Archive for 2010 October

Why did Valero invest $5 million in Prop 23?

As part of a story I wrote a couple of weeks back on Prop 23, I looked briefly at the story from the perspective of Valero, the Texas oil company that has poured millions — five million, to be precise — into the initiative, which is intended to gut AB 32, California's Global Warming Solutions Act.

I wanted to try and understand why Valero backed the proposition, and why Chevron (and other oil companies with big operations in California, such as Shell and Exxon) had not.

This proved to be much more difficult than one might imagine, because oil company annual reports are eye-glazing, and — more importantly — because people in the oil business were reluctant to talk.

Despite repeated attempts, Chevron never returned my calls, for example. Valero did, but stuck relentlessly to their talking points, insisting it was all about the recession and jobs. But it became clear from looking at their annual reports, and from talking to experts at the Energy Information Administration, and players such as Fran Pavley, who drafted AB 32, as well as advocates at the Sierra Club and other non-profits, that not all oil companies are opposed to AB 32…only the refiners.

In the Los Angeles Times today, Chevron ran several large ads touting their work in renewable energy and in charity — implicitly saying that Chevron thinks it can succeed under AB 32 just fine.

Which returns us to the question: What was motivating Valero?

In today's paper, in the business section, an excellent story by the Times' climate change reporter, Margot Roosevelt, did look at the initiative from Valero's perspective. Evidently Chevron wouldn't talk to her either, but she cobbled together facts from what Valero reported to business analysts to get to the truth.

Here's the crux: 

First, Valero emits almost a million tons of CO2 a year just from its plant near Long Beach. This was omitted from the on-line version of the story, unfortunately, but here's the fact from the print edition:

For decades California authorities have have regulated the plant's air pollution, water pollution and hazardous waste, including such health-damaging substances such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides, along with toxic soot known as particulates. Now California is taking aim at the plant's 951,913 tons of carbon dioxide.

To reduce these emissions of CO2 will cost the company big bucks:

In fighting AB 32, Valero officials had suggested in the past that the cost of complying with the law could total $170 million a year for its two California refineries, in Wilmington and Benicia. But in the conference call with [financial] analysts, Valero acknowledged that the annual cost might be closer to $80 million.

And, as an expert at the EIA told me, because Valero doesn't drill for oil — although it does harvest oil from Canadian tar sands, and has invested in ethanol — it can't absord refinery costs as the giants can.

Unlike integrated oil companies such as Chevron Corp., Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon, which drill and distribute crude oil as well as refine it, independents such as Valero and Tesoro cannot spread costs across other operations.Through the first nine months of 2010, Valero has posted a profit of $762 million on revenue of $63.6 billion, after two calendar years of losses.

So a one-time investment of $5 million, versus $80 million to comply?

A drop in the bucket.

[pic of Valero's Wilmington refinery, from the story]


Note to reporter self: Next time you need facts on a business, go to business analysts.

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A journo’s complaint about websites

Joel Achenbach is touring college campuses with his daugher, and, no doubt, embarrassing her horribly. Here he rants memorably against a certain irritating habit of spokespeople:

…journalism [is] a field in which every query directed to a potential source draws the response, "You should look at our Web site." Many a time I have to tell people: I don't want to read your Web site, I want you to TELL ME WHAT'S GOING ON. I want you to use words, emitted from your mouth, directly to me, to onpass the information. I don't want to surf your incomprehensible Web site that won't actually tell me what I want to know and will leave out all the important stuff…You know? So don't ask me to read it anymore. TALK TO ME.

This message is best delivered face to face, I've noticed. Over the phone, not as effective. They can pull stunts on you, like hanging up suddenly, or, worse, putting you on hold, forever.

They're probably afraid of him. But it's true! Nothing is more irritating to a journalist than being told to look up something on the Web. It's like telling a cobbler he should consider the use of leather. 

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Global warming: Americans don’t like to think about it

Why have I been spending so much time on culture and not climate lately?

Because not only is the news discouraging, it seems American's can't handle the truth.

Take a look at this recent on-line poll from Scientific American. Yes, on-line polls are driven by the self-selecting and so untrustworthy. But as a snapshot of where the momentum is in the debate, this one seems defensible to me, and it's very bad news for those who see global warming as a problem.

The vast majority of the nearly 5000 respondents think global warming is the result of natural processes (76%). An even larger majority (82%) consider the IPCC — which has now issued four hugely detailed scientific portraits of a warming planet — "corrupt," "prone to groupthink," driven by a "political agenda." And nearly 80% will say they are willing to do exactly "nothing" to stop global warming.

You may say a vast horde of skeptics bum-rushed the poll, and probably that's true. But the results fit the pattern detected in a poll last year at this time by the Pew Research Center, which showed belief in global warming declining across the political spectrum:


Only liberal Democrats really thought in 2009 that global warming a very serious problem; Republicans largely doubted the very existence of the phenomenon, and more Independent voters doubted that there was such a thing as global warming (35%) than considered it a real problem (33%).

One bright note: my former editor at Grist, David Roberts, coined a new phrase for those of us concerned about the change in the planet: climate hawks. And super-popular blogger Matt Yglesias unfurls his writing skills to explain why it's such a good phrase:

What’s a climate hawk? Well of course much like a deficit hawk or a national security hawk or an inflation hawk, a climate hawk is tough-minded and awesome and entitled to worshipful media coverage. We’re very serious people who want to confront the major challenges of our time. Are we environmentalists? Perhaps. But many of us aren’t really “nature-lovers,” we just think it would be unfortunate if low-lying areas were flooded, while vast new regions of the earth are stricken with drought. We recognize that the particulate pollution from burning coal and the geopolitical consequences of oil dependence are both dire enough to make a compelling case for energy reform even apart from the greenhouse gas issue.

See, hawks are mean, and people respect meanness.

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Every song you’ve always wanted to hear covered (here)

Searching for a reliable guide to Neil Young covers, I stumble upon a wildly popular site that tracks all rock covers ever: Cover Me.

For music fans, this is not to be missed.

Are you unconvinced? You want an example?

Okay, how about a wonderful Wilco cover of a great song by Neil Young in his Buffalo Springfield days?

Here's the full list of Wilco covers from the site, including Broken Arrow, by this amazingly wide-ranging band, of originals from everyone from The Carter Family to T. Rex.

And here's the band, with guitar wiz Nels Cline lounging against an amp, and mastermind Jeff Tweedy about to sing from the bottom of his gruff heart.


The Web: un-freaking-believable. 


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Buffalo Springfield again — after forty-two years

This has to be some sort of rock and roll record: Forty-two years after breaking up in acrimony and bitterness, the band known as Buffalo Springfield reunited for Neil Young's annual Bridge School Concert in Mountain View, this weekend. 

They headlined the seven-hour, eight-band concert, and, remarkably, lived up to the billing, outshining excellent perfs by the likes of Pearl Jam, Elvis Costello, and Grizzly Bear. Although in retrospect some of the iconic band's songs — especially those by Richie Furay, who according to Rolling Stone is now a born-again pastor at a Colorado church — sound sugary, the band compensated by bringing new depth and balance to their better songs.

Especially good was a heartfelt new version of their first ever recording, Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing, with its characteristically Youngian blend of lyrical obscurity and compelling musicality. (Amazingly, according to Wikipedia, this was the first single they released…even though the all-knowing record producers wouldn't let Young sing his own song, declaring his voice too "weird.")

One odd note: although the band sounded tight, they appeared to have arrived from different universes. Young came from a 60's planet where men still wear enormous leather jackets with long fringe. Furay came from a clean-cut country planet, where men wear cowboy shirts. And Stills wore chinos, sports jacket, and silk tie, dressed as if he were about to pitch something to investment bankers. Bizarre.

Buffalo Springfield reunion show helps Bridge School Benefit live up to hype - San Jose Mercury News_1287983759755

[pic from San Jose Mercury News story]

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The truth about Prop 23: get it now!

Before it's too late (latest polls look bad for the prop). My story in the VC Reporter:


The money quote, from Fran Pavley, who authored AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act, the legislation signed into law in California in 2006: 

“It’s not just that these oil companies are trying to protect their bottom line,” she said. “They want to set policy for the nation, and if they succeed in passing Prop. 23, they could set us back for decades. If you remember 2001, and how Enron and other out-of-state companies manipulated our energy markets, you know we do not want to be dependent on other states for our energy. We should want to minimize the importation of fuel from foreign countries.

These oil companies do not have our best interests in mind.”  


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How we see the world today — through the windshield

Does this look like a photograph?


It's not…it's a painting by Gregory Thielker, who this year completed a series of phenomenally accomplished from-the-front-seat paintings called Under the unminding sky.

Thielker writes:

These paintings beame a way to explore how driving in weather shifts and changes the views outside the car as well how the driving experience informs our basic interpretation of the environment…In the case of driving, the abstraction and distortion of the water are indexical to the windshield (as smoke can be traced to fire). The result is that painting, per se, can summon a pre-verbal experience, slipping outside of static references and into a gesalt of sensation, both fixed and fluid.

I buy that, actually. So much of our lives today we see through the windshield. It's only natural that the windshield itself should become a shortcut to what we feel.

The painter is now in India on a Fullbright-Nehru grant, blogging and painting the Grand Trunk Road.

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Yosemite in fall, by a true lover of the park

A lovely set of photographs of the great park, from LA Timesman Mark Boster. In this one, on the cover of the Travel section yesterday, he features the park's best-known tree, a giant elm, in full fall color.

Travel | Yosemite - latimes.com_1287375498043

Makes me think: What am I doing at home, when I could be seeing this?

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Climate karma: Texas to catch hell

According to the EPA, Texas emits a far higher volume of greenhouse gases than any other state — more than 676 million tons a year.

For the sake of context, that's more than many entire regions put together; more than twice as much as Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Utah combined, for instance.

California comes in second among states for total emissions, at 402 million tons, but to provide electric power to its people, the most populated state in the union emits 50 million tons of CO2.

To generate its power, Texas coal plants belch out more that 229 million tons of greenhouse gases.

It's shameful.

Now, news comes that Texas is going to pay the price for its emissions in hellish temperatures.

That's according to the latest in a long-line of studies by Texas A&M professor (and IPCC co-author) John Neilsen-Gammon.

To put it in English, as he did in a recent post:

The climate model projections are that the summer temperatures of 2009 will be the temperatures of a typical summer by about 2050.  An unusually cool summer in 2050 would be similar to what we presently consider a normal summer, and an unusually hot summer in 2050 would be, well, way off the chart.


The funny thing is, as Neilsen-Gammon points out in a post in the Houston-Chronicle, this projection of has been out for some time, but somehow, the facts still seem to make people spitting mad.

One emailer called Neilsen-Gammon lots of names; about 20% of those who heard about it from a Texas TV station were angered.

Regardless, since 2007 it's been out, to be exact, in a front-page story in the Houston Chronicle by the paper's science writer Eric Berger:

Welcome to Texas, circa 2100, when severe drought and triple-dight temperatures — presently considered a heat wave — will become standard summer fare.

Wait, there's more. Rising seas will increase the inland reach of hurricane storm surges and threaten low-lying coastal areas. Rainfall may remain the same, but will come in shorter bursts, leading to more flooding. Warmer temperatures will cause rivers traversing Central and South Texas to run dry before reaching the coast.

Now the news seems to be sinking in. According to a poll on a Dallas-Fort Worth TV station, 40% of those reading about the future summers in the area were left sad.

And, according to NOAA, some may be thinking of leaving, perhaps with electoral consequences, as Jim Tankersley speculated for Slate:

Both major political parties could see their power bases erode as Americans, responding to warming temperatures and rising seas, flee the Republican-dominated South and Democratic-friendly coasts.

I guess it's wrong to blame Texans for the 115-degree broiling they will suffer. Blaming the victim.

h/t: Creative Greenius

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China attacks U.S. in climate negotiations

From Tiajin, an inside look at climate talks being hosted by Chinese. Reporting is from Angel Hsu, of Yale University, in the Atlantic:

[Chinese negotiator] Su's comments in the corridors of the Tianjin Meijiang Convention Center reflect his obvious frustration with what he feels is hypocrisy on the part of the U.S. in the climate negotiations. During a press conference, Su criticized the United States for failing to meet its UNFCCC commitments, particularly in terms of pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to provide financial assistance to developing countries. He said it was unfair for the United States to criticize China and make them the scapegoat in the climate debates when the United States itself "isn't doing anything," 

The differences…culminated with the Chinese lead negotiator Su Wei calling the US a "pig preening itself in a mirror." In the classical Chinese idiom where Su derived the comparison, Zhubajie zhao jinzi, li wai bu shi ren – meaning "pig in mirror, not human inside or outside" – the half-man, half-pig character Zhubajie is portrayed as lazy, gluttonous, and idiotic. Needless to say, in Chinese culture, this less-than-desirable comparison is considered an undiplomatic slight.

The Chinese called the United States "a half-man, half-pig" in a press conference? Jeez. 

What next — will the lead negotiator throw down a gauntlet, demand a duel at dawn? Holy cow. 

No coverage in the papers in the U.S. of course…

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