  Canada and its citizens won’t be either.

*   *   *

So while we can expect lots of breathy commentary about the need for energy independence in the coming weeks, particularly if Middle East unrest spreads, cooler heads will hopefully prevail.  The false God of independence will not wall us off from supply-driven increases, and more important, the waste of  human and financial capital necessary to achieve the silly notion would be far more economically crippling than any presumed supply shock could ever hope to be.

My own dream of “energy independence” involves owning an electric car, which I can recharge with a “solar power station” similar to what we see advertised on television – along with another “solar power station” to provide my home electricity.  “Energy independence” can only be achieved when American consumers are liberated from the tyranny of the oil companies and the power utilities.


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Balance Provokes Outrage

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December 13 marked the launch date for an organization named No Labels.  The group describes itself this way:

No Labels is a 501(c)(4) social welfare advocacy organization created to provide a voice for America’s vital center, where ideas are judged on their merits, a position which is underrepresented in our current politics.  No Labels provides a forum and community for Americans of all political backgrounds interested in seeing the nation move not left, not right, but forward.  No Labels encourages all public officials to prioritize the national interest over party interest, and to cease acting on behalf of narrow, if vocal, special interests on the far right or left.

Although No Labels has both a Declaration and a Statement of Purpose, you will find the most useful information about the group on its Frequently Asked Questions page.

As a political centrist, I found most of what I read at the No Labels website appealing enough, although I disagreed with a bit of it.  First of all, the group would have been more aptly-named, “No Polarization” since they aren’t really opposed to labels, as they explained:

We are never asking people to give up their labels, only put them aside to do what’s best for America.

Besides – I enjoy using labels to describe people.  Some of my favorite labels include:  corporatist, plutocrat, oligarch and tool.  Another statement on the No Labels website with which I disagreed was the following remark, from their Statement of Purpose:

We can’t seem to break our addiction to foreign oil.

I would suggest:  “We can’t seem to break our addiction to carbon-based energy sources.”  There is no such thing as “foreign oil”.  The so-called, “American” oil companies are all incorporated in the Cayman Islands and none of them pay income taxes to our government.  All of our oil comes from multinational corporations and it is commingled with “Muslim oil” and “Venezuelan Communist oil” at storage depots.  If the people from No Labels insist on treating us as idiots in the same manner as the two major political parties, they will deservedly fail in their mission.

I was particularly amused by the fact that so many people expressed outrage about the founding of No Labels.  The new organization managed to draw plenty of ire from an assortment of commentators during the past week and it made for some fun reading.  One of the “Founding Leaders” of No Labels is John Avlon of the Huffington Post.  He recently wrote this essay in response to spleen-venting by Rush Limbaugh on the right and Keith Olbermann on the left – both of whom expressed displeasure with the inception of the new association:

“If we do this right, we can discredit this whole mind-set of the ‘moderate center’ being the defining group in American politics,” said Rush.  “Because this No Labels group is going to end up illustrating what a fraudulent idea that whole concept of, ‘There are people who decide issue by issue.  On the left they like certain things, on the right they like certain things.’ ”

So Rush believes that there are no principled Americans who decide what they believe on different policies issue-by-issue.  For someone who talks about freedom a lot, he doesn’t have much faith in free will or free-thinking.  He doesn’t believe that Americans — especially independent voters — can consider themselves fiscally conservative but socially liberal.  You either walk in lockstep as a social conservative and fiscal conservative or you are a ‘hard-core liberal’ — libertarians, apparently, need not apply.

*   *   *

Keith Olbermann named No Labels one of the “worst persons in the world” last night (a badge of honor he gave to me earlier this year).  He called us “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” and “a bunch of fraudulent conservative Democrats pretending to be moderates and a bunch of fraudulent Republicans pretending to be independents.”  Again, there’s the impulse to divide and deny the legitimacy of anyone who doesn’t conform to a hyper-partisan view of politics.

Conservative columnist George Will provided this amusing bit of speculation that the entire effort might simply be a pretext for Michael Bloomberg’s Presidential ambitions:

Often in the year before the year before the year divisible by four, a few political people theatrically recoil from partisanship.  Recently, this ritual has involved speculation about whether New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg might squander a few of his billions to improve America by failing to be elected president.

Oh, snap!  Good one, George!

The strangest reaction to the kick-off of No Labels came from Frank Rich of The New York Times.  The relevant portions of Mr. Rich’s rant seemed to be based on the theme that the Republican-dominated 112th Congress will be intransigent and therefore, President Obama along with his fellow Democrats, must fight intransigence with intransigence.  This formula for gridlock would ultimately prove more harmful to Democrats than Republicans.

The Frank Rich diatribe was particularly bizarre because it rambled all over the place, with rants about people and subjects having nothing to do with No Labels.  Peter Orszag has no connection to No Labels.  So, why did Frank Rich go off on the wild tangent about Orszag, Citigroup and Scott Brown’s contributions from the financial sector as though any of them might have had something to do with No Labels?  Forget about what John Avlon told you concerning Keith Olberman’s putting No Labels on his “worst persons in the world” list.  According to Frank Rich, the entire No Labels effort is actually a “a promotional hobby horse for MSNBC”.  It gets weirder:  Rich believes that because a political consultant (Mark McKinnon) and a fund-raiser (Nancy Jacobson) are “prime movers” for No Labels . . .  therefore “No Labels itself is another manifestation” of the syndrome wherein “both parties are bought off by special interests who game the system and stack it against the rest of us.”  At this point, the only factoid I can find to support that allegation is the inclusion of the term “foreign oil” in the group’s Statement of Purpose.  So, I’ll keep an open mind.  Besides, I enjoy a good conspiracy theory as well as Jesse Ventura’s television program with the same name.  Nevertheless, it becomes difficult to stick with Frank Rich’s theory that by failing to seek re-election as Senator of Indiana, Evan Bayh deliberately “facilitated the election of a high-powered corporate lobbyist, Dan Coats, as his Republican successor”.  The fact that Bayh’s father, former Senator Birch Bayh, is a lobbyist is interposed to emphasize the likelihood that Evan will also become a lobbyist.  Is this discussion being offered to explain that Evan Bayh “stepped aside” to allow Dan Coats to become Senator because Bayh has a genetic pre-disposition to the “Lobbyist Code of Dishonor”?  If so, in what manner does this impact No Labels?  Guilt by association?

The animosity generated by this group’s stand against what it calls “hyper-partisanship” demonstrates that the opponents of No Labels are advocates of hyper-partisanship.  In the days ahead, it will be interesting to see who else speaks out to “give acrimony a chance”.


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The C Word

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June 8, 2009

I always find it amusing when politicians adopt the catch phrases and other expressions, obviously created by their lobbyist/puppeteers.  One of my favorites is “foreign oil”, as in:  “We need to end our dependence on foreign oil”.  Do they expect people to believe that Jesus made our oil different from that “Muslim oil”, which causes air pollution?  The expression:  “foreign oil” is obviously being used to vilify Arab countries for last year’s inflated gasoline prices, caused by oil speculators and American oil companies.  (Let’s not forget the price gouging by gasoline retailers.)  Most Americans realize that we have a serious problem with our dependence on petroleum products and, more generally fossil fuels, including coal, as sources of energy.  According to a March, 2009 Gallup poll, 60 percent of Americans are “worried a great deal or fair amount” by global warming.  Although this is down from last year’s 66 percent, 76 percent of Americans are “worried a great deal or fair amount” by air pollution itself, independent of the global warming consequences (according to the same poll).

Attention is increasingly focused on the concept of “clean coal” as an energy source.  In his February 24 address to the Joint Session of Congress, President Obama made it clear that he supported Congressional financing of the development of “clean coal” as a viable energy source.  The timing seemed intended to coincide with the aggressive advertising campaign against “clean coal”.  In case you’re wondering just what “clean coal” is  .  .  .  Ben Elgin wrote an article for Business Week last year, entitled:  “The Dirty Truth About Clean Coal”.  Here’s some of what he had to say:

The catch is that for now — and for years to come — “clean coal” will remain more a catchphrase than a reality.  Despite the eagerness of the coal and power industries to sanitize their image and the desire of U.S. politicians to push a healthy-sounding alternative to expensive foreign oil and natural gas, clean coal is still a misnomer.

*    *    *

Corporations and the federal government have tried for years to accomplish “carbon capture and sequestration.”  So far they haven’t had much luck.  The method is widely viewed as being decades away from commercial viability.  Even then, the cost could be prohibitive:  by a conservative estimate, several trillion dollars to switch to clean coal in the U.S. alone.

Then there are the safety questions.  One large, coal-fired plant generates the equivalent of 3 billion barrels of CO2 over a 60-year lifetime.  That would require a space the size of a major oil field to contain.  The pressure could cause leaks or earthquakes, says Curt M. White, who ran the U.S. Energy Dept.’s carbon sequestration group until 2005 and served as an adviser until earlier this year.  “Red flags should be going up everywhere when you talk about this amount of liquid being put underground.”

*    *    *

Companies seeking to build dozens of coal-fueled power plants across the country use the term “clean coal” liberally in trying to persuade regulators and voters.

Needless to say, President Obama’s advocacy on behalf of the “clean coal” lobby has outraged more than a few people.  Will Harlan wrote an article for the March 20 edition of Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine, entitled:  “The Dirty Truth Behind Obama’s ‘Clean Coal’ Stimulus”.  In addition to addressing the problems yet to be overcome with carbon capture, as well as the problems associated with mountaintop removal mining, sludge spills, dam breaches, poisoned wells, skyrocketing cancer rates, childhood asthma, premature deaths, slurry ponds, coal ash waste and mercury emissions, Harlan pointed out that:

Obama has also committed to reviving a boondoggle coal facility that even the Bush Administration decided to kill:  the FutureGen Carbon Capture and Storage Plant, which just happens to be located in Obama’s home state of Illinois.  Even though the facility costs have soared well beyond budget, and it is nowhere close to developing cost-effective technologies to safely capture and store carbon, Obama continues to support it.

Why are we letting Obama get away with greenwashing coal by perpetuating the “clean coal” myth?  The Democrats received close to $1 million in “contributions” in 2008 from the coal mining industry.  And southern Illinois is part of the country’s coal belt.

Eugene Robinson deserves a hat tip for his June 5 Washington Post column, criticizing Obama’s stance on this issue.  The strongest point made by Robinson was the cost/benefit analysis:

The Obama administration is spending $2.4 billion from the stimulus package on carbon capture and storage projects — a mere down payment.  Imagine what that money could do if it were spent on solar, wind and other renewable energy sources.  Imagine if we actually tried to solve the problem rather than bury it.

It should come as no surprise that the Greenpeace website would feature an essay, critical of “clean coal” with the following conclusion:

“Clean coal” is an attempt by the coal industry to try and make itself relevant in the age of renewables.  Existing CCTs do nothing to mitigate the environmental effects of coal mining or the devastating effects of global warming.  Coal is the dirtiest fuel there is and belongs in the past.  Much higher emission cuts can be made using currently available natural gas, wind and modern biomass that are already in widespread use.  Clean, inexpensive.  This is where investment should be directed, rather than squandering valuable resources on a dirty dinosaur.

Nevertheless, what does come as a surprise is that the very same article quoted above appears on Barack Obama’s Campaign for America website.  In case you’re wondering how to reconcile that point of view with Obama’s enthusiasm for “clean coal”, you have to read the disclaimer appearing at the end of the article on the Campaign for America site:

Content on blogs in My.BarackObama represents the opinions of community members and in no way should be interpreted as endorsed or approved by the campaign.

In other words:  “Don’t be dumb enough to believe that President Obama is really going to support anything you read here”.

In his June 4 opinion piece for The Washington Post, E.J. Dionne observed how the media are:

… largely ignoring critiques of Obama that come from elected officials on the left.

This was brought home at this week’s annual conference of the Campaign for America’s Future, a progressive group that supports Obama but worries about how close his economic advisers are to Wall Street, how long our troops will have to stay in Afghanistan and how much he will be willing to compromise to secure health-care reform.

To the objective observer, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Barack Obama is as much of a hypocrite as any other politician who found his way to the White House.