Tuesday, May 27, 2008

High Gasoline Prices Highlight the Need for New Energy Policy

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, May 23, 2008

The rising price of gasoline is more than just a political talking point. For most Americans, the pain at the pump is a tragic reality that interferes with daily life. In a move that appeared to address the gas crisis, a candidate from each major political party recently supported a proposal to temporarily suspend the federal gas tax during the summer months, as a Gas Tax Holiday. The lackluster support in Congress for such an idea made this a perfect storm for election year hype: a cheap campaign promise that the candidate has no obligation to fulfill.

Unfortunately, the suspension of this gas tax doesn’t even represent a Band-Aid solution to the existing crisis. The average American wouldn’t be able to fill a single tank with the savings generated during the “holiday”. In fact, the perception of a gas price relief might drive consumption rates higher as drivers see the opportunity to travel or make otherwise unnecessary trips, thereby increasing expense.

The gas tax also represents a source of important revenue to public services and infrastructure. Americans would be forced to choose between safe roads and bridges and other tax alternatives to make up the difference if the gas tax were suspended. Last year’s bridge collapse was a wake-up call to the consequence of ignoring the maintenance of our roads and highways.

There is also the possibility, as was widely reported, that the tax savings would not be passed on to the consumer, further lining the pockets of the oil industry profit-takers. With Exxon-Mobil recently posting another record quarter of profits, this is a legitimate concern. Oil industry corporations are certainly obligated by their charters to benefit their shareholders at the expense of the consumer.

Some fiscal conservatives would point to government regulation as the core problem contributing to the high price of gas. According to these small-government proponents, refinery regulations, intended to address the ecological damage caused by our dependence on petroleum, contribute more to the ballooning price of fuel than does corporate greed. In fact, relaxing government regulation of the oil industry would probably do little to relieve rising prices, as it’s doubtful that corporations would feel committed to passing these savings on to the consumer. An oil industry unfettered by government control would worsen global environmental crises, control already strained fuel supplies and drive up prices. Big Oil’s internal memos circulated in the mid- to late-1990s admit to a strategy of shutting down their own refineries (not government limiting of refining) in order to slow supply of gasoline and to grow profit margins.

But Big Oil is only a part of the problem. One must factor into the equation the high per-barrel price of oil. The United States’ relationship with OPEC nations has done little to offer hope of using influence to increase supply and drive down crude prices. Bush’s recent meeting with the Saudis, who have a history of ties to the Bush dynasty, was fruitless at bringing about any meaningful change. Add to the reluctance of OPEC to comply with U.S. wishes, the unrest in the region that our aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan has wrought, and it is clear that our foreign policy has done far more to contribute to the current crisis than to address it.

The plain fact is that our addiction to petroleum coupled with the dwindling supply of oil worldwide is nearing a point of collapse. It is impossible to sustain the current balance of supply and demand of oil. So much of our supply of food, goods and service is contingent on a ready supply of oil. Even when you get past the pumps, you can see the impact in rising prices at the grocery or department store.

Peak oil is the point at which oil production is not sustainable because the maximum rate of production has been reached and the point at which this rate begins its terminal decline. There is debate over whether we have, globally, already reached peak oil or if we are just near peak production. The dramatic rise in oil prices may be the result of market speculation or an indicator that peak oil has been reached. Regardless, our hunger for oil, especially in the nation responsible for the greatest consumption of oil resources, has brought us to an undeniable crisis. It is as plain as the faces and shaking heads of those we see at our local Citgo or Sunoco stations.

In my economic state, I can ill afford these rising prices – certainly, I can afford it less than many. However, the rising gas prices do have some potential positive effects. Even among the wealthy, the cost of a fill-up has taken some of the fun out of driving obnoxiously inefficient SUVs or Hummers. Higher prices have already spurred some shift to public transportation where it is available, and indicators are that a curbing of unnecessary travel has already begun. A noticeable drop in demand for oil will send a message to oil companies and OPEC that the market will not continue to bear the price. The painful shock to the pocketbook will also eventually stir the citizenry out of apathy. I have long thought that the price of gas was a catalyst and call to action of revolutionary proportions.

Frustration may be enough to engage Americans to consider their consumption of resources and carbon footprints. It may prompt calls for fuel-efficient vehicles from an auto industry that has the technology but not the will to provide cars and trucks with dramatically higher mileage ratings. Increased support of viable alternatives to petroleum may spring from economic hardship. U.S. citizens might grasp the futility of our intervention in the Middle East and its failure to “protect our interests” or control oil supplies. Whatever the impact, real change won’t come from rolling back the per-gallon tax, but from a transformation of our tolerance of the situation.

Though the federal gas tax holiday gathered little steam, the New York State Senate seized the opportunity to jump on the political bandwagon by passing a gas tax relief at the state level. While the Governor and State Assembly leaders oppose the bill, there is increasing pressure from State Senators in favor of the measure. We need to send a message to our legislators that we want a real solution to rising gasoline prices, not political gimmickry.

High Gasoline Prices Highlight the Need for New Energy Policy

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, May 23, 2008

There is a scene in the Frankenstein movie where the village residents, bearing torches and pitchforks, head out in pursuit of the fearsome monster. It seems that the promise of this “New and Improved!” form of life turned out to be a threat. The moral of that particular story is the classic warning that when we tinker with nature, we may not always like what we create.

Today we have a presidential candidate trying to inspire the electorate to grab the pitchforks and light the torches once again. This time we are going to storm the strongholds of that hairy monster called BIG OIL. According to the proposed tax holiday, this campaigner will bring the hairy monster to its knees by repealing the 18-cent per gallon federal excise tax. We also have a vote-hungry New York State Legislature proposing a similar repeal of the state excise. These temporary measures are supposed to miraculously rid our landscape of high gasoline prices and teach that monster exactly how much profit it should make for bringing this vital commodity to our fueling stations each day.

This proposal scares me more than the hairy monster does for several reasons. First of all, let us discuss how this monster was created in the first place.

To trace the origin of BIG OIL, we need to go back to the year of 1999, when our present campaigner slept in the White House while her husband’s administration gleefully approved the merger of Exxon and Mobil. This seemingly innocuous combination of two companies started a rash of mergers that, over the next decade, resulted in the number of major oil companies falling from 43 separate and competitive entities into less than 14 companies with no more than five major companies controlling the lion’s share of oil revenues.

At the time of that merger, gasoline was priced at $2.05 a gallon and oil was $12.37 a barrel. It is easy to see with hindsight that this merger was not in our best interest and the Federal Trade Commission was obviously sleeping on the job as well.

But today the monster is here and we must learn how to live with him. We cannot rout him from the tower with a minor manipulation of the gas tax. We can not placate him with less demand for his product. According to the latest figures from the first quarter of this year, fuel demand is down over 1.4% from the same quarter of last year. Yet the prices continue to rise and the monster seems to be hungrier.

Another reason why I oppose this Band-Aid approach to economic crises is because it is clearly political pandering and, as such, it is an insult to my intelligence and the intelligence of my fellow citizens.

It would also serve to cloud the real issues by forestalling true energy policy reform.

In order to tame this monster, we need to reaffirm our commitment to the American people and the American economy. We need to realize that sound energy policy is necessary not only to calm the effects of Gasoline Pump Anxiety Syndrome (GAS PAS), but it is also necessary for national security reasons. As long as we continue to harass this monster by imposing a host of unnecessary restrictions and limiting domestic production and exploration, we will always be at the mercy of this monster and the foreign producers.

We should also examine ways to partner with friendly producers such as Canada, who, by the way, happens to be our number one supplier, and Mexico, who ranks as our third highest supplier. These two nations are already partnered with us in NAFTA and with further encouragement and cooperation with our research and development capability could easily compete with OPEC producers.

We have to take a sane and logical look at exploiting the tremendous reserves in the deposits of oil sands in Alberta as well as pressuring the Mexican government to revert the control of PEMEX (the government-controlled oil producer) back to private ownership.

The GAS PAS will not be relieved by temporary patches, nor will it be resolved by chasing big, bad monsters with pitchforks and torches. It demands honest appraisals of what created this monster, and logical solutions.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Is Intelligence being Expelled from our classrooms?

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, May 9, 2008

Because my hectic schedule has not allowed me the time to see Ben Stein’s documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, I can not and will not comment directly upon the film itself. However, I can and will respond to some questions raised by my fellow columnist in his review of the film and its thesis.

According to my brother’s column, he expected “a dialogue about the alternate theory of creation that ID (Intelligent Design) presents.”

It is my intent here to open such dialogue and I invite all interested parties to respond, as long as we all agree to follow the rules of decency and to refrain from making broad, unsubstantiated statements.

To begin with, I must admit that I have more than a passing interest in this topic. Some of you may not know that one of my many obligations is that of substitute teacher for the Earth Science classes at Twin Tiers Christian Academy in Breesport. As a consequence of that obligation, I have just recently spent several weeks of my life preparing and teaching lessons about the Geologic Ages and the Evolution of Life according to the curriculum mandated by the New York State Board of Regents. I taught the students how to follow the guidelines of determining a rock’s age by the index fossils contained therein and also how to correlate the age of the fossils by the rock strata that contained them. I taught the students that, according to their book and for the purpose of answering the questions on the exam, their lives, thoughts, dreams and very souls were the result of a long progression of chance mutations and natural selection. I taught them that the first living things resulted from a chance lightning strike upon a primordial, chemical soup; and that these primitive living things somehow mutated into photosynthetic organisms. I then taught them, that according to their textbook (Brief Review for New York Earth Science – The Physical Setting, pg. 260) these organisms used Carbon Dioxide and released free Oxygen in enough amounts to alter the atmosphere of the earth.

I proceeded to teach them all the information in the remainder of that chapter, but then I challenged them to think a little deeper. Because this particular school allows the teachers and students the privilege of academic freedom, I was able to open another door and to allow these students to peek into another room of thought. I was able to expose my students to the idea that neither Evolutionary Theory nor Intelligent Design Theory should be considered as settled scientific fact, because both are dealing with the subject of ORIGINS – of the universe and of life itself – and neither could be open for refutation by experimentation and observation (which is the criteria for true scientific methodology).

I was able to teach them that both theories should be treated as Scientific Models, which could then be designated as credible or legitimate through the agency of prediction and analysis of those predictions.

If the Evolutionary Model is correct, then certain predictions could be matched with known (irrefutable) laws and facts. If, however, the Intelligent Design Model is correct, then it too could be matched with known facts.

I believe that this method of teaching served my students best, as I believe it is more important to produce critical thinkers than it is to produce robotic test takers.

Now, concerning the two models, let me briefly outline the two conflicting theories, realizing that the word count and space limitations preclude me from explaining them in great detail.

Intelligent Design Theory postulates that an Intelligent Cause, rather than a material or unguided chemical cause can best explain the qualities we see as we make advances in scientific discoveries (cell structure, DNA, microscopic features of single–cell organisms, etc). According to this ID model, one would predict that we would find complexity and purposeful design in every life form, from the ‘simplest’ to the most complex. In other words, we would predict that the feathered falcon that flies above our forests would be as complex and purposely designed as the Falcon fighter jet produced for our U.S. Military. Until we can intelligently design a plane to reproduce itself, I would posit that the feathered design is far superior.

For the purpose of this discussion, I will restrict my definition of Darwinian Evolution to the following: A materialistic theory of the history of the diversification of organisms from common ancestors through a process of descent with modification. Change is the result of material causes, driven primarily by random variation and natural selection.

Regarding the introduction of Intelligence into the classroom as a possible cause for all life, I think it is more than ironic that we seek out intelligence or design in many other scientific endeavors without fear. For example, the Search for Extra–Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program has spent over 40 years and millions of dollars scanning the radio waves from space to determine if there is any sign of intelligent life out there. The criteria for that intelligence would be the detection of a repeating pattern that is not random. We also seek design and intelligence when we conduct forensic examinations of dead bodies to determine a murderous agency (something other than natural causes); archeologists seek out design and purpose when exploring digs to determine intelligent life forms. Why then can we not teach our students to examine the fossil evidence and cell biology for signs of intelligence? What are we afraid of?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Ben Stein's New Documentary on Intelligent Design

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, May 2, 2008

This past week I watched Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Ben Stein’s new documentary, which argues that discussion of the theory of Intelligent Design (ID) is being systemically forbidden by the scientific community. Judging from the praise the movie had received from conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, and religious organizations like Answers in Genesis (www.answersingenesis.org), I had presumed the film would be another tool used to scare folks, predominately conservative Christians, that religious freedom was once again under attack by science and academia. In that sense, I wasn’t disappointed.

Much is said by those interviewed in the movie about the desire to simply have a dialog about the alternate theory of creation that ID presents. I would welcome this kind of discussion, and one might actually believe this to be the motivation of the filmmakers if it weren’t for the repeated imagery of the Berlin wall; the ominous warnings about the loss of freedom; the assertion that Darwinism is the precursor to Nazism; or the vilification of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. It is clear that it is the scientific community that is under attack here.

The cinematic mastery of the documentary is powerful and emotionally moving, especially the tour of a Nazi asylum and the Dachau concentration camp. It is indisputable that atrocities were committed in Nazi Germany, and the viewer is right to be disgusted by the eugenic destruction of the handicapped or the persecution of millions in the concentration camps. The argument that the scientific theory of evolution is the root of Hitler’s rise and is indicative of the decline of modern “indoctrinated” society is nonsense.

The problem is that with the film’s emotional pull and entertaining black and white clips, there is little substance to be found to back up the far-fetched claims of conspiracy. A few disgruntled individuals assert that promotions or funding were denied, or that they lost their jobs, or that pressure was brought to bear simply because they had dared to mention the words “Intelligent Design.” As proof of the conspiracy, the filmmakers extract, from the powers that be, statements that any actions taken had nothing to do with the issue of intelligent design. It is hard to imagine how that helps to make the case.

The movie also makes a laughable attempt at claiming that Intelligent Design has little to do with religion. In fact, the Discovery Institute and other advocates of ID seek to use a seemingly scientific theory to promote biblical creationism and inject it into education and academia. Anyone who doubts this need only look to Answers in Genesis, which skews its scientific theories to support a young earth and a six-day creation period of the universe that flies in the face of the theory of ID. Yet this organization touts the movie on its website, and it and other conservative Christian groups urge Christians to go see it. The motivation appears to be to use ID as a wedge to force biblical theories into the classroom and springboard creationism and Judeo-Christian dogma into the schools.

Where Expelled fails most miserably, in my opinion, is not offering any real discussion of the theory of ID itself. The film criticizes the media for giving short shrift to Intelligent Design, then never really expands the explanation of the theory in any meaningful way. The audience leaves the theater as confused as ever about what ID really is. A great deal of the movie is spent pointing out the admitted gaps in the Darwinian theory of evolution but does little to explain how its own theory solves those questions. Darwin doesn’t satisfy my curiosity in these areas but this film doesn’t even try. Instead, it rakes over the coals the most controversial and least influential author on the subject, the inflammatory Richard Dawkins, and attempts to poke new holes in evolution. I was not impressed.

If you are looking for a reason to believe your spirituality or religion are under attack by the secular demons of academia, by all means plunk down your seven dollars and catch this movie. If you are looking for intelligent discourse on intelligent design, talk to a biology professor.