Biofuel crimes in a recession.

You know what they say about crime in a recession, right? That should apply especially for bioenergy in the time of peak oil and imminently catastrophic climate change, right? That’s my theory, and it’s supported by two recent pieces of anecdata: First, the rise in used cooking oil theft, at least in Arlington County, Virginia, where french fry grease apparently has a street price of $4/gallon. Second, straight-up fraud in renewable fuel credits.

Aside from the general novelty of biofuel-related crimes, these stories raise a couple of interesting issues. The article on cooking oil thefts highlights the case of of Greenlight Biofuels, which is apparently losing 5 to 10 percent of its business each month in thefts. Greenlight Biofuels apparently reprocesses the waste cooking oil into biodiesel, but the regional manager cited in the article also notes that the same used oil can be used in making animal feed, which he says pays more for oil than biodiesel refineries. If that’s true, then that means that all of the government’s various market interventions on behalf of biodiesel are not being very effective. From a general public policy perspective – even acknowledging the deleterious effects of biodiesel in terms of its effect on food prices, particulate matter pollution, and climate change – it seems to me that turning used vegetable oil into animal feed (supporting the highly destructive livestock industry) is not the desired outcome.

Of course, the other main lesson is that the renewable fuel credits system established in EPAct 2005 needs reform, but that’s not news.

The unpredictability of firm size and political clout: a case study in snakes.

The other day, Matt Yglesias disputed the idea that large corporations have too much political power, arguing instead about the disproportionate political clout of sectors made up of small firms which are geographically dispersed, like agriculture. Because of the over-representation of rural America in the Senate, that means rural priorities – like developing the ag industry – get special political attention.

In response, Mother Jones food and ag writer Tom Philpott pointed out that agriculture’s political over-representation is chiefly due to the American Farm Bureau, an agricultural trade group deeply connected with big agribusiness (think ADM, Cargill, ConAgra, and DuPont), and not so much with actual small firms (the family farms that the Farm Bureau purports to represent):

The Farm Bureau claims its 6.2 million “member families” make it the nation’s “largest and most influential general farm organization,” but there’s a math problem here: America has just 2 million farms, and 960,000 people who claim farming as their main occupation. “The vast majority of its members,” notes FWW, “are neither farmers nor necessarily advocates of the political platform that the Farm Bureau endorses on their behalf.” Instead, they’re just random insurance customers.

I don’t know if Philpott’s contention – based on a 2010 Food & Water Watch report – is an accurate characterization, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were – which would make it less surprising that politicians awarded such outsized influence to the interests of a powerful and monied national (or transnational) lobby, which may not be aligned with those of the legislators’ constituents. Of course, it’s also possible that legislators simply aren’t aware of how their constituents’ opinions might diverge from the interests of the large corporate lobbies.

In any case, this debate reminded me of the whole kerfuffle with regulating snakes, which I meant to blog about last month. When I was in law school, I interned for Senator Ben Cardin, working on matters related to the Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife. One of the bills that I helped prepare a hearing for was Senator Bill Nelson’s proposal to add the Burmese python, among other invasive snake species, to the list of species protected by the Lacey Act, thereby prohibiting their importation and interstate trafficking.

Not only is it absurd for the Republicans to mischaracterize the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed “injurious” finding as setting off a job-killing “regulatory tsunami,” it’s especially galling considering that Nelson’s bill would essentially have legislated that finding (and you’d think it ought to be uncontroversial even among today’s right-wing zealots that it is the role of Congress to skip the bureaucrats and legislate). Back when Nelson’s bill was percolating around the 111th Congress, I didn’t understand why it wasn’t a given that it would pass – I mean, how much influence could the exotic pet and reptile enthusiast lobby have? In what Congressional district(s) are snake-lovers clamoring for greater liberty in Burmese python trading? How big is the snakes-as-pets industry and how many people do they employ? (And how many people could instead be employed as customs inspectors and Lacey Act enforcement, with co-benefits for local ecosystems?)

The trouble is, as I found after a little recreational and fruitless research, this information is not readily available (because in whose interest is it to make that information available?) and so our hapless Congresscritters were not enabled to make the rational decision about adding the Burmese python to the Lacey Act. (On the other hand, the proposed rule notes [at 75 Fed. Reg. 11817] that local, state and federal entities along with universities have spent almost $3 million on studying and eradicating large constrictor snakes in Florida alone.) This information problem might be the root cause for the disproportionate influence of the fragmented and geographically disparate small firms who traffic in an uncharismatic and literally baby-killing invasive species.

Art is also for upsetting and annoying.

The Guardian has a better picture of it, but the NYT’s Green blog has the better headline about it: “Coal-Themed Sculpture Annoys Lawmakers”.

Carbon Sink by UK artist Chris Dury at the University of Wyoming. The sculpture has upset the local coal industry. Photograph: Chris Dury

The sculpture, by British artist Chris Drury, is made of logs from lodgepole pine trees killed by pine beetles, along with lumps of Wyoming coal. According to the Guardian, beetles were still infesting some of the logs in the sculpture! I wish I could get a better look at that.

The piece, installed on the University of Wyoming campus and independently funded, is evidently meant to draw connections from coal-fired electricity generation to climate change-caused warming and its effect on pine beetles. Warmer temperatures mean that pine beetle populations are experiencing less die-off during the winter, increasing numbers at an alarming rate, and decimating pine forests across North America.

Unsurprisingly since Wyoming is the country’s leading coal-producing state, once local politicians found out about the sculpture, they were “annoyed.” The money quote is from state legislator Tom Lubnau, who says:

While I would never tinker with the University of Wyoming budget – I’m a great supporter of the University of Wyoming – every now and then, you have to use these opportunities to educate some of the folks at the University of Wyoming about where their paychecks come from.

Or, in other words, “Nice university you got there. It’d be a shame if anything ever happened to it.”

To its credit, the University of Wyoming is standing by Drury’s work and has no plans to remove it. But I’m disappointed that the art museum’s director backpedaled by saying, “Chris Drury makes connections within nature. He’s not a political artist in any way.” I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean exactly; it seems to me that any work commenting on “nature” and humanity’s relationship with it, particularly in the realm of climate change, has to be “political” in the sense that policies (about energy) are implicated. Drury clearly intends this piece – entitled “Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around” – to be about climate change and the human hand in it with relation to coal as a fuel source.

What’s more, it’s unfortunate that the art museum director didn’t take the opportunity to affirm that making political statements is an age-old, historically legitimate and valuable role of art – especially public art. Although that might not really be up for debate in Wyoming, where opposing legislators have apparently “suggested that a sculpture of energy workers be built on campus.” Yes, let’s discuss coal mining!

More Deaths From Black Lung Than Mine Accidents. Source: NIOSH 2007 report for CDC. Credit: Stephanie d'Otreppe/NPR

Such a dialogue seems exactly in line with Drury’s intentions: he’s quoted as saying he hopes the sculpture will cause people to “have a conversation.”

Drury also has some really interesting pictures and commentary of installing the piece at the University of Wyoming on his blog.

Relatedly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just issued a finding that whitebark pines merit protection under the Endangered Species Act. Although the FWS declined to place it immediately on a federal protection list due to limited resources, it has assigned the whitebark a high priority for future listing. You can read more about the whitebark pine and why protecting it matters in this blog post by Matt Skoglund of NRDC, the group that filed the 2008 petition spurring the FWS’ finding.