July 30, 2008

EDITOR'S NOTE: We think we think about energy

“As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” —Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, during a Department of Defense news briefing on Feb. 12, 2002.

“It is because they do not think at all; they only think they think. Whereas they can’t think; not two human beings in ten thousand have anything to think with.” —Mark Twain, “Letters from the Earth,” 1938.

It has been with an extraordinary curiosity, it’s safe to say, that most Americans have considered the ascent of gas prices over the past year.

With petrol now hovering around $4 a gallon nationally, we are being forced, for the fi rst time in recent memory, into a lifestyle change solely for economic reasons. Any altruism you might sense from a neighbor asking you where to purchase a good bicycle should be chalked up to the more cynical side of the human animal. It appears we have fi nally devised a way to comply with the logic of an overstuffed American fuel market: Drive fewer miles.

Here in Possibility City, we have been extra sensitive, perhaps for these reasons: During the last month, our gas prices have settled well above the national average, leaving us at odds with even the rest of the state and with no reasonable explanation why. As well, politicians and those seeking office have localized this national “crisis,” peddling a series of cheap tricks on consumers and constituents in the interest of a vote.

I have burned through several columns explaining in morbid detail how myopic Republican congressional candidate Anne Northup’s “plan” for lowering gas prices is; concomitant to that is an online petition urging Congress to enact said “plan,” which is, boiled down, to drill offshore in America to provide more supply to meet our swollen demand. Estimates from the Bush administration have said this may cause gas prices to fall by as much as a nickel over the next decade.

Last week, Metro Councilman Doug Hawkins, R-25 and a candidate for state Senate, decided it was time to hump the gasprice doll, filing legislation that, if passed, would encourage Gov. Steve Beshear to end the voluntary mandate to use only reformulated gas, or RFG, in Jefferson County (it is also mandated in Oldham, Bullitt, Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties). Hawkins claims there is no conclusive evidence showing RFG — an innovation of the early ’90s that produces relatively cleaner emissions — still provides Louisville any airquality benefit.

As proof, he sent me a recent article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about how the state of Wisconsin is asking the EPA to drop its mandate. They want out of RFG for two reasons: it costs more — around 14 cents in Wisconsin; here experts say 5-10 cents — and there appears to be some question as to its effectiveness now that auto manufacturers are putting out cleanerburning, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

It is a compelling read, complete with a quote from an EPA offi cial about how the agency is no longer certain that RFG offers cleaner emissions. Hawkins has latched onto that element; a skilled user of the local media, he often manufactures public doubt with quotidian arguments like this. Perhaps bereft of time, space or motivation, local media outlets often miss the context of what I call the Hawkins Underfed and Rapacious Theory, or HURT.

In this case, the due diligence on HURT was a simple series of phone calls and some fairly light reading on environmental policy. I started with Matt Stull, spokesperson for the Metro Air Pollution Control District, and asked whether Hawkins’ request to drop RFG was legitimate. To understand what he and others told me, you have to understand why we’re on RFG in the fi rst place.

In 1993, Louisville learned it was exceeding the EPA’s requirement for ground-level ozone, and the federal agency gave the city until 1996 to achieve a 15 percent reduction in emissions, which it did. How? The city had to come up with various ways to reduce its ozone, and one was to switch to RFG. The state, under Gov. Brereton Jones, added an RFG mandate for the aforementioned counties to the state implementation plan, which was approved by EPA and remains in effect today (although it has been amended).

Because EPA did not demand that Louisville use RFG, as it did other cities, it is technically a “voluntary mandate,” which Hawkins has used to create the appearance that a simple action by Beshear would lift it. In reality, Kentucky would need to garner EPA approval of a new plan, and the sudden absence of RFG would require mitigation, according to John Gowins of the state Division for Air Quality. Gowins compared the proper interpretation of “voluntary” to the military: Sure, you volunteer to get in, but once you’re in, it’s required. You can’t volunteer to back out.

“So when you’re successful, and part of that success is because you have these programs in place, EPA doesn’t look too fondly at (removing them),” he said.

Stull agreed. “Any removal of a measure in the (state implementation plan) is going to require an offset,” he said.

There are several options for offsets, according to both the city and state: Capping industrial emissions even further than the STAR program already does, bringing back vehicle emissions testing and implementing High-Occupancy-Vehicle lanes on expressways are three.

Hawkins seems to think this is all a lie, a deliberate attempt by the EPA to fuck with us. “The way these guys play ball, I’m sure we’re going to have to do something,” he told me.

I asked Gowins about Hawkins’ claim that the agency no longer supports RFG, so he showed me to an EPA report from January 2008 saying unequivocally that RFG burns cleaner than regular gasoline. Hawkins called that claim “baloney.”

Then I called Beshear’s office to ask how seriously he is taking these questions about RFG. Dick Brown, his spokesman, said the governor would rely on a forthcoming recommendation from the Division for Air Quality, adding, “You can’t just drop RFG and nothing else happens.”

One year after Louisville achieved compliance, the EPA upped its ozone requirement. It took us another decade to get there, and we still have blips: According to city figures, there were 16 “ozone days” last year, and we’ve had six already this year, including July 18, the day Hawkins filed his legislation.

The councilman said more than 1,000 people have signed his online petition asking Beshear to drop RFG. It’s hard to think they know the things they don’t know, like the job cuts that could come with a new round of industrial emissions capping. Seems time to grease up the bean for a new round of groupthink. The known-unknowns need to be covered again.