Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Gulf Recovery and the Oiled Wildlife Care Network

This is the tenth in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

Today is the tenth day since my pledge to write 30 blog posts in 30 days in response to the Gulf oil disaster. I had only a loose plan when I embarked on these posts, but now see them addressing three main steps for recovery from the spill and from our oil addiction in general:

  1. Cleaning up the spill and restoring the Gulf ecosystem, habitat and fisheries.
  2. Expediting a shift by the energy industry in the Gulf – and everywhere – into cleaner sources.
  3. Cutting demand for oil and so reducing the pressure for drilling in extreme areas such as deep waters of the ocean – the best and perhaps only good way to reduce the risk of this kind of catastrophe occurring again.

Today I want to write a bit about the first of these steps, the clean-up process. It’s a huge project, theoretically funded by BP and supervised by the federal government, and at this moment delayed by the presence of Hurricane Alex in the Gulf.

As I’ve scanned news of the Gulf clean-up, I’ve learned a bit about the key role being played by the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. The OWCN has partnered with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to help lead efforts to care for oil-affected wildlife in the Gulf. Based in California, the OWCN is recognized internationally as a leader in saving wildlife from the effects of oil spills. Information at the OWCN website tells me that offering the best care for oiled wildlife takes more than showing up at a spill and scrubbing down turtles and birds. In news coverage, we see the actual response efforts, but the OWCN must also train and drill personnel to ensure rapid deployment when disasters strike; research methods for wildlife care to improve medical therapies used during oiled wildlife rehab; and share information and resources about effects of oil on wildlife and their habitat.

This is critical work, and I paid even more attention when I saw that the OWCN is administered by the Wildlife Health Center at University of California at Davis – my alma mater. Under the umbrella of UCD’s world-class School of Veterinary Medicine, the Wildlife Health Center not only oversees the OWCN but also runs a range of other programs to support wildlife health and rescue.

When I began this series of posts, I promised to donate $2 per completed post to some sort of recovery effort. BP is paying for the actual Gulf cleanup, but the Wildlife Health Center does accept donations to help support preparation for spills and other programs. Until we’re off oil, we need well-prepared organizations to do this. So I’ve decided to give my $2 per post to the UCD Wildlife Health Center. If you’d like to join me with a pledge – anywhere from 10 cents per post on up – please email me or leave a comment below. Thanks!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Cutting Oil Use with the Circle Game

This is the ninth in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

Yesterday I wrote about cleaning up our energy act -- the need for which is now made even more apparent by the Gulf oil disaster -- and of the importance of taking personal action to do so. If you’re looking for a simple way to get started, here’s a technique I like very much. It’s called the Circle Game, and it was created by Ellen Santasiero of Bend, Oregon.

  1. Find your neighborhood on the map.
  2. Place the point of a divider compass on the approximate location of your home.
  3. Using the compass or a colored pen as shown above, draw a circle with a two-mile radius on the map.
  4. Find places that you regularly visit and circle them or mark them with a highlighter. Include your workplace, bank, grocery store, library, schools, church, and other places you visit often.
  5. Choose one of the places that falls within the circle and commit to walking, biking, or taking transit to it instead of driving every time you go.
  6. Every week or so, commit to walking, biking, or taking transit to another location from within the circle. Continue adding locations until you routinely use alternatives to driving for getting to every location within a two-mile radius of your home or workplace.

You can go on to do this with places outside the two-mile radius, or you can replace those more distant businesses or services with alternatives closer to home. Try experimenting with expanding your circle, too, or using concentric circles to determine comfortable walking and biking distances for you. For example, if you decide to walk to all places within a mile, and bike to places within four miles, draw circles with those radii on your map and identify all the walkable and bikable destinations within them.

This technique can also be used when you move to aid in finding a new location based on proximity to services, work and school. Likewise, it can be used when looking for work to locate job sites closest to your home.

I frequently mentioned the Circle Game when on book tours for Divorce Your Car! and at one point it was even featured in a spot on Canadian TV. Many thanks again to Ellen Santasiero for coming up with this technique!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Cleaning Up Our Act

This is the eighth in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

In today’s news from the Gulf, oil has now washed up on a major Mississippi tourist beach near Biloxi, forcing evacuations; trackers expect Tropical Storm Alex to become a hurricane and affect the spread of oil, even without crossing the spill zone; and high seas from Alex have already delayed BP’s plans to attempt capturing more oil this week.

There’s more in-depth information on Alex and other potential hurricanes, including expected effects on the Gulf oil slick, at the excellent Weather Underground blog, or WunderBlog, written by Jeff Masters. A WunderBlog post from earlier today reported that winds and currents resulting from Alex will likely “push oil to the west and northwest onto portions of the Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama coasts …. Oil will also move westward along the central Louisiana coast towards the Texas border.” In other words, there’s still a mess spreading out from the shattered Deepwater Horizon well, and there’s a long way to go to clean it up.

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, a TV ad campaign from the Clean Economy Network is citing the Gulf catastrophe in urging Congressional action on energy legislation. “The Gulf oil disaster makes one thing really clear,” says spokesperson Tim Healy, an energy company CEO, in the ad. “It’s time for America to clean up our energy act.”

Will the Gulf disaster finally get Congress to move on energy and climate policy? Some people aren’t waiting to find out; the're going ahead with action to clean up their personal energy acts. I found one inspiring story in a comment following Jason Henderson’s essay "The Moral Imperative of the BP Oil Spill: Drive 20% Less,” which I first referenced on June 26th. The commenter’s family decided to cut their own energy use by 20% per year over three years, originally to address climate change. The comment notes: “After two years, we’ve succeeded in reducing our gasoline usage by 40% by 1) downsizing one car; 2) acquiring 2 electric bicycles to replace car driving for almost all short trips; 3) encouraging children to take public transit; and 4) forming carpools for other necessary kid schlepping.”

This is a wonderful example of what we can do as individuals and as households. Forty percent is a significant number. This story also reminds me of a book written years ago to encourage use of electric cars, Why Wait for Detroit? It’s an apt title, given that Detroit’s handling of electric car manufacture is summed up in the movie, Who Killed the Electric Car? When it comes to getting off oil, we might need a book with a similar title, maybe Don’t Wait for D.C. I’m glad to see more pressure on Congress for energy and climate legislation – we definitely need it – but I’m not counting on the federal government to act as quickly or extensively as necessary. We also need plenty of personal action to truly clean up our energy act.

If you’ve read Divorce Your Car! you know I believe that personal action can be a big source of societal change. I’m grateful to the commenter cited above for providing another good example of how much difference personal action can make.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Reflections on Hands Across the Sand

This is the seventh in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

Yesterday a few of us here added our numbers to the international Hands Across the Sand event, saying “yes” to cleaner energy and “no” to offshore oil. We joined hands on the waterfront deck at Keweenaw Land Trust’s Marsin Nature Reteat and looked out across the Keweenaw Waterway that connects two parts of Lake Superior.

As we stood with hands joined, we talked of our concerns for the Gulf Coast, of how sad we feel to see what’s happened there, and of how disappointed many of us are with the lack of leadership we’ve observed in response to this catastrophe. We also talked about how each of us has the power to do something – we can write our legislators and tell them how we feel, at least. And some of us expressed hope that we might learn from this for the future.

Our impromptu Hands Across the Sand group joins hands by the Keweenaw Waterway

At the same time we did this, thousands of others in locations around the world joined together for the same reason. Most of these events took place on ocean beaches, but several in addition to our impromptu gathering took place around the Great Lakes.

If you’re not familiar with this region, it might surprise you to know that drilling for oil and gas takes place within the Great Lakes states; Michigan alone has issued permits for around 56,000 oil and gas wells. In the lakes themselves, new offshore oil drilling is banned, making the risk of a Gulf-style well blow-out low. However, Canadian law allows slant drills for oil as well as offshore gas wells in and under Lake Erie (the Gulf spill has prompted Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow to call for changes in this). Also, ships plying the lakes carry and use petroleum products. I had trouble finding good data on spills, but charts compiled in a 2006 report from the International Joint Commission suggest that in the Great Lakes each year, there might be anywhere from 100 to 500 reportable spills, and that on the U.S. side in any case, about 80% of these consist of oil or oil products.

I live near the shore of Lake Superior, where in 2003 a spill occurred in a shipping lane adjacent to our home. About two miles to the west of us, a resident was walking his dog along the beach when he noticed the dog’s legs had become covered in oil. Someone on a passing freighter had let a tank overflow and about 1,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil had spilled over the side into the lake.

That quantity is miniscule compared to what’s gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, but it was still enough for animals (at least the dog) to get oiled and for us to see tarballs up to about dime-size wash up on the beach. It was enough for the Coast Guard and local Office of Emergency Services to conduct an incident clean-up, and for us to be pretty nervous about what might happen to a beach that’s already suffered from past environmental abuses but is now set aside as a nature preserve.

I thought of that time as we stood on the deck overlooking the brilliant fresh blue of the Keweenaw Waterway, and hoped that the disastrous spill in the Gulf might finally motivate all of us in our society to change our ways. Such has been our thirst for oil that we’ve gone after it wherever we can find it, even when it threatens water. Yet water is vital for life; oil is not. Hands Across the Sand calls on us to recognize that and act accordingly.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Time for a Carbon Tax?

This is the sixth in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

Does the Gulf spill mean it’s time for a carbon tax? I bring this issue up after reading Jason Henderson’s essay on Streetsblog San Francisco, “The Moral Imperative of the BP Oil Spill: Drive 20 Percent Less.” Henderson, a Louisiana native who now teaches at San Francisco State University, argues first that a moratorium on offshore oil drilling in the Gulf is imperative, and second, that we need to cut driving by 20 percent to offset the oil otherwise produced by idled Gulf rigs.

To support this reduction in driving, Henderson calls for a World-War-II-scale effort to encourage personal driving responsibility, increase federal transit funding, improve bicycle facilities, and encourage entrepreneurial jitney services to fill travel niches poorly served by bikes or transit -- all fine ideas.

One reader who commented on Henderson’s essay suggested that a carbon tax be part of the package, and I agree. Such a tax would be an appropriate way to fund the changes Henderson suggests. I’ve long supported some sort of carbon or increased fuel tax, and would like to see such a tax be phased in with increases over time.

Why do we need this? Because it will likely take far more than BP’s $20 billion to really make things right again in the Gulf. And because even though BP might have been criminally negligent, they’re out there drilling in the first place because there’s so much demand for oil. It’s appropriate, then, that we all contribute to Gulf recovery with some sort of tax on the oil that’s causing the problem. And it’s also appropriate for that tax to be used to change the conditions that led to the problem in the first place. In other words, that it be used to help get us all off oil.

A carbon tax could be used to improve transit and bicycle facilities and help cut driving by 20%

In addition to funding transit, bicycle facilities and perhaps incentives for the private-sector jitney services which Henderson recommends, revenues from a carbon tax could also:
  1. Support job training to help oil workers from the Gulf, as well as workers from other hard-hit areas such as Detroit, shift into cleaner, greener jobs.
  2. Support incentives for renewable energy development including biofuels, solar and wind.
  3. Expand programs that reduce oil and auto dependence such as Safe Routes to Schools and others.
Of course, a carbon tax would also reduce demand for gasoline, encouraging people to drive less and more efficiently; encourage energy conservation overall, further reducing the demand for petroleum and fossil fuels; and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, something else we need to do if we hope to have a human-friendly atmosphere much past the 21st century.

The idea of any sort of new tax affecting gasoline – be it a carbon tax, a BTU tax, or whatever – is politically charged and a tough sell. One hopes, however, that this might change if we fully acknowledge the moral imperative of helping the hard-hit Gulf region both recover and transition away from oil, and if we understand that doing so will help us all.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Personal Action, Political Action, and the Power of the Pen

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

Let’s say you’re sickened and dismayed by the Gulf oil spill and want to do something about it. You’ve been watching images of oiled pelicans, of slicks killing marshland, of unemployed anglers and Gulf residents in shock and fury. You can’t believe the inability of both BP and the federal government to contain this spill after more than two months. Maybe you’re one of the many who tune in to the live feed of the Gulf spill each day. It’s devastating, and you wish you could do something, but you feel helpless.

I’m guessing many of us have felt these things – I know I have – and so as I write here, part of what I want to communicate, as well as remind myself, is this: We are not helpless. Maybe we can’t dive under the sea to plug the spewing Deepwater Horizon well, but there is much we can do to stem the demand for oil that is the ultimate cause of this disaster, to help those suffering as a result of this spill, and to advocate change.

Petroleum products are such a part of our lives that it’s hard sometimes to see how to stop using them (in fact, I first drafted this post with a petroleum product, a plastic pen filled with petroleum-based ink, and decided as I was writing that I must look for a source of pens made without petrochemicals; know of any?). As I hope I began to show in my posts of the last few days, though, there are ways to cut back, ways that can both help us withdraw from our oil addiction and, in the long run, help the people of the Gulf.

We can make a difference both with personal action and with political action. In the first few of my planned 30-posts-in-30-days I’ve touched on personal actions that can make a difference, and in future posts I’ll cover more. As far as political actions go, there seem to be a swelling number out there now which address the crisis in the Gulf. One I discovered yesterday is Hands Across the Sand, a show of support for cleaner energy instead of offshore drilling. Hands Across the Sand started in Florida and since the Gulf spill, has grown into an international movement. There’s a Hands Across the Sand event tomorrow, June 26th, at 12 noon; the website lists locations around the U.S. and the world. I’m inviting others to join me in supporting this where I live near Lake Superior.

For political action, I also believe in the power of the pen, the power of writing. I believe in it partly because, since writing Divorce Your Car!, I have had the honor of being approached by several people who've said, "Your book changed my life." But you don't have to write a whole book for writing to work this way. Even small bits of writing can do it. Just sending postcards to the Prez or to our Reps in Congress saying something like “Please help the Gulf economy shift to cleaner energy” will help that point of view get counted. It might not bring immediate action, but it can add up to a tipping point. Writing does make a difference, and it can make a difference with the Gulf oil spill as well as with getting us off oil.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Transporting Stuff in Bike Trailers

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

Yesterday’s post on cargo bikes touched on some creative ways to haul feight without fossil fuel. Bike trailers provide yet another means of moving goods via human power. I like bike trailers for their versatility. They come in a variety of designs, you can take them on and off a bike as needed, and you can stow stuff in them just as you might toss things into the trunk of a car.

Bike trailers are astonishingly adaptable. I’ve known people who have hauled canoes on them for camping trips, as well as people who use them to carry their pets (and children!). A few landscape services use bike trailers to haul their tools to jobs, and some of the services that use cargo bikes also use trailers to expand their hauling capacity.

My own bike trailer (pictured above left) is pretty basic but serves nicely for things like grocery shopping, hauling books to the library, or doing several errands at a time. I generally use it if I have to carry more than will fit on my bike rack or in panniers. It’s not fancy but I’ve had it for years and it suits my needs. The collapsible feature means it’s not as sturdy as other trailers, but it’s darn easy to store.

The heavy-duty trailers built by Bikes at Work occupy the other end of the quality spectrum. If cargo bikes can be likened to pickup trucks, then Bikes at Work trailers can turn a standard bicycle into a semi. You can see where I got this idea from the photo below.

The two heavy-duty Bikes at Work trailers above are on a house-moving job

Each of the two Bikes at Work trailers above can haul a load up to 300 pounds. When the company was founded, its services included hauling recyclables in Ames, Iowa (last I heard, that service had split off into a separate organization). Bikes at Work also maintains an impressive Carfree Information section on its website, a great go-to source for anyone wanting to get off oil.

I’ll close today’s post with a mention of another bike trailer I own. This one goes with my Bike Friday folding bike, and it’s a suitcase trailer. The bike itself folds and disassembles to fit into the suitcase for easy transport on a train or bus (or plane, for those who fly with them). When the bike is re-assembled ( a process that takes just a few minutes, if you’re good at it) the suitcase hooks on to the bike’s rear hub and can carry your other luggage.

In Toronto on one of my car-free book tours with my Bike Friday New World Tourist folding bike and suitcase trailer

This Bike Friday suitcase trailer is plenty big for the two duffel bags I used when I set off on several car-free book tours after writing Divorce Your Car! This set-up enabled me to transition easily from train to bus to bike travel as I journeyed literally thousands of miles without using a car. My goal in doing this echoed the reason I wrote the book: to demonstrate how many great alternatives we have to petroleum-based car travel.

More tomorrow!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Consider the Cargo Bike

This is the third in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

More bad news today from the Gulf of Mexico as removal of a collection cap again allowed oil to gush unrestricted from BP’s Deepwater Horizon well. And so the graphic display of oil-dependence dangers continues. Recovering from oil addiction takes on further urgency if we acknowledge, as Alaska writer Charles Wohlforth points out, that total clean-up from large oil spills is just not possible. In a superb essay for Seed Magazine, Wohlforth notes that less than 10% of the crude spilled two decades ago by the Exxon Valdez was ever recovered. Even as we gape in horror at the current larger spill disaster in the Gulf, significant oil still remains along the shores of Prince William Sound.

Here’s the good news: our heavy dependence on dirty oil needn’t continue. With this post, I’d like to highlight another of the bounty of cleaner ways to move people and goods. Human power doesn’t get much press, so I was delighted yesterday to see Alan Durning’s fabulous piece on Sightline Daily about cargo bikes. If you want to be amazed by what can be carried on two (or three) non-motorized wheels, check out the terrific images of "human-powered pickup trucks” in this post. As he introduces these photos, Alan chimes in on the healing-from-dependence theme by writing: “Catching glimpses of a life cured of addiction can be a step toward recovery.”

The pix compiled by Alan and urban planner Alyse Nelson inspired me to set down a few of my own experiences with cargo bikes. I first learned about hauling by bike when the cycle delivery company Pedal Express formed in Berkeley, California in the early 1990s. Still in business, the service will deliver up to 500 pounds and uses a fleet of bikes that includes the one pictured below. The Pedal Express website also includes a scrapbook of PedX cargo bikes carrying some really big loads.

One of the cargo bikes used by Pedal Express in Berkeley

I have used Pedal Express on a few occasions to deliver birthday presents to folks living within their service area. I’ve done this from Michigan by purchasing presents by phone from Berkeley or Oakland stores, then arranging for Pedal Express to deliver.

These days, you can find delivery highlights on the Pedal Express Facebook page. My favorite highlight went up last November: “We are delivering an entire Thanksgiving dinner by bicycle today! Awesome.”

I got further experience with human-powered hauling when my household owned a cargo trike. Though it ultimately proved to be more than we needed, this beautiful recumbent trike was both fun and a good teaching tool as it garnered admiration from people who saw it. Custom-built by Lightfoot Cycles of Montana, this “ice trike” could navigate snow and ice as it carried cargo, an important feature for our long winters. Lightfoot, by the way, also makes cycles for people with disabilities and special needs, including hand-cycles.

"Ice trike" cargo bike built by Lightfoot Cycles

When I wrote Divorce Your Car! I mentioned BikeCartAge, a Victoria, BC, bicycle delivery service that used this slogan: “Is there anything we can’t deliver by bicycle? Not much!” It applies to cargo bikes overall, which you’ll see when you check out Alan Durning’s stellar photo compilation (did I mention you should take a look at his post?). I particularly like the “pub bike” built for Portland, Oregon's Hopworks by Metrofiets and designed to deliver beer and pizza, complete with bike-mounted kegs and a serving bar.

From a different and older source, I also liked the pair of cargo-bike services (not affiliated, as far as I know) that operated in Toronto several years back. As page 152 of Divorce Your Car! relates:

  • “One enterprising Canadian promotes safe sex in Toronto by selling condoms from a three-wheeled ‘Condom Cart;’ using a bike gives him a competitive advantage, writes the Community Bicycle Network, because ‘bikes are a good way to go where the action is.’ And should the condoms fail, ABC Diaper Service of Toronto provides a complete daily diaper delivery service by bicycle, offering diapers made with unbleached cotton and washing them with environmentally safe products.”

Note: I’m not sure whether these services still operate, but I’m checking. Stay tuned.

Obviously, cargo bikes alone won’t get us off oil. Rather, they offer this take-home message: cycling technology can do much more than most of us realize. If we take greater advantage of these capabilities as part of an integrated strategy, they can indeed aid our recovery from oil addiction. And I agree with Alan: simply glimpsing what’s possible can be a first step.

The more adventurous among us might go on from there to have our own cargo bikes, but even those who don’t can support their use by patronizing services which use them. If you know of more such services, please share links or contact info in the comment section below. Thanks!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Taking the Train

This is the second in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first gives an introduction to the series.

In the U.S., close to 70% of the petroleum we use fuels transportation. We consume about 20 million barrels per day; around 13 million of those go to moving us around.

Portland, Oregon's Union Station

Given this, and given that I authored a book called Divorce Your Car!, you might expect me to start a series on recovering from oil spills and addiction by advising, “Drive less.” Clearly, we have to drive less to recover from oil addiction and to relieve pressure on fragile ecosystems like the Gulf. Yet that admonition has never done much for me. Though “driving less” describes a primary path to oil-addiction recovery, it’s so non-specific that it doesn’t do much to help envision that path.

So instead of writing “drive less,” I prefer to focus on particulars that foster less car use, such as today’s suggestion: Take the train. I’m talking long-distance trains here, which are generally a very efficient means of moving both people and freight. They can do two important things when it comes to recovery from oil addiction: use less energy, and use cleaner energy.

On average, a train uses less energy to move people than any other enclosed mode of motor travel. U.S. DOE’s Transportation Energy Data Book offers the following 2007 figures for BTUs of energy used per passenger-mile:

Amtrak ..................................... 2,516
All rail ..................................... 2,586
Airplanes ................................... 3,103
Cars .......................................... 3,514
Light trucks ............................. 3,946
Buses ........................................ 4,315
Single-occupant cars .............. 5,517
Single-occupant light trucks ... 6,788

Because of differences in the nature of these travel modes, these figures aren’t precisely comparable, but it’s still safe to say you save energy by taking the train – especially compared to something like a single-occupant SUV (classed as a light truck).

Passengers from the Empire Builder stretch on the station platform in Whitefish, Montana as the train stops for a break. This route goes right through Glacier National Park.

U.S. trains don’t yet measure up to Europe’s or Japan’s or Canada’s, but despite that, the Amtrak system has much to offer. You can get as far as clear across the country in less time than it takes to drive, and relax or work along the way (Joe Biden recently described how he has worked on Amtrak commuter trains in this nice little essay). Some trains can also save you time compared to flying. In Divorce Your Car! I pointed out that certain Amtrak routes are cheaper and faster than short plane hops between major cities (see p. 168 for examples).

Some of Amtrak’s best runs service commuters. The Northeast routes, the Hiawatha between Milwaukee and Chicago, the Cascades between Oregon and Seattle, and California routes – the Capitol Corridor and Pacific Surfliner – are all popular and see high ridership.

If you’re on the way to the Gulf to help with wildlife recovery, or to cover news of the spill, you can take trains to New Orleans from points north, west, or northeast. Chicago to New Orleans is an overnight trip on the City of New Orleans; New York or DC to New Orleans is likewise overnight on the Crescent. Los Angeles to New Orleans takes two days, but that’s still less than driving.

Waiting for the Southwest Chief in the Los Angeles Union Station.

Amtrak is not without problems. Decades of tight budgets have limited equipment upgrades, so many train cars show wear and are subject to facilities breakdowns. I can say from experience that there’s nothing like toilet failures on a train to make a journey unpleasant. Delays have plagued some routes, because freight trains have priority on most tracks; recently, though, Amtrak’s on-time performance has gone way up. I’ve ridden several trains that have reached their destinations early.

Right now, trains run on a combination of electric power and diesel (some Amtrak locomotives are diesel-electric, some all-electric; as an aside, some locomotives used by Amtrak were made by GM, which suggests a way to bring more jobs to Michigan). This means that although most trains now run on fossil fuels, their power source can easily shift in two ways: one, by using biodiesel in place of petroleum diesel in locomotives, which has already been done in some spots.; and two, by shifting grid electrical power into cleaner energy sources such as solar.

Such changes, combined with rail travel’s efficiency, give trains great potential to cut our collective oil dependence. You can cut your own by checking out train service in your area, and riding the train.

This Amtrak locomotive is pulling the Coast Starlight into Salinas, California.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Paths to Recovery from Oil Spills and Addiction

How can we heal from the devastating Gulf oil spill, and from our crippling dependence on fossil fuels? A pledge to count the ways ….

I’ve just returned from a six-week sojourn to California. I rode Amtrak there and back, visited family and friends, took a break from writing and blogging, and all through the trip, followed news of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster with the sort of horrified helplessness I’m sure many of us feel as we watch BP’s ruptured well spew petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico.

Nodding-donkey pumpjacks bring oil up from wells under California fields. Photo taken from a passing train. ©2010 by Katie Alvord

Eleven men went down in flames as this debacle began. Now more than two months into the spill, scores of birds and animals have died in oil, beaches in at least four states have been fouled, the entire Gulf seafood industry is at risk, and we still have another two months to go before the Deepwater Horizon’s geyser of toxic crude can be fully stopped.

The Gulf of Mexico and the human and non-human lives that depend on its ecosystem are casualties of our addiction to oil. This spill is nothing if not a wake-up call about the dangers of that addiction.

Ghost in the water: From shore, you can still see oil platforms like this one in the Santa Barbara Channel, where a 1969 oil spill was a major wake-up call about the dangers of offshore drilling. This was taken through a train window. ©2010 by Katie Alvord

It’s not just this worst-in-U.S.-history ecotastrophe that compels us to end oil dependence. As headlines astound us with the quantity of crude pouring into the Gulf, the gallons of petroleum products that consistently flush, leak, or spill into streams and seas also poison the planet. In her fine book Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Kay wrote of the spills that occur at all stages of our oil use, from drilling to driving, as she pointed out: “The whole system is a leaky vessel.” As of the 1990s, when Kay wrote this book, an estimated quarter-billion gallons of oil regularly escaped into the environment each year just in the U.S.

This routine spillage has only gone up, and it occurs around the globe. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Anene Ejikeme of Trinity University noted that petroleum extraction in the Niger Delta – which supplies significant oil to the U.S. -- has spilled the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez into Nigerian coastal waters every year for the last 50 years. As a result, Ejikeme writes, “Dead fish and oily water are part of daily life for Niger Delta residents.” She cites an Amnesty International report documenting that these Nigerians “have to drink, cook with and wash in polluted water, and eat fish contaminated with oil and other toxins.”

Is this the future for the Gulf Coast, and for the globe – a future we are now watching unfold before our eyes as we view live video of Deepwater Horizon’s dark and ongoing underseas gusher?

It doesn’t have to be. The good news: there is a tremendous amount we can do to turn away from fossil fuels, to recover from oil dependence and pursue paths to cleaner energy. Based on prior research and writing on this topic, I believe that we can all help to do this now, today, in our own lives, in ways large and small. We can all help in recovering from the Gulf spill and in recovering from our crippling addiction to oil.

Toward that end, I make this three-part pledge:

1) I pledge to write a blog post every day for the next thirty days about actions and policies that can move us down a path to cleaner energy, help us recover from the Gulf spill, and/or help us recover from oil addiction. I’m counting this post as the first of these thirty.

2) I pledge to pursue the personal oil-use-reducing actions I will write about, and describe my experiences in my posts.

3) I pledge to donate $2 per post to non-profits working on cleaner energy and spill recovery, and invite you to join me by pledging to donate anywhere from 10 cents on up per post I write over the next 30 days. In a future post, I’ll give details about how to do this.

Many of my posts will be here on this “Divorce Your Car!” blog – appropriately enough, since so much of the oil we use gets consumed by driving. Some posts might be on other blogs, but I’ll link to those here and make this site “pledge central.” Besides pledging to contribute, I invite you to read and comment on these posts, tell your friends, and reduce your own oil use by trying out the personal actions I’ll describe.

More soon!