Monday, June 23, 2008

Impact of Fuel Prices

I looked at gas top $4 for cheap unleaded, and thought ruefully that we'd probably never see it below that price again. The New York Times reported on June 21, 2008 that "Travelers Shift to Rail as Cost of Fuel Rises:" (sign in may be required)

Amtrak set records in May, both for the number of passengers it carried and for ticket revenues — all the more remarkable because May is not usually a strong travel month.

The angle of the article is that despite higher use, Amtrak may not be in any position to really build on higher demand because of how it has scaled back operations and it may take years to get more trains on-line where they're needed.

The article also notes that passenger trains, at least as presently designed, net a rather small overall energy savings:

Oil costs hurt Amtrak, too. Fuel is projected to reach 11 percent of Amtrak’s budget this year, up from 6 percent in 2004. The railroad is not radically more energy-efficient than other means of travel. Amtrak can move a passenger a mile with 17.4 percent less fuel than a passenger car can, and about 32.9 percent less than an airline can, according to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

This spring and summer the general population is just beginning to see the impact of higher fuel costs, and behavior is starting to change. People talk of driving less or merging trips. See this piece by Joel Hirschorn, for instance, arguing that going green should be taken seriously by individuals, and not be subjected to marketing scams. While real estate was on everybody's mind four or five years ago, today it's the twin problems of global warming and the high prices of fuel.

That's effecting food prices, too, which is a big part of what has made people start to sit up and take notice. The front page of my local paper, in a June 18 story about how food pantries are struggling to meet rising demand at the same time food prices are jumping dramatically, published this chart which shows food price increases just between April and July! (Hamphire Gazette, "Price hikes skewer food program," Dayna Malek, June 19, 2008 - subscription required)

Public consciousness is shifting, of necessity. Up to now, responses have largely been local and small scale, scattered here and there. I'll be curious to see how big business and state, federal and international political agencies begin to respond to these problems, which threaten to rapidly grow out of hand.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Step Into My Laboratory

This article from the (London) Times Online, "Scientists find bugs that eat waste and excrete petrol," sounds like a hoax (this isn't April 1, is it?) but claims that scientists in Silicon Valley are genuinely genetically modifying bacteria to eat wood and food waste and excrete petroleum. The claims are that the process takes place in a tank and won't hurt anything and that the process is carbon neutral or better. Check it out for yourself.