energy, politics

Comic Sans Controversy

Fine, fine we’ve all beaten up on Comic Sans at one point or another. It’s inspired loads of discussion online, most of it quite ferocious ridicule. (You can see some hilarious examples at Comic Sans Criminal.)

Still, we’re all pretty accustomed to it, no? In LOLing e-mail forwards and cobbled-together personal websites, that kind of thing.

I was browsing through some PDFs of evidence from the November 17th Congressional hearing on Solyndra (weekend reading) and saw this e-mail from George Kaiser:

Email from George Kaiser about Solyndra. Text is as follows: Sounds good, writes Kaiser. I assume that we would not move ahead without the offering without full DOE approval or would you issue while you are under due diligence? BTW, a couple of weeks ago when Ken and I were visiting with a group of Administration folks in DC who are in charge of the Stimulus process (White House, not DOE) and Solyndra came up, every one of them responded simultaneously about their thorough knowledge of the Solyndra story, suggesting it was one of their prime poster children.

Much hay was made of these e-mails by Republican partisans. George Kaiser, according to Forbes, is worth some $10 billion, and is the 89th richest man on the planet. He’s also a major Obama supporter, and his foundation reportedly owned a third of the famously failed solar panel manufacturer Solyndra. The conspiracy-minded among us (and you don’t even have to be all that suspicious) might see the potential for inappropriate benefits when it came to the federal government’s pre-bankruptcy support of Solyndra.

In any case, there are a few Kaiser e-mails sprinkled throughout the evidence that House staffers threw online. Yet the partisans failed to point out the detail that would have dealt the most devastating blow: His e-mails are all in Comic Sans.

Email from George Kaiser. Text reads as follows: Yeah but the other issue is how we they prepare themselves for Congressional investigation of the loan award by DOE.

anticipation, energy, environment, science

Hydrogen. (What’s not to like?)

This summer I interviewed Kristie Boering, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at UC Berkeley. We talked about the potential environmental side effects of moving to a hydrogen economy. Our discussion, boiled down to about 800 words, is in the current issue of California magazine. Boering is incredibly articulate, and I learned a lot in the process.

If we were to go to a hydrogen fuel cell economy and we produce a lot of hydrogen, and some fraction escapes (because it’s notoriously difficult to contain that small molecule), then we might see emissions equal to or greater than what’s produced naturally. Because it’s such a reactive gas…that could change the balance of chemistry in our atmosphere.

You can read it here.

beach, energy, environment, journalism, San Francisco, unfortunate

Bunker Fuel? What?

In my last post, I mentioned that the spill isn’t just oil, but bunker fuel. What’s bunker fuel?

It’s the stuff that runs big engines, like in an oil tanker or cargo ship. And it’s cheap, which is why these high volume users use it.

Last year, I interviewed Dave Culp, an engineer who designs ship sails (he started Kiteship), and we talked a little about bunker fuel. According to him, this is residual fuel–stuff that’s “left over after everything’s distilled out of crude. So sulfur, palladium, iron, even sand stays in the stuff that gets sold and burned in these ships. There’s 900 times as much sulfur in a gallon of residual fuel than in gasoline.”

“But ships don’t really have a choice because the industry is built around this cheap, plentiful fuel source,” he added.

It’s highly viscous. Imagine this thick, black, grainy shit. That’s what’s out there, in addition to the lighter gas or oil that’s slicking on the surface and covering the birds. Sfist is doing a good job of updating what’s happening on the beaches, where I’ve not made it yet. But I figure that’s what has washed up on shore, as seen in this photo from Sfist:

clump of oil

articles, beach, dissipation, energy, environment, journalism, language, really?

Newspapers Say the Darndest Things

Chronicle front page 8 november“Crunch!”? Really? 

A huge cargo ship bumps into the Bay Bridge and spills 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel–not just oil, but bunker fuel–and this is the Chronicle’s headline? Is it supposed to be a joke? 

When I looked at my copy this morning, I originally thought this was a feature recapping some little disaster that I hadn’t heard about. But, no. This is breaking news.

China, corruption, development, energy, international, journalism, video

China: Undermined

Check out Duane Moles’s video report “China: Undermined,” part of FRONTLINE/World’s online “Rough Cuts” series. I reported the story with him and Wu Nan last March in southern Shanxi Province.

Below, a photo I took of damage from underground coal mining in the home of a villager.

Damage from Coal Mines

A few more pictures here. More available soon, I hope.

consumption, energy, environment, San Francisco

Lights Out, San Francisco

Lights Out San FranciscoKeep your eyes open for an hour of voluntary darkness in San Francisco Saturday night. A “citywide conservation event” is scheduled from 8 to 9 p.m.; organizers from Lights Out San Francisco ask that all unessential lights be turned off during this time. Restaurants will serve by candlelight. They are getting a lot of attention.

In 1962, the people of Perth, Australia, turned on all their lights at the same time to say hello to John Glenn floating by in his Mercury.

energy, environment, journalism

Bay Area Weather: Mea Culpa?

So much for La Niña? Not sure. But after record-high temperatures last week, tonight may be the coldest of the year, with lows dipping into the 20s in some spots around here, the result of cold air rolling in from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

PG&E must be breathing a corporate sigh of relief with the onset of cold temperatures. This winter, it’s offering customers a 20 percent rebate on their home heating bills if they reduce their natural gas consumption by 10 percent. Continously warm weather might have wreaked havoc with Pacific Gas & Electric’s billing department.

In an effort to find a related news story to link to, I noticed KRON 4 has put up a page devoted to sports reporter Gary Radnich’s ad-libbing last week when a fire alarm went off during his live broadcast. Radnich, who basically ad libs his daily sports segment, anyway (and does a good job: funny, sometimes bullying, with a Hemingway-style shockproof bullshit detector), struck a nice balance between exasperation and amusement as he talked with the anchors and the remaining crew. I found it entertaining, and was hoping others could see it in a low-quality Windows Media Player stream. Turns out you can! Right here.
Below: Radnich photographed for a Chronicle article about his 20 years on the air.

energy, environment, history

Radioactive Waste and the Coast of San Francisco

Every once in a while, I remember to tell people that there’s a lot of radioactive waste sprinkled just off the coast of San Francisco. Always a favorite piece of information.

The US Geological Survey’s Western Coastal and Marine Geology Group released a big report on the area around the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary when I worked at the Survey: “Beyond the Golden Gate—Oceanography, Geology, Biology, and Environmental Issues in the Gulf of the Farallones.” A few years earlier, CMG had been involved in looking at how material dredged from the Bay Area’s harbors and waterways could be disposed of on the Farallon Slope (where the continental shelf ramps downward), and in the process devised a potential method for identifying drums of radioactive waste. The Farallones are a group of islands about 19 miles from the San Francisco coast with great biological diversity. The Farallones include the largest seabird breeding area in the contiguous U.S. and are a popular spot for great white sharks.

There are about 47,500 55-gallon radioactive waste drums scattered over 350 nautical square miles around the Farallon Islands. The radiation is low-level according to the Navy, but it declines to specifically describe what the radioactive material is. One seaman who accompanied the disposal barges from the nuclear laboratories at Hunter’s Point in the 1950s admitted to SF Weekly that he was ordered to shoot barrels that did not sink right away. Below is a map from USGS showing the dump sites and areas that may contain waste in relation to the Bay Area. It is unfortunate that these happen to coincide geographically with some of our local fisheries. The inset photo is of a crab crawling on one of the drums.

One of the interesting pieces of that radioactive waste is a huge, irradiated Navy ship, believed to be the USS Independence (pictured here in San Francisco Bay in 1943). Remember those photos and films of mushroom clouds in the South Pacific? If you look closely, near the stem of the cloud are sometimes dozens of ships. The Navy anchored them nearby to see how they’d be affected by the explosion. The Independence was one of those ships, located about 560 yards from the first “Operation Crossroads” Bikini Atoll atomic test explosion on July 1, 1946. She didn’t sink, so the Navy anchored her nearby for the July 25 follow-up (pictured below). She was still floating. After that, the Independence was retired.

The Independence, mangled by the blasts and dosed with intense radiation, was later used in radiation experiments at Hunters Point Shipyard in San Francisco. Eventually, the Navy decided to get rid of her. She is supposed to have been packed with radioactive materials before being scuttled. The Navy says it sunk the ship 200 miles from the coast, but surveys show no shipwreck at the avowed location and a large shipwreck near the Farallones that seems to match the Independence.

(Note the two sailors standing in one of the gashes in the hull near the right edge of the photo. Click on the photo to get a bigger view.)