All time environmental boondoggle awards

It isn't always obvious to people outside of the U.S. why Joe-sixpack seems to have such a powerful allergy to conservation, efficiency and sensible environmentalism. The reason is that pseudoenvironmentalists have tried to pull the wool over his eyes many times in the decades since the first earth day, and because of the abysmal level of Joe-sixpack science literacy, they've usually succeeded. Wisconsin's Bill Proxmire was known as the founder of Earth Day and for his "golden fleece" awards for wasteful Congressional spending. In his honor, here are my nominations for the all time greatest environmental boondoggles:

  • Magnetic gasoline mpg enhancers. (Add to this the German device which detects the "tachyon signature" of nuclear generated power and stops such energy at your outlet.)
  • 1970s rooftop solar heating. Perhaps I'm being a bit unfair here. Some of these actually did produce heat, some even produced enough to pay for themselves over a decade or two. But because the qualification standards for President Carter's eco-subsidies weren't well enforced, many hideously inefficient devices were constructed. Sometimes the cost of the electricity to run the water pumps, the leakage of home heat on winter nights and other issues caused these devices to waste more energy than they saved and gave solar a bad name which hasn't yet been overcome in many parts of the U.S.
  • "Clean" coal. Clean coal as currently defined releases exactly the same tonnage of CO2 per ton of coal burned as dirty coal did 100 years ago. Call me a skeptic but to date "carbon sequestering" may eventually also fall into the boondoggle category. Almost 1000 train cars full of coal enter a typical 1000 Megawatt coal power plant every day. Whether the CO2 created is compressed or converted into a carbonate, it would have more mass than the coal it came from. If you think looking for burial sites for nuclear waste is an unsurmountable problem, try to figure out where to hide 1000 train cars full of carbonate rock every day for each of the thousands of coal power plants all over the world.
  • 21st century CF light laws. Like ethanol fuel, this can be a useful energy efficiency technology when used properly. I've used compact florescent lights since the early 90s when they were relatively reliable. But incandescent light bans and other misguided "environmental" laws have forced these to be used where they don't belong and seem to have created incentives for cheap junk bulbs to be shipped across the ocean only to end up in landfills. In my experience, 1 out of 5 brand name CF lights made in the 21st century are defective (i.e. last no longer then 6 weeks) and in many locales there is not yet a safe way of disposing of the dead bulbs.
  • California's "Zero(sic) emission" vehicle laws which effectively gave coal powered cars an advantage over those fueled by gasoline.
  • MTBE. This gasoline additive was designed to help gasoline burn cleaner but it proved to be very efficient at polluting waterways.
  • Corn ethanol. Even farmers here in Wisconsin's corn belt are beginning to understand this as the biggest eco-boondoggle in our generation. Massive government subsidies are rewarding a handful of corporations in an industry which burns as much oil to produce as it replaces. It effectively burns food in U.S. automobile gasoline tanks and has already caused food price inflation and job losses.

This is just my first draft list but I'm open to suggestions. I could be convinced that any of these technologies isn't a boondoggle if someone shows me the science. Unfortunately the level of science literacy amongst citizens and politicians is very low. The level of government investment in ecology and energy efficiency scientific research is also relatively low. So we are left with the questionable science funded by vested interests and the political might of a handful of powerful lobbiests running the show. As P.T. Barnum put it, "There's a sucker born every minute."


Carbon sequestering is not useful as a solution, since as you hinted, it is essentially based on a sort of perpetual motion machine, namely take something, extract the energy changing it into a different form, then change it back without using even more energy. Just doesn't work. However, it is a requirement to undo the damage that has already been done. That is in addition to stopping all oil usage, not instead of. How to do both or either? I don't know. But we must do them.

Posted by Brian Utterback on April 23, 2008 at 09:34 AM GMT+00:00 #

<p>Yes, a few years ago someone was experimenting with an interesting "undo" technique for vehicle emissions. The idea was to use nuclear, solar or wind power to refrigerate and compress air into a liquid. Then it's relatively easy to distill out the NOx, SOx, CO2 and other pollutants. Then use the vaporization of the liquid N2/O2 mixture to power the vehicle. (A "steam" engine where the liquid to gas transition is from liquid air to gaseous air.) </p>

Posted by bnitz on April 23, 2008 at 09:35 PM GMT+00:00 #

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