Wednesday, January 31, 2007

O'Reilly Lunacy; Bush Admin Suppression of Global Warming Papers

Bill O'Reilly Blames Child Kidnap Victim

In further proof that Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly is what's wrong with our country, the bloviated "conservative" suggested a few days ago that Missouri kidnap victim Shawn Hornbeck was to blame for his four-year confinement by 41-year-old pederast Michael Devlin.

O'Reilly, speaking as usual without regard to any facts or expertise, stated that 15-year-old Hornbeck, who was kidnapped when he was 11, didn't attempt to escape Devlin because he was able to have "a lot more fun than what he had under his old parents."
Since Hornbeck "didn't have to go to school" and "could run around and do whatever he wanted," O'Reilly concluded the kid voluntarily stayed with his captor. (For more detail on O'Reilly's lunatic statements about Hornbeck, see this piece on Media Matters.)

This just shows that O'Reilly, who pretends to be an advocate for children, is an idiot--as if we needed more proof of that. He certainly doesn't know much about kids.

The Curmudgeon coaches a couple dozen 11-year-olds in soccer, and we can't imagine that any of them would have the maturity and mental fortitude to resist an angry, manipulative physically imposing man such as Michael Devlin, who no doubt terrorized young Shawn with threats and backed it up with actions. Indeed, press reports suggest that Devlin's adult neighbors were intimidated by him as well, based on his volatile outbursts.

Presumably, Devlin told Hornbeck that if he tried to escape, Devlin would track him down and kill him, maybe kill his family as well. That's a pretty real threat to a young boy swiped off the street in broad daylight.

No doubt Hornbeck was also abused by Devlin. Was that something Shawn liked--something "more fun than he had with his old parents?" We don't think so.

And as for the psychological power of a bully, all we have to do is look at O'Reilly himself: millions of people remain captivated by him.

Letting Big Oil Edit Government Global Warming Reports

The story has become so commonplace that we're no longer shocked or surprised: a political hack in the Bush White House interferes with the legitimate work of government employees, to the detriment of the country.

In this case, it was Phil Cooney, a former lobbyist for the petroleum industry who was put in charge of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. It turns out Cooney regularly interfered with government scientists writing reports on global warming issues. Cooney went so far as to line edit reports to the point of altering their meaning. We think that's like letting a tobacco lobbyist edit the Surgeon General's annual report on smoking.

"There were a very large number of edits that came at the 12th hour after all the earlier science people had signed off," said Rick Piltz, a former senior associate at the US Climate Change Science Programme. Piltz, who eventually resigned from his job because of such pressure, stated that in one instance Cooney demanded 400 last-minute changes that significantly changed the meaning and tone of the report. (For more, see Bush Administration Accused of Doctoring Scientists' Reports on Climate Change.)

Cooney has now left the White House and gone to, of all places, ExxonMobil, which is attempting to paint itself green these days, just like the White House. We have to doubt the sincerity of both. We liked it better when they simply denied global warming, since the public could better judge their credibility at that point.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Gas Tax: A More Rational Plan For Virginia Transportation Funding

Today's Washington Post reports that a bipartisan group of Virginia state senators will offer a transportation bill funded largely by a sales tax on gasoline.

This is a much more sensible proposal than the lame "compromise" outlined a few days ago by Virginia house Republicans. Some of Virginia's Republicans, especially those in the House of Delegates, have this thing about taxes. In their view, no matter what the issue, taxes should be off the table. That's an unproductive view that has led to an unproductive stalemate on transportation funding.

After underfunding transportation for years, Virginia legislators now face voter wrath from folks, especially in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, who are mired in all-day traffic jams on inadequate roads. When a problem is caused by underfunding, one of the solutions has to be raising taxes.

Instead of taxing gasoline, however, Virginia's house Republicans would raise revenue through a hodge-podge of measures, some of which have little to do with roads. They would also steal $250 million from other existing state programs and shift it to roads, creating new problems in the process.

Placing a sales tax on gasoline to fund roads is a direct solution with several major advantages. First, out of state motorists who use Virginia's highways will contribute to funding those roads when they purchase fuel in the state. Second, higher gas prices will help discourage wasteful exurban development by penalizing drivers with the longest commutes--the same people who use those expensive roads the most. It will also encourage behaviors--carpooling, use of mass transit--that take cars off the road and thus decrease the need for additional highways.

In addition, higher gas prices will also encourage Virginians to switch to vehicles with better gas mileage, which will improve our energy security and reduce carbon emissions.

Imposing a 5 percent sales tax on gasoline--the measure proposed by the Senators--will add $1.25 to a $25 purchase of fuel. That's not an unreasonable cost for all motorists to bear for an adequate road system. Furthermore, it would still leave gas prices far below the peaks they reached last summer. True, prices may rise again. But that's not a bad thing--higher gas prices will encourage the development of alternatives that, in the end, will be far better than relying on ever increasing amounts of foreign oil.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Webb For President?!

It's a measure of just how wide open the '08 presidential field is that after only a few weeks in his first elected office, as Virginia's junior Senator, Jim Webb's name is being bandied about as a condidate for President or Vice President.

Just look at some of his new admirers: Any More for Any More in the UK Guardian; Hillary Clinton's Mission Unaccomplished (Frank Rich in the NYT yesterday); State of the Union: Jim Webb for Vice President (on Huffington Post); and SOTU: Jim Webb for President.

Readers of the Curmudgeon know we like Webb a lot. But we're not ready to say he should run, much less earn the nomination, for President (although we're happy to see him included on the lists of approximately 1000 potential vice presidential running mates). It says a lot about the already crowded existing field, however, that bloggers and political pundits around the country, and even the world, are floating Webb's name out there after his masterfully succinct response to Bush's state of the union address.

We doubt Webb will be too tempted to throw his hat in the ring. We can't see him schlepping around the country kow-towing to Democratic Party activists, many of whom Webb has no use whatsoever for. Nor do we see him standing on a stage with somewhere between 10-15 other candidates in the inevitable "debates"--more like state fair cattle contests--that soon will get underway. If anything, the nominating process could only serve to sully Webb's growing reputation on the national scene as an independent minded progressive.

Still, you've got to hand it to the guy--he's certainly managed in short order to attain the highest profile of this year's large class of freshman Senators.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Net Metering Update--Need For A National Law

Yesterday, the Curmudgeon highlighted a report from the Network for New Energy Choices grading various states' net metering laws and giving Virginia a "D".

We've since done some more research and concluded that the NNEC report, while useful in some respects, was misleading and confusing in others. So we want to correct the record and pull together some additional information here.

One of the things we learned is that the NNEC, which issued the report last November ('06) had some out of date information, including with respect to the states that don't allow net metering. It turns out that only 10 states (not 16 as NNEC reported) don't have net metering laws. For example, North Carolina, listed in the NNEC report as not having such a provision, in fact allowed net metering starting in 2005 (via an order from the Public Utilities Commission). We're sorry to say that our native state of South Carolina--whose couple hundred miles of beautiful coastline and whose historic city of Charleston are potential victims of global warming and superstorms--hasn't bothered to allow net metering yet.

We also looked at the methodology of the NNEC's report and concluded that it was not very sound. In grading states' net metering laws, the NNEC gave considerable weight to the number of customers who had signed up for the net metering programs. The problem with this is that those numbers are heavily confounded by other state laws, mainly those that in some states provide direct subsidies and tax breaks to individuals and businesses who install green energy generation.

For example, both California and New Jersey, which earned an "A" grade from NNEC, heavily subsidize solar, wind and other renewable energy in their states. It is those subsidies--not the net metering law per se--that have put those states far ahead of everyone else.

The NNEC also penalized some states for their limits on the size of alternative energy generators that could be plugged into the net, and provisions such as requiring liability insurance. In Virginia, the net metering law limits homeowners to no more than a 10 kw system, which we yesterday said was too small. At the time, however, we misunderstood what this means. It turns out a 10 kw system for a homeowner is pretty big. The Curmudgeon's solar photovoltaic array, which has 14 panels, is rated at 2.3 kw. Few homeowners could fit anything four times that size on their homes (and it would cost $75,00-100,000). Still, the limit should be raised since some farm owners could install very economical wind generators well in excess of 10 kw.

In contrast, Virginia's limit for commercial enterprises is 500 kw, which is a pretty large system. (We'd like to see it raised to 2 MW to encourage large businesses--such as AOL--to go for bigger systems.)

Virginia also requires generators in the net metering program to have liability insurance, but it turns out that a standard homeowners policy will suffice as long as it does not have specific exclusion against loss arising out of the use of a renewable fuel generator. So this is really not much of a disincentive.

Virginia requires a utility to carry forward any net generation for a year (this is important, because some generators create more electricity than they need in some months and use more than they generate in others--the carryforward smooths out the peaks and valleys). And Dominion Virginia Power will consider entering a purchase power contract with someone who's generating a lot of excess electricity.

The one real problem with Virginia's law is that it limits participation in the net metering program to 0.1 percent of a utility's total peak demand for electricity. In other words, if the number of participants exceeds 0.1 percent of Dominion's peak demand, Dominion can turn down additional participants. This is a silly limitation--Virginia should hope that participation will grow as large as possible. If a limit is kept, it should be set at 5 percent. Utilities benefit from net metering because it reduces overall demand and thus staves off the building of expensive new plants and controversial high voltage transmission lines. Also, solar generators tend to produce the most energy during periods of peak demand, thus decreasing the need for a utility to purchase very expensive peak power. Accordingly, any claim that expanded participation in net metering will hurt the utility or its ratepayers is hogwash.

While we think the NNEC's grading of the states was misleading--we'd give Virginia a "B"--maybe a "B-"--the report does have some utility. It notes "best practices" among the states, which in turn can be used to model much needed federal legislation.

Here's what we'd like to see from Congress. A national net metering law based largely on that in New Jersey, which would require all utilities to allow net metering. The stated goal of such legislation should be to encourage 5% of all electricity generated in the U.S. to be from net metered installations by 2017. (That's a lot of electricity--about 200 billion kilowatt hours.) There should be few limits on the size of net metered generators and paperwork should be kept to a minimum (Dominion's form is pretty easy to use). The law should also preempt localities from discouraging net metered home installations--we recently saw a report from Scarsdale, NY where the village council prohibited a couple from putting solar panels on their roof because neighbors complained about possible glare.

Net metering alone, however, will not get us where we need to be. Congress also needs to pass a package of generous tax incentives for individuals and businesses to install renewable net-metered electric generation. At present, federal law allows a tax credit for an individual of up to 50% of the cost of certain renewable energy sources, but the credit is limited to $2000. That means on a solar panel array costing $20,000, the credit is actually only 10%. Congress should remove, or greatly increase, the limit on the tax credit, and use elimination of tax subsidies for oil to fund the increased cost of the credit. A true 50% tax credit on renewable net-metered generation would make solar economical and would spur creation of a huge industry to meet demand for these types of installations.

We believe this is an area where bipartisan action can and should be taken--almost everyone has something to gain: utilities put off expensive new plants and purchases of peak power; every state gains new jobs and businesses installing net metered generation; we reduce the need for foreign oil imports and we reduce carbon emissions. What's not to like?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Virginia Gets A "D" On Net Metering Law To Encourage Renewable Energy Use


Like most states, Virginia has a "net metering" law intended to encourage homeowners and businesses to install sources of renewable energy for electricity. Net metering allows someone, such as the Curmudgeon, to install solar panels (but it can also be wind, geothermal, etc.) on his roof to generate electricity and plug directly into the local power company's grid, rather than install expensive batteries to store excess electricity. (For more info on the Curmudgeon's solar array, click here.)

With net metering, the utility credits a homeowner for the electricity he/she generates, as measured by the utility's meter (the meter will actually run backwards if the homeowner is generating more electricity than he is using).

Unfortunately, Virginia's law is not a very good one, and so far relatively few Virginians are taking advantage of it. A report on net metering issued in November by the Network for New Energy Choices graded the various states' net metering laws.

Virginia earned a "D". At least that's better than Maryland's "F". And better than the 16 states that still prohibit net metering. Still, Virginia can afford to do better.

The biggest problems with Virginia's law? It puts an unrealistic limit on the size of an individual homeowner's generation to 10Kw, which is a pretty small set of solar panels. This limit should be removed. In addition, the law caps net metering at a paltry 0.1% of a utility's total capacity--the cap should be removed. All ratepayers benefit when individual homes and businesses add to the energy grid because it reduces the need to produce peak power and to add additional capacity.

Virginia would be wise to look to New Jersey's law, which earned an "A." Combined with some generous state subsidies, New Jersey's law is encouraging thousands of homeowners to install solar panels and other forms of renewable electricity generation.

To Virginia's credit, it has amended the net-metering law in recent years to improve it, including expanding the types of energy eligible to participate and raising the limit on commercial generation. We encourage Governor Tim Kaine and the legislature to continue making this important law better.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Dominion Rethinking Power Line Route?

According to the Washington Post, Dominion Power is reconsidering various options for stringing a new high voltage power line to Northern Virginia.

Among options Dominion is reconsidering is burying the line, which the utility says would raise the price tag from $300 million to $1.7 billion. We don't think most of Dominion's ratepayers are interested in that.

Another option is to run much of the new line parallel to I-66, an option that may well be worth considering.

Meanwhile, opponents of the line have gotten their local politicians riled up to the point of proposing ridiculous legislation that you rarely see from Republicans. One bill introduced in the legislature would prevent the line from being constructed within 500 feet of a school or home. Hey, why not apply that rule to all infrastructure in the state? Then we'd soon be back to the Stone Age!

Another bill is even more preposterous: require Dominion to compensate any property owner within 2000 feet of the line for "lost views." Let's think about that one. Every time a new mega-mansion gets built in "picturesque" Loudon and Prince William Counties, it messes up the "view" of someone else. Why not require the builder of any new home, office, road or anything else in this area to compensate any other property owner within 2000 feet for despoiling their views? The upside--a measure that would limit growth!

Of course, every person who moves into the rapidly expanding exurbs of western Loudon County wants to be the last one in. They like it, but they don't want further development that will spoil what they liked. Unfortunately, unless you can afford to buy several square miles of land, that's not how it works.

We especially like the folks who complain that even siting the power line along I-66 will "affect tourism and destroy views." Gee, we didn't realize I-66 was considered so picturesque!

Dominion should review it's options, just to make sure it's making the right decision. But it shouldn't change what's best for the vast majority of its ratepayers simply because a few rich crybabies will have to look at a high voltage line. Here's our advice: look the other way.

Senator Jim Webb's Powerful Response To Bush's SOTU

Here's Virginia Senator Jim Webb's powerful Democratic Response to President Bush's State of the Union address, in video from YouTube and in text from the Washington Post.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Powerful Webb Response To Tepid Bush SOTU Address

A few quick reactions to the State of the Union address before we read others' thoughts.

Overall, Bush's speech was, as expected, long on rhetoric and short on specifics. The President showed little energy or enthusiasm. And clearly, much of Congress didn't embrace much of what he had to say.

On energy independence and climate change, the President talked a good game, but again gave out few specifics. He stated a goal of reducing gasoline use by 20 percent over the next decade, largely by expanding production of biofuels fivefold over the same period. These are not bad goals, but he didn't say how he'd accomplish them. Apart from those goals, however, the President posited no specifics--it was more a wish that somehow the country would achieve energy independence and fight global warming in spite of, instead of because of, anything he or the government might do.

On health care, Bush again proposed expanding Health Savings Accounts. Give us a break--these accounts are great for rich folks, but they do nothing--absolutley nothing--for people who are currently uninsured.

On Iraq, Bush once again tried to make the link between the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism. Most of us know, however, that our invasion and occupation of Iraq turned it into a haven for terrorists. We created a problem where there was none. Meanwhile, the Iraq quagmire has prevented us from a single-minded focus on real issues of terrorism, and has created more terrorists than when the war began.

Bush ended his address with speech by anecdote, pointing to four outstanding individual Americans and showcasing their achievements, NONE of which had anything to do with any policy or program the President put in place (okay, the wounded serviceman from Iraq was a result of his failed policies). While these are nice inspiring stories, they're complete fluff, having nothing to do with what the President plans to accomplish in the remainder of his term.

Webb's Response

The Democratic response was given by freshman Virginia Senator Jim Webb. Just before Webb spoke, NBC's Brian Williams reported that Webb "tore up" the draft given him by the Democratic Party and wrote his own response from scratch. Good for Webb!

It was a great response, delivered in Webb's typical understated style. It was blunt and to the point, which we've come to expect from Webb, who is not given to nonsense.

In keeping with Webb's own key campaign issues, he addressed two points: economic fairness and the Bush administration's failed foreign policy.

He had some good lines. The American people, Webb said, have "patiently endured a mismanaged war" in Iraq. That is certainly true. A huge majority now views the war as a mistake and wants it to end. Yet, to date, protests have been small and orderly and the public has managed to maintain support for the troops, doing their impossible job, while disdaining the decisionmaking of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their ilk.

We are "now as a nation held hostage" to the war in Iraq. True again. With our armed forces bogged down in the dusty streets of Baghdad, we're not able to hunt down Osama Bin Laden; we're not able to threaten Iran and North Korea; we're not able to stop genocide in Darfur. And our international standing is at rock bottom around the world.

Webb called for diplomacy and a withdrawal of our troops from the streets of Baghdad (i.e., to secure bases within or near Iraq) as a prelude to bringing them home. It's still incredible to us that Bush has simply rejected the notion of diplomatic talks with Iran and Syria without even trying.

Webb also noted that in every one of Bush's state of the union addresses he has called for "energy independence." What he could have added is that under Bush's leadership we are even more addicted to oil today than we were when Bush was elected, in large part due to the awful energy bill pushed through by Bush, Cheney and the Republican Congress.

For once we have reason to be hopeful after one of these depressing Bush speeches. This time, Congress is in Democratic hands. God knows, the Democrats won't be perfect. But at least now we have a chance to make some forward progress on a wide range of important issues.

Finally: Energy Policy To The Forefront

A much-needed debate on our national energy policy is finally moving into full-swing. The discussion promises to be messy, and of course, political. Some good is bound to come out of it.

A large majority of Americans are now convinced that global warming is real, that it's a threat, and that it's caused, at least in significant part, by human activity. That belief will no doubt be reinforced in a couple of weeks when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international body of experts, issues its Fourth Assessment Report on global warming. This will be the IPCC's first comprehensive report since 2001, and advance chatter suggests it will ring the bell loudly for increased evidence of faster than expected global warming and its adverse effects. (See, e.g., Global Warming, The Final Verdict, in Sunday's UK Observer.)

Many states, frustrated with the Bush administration's complete lack of focus on the problem, have already started pushing policies to reduce carbon emissions. That, in turn, has prompted industry--which prefers uniform federal policies to a hodge-podge of conflicting state and local laws--to begin agitating for a comprehensive national policy.

Likewise, the new Congress includes many Democrats who are fervent about the need to address global warming, as well as issues of energy independence (as we've recently pointed out, these are two different issues that require different, but overlapping, policies). Clearly, however, while there is an emerging consensus that something needs to be done (even Bush the denier will supposedly fess up to the need in his State of the Union address tonight), there is a raging debate about HOW to do it.

Bush will probably pay only lip service to the issue of global warming--he'll say we need to do something, but he won't propose anything meaningful. Kind of like when he said we were addicted to oil and should raise corporate average fuel economy targets, but then never submitted any legislation to do so.

Industry is increasingly getting in on the debate. Yesterday, a diverse group of utilities and manufacturers, led by General Electric, urged Congress to implement a "cap and trade" program, whereby businesses would have their carbon emissions capped, and then would have to meet targets for reducing emissions, either by installing new technology, or by purchasing emission credits from other more efficient businesses. (See CEO's Urge Bush To Limit Greenhouse Emissions.) [Actually, the CEO's are urging Congress to act--they realize Bush is pretty marginal at this point.]

Of course, other businesses have different views on the issue, all depending on the types and amounts of energy they currently use. For example, the steel industry, which is a big carbon emitter, opposes caps on the ground that it will just help foreign manufacturers who are not subject to such caps (there are ways to level that playing field, however). Since different Democrats are beholden to different industries and the unions employed by those industries, they are having a hard time coming up with a unified strategy. (See Internal Rifts Cloud Democrats' Opportunity on Warming).

One good sign: editorial pages are devoting significant column space to the debate now that pretty much everyone has had a chance to denounce Bush's Iraq surge plan. For example, today's WSJ has an op-ed piece from energy expert Daniel Yergin on "Energy Independence" pointing out just how far we are from achieving such a goal, and another piece from venture capitalist Vinod Khosia ("The War on Oil") making the point that we've already gone about as far as we can with corn-based ethanol, but promoting cellulosic biofuels as the wave of the future.

We can't imagine that a great piece of legislation is going to come out of all this, but we can hope for at least a decent start. Big Oil is likely to be the initial big loser, while just about everyone else will, at least in the short term, get a bag of goodies from Congress, whether they deserve it or not. (E.g., powerful House Energy Committee Chairman John Conyers will make sure the Big Three automakers get showered with subsidies to develop next generation cars that they should've already developed on their own.)

The ultimate goal, however, should be a strong cap and trade system, which ultimately leaves to businesses the best way to lower their emissions while unleashing powerful market forces to drive the most promising technologies forward. That, combined with elimination of tax breaks and subsidies for oil, natural gas and coal should go a long way to getting the U.S. headed in the right direction.

More On Mark Warner

Last Thursday we reported that former Virginia Governor Mark Warner had hosted an impromptu luncheon of key Democratic leaders in Charleston, SC (an early primary state) and wondered whether Warner is reconsidering his decision not to run for President in '08.

We've since learned that Warner hosted a similar luncheon in the state capital, Columbia, the next day, which included the chairman of the state Democratic party. Participants in that luncheon got a stronger feeling than those in Charleston that Warner is seriously reconsidering his decision. Key Democrats in the state also believe Warner can wait a bit before making a decision--everyone else is jumping in now because they need to raise money, but Warner still has money in his Forward Together pac, as well as his personal fortune.

Our guess: Warner will continue testing the waters over the next few weeks. Absent some major change in the polls, which show Hillary leading, but not by much, we think Warner may jump back in (although he is also looking at the other Warner from Virginia--John--to see if he will run for re-election to the Senate in '08; if John Warner retires, we think Mark will go the easier route and try to succeed him).

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Don't Conflate Energy Independence With Climate Change Policy

Now that the House Democrats have finished their largely symbolic first 100 hours agenda, Speaker Nancy Pelosi says one of the next key issues is "energy independence." According to Pelosi, "climate change is part of energy independence."


The converse might well be true, however: energy independence could well be a by-product of aggressive policies to reduce carbon emissions as a means of addressing global warming.

Here's the problem. "Energy independence" is a set of policies designed to wean America from its ever-growing dependence on foreign oil, and, to a lesser extent, imported natural gas. The goal of achieving energy independence is to enhance our national security, primarily by avoiding entanglements with the unstable and sometimes unsavory governments that control much of our foreign oil.

If we really want energy independence, we can pretty easily get it, albeit at a cost. The U.S. has ample coal reserves that can be tapped for generating electricity and transforming into liquid fuel. Likewise, U.S. corn production can increasingly be diverted into distillation of ethanol to run automobiles. We can also choose to open up drilling in environmentally sensitive areas of the Arctic and boost incentives to develop shale oil in the Rockies. We can also boost nuclear power. And, of course, we can expand our use of renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and geothermal.

All these steps could reduce our use of foreign oil, which we use primarily because it is CHEAP compared to these other options.

Now, let's turn to global warming. If we want to reduce carbon emissions, we won't tap our vast coal reserves. Indeed, the first step we'd want to take is to replace coal-fired electric plants with almost anything else, since coal is the biggest carbon emitter of the major fuels. Similarly, we wouldn't want to open up vast new oil fields in Alaska or off our coasts since oil, too, is a major carbon emitter.

Ethanol production from corn is a closer question, but most scientists who've looked into it have concluded that corn-based ethanol is, at best, only slightly better from a carbon perspective than gasoline derived from oil. It might even be a bit worse.

Instead, we would concentrate our efforts on renewable fuels that are low in carbon emissions. Wind and solar energy are great--the only carbon emissions are those caused by the manufacture and construction of their components, which is relatively small. Wind, especially, is a great source of electricity and is already competitive with carbon fuels such as oil. Solar is more expensive, but spurring its widespread use with subsidies will help the industry produce next generation solar panels that are more efficient.

Neither wind nor solar, however, can be counted on for round the clock electricity generation, and large scale storage is not likely to be very economical or environmentally friendly. Accordingly, we need to also invest in new nuclear plants, which are as carbon friendly as wind. Those "environmentalists" who oppose all nuclear of any kind are unreasonable, and, in the end, making a huge negative environmental trade-off based more on fear than fact.

On the automotive front, we need to encourage development of cellulose based biofuels from plants such as switchgrass and cornstalks, and move away from corn-based ethanol. Cellulose biofuels should be 5-10 times more carbon friendly than corn. But that's just for the short run. In the long run, we need to move rapidly toward replacement of our existing automotive fleet with cars that are primarily electric--hybrids with an additional battery, which can achieve 70 mpg (of gasoline or biofuel).

Ultimately, we need to move to a hydrogen fuel cell fleet, a feat that is more difficult than most people think. One problem: today, most hydrogen in the U.S. is produced from natural gas, and thus emits carbon. Hydrogen can be produced by electrolysis of water, but that requires a lot of electricity. One solution--next generation nuclear electric plants, which operate at such high temperatures they can produce both electricity and hydrogen.

Eliminating oil and natural gas for home heating is also quite a challenge.

Of course, since virtually all our imported energy is in the form of oil and natural gas, switching to lower carbon sources of energy will have, as a side effect, promotion of energy independence.

Accordingly, Democrats should concentrate their policy changes on those that promote reduced carbon emissions. "Energy independence" as a goal unto itself will not do much to address global warming--indeed, it could make matters worse if we rely increasingly on our abundant coal.

Unfortunately, for political reasons--wanting to look strong on national defense, catering to farm belt corn interests, etc.--Democrats will probably continue to wrap themselves in the rhetoric of energy independence. Let's just hope they funnel the money to the more promising carbon neutral technologies.

Is Mark Warner Reconsidering?

Is Mark Warner reconsidering his decision not to run for President in '08? Perhaps. At a minimum, it appears he's still conflicted.

Yesterday, Warner had lunch in Charleston, SC with an impromptu gathering of local Democratic activists who were recruited at the last minute via email and phone. About 25 of Charleston's most influential Dems attended, including legendary Mayor Joe Riley.

Warner indicated that his decision not to run was based on his feeling that he wasn't "1000 percent sure" he wanted to do it. But now he says he's not sure the "1000 percent" standard is the right one.

No doubt, many Warner supporters and other Democratic Party movers and shakers would like to see Warner in the crowded field, perhaps as an alternative to Edwards as the attractive Southerner in the race. Some probably want Warner in only as an Edwards spoiler, while others genuinely like the former Virginia governor and would support him all the way. (Our read of the polls has been that Edwards was a huge beneficiary of Warner's decision to drop out.)

In any event, with South Carolina shaping up as a key early battleground state (and Iowa looking increasingly irrelevant with Vilsack in the field), it's certainly interesting to find non-candidate Warner making the trek to Charleston.

To be sure, Warner was as diplomatic as possible, telling the group that he has a lot of respect for Sen. Barack Obama. Warner offered a story in which, before meeting Obama, he expected to dislike the Illinois Senator, but ended up getting completely charmed when the two finally had a chance to sit down together.

Warner told the group he's beginning to focus on two major policy issues: health care and energy independence. [Tomorrow, the Curmudgeon will discuss Democrats' tendency to conflate policies on energy independence with those concerning climate change, which turn out to be two very different, albeit overlapping, subjects.] Warner noted that the federal government spends about as much each year on energy independence (we guess he means alternative energy) as it does in a week on the war in Iraq.

Warner also clearly opened the door to serving as the Democratic nominee for Vice President, and in the end, that could be what he's angling for.

Right now, we think Warner's in "wait and see" mode. He's got enough money--both from his personal fortune and in the bank of his Forward Together pac--that he can afford to jump in later than many of his rivals. We suspect that if Hillary can't get traction in the polls after Obama's leap into the race, Warner will be sorely tempted, especially if Edwards begins emerging as a kind of party alternative to the two stalemated leaders.

At the same time, we can't help but think the media will taunt Warner as a "flip-flopper" if, after declaring himself out, he suddenly gets back in. He'd need a good cover story for that one.

The one thing that is clear is that Warner hasn't fully disengaged from the race. There's bound to be more to this story in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Virginia's Taliban: Bob Marshall

He doesn't have Mullah Omar's thick dark scraggly beard or black turban. Indeed, he dresses in conservative business suits with boring rep ties. Don't let looks deceive, however: Virginia Delegate Robert Marshall, Republican from Prince William County, is the leader of Virginia's Taliban--religious conservatives who hope to impose their will on the way the rest of us live our private lives.

Put aside Marshall's loud sponsorship of Virginia's overbroad constitutional amendment prohibiting gay unions of any kind and his sponsorship of the usual raft of abortion restrictions and stem cell prohibitions. You see these all the time, all over the country.

Here's some of Marshall's proposals you may not have heard of, which have earned him our nomination as Virginia's Mullah Omar.

--HB 187: would prohibit any licensed health care provider in the state of Virginia from performing any medical procedure that "replaces sexual intercourse as the means of conception." In other words, no "unmarried woman" in the Commonwealth could get pregnant through artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, etc.

(Oh, if you are an unmarried woman in Virginia who is raped and gets pregnant through such means, Marshall would prohibit you from getting an abortion. If you were a college student, he would prohibit your college from prescribing a "morning after" pill to keep you from getting pregnant after being raped.)

--HB 197: would require couples in Virginia seeking to get married to choose between a marriage license that allows "no fault" divorce and one that does not. This bill oddly forecasts that young couples contemplating marriage are in a position to give up their rights to a no-fault divorce while in the pangs of love.

--HB 412: would prohibit anonymous egg and sperm donors for use "in the performance of intervening medical technology that completely or partially replaces sexual intercourse as a means of conception." You see the pattern here--Marshall wants to restrict, as much as possible, any procedure that "replaces sexual intercourse as a means of conception." And, of course, you know that in his heart of hearts, he'd love to restrict any sexual intercourse that wasn't for the purpose of conception!

--HB 2798: would prohibit divorce in any case where a couple has children and both spouses don't consent to the divorce. (Hat tip to 750 Volts for this one.) As our fellow blogger at 750 points out, such a law would allow an abusive spouse--including one who has abused the children--to veto a divorce.

There are other similar laws proposed by Marshall, but you get the picture. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, and like religious fanatics around the globe, Marshall wants to impose his narrow, religiously based world-view on the rest of us Virginians.

We'd like to see Marshall don a black turban so the voters would know who they're really dealing with.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Tweeter: Mega Rip-off for HD TV

Should it cost $2700 to install a $1700 HD plasma television? We think not. But that's what retailer Tweeter wanted to charge us!! Here's the story:

Recently, the Curmudgeon decided it was time to upgrade to a large flat-screen HD plasma television, just like the ones all our friends are getting. After all, it's always important to keep up with the un-curmudgeons.

The best place to put such a television in our home would be mounted on the face of a brick fireplace in our den. That's a little beyond the Curmudgeon's household handy skills, so we decided we ought to call in the professionals.

We figured it would end up costing more than simply ordering a 42-inch Panasonic plasma HD from a big box store like Best Buy--where they've been priced as low as $1000--but that it would be worth it to "get it done right."

So off we ventured to Tweeter, a high-end electronics retailer that, we thought, had a good reputation for service. Turns out going to Tweeter is like getting mugged by someone in a nice suit.

A couple weeks ago we went to the Tweeter store in Bailey's Crossroads, which happens to share a shopping center with Best Buy. The store manager, Wayne, was nice enough. We said we were interested in the 42-in. Panasonic plasma HD, which, based on our research, would be a fine HD television for almost anyone's home. Wayne showed us a couple of Panasonic's, priced at roughly $1600-1700, depending on features. Fair enough, we thought--the price of good service.

Like any good salesman, Wayne also showed us a much more expensive Sony LCD in the same size range, explaining that it had a brighter picture that might be more suitable for a sunny room. No thanks, we said--not that much sun in our den, and in any event, not worth $900 more. Fine, said Wayne, and agreed to schedule an in-home visit to see about mounting this new television on the fireplace.

After a couple delays, Wayne finally made it out to the house, made a few notes, discussed a few options, and then said he'd get back to me with a quote. At no time did he mention any prices for anything other than the TV itself.

Now, the Curmudgeon was figuring that all this might end up costing between $2000 and $2500--a lot of money and something we were swallowing hard at, but the price of getting it done right.

Today, we went by the Tweeter store to get the quote from Wayne. Here's how they priced it, straight off the invoice Wayne "went over" with us:

Panasonic television $1700 (they were "no longer selling" the cheaper model)

Platinum tilt mount $300

Cables to components $300

2 HDMI cables $360 (these are "back-up" cables)

2 ITC 24 RCA (12) $120 (not sure what this was)

Hook TV to components $90 (i.e., labor)

Misc. Hardware, Connectors $45

Install bracket $450 (more labor)

Wire mold (conduit) $200 (this is simply what you hide the cables in)

Electrician to install new outlet $225 (nice to know the electrician costs less than cables)

Surge protector for TV $300 (these are some kind of high-falutin' protectors)

Surge protector for components $250

Total: $4521 (including sales tax)

(And that doesn't include the $500 extended warranty they were offering).

Good golly miss Molly (now that we've given up cursing, we have to say things like that). Wayne, you've got to be kidding.

Frankly, the Curmudgeon is more upset because we didn't think we looked so gullible and stupid. By our estimate, Tweeter would make more profit on this deal than the actual cost of the television! No wonder Wayne is so well dressed. We wonder what type of luxury car he drives!

Of course, we could have bargained with Wayne, probably gotten a good thousand bucks off. But who wants to bargain when the other guy starts off in bad faith? Not to mention we're not going to pay $4000 either.

So there you have it, consumers. Tweeter is a great big rip-off. We're sorry we wasted our time with Tweeter--now we're back to square one. But we hope our loss (in time) will be your gain. Come to think of it, now we know why the Tweeter store was empty of customers on both our visits.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Arlington I-66 Improvements--Please Help Us Eastbound Too!

The Curmudgeon received a nice little newsletter from the Virginia Dept. of Transportation last week detailing VDOT's plans for improving I-66 between the Roosevelt Bridge and the Dulles Access Road. Called "Idea 66," the newsletter urges its readers to "imagine the possibilities."

For more info, go to VDOT's I-66 website at (For Arlingtonians, there is also a "public workshop" scheduled for Tuesday, January 23, from 7-8:30 in the cafeteria at Washington-Lee High School.)

The newsletter would be a lot better if it wasn't written in government bureaucratese, such as "[t]he VISSIM model is a software program that can be calibrated to existing conditions including origin-destination data from a digital license plate survey, field observations on I-66 Westbound, turning movement counts, and ramp counts."

After plowing through Idea-66, however, and checking out the website, we've gleaned that VDOT plans to make three "spot improvements" to I-66 while it continues to study longer term options.

Those spot improvements will do a lot to fix the highway's most glaring problems with Westbound traffic in Arlington/Falls Church, but, unfortunately, do nothing to address the most glaring and easily corrected problem with Eastbound flow.

For Westbound traffic--coming from Washington, D.C. toward Falls Church, VDOT will widen the roadway to three lanes in several critical spots. First, it will extend the on-ramp from Spout Run all the way to the next exit ramp, at Glebe Road. This will help things a bit, but this really isn't where the traffic problems start.

Second, VDOT will extend the on-ramp from Fairfax Drive all the way to the exit ramp at Sycamore Street. This will be a huge improvement. Anyone who regularly drives on I-66 knows that the back-ups begin with the heavy traffic merging in from Fairfax Drive, where a two-lane on-ramp meets a two-lane highway--an engineering mis-match from day-one!

However, we fear that VDOT's improvement will only shift the beginning of the back-up to Sycamore Street, where, after the improvement, I-66 will go from three lanes back to two lanes for about a quarter mile. In the long run, VDOT needs to squeeze that third lane in all the way to the next improvement, at the Washington Blvd. on-ramp.

Currently, when the Washington Blvd. ramp meets I-66, it runs all the way to the exit for the Dulles Access Road, making for pretty smooth traffic flow. VDOT would add another lane running all the way to the Dulles Access Road (about a mile), thus making the highway four lanes wide for this short stretch. That's a good idea, since the Dulles Access exit has two lanes and I-66 has two lanes. Thus, two of the four lanes will exit right to the Dulles Access Road while the other two continue on I-66 towards its rendezvous with the Beltway, where I-66 again widens to four lanes westbound.

Still, we're concerned about that short strip of two-lane highway that will be left between the Sycamore exit-ramp and the Washington Blvd. on-ramp. This is a tough spot because there is an overpass and the East Falls Church Metro Station sits in the median. Our guess is that it would be quite expensive to add a third lane in this stretch, but without it we don't think the spot improvements will, in the end, clear out the long daily back-up on this stretch of I-66.

Now, what does VDOT propose to do with Eastbound I-66 in the same area? Apparently nothing.

That's tragic, because even in non-rush hour periods, traffic backs up badly from Glebe Road all the way to the Beltway and the Dulles Access Road in this area. And during the afternoon rush hour, traffic from Tyson's Corner toward Washington is at a standstill due to the bottleneck on Eastbound I-66.

There is a simple spot improvement that would vastly improve this situation eastbound (it won't completely fix the problem since there is also a problem of narrowing four lanes down to two at the Lee Highway/Washington Blvd. exit). If VDOT would extend the on-ramp from Sycamore Street all the way to the exit ramp at Fairfax Drive/Glebe Road (about a mile) it would work wonders. This two-lane stretch of highway is always congested and slow, and gets more congested and slower with each car that enters from Sycamore Street. All that congestion ends at Fairfax Drive, where a significant percentage of cars exit the highway, and it's then generally smooth sailing all the way to the Roosevelt Bridge.

We can't imagine this fix is any more difficult than the spot improvements on Westbound I-66, although it might require re-routing part of the W&OD bicycle path in that section since it runs right next to the highway there.

Perhaps we'll get an explanation from VDOT for why it's ignoring I-66's Eastbound problems at the public workshop in a week or so.

And here's a Curmudgeon prediction: despite the fact that the improvements proposed by VDOT are quite modest and fit within I-66's existing right of way, there will be the usual contingent of Arlingtonians loudly voicing knee-jerk opposition to any change in I-66, on the rather silly grounds that they didn't want the highway in the first place and they simply refuse to think about anything to improve it. (Sadly, that includes some of our elected representatives.)

Friday, January 12, 2007

State Farm Loss In Katrina Insurance Coverage Case Has Potential Downside For Virginia's Coastal Communities

Yesterday, a Mississippi jury ordered home insurer State Farm to pay $2.5 million in punitive damages to a couple whose house was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The highly publicized award--along with ongoing legal proceedings on the Gulf Coast in hundreds of other lawsuits--has the potential to make a big impact on other coastal communities, including in Virginia.

First, the good news for insurers: the decision is not as bad as press reports would tend to indicate. The federal district court judge in the case, L. T. Senter, Jr., ruled that State Farm would not be required to pay for damage caused by water, including storm surge. (Some plaintiffs along the coast have pursued the dubious claim that because a hurricane storm surge is caused by wind, it's not "flood" damage; this is a ridiculous argument made by people who should've purchased federal flood insurance, but didn't, and now want the rest of us with homeowners insurance to bail them out.)

However, Judge Senter also ruled that in a case involving both wind and flood damage, the insurer is on the hook for the portion of the damage caused by wind. Significantly, he held that in a case of mixed damage, the burden of proof would shift to the insurer to prove what portion of the damage was caused by water. In this particular case, the homeowners alleged that Katrina's winds--including a tornado--destroyed their house and then the storm surge carried the debris away.

The court granted judgment to the couple (taking the case away from the jury) on the fundamental issue of whether State Farm had proven that water damage caused ALL the damage, which would be the only way State Farm could deny any payment. Judge Senter agreed that State Farm had proven that water caused some of the damage, but faulted the insurer for providing "no proof" of what portion of the damage was attributable to wind versus water. Therefore, he ruled that State Farm was liable for the full amount of the policy: $223,292. He then let the jury decide whether to impose punitive damages.

In the end, the rulings are pretty narrow and fact specific. State Farm needed an expert witness to quantify the amount of damage from water versus wind, and having failed to provide that evidence, the insurer lost.

Clearly, there will be an appeal. The case will now go to the conservative and business oriented Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers the hurricane prone states of Texas, Lousiana and Mississippi. There are several ways State Farm could win on appeal. First, the appellate court could fault the lower court's purely legal decision to shift the burden of proof to State Farm. Second, the court could reverse the judgment on the ground that the trial court should not have entered a directed verdict--i.e., taken the case away from the jury--on whether State Farm had carried its burden of proof. Reversal on that basis would require a new trial.
Finally, the appellate court could reverse or reduce the punitive damages--and is likely to do so--on the ground that with such novel legal issues and with clear evidence of at least some water damage, State Farm did not act in bad faith. Even if the punitive damages stand, the appellate court is likely to reduce the amount of the award to around $1 million based on existing precedent that punitive damages should not generally exceed four times the amount of compensatory damages.

In short, this one case has a long way to go.

Now, what does the case mean to other homeowners in hurricane-prone regions? It surely means a further escalation in insurance rates and is likely to accelerate the number of insurers who simply won't offer coverage in such areas. That is not welcome news for homeowners, developers and governments in coastal communities.

In the end, we are all better served by very clear rules on insurance related to hurricanes. Damage to homes caused by water, including storm surge, should be the province of flood insurance, which is expensive--and should be! Why should the rest of us subsidize people--many of whom are wealthy--who choose to live, or have vacation homes in--such dangerous areas? On the other hand, damage from wind should be covered by standard homeowners policies, which presumably will be priced to the hazard.

(Typically, storm surge damage in a hurricane will be limited to homes located within a couple hundred yards of the ocean or a connected body of water, such as a bay or river; storm surges often completely destroy a structure. In contrast, wind damage can occur hundreds of miles inland, but usually doesn't destroy a building--with some exceptions: see Hurricane Andrew in Homestead, Florida. It is also easier to design and build structures that will withstand hurricane force winds, and price their insurance accordingly.)

Mixed cases--like the one above--will always be dicey. It might be better to have clear rules and allocations for such cases so that everyone, insurer and homeowner, knows in advance what will happen in such instances. (And insurance can then be appropriately priced.)

The bottom line for Virginia's numerous coastal residents: victories by Gulf Coast insureds in litigation over Katrina will probably cost you more money. And, as always, especially in dealing with insurance companies, buyer beware! Review your policy now and make sure you have the coverage you think you're getting. (If it's inexpensive, then you're probably poorly covered.)

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Is Exxon Going Green?

Well not exactly, but maybe the carbon giant is finally greening up around the edges, perhaps realizing that its hardline position on global warming may be hurting the bottom line.

The WSJ reports today that Exxon has softened its "climate-change" (the weasel words used by Bushies and their ilk) stance, including cutting off funding to a handful of outside groups that have repeatedly challenged global warming claims.

If true, it's about time. The Union of Concerned Scientists recently likened Exxon's stance on global-warming to the old Tobacco Institute's dogged claims that the link between cancer and smoking had not been "proven." It appears now, however, that Exxon has stopped funding the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the most notorious of a series of front groups for global warming skeptics. (The CEI went so far as to air television ads praising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere).

Part of the reason Exxon is cleaning up its act is the need to have some credibility in dealing with the new Congress, as well as many states--especially California--that are blazing their own trail on regulation of carbon emissions. In the new Congress, Exxon will no longer be able to count on jerks like Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe, who infamously chaired the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in the prior Congress, where he shamelessly shilled for global warming doubters and bottled up any useful legislation. So its a smart move for Exxon to begin shifting its position. Still, Exxon has a long way to go before it catches up with some of its rivals, particularly British Petroleum, which has for years run ads burnishing its green image.

It appears that Exxon's current strategy is to acknowledge the "risk" of global warming while opposing Kyoto-style efforts to reduce carbon emissions. At the same time, Exxon is urging that it's more economical to reduce emissions by electric utilities--by switching to nuclear (or nu-CU-lar as our President would say), wind and solar energy--than to effect savings in the transportation sector.

Exxon has a point, but it can only be taken so far. It is certainly true that replacing a coal-fired electric plant with wind energy (or nuclear) is economical and provides a huge benefit in terms of reduced carbon emissions.

But it's ridiculous to think we should simply ignore the transportation sector, where little progress has been made over the past 30 years in terms of gasoline efficiency. The technology exists to boost our gasoline mileage to as much as 70 mpg by using hybrid engines with an extra plug-in battery. And that technology can, in turn, take us to the point of widespread use of fuel cell powered automobile, with no carbon emissions. No doubt Exxon dreads that day, but it has plenty of time and money to get ready.

Here at the Curmudgeon, we'll wait and see what Exxon has to say over the coming months--we're not quite yet ready to lift our personal boycott of our two local Exxon gas stations, but we'd like to since they are convenient and their independent owners have never shared Exxon's past views doubting global warming.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Virginia Road Deal (?) and Virginia Highway Memorial Bill

Virginia Highway Memorials--A Great Idea Whose Time Has Come

Virginia Delegate Watkins Abbitt has introduced a bill that would provide for installation of official highway signs in memory of those killed by drunken drivers. (Hat tip to the Virginia Progressive for this bit of info.) (And thanks to for the powerful photo montage above.)

We like this idea, but would extend it a bit further. Anyone who has driven around Virginia's congested byways can't help but notice the informal roadside memorials that dot our highways, usually a small cross or other marker surrounded by a few flowers. These are great reminders that of all the dangers of modern society, driving has the highest risk of you getting killed by someone else (as opposed to smoking and other behaviors, where you kill yourself).

We'd like to see the Virginia Dept. of Transportation develop a standard marker, modest in size, but distinctive from other highway signs, that would instantly be recognized as a symbol that someone--a real person with family and friends--died in a transportation accident at that site (the markers should have the names of victims--IF the family consents). It would not take long for drivers to see just how dangerous our highways are, and might prompt people to drive in a more civilized manner.

Markers could come in variants of crosses, stars of David, crescents (sorry Virgil Goode!) and a secular design.

(It would be possible to develop a variation in the marker to identify those who were victims of drunken drivers. Personally, the Curmudgeon sees little difference in being killed by a drunken driver, killed by an aggressive driver, or killed by a careless driver on a cell phone--the result is the same each way.)

We'd even be in favor of a modest pilot program to work out the kinks--we think public support would be strong and the markers would be a far less expensive way to raise public awareness of driving risks than most other campaigns.

And, we'd ultimately like to see the program go national.

Virginia Road Deal ??

The Washington Post reports that GOP leaders in Virginia are close to reaching a deal on road funding. Much as we'd love to see the Virginia Republican Party go down in flames in November--a good possibility if a serious transportation bill is not voted out this session--we hope such a deal materializes. In the end, it is much more important that Virginia get started down the path to fixing its transportation problems--a process that will take years to complete--than to have continued partisan gridlock in the Virginia House of Delegates. (Make no mistake, it's the House, not the Senate, where the problem resides.)

If a road deal is reached, it will be interesting to see if Republicans can keep everyone under control long enough to get legislation passed. No doubt, rural conservatives unconcerned with the transportation nightmare of their urban neighbors in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia will put pressure on their delegates, many of whom are in key leadership posts, to reject any bill with increased taxes.

Even if the Legislature does finally reach agreement on a transportation funding bill this term, we expect Democrats to make at least small gains in both houses this November as a result of the changing demographics of Northern Virginia's booming population, but probably not enough to gain a majority.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Ignore The NeoCons!

A few weeks ago, we urged Bush to ignore the most recent advice--for a troop "surge"--offered by the neocons who got him into the Iraq mess in the first place. "Fool me once, shame on you, fool, fool me . . . you shouldn't get fooled again," as Bush would say.

We're shocked that Bush has ignored our advice. Once again, he's preparing to go down the neocon road, adopting a watered-down version of a plan peddled by Frederick Kagan, a neocon at the American Enterprise Institute, to "surge" troops into Baghdad as a means to quell sectarian violence.

Kagan's plan, titled "Blueprint for Victory," has been peddled all over Washington. Kagan, however, calls for 30-35,000 more troops, not the 20,000 Bush plans to call on. (This will, of course, let Kagan and other neocons off the hook when the new surge, inevitably, fails.)

The neocons have been so wrong on Iraq at every step of the way that it's a wonder they haven't been rounded up by a mob and deported to deepest darkest Africa. They've been about as competent as Mussolini's fascists. Why would anyone, much less the President of the United States, listen to a single more word they have to say?

While we could go on at some length about the perfidy of the neocons, someone else has done it for us, quite well. In "Selective Amnesia: The Pundits Who Sold The Iraq War Change Their Tune and Bury Their Records," Glenn Greenwald, writing in, of all places, the American Conservative, provides us with some useful reminders of just how shady this crowd really is.

Perhaps George Bush would like to give it a read before he commits our nation to an even more disastrous path and sends more young American men and women to needless death and maiming in Iraq.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Developer Who Caused Need For New Power Line Sues To Divert It From HIS Property

One of the things the Curmudgeon looks for in the news is irony. Like Cape Cod residents, whose homes will be flooded by rising seas or destroyed by storms caused by global warming, objecting to having a wind-energy farm put, in of all places, within their view. They deserve their fate.

We were taken by this one over the weekend: the D.C. area developer who transformed Tyson's Corner from wooded farmland into a poorly designed sprawling energy-gobbling mini-city, is so upset about Dominion Power's plan to build a new high-voltage power line near his own Northern Virginia estate that he has sued to divert the line.

John Hazel Jr. made his fortune developing Tysons Corner, taking the usual developer's shortcuts that, inevitably, lead to trouble down the road, or more aptly here, in the road. Today, Tysons is a traffic clogged mess, and it doesn't take a genius to see why--haphazard planning of a road system with major chokepoints and no access to mass transportation.

Now, Mr. Hazel owns 4000 acres of farmland in Faquier County that just happens to be in the path of one of the routes proposed by Dominion for a new $1.3 billion high voltage power line (Dominion will pony up $300 million for its 50-mile share of the new line) needed to keep Northern Virginia properly juiced over the next decade or so.

Of course, it's projects like those developed by Mr. Hazel that are creating the huge demand that in turn requires Dominion to build new lines.
One of the things Dominion has tried to do in routing the new line is to avoid property that has been conserved. Hazel's lawsuit seeks to force Dominion to cross through conserved properties.

While we think this debate is more complicated than just whether to despoil conserved properties (many of such properties, including some owned by Hazel, are merely subject to "conservation easements;" for now, they're still privately owned--and getting nice tax breaks from the state), we're simply not sympathetic to poor Mr. Hazel's plight.

Indeed, we say, "reap what you sow" Mr. Hazel. Dominion should do one better than stringing its new line near Hazel's property--it should put it right down the middle of his property, with a tower over his house.

Iraqi Civil War Toll Reaches 23,000 for Year

The Iraqi Health Ministry reports that its own quasi-official count of Iraqi civilians and police killed in the country's civil war over the past year was 22,950 and acknowledged that those numbers are "incomplete," meaning the actual tally is probably higher.

Lets put that in perspective. The population of Iraq is approximately 25 million, or one-twelfth the population of the United States. Imagine if the U.S. had a war in which 275,000 civilians and police died in just one year.

The figures are actually much grimmer. Much of Iraq is quite calm--Shi'ite dominated Basra to the south and Kurd dominated areas to the north are relatively stable. Most of the violence is in and around Baghdad, a city with about the same population as metropolitan Washington, D.C. Imagine if the Washington metro area had 23,000 violent deaths in one year! (We have fewer than 1000 murders per year in the metro D.C. region.)

Worse yet, the violence escalated rapidly in the latter half of the year. For the last six months of 2006, the Iraqi Health Ministry recorded 17,310 deaths, mostly in the Baghdad region. If violence continues at that pace in 2007, Iraqis will see another 35,000 deaths. That would be like 400,000 in the U.S.

One major problem in Iraq: most of the men arrested or captured by U.S. forces and Iraqi military and police units are released shortly after their detention. An interesting op-ed piece in today's Wall Street Journal by Bing West and Eliot Cohen notes that the Iraqi jail population of 28,000 inmates is far smaller than that of Texas, with 170,000 prisoners despite Texas having a smaller population and far less violence. (West and Cohen advocate using U.S. soldiers as police and reforming the Iraqi "catch and release" program--another of many misguided proposals to have American troops solve Iraqi problems.)

We've said it here before and we'll say it again: the U.S. presence in Iraq is doing no good and probably adding to the harm. We need to draw down our troop presence and reposition units in friendly neighboring countries, such as Kuwait, as well as in remote bases within Iraq (such as in friendly Kurdish territory). Yes, there will be "chaos." There already is. We need to let the Iraqis come up with their own solution, something they can't do as long as we're there tilting the scales. [For example, at present, U.S. troops are engaged in counterinsurgency against Sunni fighters, but not involved in any meaningful efforts to repress Shi'ite death squads. We are, in effect, helping the Shi'ites in this civil war.]
Sadly, our President, whose incompetence got us where we are now, intends to compound his errors by sending more troops off on an impossible mission. How sad.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The New Congress Needs To Do Right On Green Energy

Democrats in Congress are planning a major and long overdue step in the right direction on energy independence and reduction of carbon emissions. Let's hope they get it right.

In broad strokes, the plan is to eliminate various tax incentives and other subsidies for the oil and gas industry and devote those funds instead to supporting renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, geothermal and biofuels.

On the oil and gas side, Democratic leaders have pretty much figured out what to do. They will roll back the portion of a broad 2004 manufacturing tax cut that went to the oil and gas industries--an unnecessary incentive for an industry raking in billions in profits. In addition, they will seek to force the industry to pay royalties on new offshore production in the Gulf of Mexico and adjust the way certain tax deductions are computed.

This is a good first step that will raise around $15-$17 billion. We urge Congress to also look hard over the next year at other tax breaks and subsidies provided to the oil and gas industries and begin eliminating them as well. There's no point continuing to subsidize fuels that spew climate altering carbon into the air. If they play their cards right, Democrats might well get a few Republicans to join them in this process of beginning to wean ourselves of our addiction to oil.

On the renewable energy side, Democrats haven't yet agreed how to spend the money garnered from the oil and gas side. Let's hope they don't mess this one up.

First, none of the money should go to nuclear energy. Yes, it is true that nuclear generating plants are essentially carbon free. The Curmudgeon endorses building new nuclear plants and expanding the percentage of our electricity generated from such facilities. However, new direct government subsidies (on top of existing ones already in place) are not the answer to the nuclear industry's problems. Nuclear power is competitive economically. To get nuclear going, the federal government needs to take other steps to help reduce regulatory hurdles and help the public understand the green benefits of nuclear power.

Second, biofuels, particularly ethanol, are already getting huge subsidies. They don't need any more. If anything, we're going overboard on ethanol produced from corn, which really isn't all that carbon friendly. So, if Congress wants to put the money to good use in this area, it should specifically designate it for funding of research and demonstration projects intended to produce biofuels from cellulosic plants, such as corn stalks and switch grass, where energy efficiencies can be much greater.
Third, wind energy is already competitive in much of the country. But we can still learn to make even more efficient turbines and encourage communities to accept wind generation in urban areas. And expanding our wind generation capacity rapidly makes good sense all around.
Solar energy remains an economic challenge in most of the country. Subsidizing solar will help this sector become more competitive and encourage development of more efficient solar panels and increased manufacturing capacity.
Other renewables, such as geothermal (mainly in the west) and wave energy from the oceans would certainly benefit from increased funding.
Last, but certainly not least, we would all benefit tremendously from rapid development of vastly more fuel efficient automobiles. The two technologies with the most promise are hybrid autos with an extra plug-in battery, which can achieve 70 miles per gallon of gas used, and hydrogen powered fuel cell autos, with zero emissions and zero gasoline use. Anything Congress can do to speed adoption of these technologies will have huge payoffs down the road.

Is it possible that Congress will listen to the experts and do the right thing? We hope so. At a minimum, we hope that politics--such as overencouraging corn-based ethanol production to benefit already oversubsidized corporate farms--will play a relativel small role in shaping our priorities.

Senator Jim Webb

Jim Webb is now officially a United States Senator, having been sworn in this morning. We at the Curmudgeon welcome Virginia's new Senator and wish him well! (We also extend best wishes to the Webb family on the birth of their child in December.)
You go Jim!

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Bush Op-ed in the WSJ: Politics As Usual

Today's Wall Street Journal conveniently features an op-ed piece ostensibly written by a George W. Bush ("Mr. Bush is the president of the United States" the Journal tells its readers), who lets the new Congress know he's looking forward to "the privilege of working with them for the next two years."

Here's some of Bush's wisdom: "we can't play politics as usual." The Curmudgeon doesn't even know where to begin with this little gem. Where were you, Mr. President, when your own party was dilly-dallying with the flag-burning amendment and gay-bashing legislation while Iraq descended into further chaos and numerous critical issues from social security to global warming languished?

Then there's this: "Our priorities begin with defeating the terrorists who killed thousands of innocent Americans on September 11, 2001." Well, if that is and has been your priority, why is Osama Bin Laden still alive and free? You, Mr. President, completely squandered our opportunity to do something about Bin Laden when you committed the bulk of our armed forces to a war in Iraq at a time when Iraq had nothing to do with terrorism. You have turned Iraq into a haven--a training ground--for Islamic militants to kill and maim our servicemen and the prepare themselves for further attacks on Americans. Meanwhile, our token forces in Afghanistan have yet to find Bin Laden and his associates. Some priority!

How 'bout this one: "We can balance the federal budget by 2012." The budget was balanced--indeed, had a large surplus--when you took office. Now, your successor will have to do the work necessary to get back to balance by 2012, a goal not likely to be achieved absent significant changes in tax policy.

And finally, there's this one, which is truly unbelievable: "One important message I took away from the election is that people want to end the secretive process by which Washington insiders are able to slip into legislation billions of dollars of pork-barrel projects that have never been reviewed or voted on by Congress." Duh. Where were you the past six years while your Republican colleagues larded up the budget with earmarks? Did you once use the bully-pulpit to denounce the practice? No, in fact your political director, Karl Rove--who as far as we can tell is still working at the White House (and no doubt wrote "your" op-ed piece)--created the K Street Project that put all those GOP lobbyists together with all those GOP legislators eager to do their bidding.

No, Mr. President, we didn't elect a new Congress to work with you. You had your chance. We elected them to effect change. That doesn't mean sending more troops to a futile war in Iraq. It doesn't mean ignoring global warming. It doesn't mean letting Osama Bin Laden run free. It doesn't mean having ineffectual policies towards Iran and North Korea. It doesn't mean promoting economic inequality. It doesn't mean sacrificing our environment to special business interests.

Sadly, nothing in Bush's op-ed piece suggests he plans to do anything different. It is, in fact, politics as usual.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Virginia's Coastal Counties Have Huge Stake in Global Warming Issue--Should Try Following Arlington's Modest Initiatives

Virginians in coastal counties are finding it increasingly difficult and expensive to get homeowners' insurance as large insurers bail out due to concerns about more frequent and powerful hurricanes. Despite a tepid tropical season in '06, insurers looking down the road aren't taking any chances--they're moving aggressively to limit their risks.

[Coverage is still available, albeit at a steep price, from smaller carriers. No doubt such carriers can earn large profits over the short term by charging premium rates to coastal homeowners. We wonder how many of those insurers will be around to pay claims if a major hurricane strikes the coast.]

Like it or not, Virginia's coastal counties and their residents, which contain a huge percentage of Virginia's population, are at the greatest risk of the negative effects of global warming, including more frequent storms and a general increase in ocean sea levels. The growing insurance crisis should serve as a wake-up call to citizens of those counties.

With their large stake in the global-warming crisis, Virginia's coastal residents can and should take the lead in moving the state toward a leadership role in reducing CO2 emissions and investing in alternative energy options.

One place to look for a very modest beginning is the non-coastal county of Arlington. New County Board Chairman Paul Ferguson kicked off the new year by announcing a series of quite modest policy initiatives to make Arlington greener and reduce its carbon contribution. These include increasing the amount of wind power the county purchases from 3 percent to 5 percent, offering a tax break on hybrid cars, handing out compact-flourescent light bulbs to citizens and outfitting county buildings with solar panels.

[One thing missing from Arlington's green agenda is exempting homeowner installed alternative energy sources from property tax valuations. C'mon, Paul, this is an easy one!]

We'd like to see a more aggressive effort. For example, most of Arlington's schools could be outfitted with solar panels and some might even be suited to wind turbines, all of which could be used as teaching tools. However, we'll take it one step at a time. Further, such initiatives could be greatly improved by much-needed statewide legislation to make alternative fuel sources more competitive economically.

Virginia's coastal counties should similarly initiate programs to reduce their carbon output, as they are the ones who will suffer disproportionately from global warming. Perhaps those homeowners watching their insurance premiums rise faster than sea levels will get--and send--the right message.