Government by Pressure Group

In today’s Times-Dispatch, Barton Hinkle wonders if government energy, environmental and transportation policies aren’t at odds:

Just in case you lost track of the bouncing ball, here it is: Virginia has finally put the crisis-ignoring haters of truth in their place by passing a roads package to encourage the use of cars that are destroying the planet, so people can reach their sprawling subdivisions that Virginia is trying to keep in check with tax-subsidized conservation easements that will grow less popular as corn grows more expensive thanks to ethanol mandates from a federal government that is also mandating a cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay whose pollution will be made worse by corn farming.

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13 responses to “Government by Pressure Group”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    This is why I was very happy to see the Greens’ transportation agenda at the top of the GPVA newsletter.

    The Commonwealth needs the Greens’ long term thinking. That is what is missing from other groups’ agendas.



  2. Ray Hyde Avatar

    If corn gets more valuable than subdivisions, we will have more corn fields than subdivisions. But if you think that cornfields are not green because they destroy the chesapeake bay, then you will need to find a way to make conservation land more valuable than corn land.

    Conservation isn’t free, and rail isn’t green. In certain limited instances it might be more green than auto use, but those instances come with many other green problems of their own.

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    One thing for folks is to realize just how much undeveloped land is still around and is not farmed AND to understand that there are two dimensions with regard to land.

    framing it or not
    “saving” it or not

    Take a trip from NoVa to the VA/NC border and get thyself off the interstates….and you’ll see that not only is there millions of acres of vacant land but no sprawl either and much of this land – no longer farmed in a serious way.

    We need to also realize that not only does ethanol pollute in terms of green house gases when it is burned – it also pollutes when we use machinery to plow, plant and harvest it.

    Green house gases are combustion by-products of whatever is “burned”.

    1/3 of Chesapeake Bay nitrogen is airborne from vehicle emissions from NoVa and other urban areas.

    Switching to a non-fossil fuel like ethanol or even bio-disiel to “burn” .. still generates green house gases – and airborne nitrogen.

    Conservation easements outside of our urban areas – to do what – stop sprawl?

    Conservations easements inside of urbanizing areas on nothing-special land – do what?

    Don’t they essentially provide a “buffer” amenity for those adjacent and drive up surrounding land prices that, in turn, drive folks further out in search of cheaper land – Sprawl?

    If we really wanted to conserve land to stop sprawl – we’d put a giant conservation easement on counties like Spotsylvania and Stafford and drive all those folks back to Prince William and Fairfax to live in hyper-dense developments with only parking garages because storm water runoff would be illegal.

    my point – we all want to be “green” but it aint so simple.


  4. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    I guess I don’t understand this ethanol thing. I have a hybrid vehicle. When this area made the switch to 10 percent ethanol in gasoline, I lost 2.5 miles per gallon. Imagine what regular cars lost.

    I have to wonder what the real cost will be when ethanol goes to higher concentrations. The ones who stand to gain the most won’t be the family farm, it will be the corporations. And as they switch their crop mix to capitalize on corn, what will happen to the food prices of other crops? Of course we can always inport more from China, but is that really a smart thing to do from a national security standpoint?

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    Darrel: I concur with your observation. I find my mileage on my prius varies somewhat, depending on where I’m driving, the amount of congestion (more is better as far as mileage goes, up to a point) and how manic my driving is, based on my schedule.

    But, aside from all that, I find that cheap gas (Sheetz or Quarles, 10% ethanol) drops my mileage as much as 4 mpg, compared to Amoco. I haven’t yet calculated whether the difference in cost is worth the difference in mileage.

    But if it affects hybrids that much then regular cars are even worse.

    Likewise for tires. I replaced the OEM’s with regular all season raials and lost 7 MPG. I replaced them with LRR (low rolling resistance tires) and got that back.

    Larry and I are frequently at odds, but with this post I think he is right on.

    Last year I took the train (yes folks, I ride trains even though I don;t buy the hype) to Charleston SC. That gets you off the interstates. For miles and miles and miles, you could see the outlines of former farms, farmhouses, barns, and silos, completely buried and overgrown with Kudzu.

    We are not in danger of running out of farmland any time soon. But it is also true that we have already built cities on top of some of our best farmland. And we continue this stupidity, through zoning regulations that prohibit building on steep land. Steep is sometimes considered to be as lttle as ten percent slope.

    What we have is rules designed to prevent building, not to preserve farmland. We ought to be encouraging people to build on challenging sites, providing the engineering is sufficient. That would save the level land for agriculture, playing fields, etc.

    We have developed five percent of the land and all of our fruits and vegetables come from only two percent of the land. But open space serves many other purposes than building sites, food, and recreation. The urban forest is a tremendous resource that is mostly wasted in the press to repair damage caused by falling trees after storms.

    I don’t agree that spreading out in search of cheaper land is necessarily equivalent to sprawl. The real question we need to answer is whether the development we create is balanced. If it is balanced, then it is not sprawl, it is growth.

    Sure, conservation easements, parks and other open spaces withing the urban spaces create an amenity that increases the value of adjacent properties. But it does so for a reason. The open space gives us breathing room, and a partial natural landscpe to ease our eyes, our mind, and our soul. If that reduces the “optimum” urban density from the stadpoint of providing infrastructure services, so what? It is mearely another indication that we have yet to properly value open spaces.

    Conservation easements outside of our urban areas are our guarantee that in the future we won’t have another Arlington: that every place we ever build in the future will have its own central park.

    To be sure, a little conservation here and there does not provide the habitat that bears and cougars need. Maybe there is a place for creating a giant conservation easement for Spotsylvania and doing just as Larry suggests, in jest.

    We have done it before, running people out of the national seashores, and GW national forest. Maybe the time has come for the next higher level of ecological consiousness. Maybe we should just create a Spawl National Park and tell people like Larry and I that we can live here as long as we are alive, but we cannot sell: our legacy is moot in favor of the greater good.

    But before we do that, we ought to have real, incontrovertible evidence in hand that hyperdense communities really are more “green”.

    I’m not convinced yet. I’m also not convinced that burning ethanol is less green than butning fossil fuels. It is only a question of time, I think.

    I have a hundred acres of trash trees that grow, fall down and rot, because I haven’t the resources to care for the land properly. Stoichiometrically, whether they burn or rot amounts to the same thing, except for the matter of time.

    Today, I mowed down an acre of them because they were in my way, and they were ugly. Now I have a huge pile of broken trees, and stumps. It is even more ugly, but at least it is smaller and it isn’t in my face, poking my eyes out when I’m trying to mow hay.

    Should I burn it or let it rot?

    If I burn it, I can replant, christmas trees or fruit trees or nursery trees. If I burn them, am I an environmental heathen, blind to the problems of the climate, or am I just hurrying things along (with the hope of repairing the damage sooner?)

    How is that different from the corn crop? A lot of corn is going to be grown on grond formerly planted to soybeans and peanuts. As a result the price of hogs and soybeans will rise, and the price of fossil oil will not rise as fast.

    It turns out that trees release a lot of methane. Who the hell really knows whether raising corn and creating fuel from it is more or less bad for the climate than raising corn and feeding it to cattle and hogs that fart?

    Maybe the real answer is that we all live organically and as vegetarians on the ten acres that it takes to really support us, and we never travel anywhere but only telecommute.

    Does that sound like sprawl?

    Ray Hyde

    WTF is wrong with blogger? Can’t sign in?

  6. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Yeah, the ethanol thing is wierd, but you have to consider the entire system, including the alternative fossile fuels.

    It takes energy to grow corn, and tillage causes runoff. It takes more energy to make and transport the ethanol.

    But the corn absorbs nitrogen as it grows, and the stalks are used as feed, and the ethano replaces what would otherwise be fossil fuels, that absorbed hydrogen long ago and cannot be replaced as the corn can.

    But the ethanol is not as “efficient” as the fossil fuels.

    There are a lot of theories about what the total cycle adds up to, but no one really knows.

    We do know that the laws of energy go downhill. Entropy is always negative. Get used to it.

    If you really want to take the full cycle into account, remember that the “free” energy used to grow the corn really comes from the sun burning itself out.

    Maybe we don’t have to worry about it, but if we are successful at creating a sustainable earth, then eventually someone will have to worry about it.

    Maybe we should be stockpiling ethanol as a fossil fuel towards the day when we all have to fly away from this planet in favor of one with a working sun.

  7. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I think it is not useful when we confuse environmental messages to the point where they are self-contradictory.. or seemingly so at times.

    Individuals have two paths in my mind. The first path is super simple.

    If you conserve, use less energy than the average person – you’re “green”. There may be an issue of just how “green” we need to be on average but for the average person – if you use less fuel than average and less electricity than average then you’are ahead of the game.

    This is something that the Environemntal Groups could do – establish/document average energy consumption benchmarks ….

    The second path is much, much, more complicated.

    It requires one to research complex tradeoffs like the ehtanol question which is … also dynamic as even the scientists end up changing their minds as new data is generated.

    Even the Environmental Groups don’t agree.

    For instance, the Sierra Club is opposed to Nukes but other Environmental groups have determined that in the face of green-house gas and mercury emissions that Nukes are “better”.

    Another Example. Environmental Defense – a highly respected group supports HOT lanes but other groups either do not support – or worse – they have no opinion.

    But again, in general, the more energy you use – the bigger your adverse impact on the environment.

    And recycling plastic bottles or using paper bags rather than plastic or using compact flourescents instead of incandescent – is a “feel-good” crap-shoot if you don’t actually know just how much less energy you are using as a result of these practices.

    Only when you know that your overall useage IS, in fact, lower than average, can you feel some legitimate level of self-rightgeousness in my vew.

    More to the point – if you think you really care about the environment – you should want to know the Truth – the bottom line – and not be satisfied with just “feel-good” green… feelings.

    I really do think that is what a lot of folks want. They want to know the specific things they need to be doing.. to make a difference.

  8. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    Hinkle’s three cornered conundrum is very well framed.

    Forget the fuel, it is the human settlement pattern.

    Here is a quote in an eco newsletter, written by the daughter of a college roommate”

    “Part of the current pondering is rightly focused on the primary enabler of our energy hogging way of life: the car. “How can we make cars better?” we wonder. “What about biofuels, or electric cars?”

    “The problem is that there IS no better car, no matter what energy source powers it, because the car itself lays the foundation for the thinly scattered, resource demanding environment that we’ve built around ourselves. The only way to solve the car problem is to get out of the old mindset and move to what would actually work. The ecocity approach, we think, is a powerful solution/strategy that address the situation at the level of response the problem demands.”

    I have never met Kirstin but you will be reading about their book in TRILO-G.


  9. Reid Greenmun Avatar
    Reid Greenmun

    Cars are terrific. Suburban living is awesome. Greens are free to live as they wish – I wish they would leave the rest of us to be free to enjoy our own prefered life styles.

  10. Ray Hyde Avatar

    I think Larry’s comments are right on point. As conservationists we do ourselves a disservice by overselling ideas that we cannot know to be true, or which we know are only partly true, or true only in ideal circumstances.

    Ed Risse’s post following is a case in point, and Reid Greenum’s post in turn is a case in counterpoint. It is exactly the kind of backlash we can expect when we cast our bait too hard. You have to control the excess spin with your thumb.

    It is like the claim that congestion charging in london reduced congested traffic by one third. Technically it is true, because of the way it was measured, but the actual effect observed is far less. The result is that people read the report but find that their trip and travel time is not much changed, so they think the politicians are liars.

    Then there is the case of creeping requirements, as noted recently by Jim Bacon in the Chesapeake Bay Cleanup. No matter how well we do, some zealot will propose a way to do “better” without regard to cost, inconvenience, the fact that we can’t do everything, and the fact that some of us may have other priorities. So, OK, I can do as the radio ad suggests and pik up the dog doo from the yard to keep the bay clean.

    Then what? Put it in a plastic bag, put the bag in the truck and drive it to the landfill?

    Even if Ed Risse is right, we are not going to uninvent the car. So rather than rail against it, we may as well try to improve it, and improve the way it is used. And if it causes scattered low density land use, then we need to find a way to benefit from that, just as we did with victory gardens.

    It doesn’t all have to be doom and gloom just because we don’t see things Ed’s way. Just turn off the lights on the way out.

  11. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    The problem I have with EMR’s view is the same that I have with some Environmental groups advoacies where they pronounce/judge a particular behavior or lifestyle to be “bad” .. by citing selective subjective criteria that is not verifiable – and heavy on unsubstantiated assertion.

    We end up with, in my view, summary and arbitrary labeling of behaviors and lifestyles that instead of sending a message of respecting people and their ability to understand and take appropriate actions- we treat them in a way, like they are ignorant louts that must be lectured to….

    So there are two very important things in my mind.

    1. – relevant, verifiable, non-judgement data and facts that let the reader understand and decide for themselves

    2. – remember always – it’s as much as HOW you say it – as WHAT you say.

    If you MUST venture beyond verifiable info… and if you actually have something that might be of real use to others – don’t start off with a tone that essentially sounds like – “listen up you idiots”… because what comes next is not heard….

    Why is all of this important?

    I, for one, fess up guilty on this aspect, sometimes but I also easily recognize it coming from others….

  12. Reid Greenmun Avatar
    Reid Greenmun

    Larry, while I agree with much of what EMR advocates, EMR wants to change the world to fit his view of “better” human settlement patterns.

    What Kirstin (daughter of a college roommate) writes is simply an attack on privately owned vehicles and the entire culture that has embraced the freedom and control – let alone safety – they bring to our lives.

    She writes:

    “The problem is that there IS no better car, no matter what energy source powers it, because the car itself lays the foundation for the thinly scattered, resource demanding environment that we’ve built around ourselves. The only way to solve the car problem is to get out of the old mindset and move to what would actually work. The ecocity approach, we think, is a powerful solution/strategy that address the situation at the level of response the problem demands.”

    Of course there is a better car. So right out of the gate Kirstin builds on a foundation of Jell-O.

    Frankly, what many car-haters fail to do is offer an alternative that is BETTER than the car – a better way to get around that still offers us all the terrific benefits our own private car offers us.

    Car-haters don’t seem to want to discuss the many BAD THINGS that can happen to people left to the mercy of the bean counters that dictate what security we have while using public transportation.

    In my car I have Constitutional Rights. I control WHO sits next to me. I control what I listen to on my radio. I control WHEN I leave, where I go, and HOW I get there.

    I control the level of comfort I am willing to pay for.

    Heck, I even get to pick the color I like.

    Yet the “Ecocity” crown never seem to address these issues when the claim to offer a “better” solution.

    I really warm up to those that advocate – “You should WALK because it is good for you …”

    My response?

    When did you become my mother?

    Face it; Flying cars are a far better “car” than ground-based cars.

    Cars that do not burn fossil fuels will be better than cars we now have, provided the fuel they do use doesn’t create horrible environmental problems.

    I am an advocate for FREEDOM. My car offers me a whole lot of FRREDOM.

    Having to depend on Public Transit is not a world I want to be forced to live in.

    Nor do I want to be forced to WALK on cold, rainy, blisteringly hot, or otherwise crappy weather days.

    What appears missing in the EMR “change human settlement patterns” world is an adequate appreciation of the meaning of “Quality Of Life”.

    For those of us that can afford to own, operate, and maintain them – Cars offer a far better Quality of Life then being forced to WALK in the rain to a bus stop, waste time waiting for the bus to finally shown up, getting into a fight with the “Ghetto” teenagers blasting loud noise (called music), being robbed as I WALK (unprotected – because I can’t carry a gun on the bus) from the bus to my office, and then, being blown up by a Islamic homicide bomber riding the bus home later that evening.

    Even if the public transit company had actually hired any useful security for the bus, and IF that security was armed, the political correct “leadership” of the all-appointed “regional transit authority” would have trained and mandated that Security personnel can’t “profile” – thus they would have let the Islamic nutcase on the bus – because they didn’t want to “offend” anyone.

    No thanks.

    That is another problem with utopian “visions” for “better human settlement patterns”.

    The FAILURE to protect the good people from the bad people – because the nutcase “social justice” crown believes in that dumb “diversity” trumps common sense sickness.

    No thanks.

    We can’t trust government to protect us. But at least I can carry a gun in my own car – and I don’t have to let people I do not know sit next to me as I go back and forth to work.

  13. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    In discussions of cars … they often start off with … “the problem with cars is”….

    Cars provide mobility.

    there are other methods for people to be conveyed… walk, bike, transit, air …. etc, et al.

    there can be and should be a discussion about the car – as a polluter and how do deal with that issue – the same as one would have a discussion about airliners polluting or power plants polluting but when we muddy the discussion with value judgements about specific behaviors … like whether or not one should bike/walk vs using a car that drifts away from the pollution issue – we go wrong in my view.

    Let’s take the car and let’s pretend that a tremendous break-through is achieved so that instead of it being one of the primary polluters – it ends up functionally equivalent to say an airliner.. and the argument no longer revolves around it’s use as
    a conveyance that is very effective at personal mobility.

    In that context – what happens to the idea of balanced communities and settlement patterns?

    Do those concepts rise or fall on their own… or are they tied, in effect, to the idea that cars pollute?

    On the other side of the coin, I also bang (what I call) the “wannabe” Greens who tend to think they can buy or “high tech” their way out of the dilemma – as opposed to changing lifestyles and behaviors or paying more money to NOT pollute. (like using solar or wind renewable power – it’s here, it works and it costs 3-5 times as much as “dirty” power).

    A “plug-in” auto powered by solar/wind … stay with me… does what to the “balanced community” idea?

    additional thought – is the “range” of a plug-in auto – the defacto clear-edge for a balanced community?

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