In the news: Environmentally friendly legislation and programs

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Here at the Practical Environmentalist, we’re green news junkies. We keep an eagle eye out for the latest science, social, and environmental developments and try to sum up the big picture. A lot of exciting things are going on right now, with recent legislation leading the way.

Many gardeners, ranchers, and farmers are concerned about a Food Safety Bill that’s pending in the House. There have been rumors that this legislation would redefine the word “organic”, or outlaw small scale farms, or make it impossible to grow heirloom seeds, or drive up the price of locally grown food. HR 875 has been the subject of message board arguments, blog punditry, and even chain mail. Before you call your Congressman and voice concerns, it’s important to do some fact checking about HR 875.

There’s also some interesting news about ethanol and biofuels production. The percentage of ethanol in gasoline is currently capped at 10% (E10), but Ag Secretary Vilsak is urging lawmakers to raise the amount of ethanol that’s allowed in transportation fuel. He’s calling for E12 gasoline, and we may see 15-20% ratios if the Environmental Protection Agency approves E15 or E20 gasoline. This move face opposition from equipment manufacturers who are worried that high ethanol blends may harm engines. Lawnmower and boat engines are particularly at risk.

Several states are making green news too. Michigan is offering scholarships to train unemployed and underemployed workers for green collar jobs – these Michigan Promise scholarships may help the state survive waves of layoffs in the automotive sector. The funds come from Tobacco settlements and are not at risk from the declining tax base in the state.

Illinois, California, Texas and other states are rushing to build transmission lines that will carry wind generated electricity from the countryside into the big city. A recently proposed line called the Green Power Express would run from the Dakotas into Chicago. This is one of many infrastructure projects that could pay dividends in reducing pollution and reducing dependence on foreign energy sources at the same time.

Private enterprise is also partnering with city and state governments to encourage energy saving projects. “Green Mortgage” programs allow homeowners to take advantage of the tax break on mortgage interest to finance energy saving additions and renovations to their homes. These programs will funnel money towards installing insulation and energy efficient windows, or replacing light bulbs with skylights and upgrading Energy Star appliances. In the process, they will generate manufacturing and construction jobs now while boosting energy efficiency of homes for decades to come.

Do you know of any other big green news? Feel free to share in the comments section below!

Ethanol isn’t the only biofuel

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Mista Fitz at
There’s currently a bit of a corn shortage, driven by rising food consumption, ethanol consumption, and changes in diet in developing countries. Luckily, corn isn’t the only alternative to oil.

While ethanol made from corn gets the most attention, there are all sorts of other biofuels under development. There are companies working on producing ethanol from straw and other farm byproducts such as coconut fiber and cotton seeds. There are factories working on producing diesel from landfills, turkey processing waste, algae, canola, old tires, and other low cost sources. In fact, the US government is actively promoting development of alternative fuels, especially alternative fuels made from non-corn sources (would that be alternative, alternative fuels?):

The government is pushing to get the industry off the ground. Legislation passed last year mandates the use of 36 billion gallons of biofuels a year by 2022, less than half of it from corn ethanol. Almost all the rest is supposed to come from nonfood sources, though the requirement could be waived if the industry faltered.

The future of our fuel supply is going to be very different, and there are positive signs that we’ll be using more green biofuels sooner than anyone expected.

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How to save gas – 5 green driving tips

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There are plenty of things you can do to save gas while driving. Check your tire pressure. Remove antennae balls. Drive slower. But, in the real world, we’ve all got limited attention spans. Changing habits is hard work, and few people are prepared to make drastic changes to every stage of their drive.

So, what really matters? Is it more important to use cruise control or take the flag down from the gun rack? Luckily, Consumer Reports has tackled the issue. Their real-world study has some hard numbers and surprising conclusions.

After reading the list, I realized that no one had prioritized our options. So, here are the 5 biggest changes you can make to save gas, with estimates of fuel saving potential:

1. Get your lead foot off the gas pedal (save 5-10 MPG)

If you’re going over 55 miles per hour, slowing down increases fuel efficiency. On their test car (a Toyota Camry) Consumer Reports found that slowing down from 75 MPH to 65 MPH resulted in a 5 mile per gallon performance increase. Slowing down from 75 MPH to 55 MPH saved 10 miles per gallon!

2. Eliminate drag (save 6 MPG)

Engineers hate drag. Every piece of a car that sticks out (from the rear view mirrors to the radio antennae) reduces fuel efficiency and acceleration. The one thing engineers hate worse than drag is customers who modify the cars that they worked so hard on by adding more drag. That’s what happens whenever we attach a car-top carrier, clip a bike onto the spare wheel, or even tie a ribbon onto the antennae. All of these attachments hurt fuel efficiency more than most people realize. So now’s a good time to streamline your car – those truck balls aren’t fooling anybody, anyway.

3. Combine errands and keep your engine warm (save 4 MPG)

Combining errands saves gas in two ways – not only does it prevent driving over the same route again and again, but combining errands keeps your engine from cooling down. A warm engine is at the right temperature for optimally burning fuel. Parking in the sunlight can help to a limited extent, especially if “cold” is your hometown’s default temperature.

4. Maintain a steady pace (save 2-3 MPG)

Accelerating and decelerating constantly can take a real toll on your gas mileage. Going a steady pace makes inertia work in your favor, boosting gas mileage and also preventing unnecessary wear and tear. One of the easiest ways to set your pace is to use the cruise control. Also, try to accelerate gradually up to speed when entering the highway, and coast down to speed when using an exit.

5. Keep tires properly inflated (save 1.3 MPG)

When tire pressure gets low, the tire starts to sag like a limp balloon. This means that more of the tire comes in contact with the road, which, in turn, increases friction. Tires that are underinflated by 10 PSI rob cars of about 1.3 miles per gallon. If you’re not sure what pressure is the right pressure, check the floor well inside of the drivers door. On most cars, the ideal pressure is printed either there, or in the owner’s manual.

If you tally up the gas savings from all these steps, they total 24 miles per gallon. That can be a bit misleading though – each of the fuel saving calculations was done in isolation. Following all of the advice probably wont take your car’s gas mileage from 20 to 44 miles per gallon, but there aren’t many cars that can get 20 miles per gallon while making glaring mistakes.

The scary truth is that gas prices are rising, and there’s not much we can do to affect the price at the gas station. Don’t worry though – our European neighbors are happy to tell us that fuel prices in America are still relatively cheap. The only realistic way that we can cut down on gas related costs is to change our driving habits and use less fuel. Remember when gas only cost less than $3 a gallon? You can get there again, even if the pump is charging $4. Boosting fuel efficiency from 20 mpg to 30 mpg can cut your fuel bill by 33%! Start with the easy, effective steps and incorporate these 5 tips into your daily commute.

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Biofuels and the Law of Unintended Consquences

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An increasing number of scientists and activists are raising concerns about the impact of biofuel production. The ethanol boom has its roots in a corn surplus that depressed prices – now, shortages of corn are causing food prices to skyrocket and there’s a fear that high commodity prices are pushing farmers to expand cropland. The resulting deforestation is releasing more carbon than the biofuels are saving:

There was just one flaw in the calculation: the studies all credited fuel crops for sequestering carbon, but no one checked whether the crops would ultimately replace vegetation and soils that sucked up even more carbon. It was as if the science world assumed biofuels would be grown in parking lots. The deforestation of Indonesia has shown that’s not the case. It turns out that the carbon lost when wilderness is razed overwhelms the gains from cleaner-burning fuels.

This situation illustrates the Law of Unintended Consequences. This law, which is more like Murphy’s Law than a scientific maxim, states that “for any action one can conceive, there will always be results that were not predicted.” For example, when city planners first came up with suburbs, they expected these housing developments would reduce traffic and overcrowding in downtown areas. Instead, many of these suburbs made traffic worse because they increased the size of the workforce commuting into downtown.

As with anything ethanol related, there’s some controversy about whether ethanol use is what’s driving up the price of corn, or whether the cost rise is driven by population growth and global wealth. As consumers in Asia and India develop disposable income, we’re seeing a sharp rise in the consumption of animal protein. The residents of third-world countries are developing an appetite for more meat, which means that the cost of grains will continue to rise (because raising chickens, pigs, cows, and other farm animals consumes a lot of feed).

There’s some symmetry to the Law of Unintended Consequences – the ethanol boom itself may have been created by accident. According to, corn prices were historically about $2.50 a bushel after adjusting for inflation. It was only after changes in US law drove down the price of corn that it became an affordable feedstock for ethanol plants:

Nominal corn prices have been low and declining since the 1996 Farm Bill shifted U.S. commodity policy to promoting over-production.

The oversupply of corn created a decline in value, which, in turn, led farmers to seek new markets (such as ethanol) and pressure their representatives in Congress to subsidize these markets. So, by this line of reasoning, the 1996 Farm Bill led to a sharp increase in the price of per bushel. There’s some tasty irony for you.

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Food costs are rising – and soon, so will the price of electricity.

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Recently, many commodity prices have gone through the roof. You don’t have to look any further than the gas station to see the effects of $110 for a barrel of oil. A visit to the grocery store will quickly reveal that prices are also jumping for corn and wheat, as well as chicken, pork, and beef. The high price of transporting food (as well as the secondary effects of corn being diverted for ethanol production) is directly tied to high oil costs, and these rising food costs are creating serious problems for the working poor.

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Even if you’re a model of self reliance and walk everywhere while growing your own food without chemical fertilizer, try this on for size – increased worldwide demand is causing a coal shortage. Since about 50% of the US electric grid relies on coal power plants, this means that rising coal costs are likely to cause rising electric bills (and/or increasing outages). That will affect the cost of green power purchased on the open market too – which makes solar panels look a lot more attractive (more marginal benefit from power savings and higher resale prices on grid tie-ins). Always look on the bright side!

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