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The cost of growing food for fuel PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 24 May 2017 21:10

The list of ethanol irritants just got longer for residents of southeastern Wisconsin. A company called U.S. Oil plans to build a pipeline from its terminal on Jones Island in the Milwaukee harbor to a nearby liquid cargo dock to load ships with ethanol for transport on Lake Michigan.
    Ethanol is classified by the federal government as highly flammable and hazardous.
    This potential threat to public safety and the environment can be added to the toll ethanol takes in the cost of living and damage to the environment.
    Ozaukee Press archives offer a reminder of the risks of fuel pipelines and waterborne transport of fuel. In the 1970s, Port Washington’s downtown and adjacent residential areas were evacuated under the threat of an explosion caused by leaks from a gasoline pipeline that ran between the harbor, where tankers unloaded, and storage tanks eight blocks inland.
    That catastrophe was averted, but there were times during the city’s petroleum shipping era when the harbor itself might have caught fire, owing to the sheen of gasoline floating on its surface.
    Ethanol acts like gasoline in a spill onto water, floating at first, then dissolving and extinguishing life in the area of the spill by depriving the water of oxygen.
    There would be no ethanol to pump through pipes to ships were it not for the Renewable Fuel Standard mandate that billions of gallons of the biofuel be added to gasoline each year. There is no other reason for large-scale ethanol production to exist.
    The fuel is not needed to serve the purpose stated for the mandate when it was made law by Congress in 2005—to reduce America’s dependence on imported oil. The U.S., with its oil and natural gas production having surged to the point where this country is now the world’s largest petroleum producer, imports very little oil.
    Almost all of the ethanol produced in the U.S. is made from corn. The demand for the raw material needed to meet the ethanol mandate has driven up the market value of corn and caused a reduction in the use of land for growing other crops, resulting in higher prices for many food products.
    A sense of the effect on consumer food prices can be gained from a restaurant industry study finding that ethanol production has increased food costs for chain restaurants by $3.2 billion a year.
    Augmenting fossil fuels used for energy with fuel made from plants sounds like something that would be beneficial to the environment, but the opposite has been true in the environmental impact of the mandate. Ethanol, because of the greenhouse gases generated in its farming and processing operations, has been found to result in no reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
    Worse for the environment, the demand for corn needed to meet the ethanol mandate has motivated farmers to convert millions of acres of grassland to corn fields, accelerating soil erosion and runoff of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and endangering wildlife. A study by the National Wildlife Federation found that 7.3 million acres of natural habitat have been destroyed to produce corn ethanol.
    The ethanol mandate survives in spite of the accumulating evidence of its harmful consequences because it has become a veritable entitlement for the ethanol producing industry, which is now a powerful, politically protected special interest.
    During the presidential campaign, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton pledged support for the ethanol mandate, as did every other presidential candidate except Ted Cruz. President Obama did nothing to end or constrain the ethanol mandate.
    No one has been willing to take on the ethanol lobby. Could President Trump turn against ethanol? It wouldn’t be the first campaign promise he’s broken.
    Trump rails regularly against government regulations and has threatened to “get rid of” the Environmental Protection Agency. He could strike a blow against regulation and get rid of a little piece of the EPA by taking the lead in eliminating the harmful EPA regulation requiring that 18 million gallons of ethanol be added to our gas supply this year.        
    That would be an accomplishment worth tweeting about.

The bright side of ineptitude PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 17 May 2017 20:20

The incompetence that is on such vivid display in the White House is worrisome—the people in charge of an entire branch of the government of the most powerful nation in the world are supposed to know what they’re doing. There is a bright side, however: The bumbling of the Trump presidency has in a number of instances saved the country from policy and budget proposals that would be harmful if adopted.

Good examples are the Trump administration’s fizzled-out threats to the Great Lakes.

Trump and his budget team called on Congress to kill the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) and the NOAA Sea Grant program by denying them funding in the federal budget. The funding cuts were among many pushed in a strategy to free up federal money for building the wall on the Mexican border and other Trump priorities.

But the Republican-controlled Congress had no problem rejecting the deal offered by the self-proclaimed king of negotiators and author of the self-aggrandizing book “The Art of the Deal.”

Funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, which administers the Great Lakes program, and Sea Grant was approved at about the same level as 2016. No money was included in the budget passed by Congress for construction of the border wall. Few of the Trump significant budget proposals of any kind made it through Congress.

It is possible that the administration functionaries who drafted the cuts that threatened the lakes had no idea what the targeted programs mean to the Great Lakes. Maybe it was enough for them just to know that they involve science, a subject of scorn in the Trump campaign. 

The GLRI has worked with documented success to restore Great Lakes damaged by industrial pollution and prevent catastrophic degradation of water quality by explosive algae growth and invasive species. 

Did the staffers who put together what the Trump administration named “The America First Budget” even know that the Great Lakes provide drinking water for 35 million Americans, support 1.5 million American jobs in tourism, boating and fishing and contribute $5 trillion a year to America’s economy?

Sea Grant is but a small piece of NOAA, so the administration budget drafters might not have taken the trouble to find out what it does before they decided to stop funding it. With a national network of 33 colleges and universities, Sea Grant fosters research, training and projects aimed at the conservation and practical use of ocean coastal waters and the Great Lakes. Its research has been particularly important to commercial and sport fishing, but its benefits extend well beyond that.

The Wisconsin Sea Grant program, managed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was the first in the Great Lakes. Its work has touched Ozaukee County and its Lake Michigan port, Port Washington, in a number of ways, including identification of shipwrecks lying off the county coast for the proposed NOAA sanctuary.

Sea Grant provides training and technical support for the Clean Marina initiative. The Port Washington Marina was one of the first to qualify for the program, which protects the local aquatic environment and adds appeal to the marina in attracting slip renters.

Sea Grant’s impact on Port Washington is evident also in the beach safety measures recommended by Sea Grant’s Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium, which have been adopted in the rescue devices and explanatory signs provided here. 

Also thanks to Sea Grant, rip current detectors are in place in Port Washington to address the rough-water phenomenon that claims more lives in the Great Lakes region than tornados, lightning and floods and was a factor in the drowning of a local teenager five years ago.

Sea Grant and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative have dodged fatal bullets, but will surely be vulnerable in the future. While the country certainly needs a better functioning executive branch, it would be best for the Great Lakes if Trump and company don’t get any more competent at getting misguided budget cuts through Congress in time for the next budget cycle.

Wise gas tax words from on high PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 10 May 2017 21:26

A voice of reason on the subject of America’s transportation needs was heard last week. The voice belonged to Donald Trump. 

Yes, that Trump, the president of the United States. Unlike some of his more colorful utterances, this one seemed intended to be taken seriously, and it should be, especially by Congress.

Trump said the federal gasoline tax should be raised. He put out the idea in an interview with Bloomberg News as a way to help fund his $1 trillion infrastructure plan.

Trump seems to get it about road funding. The gas tax is a simple and effective means already in place to raise money to fix the country’s woefully neglected highways and bridges. It just needs to bring in more money.

During the same week the president showed his grasp of the transportation funding issue, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker again displayed his obtuseness on the matter by rejecting a plan by legislators of his own Republican party to address the state’s road crisis by increasing the fuel tax.

Deteriorated roads, besides endangering users and increasing the cost of vehicle ownership, are a drag on the economy. Twenty-one states have countered this since 2013 by increasing their fuel taxes. Just last week, California increased its gas tax by $5 billion a year to help sustain the best performing state economy in the nation.

Meanwhile, with the governor rejecting a restrained fuel tax increase that would have raised $200 million a year, Wisconsin remains stuck with a huge road maintenance and building backlog and no plan to deal with it.

The federal fuel tax of 18.4 cents a gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel fuel has remained at this level for the past 20 years. With inflation and vehicles getting more miles per gallon, fuel tax revenue is diminishing when its need is increasing.

The result is highway conditions that get worse by the year. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, which gave the highway system of the world’s richest nation a D grade, the deteriorated state of roads cost the U.S. $100 billion in 2014 alone. The Department of Transportation estimated the current repair backlog at $90 billion.

There is no mystery, or even complexity, about the issue: Failing to restore transportation infrastructure quality to a reasonable standard costs lives and hurts the economy. Better roads are safer for drivers and passengers, make for shorter commutes and stimulate economic growth by making the shipping of goods and materials more efficient.

Assuming he doesn’t upend his sensible recommendation with a midnight tweet, Trump’s gas tax idea can be expected to resurface at some point in Congress. There it is certain to be met with resistance from those representatives who are members, as is Wisconsin’s governor, of the all-taxes-are-evil sect. 

Refusing on ideological grounds to consider raising taxes regardless of need is no service to taxpayers in any context, but it is especially contrary to progress in the case of transportation infrastructure. 

Road taxes may be the oldest of all taxes, levied for centuries as tolls and fees by advanced nations and municipalities that recognized the ability to travel as essential to promoting commerce and improving the standard of living for citizens.

Walker has been so unbending on the gas tax that Republican legislators, pressed by business interests to do something to lift the state out of its gaping highway funding hole, resorted to packaging their transportation plan in clownish wrapping paper to disguise the gas tax increase. 

Their plan would actually reduce the gas tax by 4.8 cents per gallon, but then charge the state’s 5% sales tax on gasoline sales. The net result would add 7.2 cents to the cost of a gallon of gas to be used for roads.

Road funding doesn’t have to be as complicated—or as foolish—as that. Trump is often criticized and sometimes ridiculed for oversimplifying complex government issues, but raising revenue to start upgrading transportation infrastructure really is simple for the federal and state governments.

As the man said, just raise the gas tax.

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