All posts by Aaron Edelstein

An Environmental and Political Debate Loom Over a Policy Designed for Energy Independence

Aaron Edelstein

 

Kevin Saler owns a Sunoco station in Newton, Massachusetts, and runs a good business, offering the only full service station in the area. He’s confused though, about the growing amount of ethanol found in the fuel supply.

 

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“It’s a mess. It leaks way more than gasoline and so you have to make sure the seals are always 100% or else it just evaporates. It’s also just making the fuel less energy dense. You get around 33% less energy from a gallon of ethanol than you do from gas, so this stuff basically just makes everything less efficient,” Saler said in late November. It’s something anyone who pumps up gas sees, but probably doesn’t notice, the sticker that says that the gasoline your pumping is up to 10% ethanol, but no one is sure about why there’s ethanol in our fuel supply, or even how it got there.

Ethanol, which is fermented organic material is most often made from corn, wood, and sugarcane, and has been fueling cars since the Model T, which could run on gasoline or ethanol because gas was hard to come by and farmers could make ethanol on the cheap. Once cars became commonplace and gas became easily accessed, ethanol fell into the background until World War II, when there were gas shortages and ethanol because the fuel of choice. It has been in our fuel supply in some capacity since then, and at an increasing rate since 2005.

After 9/11, Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act in 2007. The idea was simple enough, we were getting most of our energy needs from the middle east, a place with a lot of unrest, and one which we didn’t particularly trust just 6 years following 9/11. As part of this act, the Renewable Fuel Standard came into existence.  The RFS mandates that a certain increasing amount of ethanol be blended into the nation’s fuel supply every year. Congress put the Environmental Protection Agency in charge of this, giving them the authority to alter the mandated levels based on production levels.

There are some important things to note about blending ethanol into the fuel supply. Ford’s first Model T, which could run either fuel, would be known as a Flex Fuel car today. These vehicles can run up to 85% ethanol, known as E85. Non E85 cars can safely run up to 10% ethanol, and some newer ones can run up to 15%, so there are real limits to the amount of ethanol that can be safely mixed into the fuel supply without putting cars all over the country at risk of engine issues.

The EPA says that cars made after 2001 can safely run E15 fuel, but the car manufacturers and the American Automobile Association say differently. Many automakers have stated that they will not honor the warranty on cars being filled with E15, even on some made after 2001. When asked for comment on this, a spokesman for AAA  pointed to a statement by AAA President Marshall Doney, saying that “AAA is pleased to see the EPA acknowledge that there are real-world constraints that limit the amount of ethanol that can be safely blended into the fuel supply. Official recognition of the ‘blend wall’ may help protect consumers from using E15 gasoline in vehicles not designed for its use.”

Kelly Donnaly, who drives a 2012 Camry hybrid, never took much notice to the warning on her fuel cap that says to use only E10 fuel until she was moving to Washington over the summer and driving through the midwest on her way from Oregon.

“There’s not really any if the E15 or 85 stuff out in Portland, so I never really paid attention to it, and then I almost messed the car up in Iowa. I was filling the car up at this station and there were two hoses and I thought they were the same so I grabbed the one that was apparently E15. Luckily the attendant caught it and knew the Camry’s cant take it,” Donnaly explained.

 

Fuel filler cap 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid

Photo By Aaron Edelstein

Donnaly isn’t wrong, E15 is primarily sold in the midwest, the same area it’s produced, and not sold very many other places. The EPA, despite mandating that these biofuels be mixed into the fuel supply, hasn’t been able to get car manufacturers to produce cars that run these fuels, and the reasons are quite simple. Ethanol burns faster, which could be great if you’re trying to accelerate, but isn’t good for the average American who just wants to go further on a tank of gas. As standard combustion engines have gotten more and more efficient, and as the US has been producing more and more oil on our own, the need for ethanol as a means of independent energy production just isn’t there. Senator Lankford (R-OK) has likened the program to no child left behind, calling it a well intended policy that “simply doesn’t work.”

Click Here to Listen to Kelly Donnaly on her experience with E15 fuel

Biofuels are supposed to be great because they’re renewable. You can grow more corn if you need more ethanol. But burning corn for ethanol means that corn can’t be eaten. According to The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, the increase in ethanol production and the RFS itself have actually raised food prices. They state that with increased corn production, other agricultural products are falling to the wayside, resulting in increased food prices. Yale University scientists have but it quite bluntly, writing an article titled “The Case Against More Ethanol: It’s Simply Bad for the Environment,” where they make the case that the cost of producing the corn to make the ethanol negates any benefit the ethanol has.

The controversy exists in Brazil as well, a country lauded by biofuel advocates as a the future.

Brazil makes most of it’s ethanol by sugarcane, an abundant crop that’s cheap to grow, and in a country with the largest fleet of flex fuel cars in the world, that’s important. Because of the huge amount of demand for ethanol, sugarcane is being grown more and more, and in order to make room for it all, large swaths of the Amazon rainforest are being deforested in order to grow the increasing amount of sugar needed.

So, the EPA is in charge of administering a congressionally demanded program to increase the amount of biofuels in an attempt to increase our energy independence, despite the fact that we’ve begun producing our own oil and gas and Americans are using less fuel than in the past. Plus, environmental concerns loom over the use of ethanol, so why is Congress continuing this program?

The House Energy and Commerce Committee, in charge of the Renewable Fuel Standard, has been confident on the future of the program, believing they can amend it and make it a successful program, but changes have been slow due to strong lobbing and pressure from both sides. The Ethanol industry believes this is the future, and have poured millions into the fight. Fuels America, one of the largest conglomerations of the ethanol industry, spent $1,155,000 on lobbying in 2017.

It’s also political on the congressional front, as well as presidential. The increase of biofuels in America have led to increased agricultural jobs, as there is a constant and growing demand for corn, and jobs will always trump the environment.

A spokesman for Senator Chuck Grassley’s (R-IA) said that “the senator believes that biofuels will continue to be an important part of the economy here in Iowa. Reversing course on the RFS will be bad news for the citizens of Iowa, who are working hard to fuel the country.”

That sentiment was echoed by senators offices from around the midwest in these corn producing states. The increase in biofuels in great for their communities, and the project of shifting away from biofuels and back to oil is one that would devastate many of these communities. All six senators from Iowa, Nebraska, and Indiana said that they supported increased biofuels despite the concern from environmentalists and car manufacturers.

Congress discusses changes to a longstanding law on agricultural waste

Aaron Edelstein

WASHINGTON- On Capitol Hill, regulators are discussing a bill that could change the agriculture industry and the way it operates for good, and Environmental activists are thrilled. Farmers are too.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act is a law designed to regulate the nation’s industrial waste, and requires specific dumping of certain solid waste. Basically, it can’t be dumped and forgotten about. The problem is, the RCRA isn’t concerned with a large portion of waste, reusable waste. The law is only concerned about waste that is bad for the environment, and some lawmakers want to change that.

A hearing held by the House Energy and Commerce committee was held to discuss the proposed Farm Regulatory Certainty Act, which would expand the RCRA to include regulating the dumping of reusable waste and encourage the manufacturing of fertilizer and other products. The chairman of the Environmental subcommittee, John Shikmus (R-Il) began the hearing with an opening statement, discussing how important farming is to his district, and the need to rethink the RCRA, saying that “Congress specifically addressed agricultural operations and clearly intended to include certain agricultural practices, but at the time Congress was focused on waste disposal practices that resulted in open dumping. In the legislative history of RCRA the Committee specifically noted that RCRA was not intended to apply to an agricultural operation that returns manure or crop residue to the soil as for fertilizer or soil conditioner.”

Shikmus had a point. In 1976, when the RCRA was passed, recycling wasn’t even on their radar, and the law needs an update. Over the past few years, there have been complaints of polluted water from communities, as referenced in a letter Shikmus read from Adaptive Seeds, a group from Oregon, saying they are disappointed in the difficulty for citizens to stop agricultural businesses from  inappropriately dumping their waste into the water supply and the ground.

Support for the bill has wide support from smaller agricultural businesses, and the Washington State Dairy Federation, which represents over 400 family farms across the entire state said that the “language in the bill before you will foster a more secure and cooperative relationship between dairy families and the state and federal agencies that provide oversight,” and that If there is an error or allegation being addressed with a state or federal regulator, then the farms should not face a citizen lawsuit if they are working in good faith with the regulatory agencies.”

The problem lies with the fact that currently, when there is a dumping issue, citizens are the ones taking it to court in a civil suit. The farmers aren’t breaking any law and so state and federal regulators are hesitant to get involved. The problem is that a civil suit can be more expensive and more time consuming than dealing with those regulators.

This bill is tricky. One one hand, it fixes the problem and makes a solid law about dumping waste that could be reused, making the environmental activists happy, but on the other hand, it actually makes it harder to litigate with those farmers when they dump that waste instead, making many of the famers happy.

This is a very real issue for many people though, while the farmers dump waste into the ground, the water supply becomes contaminated with nitrates, making it dangerous to drink and forcing people in the community to buy bottled water, something many can’t do.

“Our communities want to solve the issues of contaminate without having to sue,” Estela Garica, a man from Arvi, Ca wrote to the committee.  For many community members in these towns where this remains a growing issue, this bill is a double edged sword. By continuing to dump the farmers would be breaking federal law, but with how slow Washington can work, its likely nothing will come of it. Plus, they won’t be able to sue as easily.

A widely unknown piece of legislation with widespread ramifications, the Renewable Fuel Standard keeps rolling on

Aaron Edelstein

WASHINGTON – Kathy Burke was filling up her Honda Civic at the Exxon Station on Wisconsin Ave when she learned about the Renewable Fuel Standard, and the impact a slew of legislation designed to make the country more energy independent could have.

 

“I think that it’s a little ridiculous that this is how Washington works, where you kind of freak everyone out, weather it’s about the budget or this, that things are going to fall apart, only to save it at the last minute,” Burke said.

 

She has a point, and unlike a government shutdown, this would directly impact the majority of driving Americans in a very direct way.

 

She’s worried because the Renewable Fuel Standard, which became the law as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, mandated that a certain amount of biofuels be blended into the nation’s fuel supply. It made sense at the time, most of the countries fuel came from the middle east, a group of countries we didn’t particularly trust in the aftermath of 9/11, and we wanted to be more independent from them.

 

Seemed like a great plan. It has some issues though, rather than defining the amount of biofuels as a percentage, it mandated pure gallons. In the last 12 years Americans have been driving less, and using more fuel-efficient cars. There’s also been an oil boom in the Dakota’s and Canada, drastically increasing the supply.

 

This has led to an issue with the blend wall, the amount of biofuels that are put in the gas supply. Currently, it’s at 10%, but if the levels of biofuels continue to rise at their current rate, it will reach 15% soon.  AAA has expressed concern with this, as have many of the car manufactures, who say their cars cannot run E15 without damage to the engines. AAA claims that 85% of cars on the road in 2015 were unable to handle E15 fuel.

 

Senator Lankford (R-OK) likened the Renewable Fuel Standard to No Child Left Behind, calling it a well-intended policy that “simply doesn’t work”.  The plan was simple, and there have been changes to it. The mandated levels of cellulosic ethanol have been greatly reduced because it’s proven much harder to produce than initially expected, but the overall program still remains controversial.

 

Perhaps the greatest challenge with the Renewable Fuel Standard though, is that people don’t even know it exists. Burke first heard about it today, and was surprised that something with such ramifications has gone largely un noticed.

 

Talking to the manager of the Exxon Station in Spring Valley, they had nothing to really say about the RFS, except to ask more questions than they could answer.

 

This would be a reoccurring theme, after speaking with 5 gas stations in the DC area, none of them knew about the Renewable Fuel Standard or had concerns about increasing levels of biofuels, despite the fuel industries obvious concerns and the impact on their customers it would have.

 

“I’m all about becoming greener, but this seems like it could end poorly, and I don’t really trust this congress to do a whole lot about it, given that they can’t seem to get anything done,” Burke said, “Sometimes I hate this town.”

 

A personal cause – Tariq Shahwan and the Palestinian cause

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“I see it as a duty of mine to convey the message of the Palestinian people,” Tariq Shahwan, a Palestinian in his fourth year at American University said. Shahwan grew up in Jerusalem to a Palestinian father and a German mother. Growing up there, he witnessed firsthand what he says are some of the biggest injustices placed on the Palestinian people by the Israeli authorities.

 

“The Israelis are occupying the Palestinian people,” Shahwan explained. “The Palestinians want to have a sovereign nation in the areas of The West Bank and Gaza, but they can’t because they are being controlled by Israel, by sea, by land, and by air. They control trading, they control taxes, they control every part of life for the Palestinians.” Having such little control over where you go and what you can buy, and even how much it costs is something that directly effects the Palestinian people.

 

Shahwan is fortunate enough to be able to travel freely and often brings items back home with him from school to avoid paying inflated prices, but it’s not that easy for everyone, although he hopes that by sharing the story of his people, maybe that will begin to change.

 

“This is a very personal cause for me,” Shahwan said. He works with the Students for Justice in Palestine, a national organization that brings awareness about the situation, and he is glad to have had the opportunity to attend conferences and discussions about what’s going on, but he doesn’t often go through Students for Justice in Palestine, opting instead to use his own experience to get others interested, and hopefully talking about the situation, but he has a few rules for himself when doing so.

 

“I don’t like to confront people with politics first, I confront them as being a friend, and I think once they know me as a friend and they know who I am nonpolitically, they will be more receptive to the politics that I have,” Shahwan said. He is careful not to alienate people from the cause, as it’s something that is still a very touchy subject for some.

 

“I don’t directly approach people and talk about politics, I do it as a conversation starter and only if they ask first,” Shahwan explained. He is careful to make sure people are okay with what may be turn out to be an uncomfortable conversation at times.

 

One of the biggest things Shahwan wants people to understand is why many Palestinian activists want Israeli investments divested. Certain products, he says, are made by Israeli firms, but on Palestinian land.

 

“According to the Geneva Convention, this is illegal, and so anything made on these lands should be boycotted because they’re not made legally because they’re on occupied lands,” Shahwan explained. In simple terms, the international community does not recognize these lands as Israeli, and yet Israeli companies use them as though they are part of Israel, creating a problem for the international community. Shahwan also acknowledged that this situation is complicated, and can be confusing for people to understand at times.

 

Much of the conversation in America regarding this whole conflict has been very pro-Israel for a long time, but Shahwan believes that the tides are turning.

 

“I think people are slowly realizing that Israel doesn’t have much of a case,” he said. He realizes it’s happening slowly, but is encouraged by what he’s seen so far. He is also encouraged by what he says is a new and more organized effort by the Palestinians to get their message out.

 

“The PR machine that is Israel is weakening, and the PR machine the is Palestine is becoming better. I think that the national support in the US is moving more towards Palestine because we are taking methods from other movements similar to that of Palestine and then applying them to ours, and I think that is making people more aware of what our situation is,” Shahwan said.

(REVISED) Silencer – Why Marcus Wicker Wrote a Book of Poetry About Everything he Couldn’t Talk About

 

 

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Wicker reads an excerpt from his new book, “Silencer”

Photo Credit: Aaron Edelstein

WASHINGTON, DC- Teaching and living in Southern Indiana, Marcus Wicker would go out with his friends; himself the professor, a lawyer, a professional skateboarder and a carpenter. The eclectic group would talk about everything, with one exception, Wicker said.

“Whenever I started to talk about gun violence, particularly gun violence perpetrated against the black body, and police brutality, it always got very quiet, as if I was being silenced,” Wicker said.

As a poet, he began to write. He called his book, a collection of poems, “Silencer” because, as he wrote on his website, “For a while I was worried that I was being silenced, and so, as a kind of therapy, I began writing “Silencer”—poems that address gun violence and police brutality against African Americans in the news, without specifically invoking case details.”

His poems were a response to his feeling as though he couldn’t talk about something that felt so deeply personal to him, and for a long time the poems were about something entirely different.

Wicker began writing “Silencer” in 2011, writing poems about nature and pop culture, but after a year he stopped writing in 2012, and placed the manuscript in his desk drawer, all but forgetting about it. He had been writing poetry since he was a child. When the national poetry slam came to his hometown of Ann Arbor, MI, he changed his opinion of poetry and instantly became interested.

That changed the evening of June 7, 2015, when Dylan Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist arrived at Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, only to commit the largest mass shooting at a place of worship, killing 9 people.

That evening, Wicker said he wrote a poem to process what had happened. He began writing more about race, police brutality, and the fact that we haven’t made much change since Jim Crow times. “Sometimes I can barely walk out into daylight wearing a cotton sweatshirt without trembling,” he wrote in one of his poems, “and surely I don’t have to tell you who gets put down and who gets to walk away.”

Standing in the back of Politics and Prose, Wicker said that one of the things that’s always interested him was why bad things happen to good people, why does evil exist?

“For in the one spirit, we were baptized in the one body, Jews or Greeks, Slaves are free, and all were made to drink of one spirit,” Wicker read from a poem in “Silencer”. The trouble with hate and evil are that they’re ingrained.

“So I really like to shop, not for big things, just for like, handkerchief, some argyle socks, but I get dressed up to go to the store, which is a little silly. But after more assessment I realized I do that so I’m not profiled, right, in the store. But, in doing that, it’s like I’m profiling myself, which is the saddest thing,” Wicker said. Part of the issue, he is arguing, is that people often permeate the prejudice against themselves without even realizing it. Is he only safe, only approachable, when he’s dressed up? He wondered how he, a middle-class man from Ann Arbor, MI, wasn’t safe in the world for the sole reason that he is black, he said.

“No sir-y, see I practice self-target practice,” he reads from one of his poems, this one about prejudice and profiling. At some point, Wicker argues, does he profile himself so others don’t?

Wicker then went on to discuss the 2016 election, specifically when then candidate Trump announced he was in favor of stop and frisk, the controversial practice of the NYPD, which in essence, allowed police officers to stop anyone on the street and frisk them without cause. Critics of the practice said it was racial discrimination on a policy level, and the NYPD no longer utilizes stop and frisk.

“Which scares the shit out of me and people like me because we all know that’s another way to profile, to discriminate,” he added. But then he said something else, furthering the point that this is complicated and messy.

Wicker’s “Silencer” follows up on his first collection of poetry, “Maybe The Saddest Thing” which he released in 2012. Wicker was awarded the Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and is currently a professor in the Master’s program at the University of Memphis.

Silencers – Why Marcus Wicker Wrote a Book of Poetry About Everything he Couldn’t Talk About

Washington, DC- Teaching and living in Southern Indiana, Marcus Wicker would go out with his friends; himself the professor, a lawyer, a professional skateboarder and a carpenter. The eclectic group would talk about everything, with one exception.

“Whenever I started to talk about gun violence, particularly gun violence perpetrated against the black body, and police brutality, it always got very quiet, as if I was being silenced,” Wicker said.

As a poet, he began to write. He called his book, a collection of poems, “Silencers” because, as he wrote on his website, “For a while I was worried that I was being silenced, and so, as a kind of therapy, I began writing ‘silencers’—poems that address gun violence and police brutality against African Americans in the news, without specifically invoking case details.”

His poems were a response to him feeling like he couldn’t talk about something that felt so deeply personal to him, and for a long time the poems were about something entirely different.

Wicker began writing “Silencers” in 2011, writing poems about nature and pop culture, but after a year he stopped writing in 2012, and placed the manuscript in his desk drawer, all but forgetting about it. He had been writing poetry since he was a kid. When the national poetry slam came to his hometown of Ann Arbor, MI, he changed his opinion of poetry and instantly became interested.

That changed the evening of June 7, 2015, when Dylan Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist arrived at Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, only to commit the largest mass shooting at a place of warship, killing 9 people.

That evening, Wicker wrote a poem to process what had happened. He began writing more about race, police brutality, and the fact that we haven’t made much change since Jim Crow times, and how he, a middle-class man from Ann Arbor, MI, wasn’t safe in the world for the sole reason that he is black.

“Sometimes I can barely walk out into daylight wearing a cotton sweatshirt without trembling,” he wrote in one of his poems, “and surely I don’t have to tell you who gets put down and who gets to walk away.”

Standing in the back of Politics and Prose, Wicker told the group of no more than 20 that one of the things that’s always interested him was why bad things happen to good people, why does evil exist?

“For in the one spirit, we were baptized in the one body, Jews or Greeks, Slaves are free, and all were made to drink of one spirit,” Wicker read from a poem in Silencers. The trouble with hate and evil are that they’re engrained.

“So I really like to shop, not for big things, just for like, handkerchief, some argyle socks, but I get dressed up to go to the store, which is a little silly. But after more assessment I realized I do that so I’m not profiled, right, in the store. But, in doing that, it’s like I’m profiling myself, which is the saddest thing,” Wicker said. Part of the issue, he is arguing, is that people often permeate the prejudice against themselves without even realizing it. Is he only safe, only approachable, when he’s dressed up?

Wicker then went on to discuss the 2016 election, specifically when then candidate Trump announced he was in favor of stop and frisk.

“Which scares the shit out of me and people like me because we all know that’s another way to profile, to discriminate,” he added. But then he said something else, furthering the point that this is complicated and messy.

“No sirey, see I practice self-target practice,” he reads from one of his poems, this one about prejudice and profiling. At some point, Wicker argues, does he profile himself so others don’t?

It’s an interesting point, and one he appears to go back and forth on in his mind, talking about how ridiculous it is that he dresses up to go to the store, but also how it’s the only way he feels comfortable doing so.

Wicker’s Silencers follows up on his first collection of poetry, “Maybe The Saddest Thing” which he released in 2012. Wicker was awarded the Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and is currently a professor in the Master’s program at the University of Memphis.