Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Sucka-free Fuel?

In which we talk learn that there's oil, and then there's oil

In tonight's State of the Union address, President Bush says he wants to cut American dependence on oil, reducing consumption of by 20 percent over the next 10 years. Said Bush:

"For too long our nation has been dependent on foreign oil. And this dependence leaves us more vulnerable to hostile regimes, and to terrorists… It is in our vital interest to diversify America's energy supply -- and the way forward is through technology. "

Well, duh! It is a laudable, if not over-ambitious, goal. My thesis here on PurEnergy -- the defunct blog where I orignally posted this -- has been that this country and the West in the general need to find a future beyond foreign oil for the reasons cited by the president above, but also for the sake of our environment and for the growth of a domestic energy economy that could provide as many as three million jobs, according to the Apollo Alliance.

But I recognize it cannot happen overnight. I doubt we'll be free from oil entirely in my lifetime. What we have to ensure, for our security, is that we require less foreign oil, especially that which comes from hostile states who sponsor jihadist factions outright (such as Iran does with Hezbollah), who sponsor terrorist factions clandestinely (such as Syria), or who sponsor terror indirectly (and in some cases unintentionally) through groups they are unable or unwilling to control (Saudi Arabia, et al). The less petroleum we import from these nations, the less money will fall into the hands of the jihadis.

Not so oily oil
This morning I came across the Terror-Free Oil Initiative. According to the Initiative's website:
Terror-Free Oil Initiative is dedicated to encouraging Americans to buy gasoline that originated from countries that do not export or finance terrorism.

We educate the public by promoting those companies that acquire their crude oil supply from nations outside the Middle East and by exposing those companies that do not.
We are also looking into creating a healthy debate concerning alternate methods of fuel production and consumption.

On Feb. 12, a new gas station, run by an outfit called Terror-Free Oil, Inc., is set to open in Omaha, Nebraska, which is associated with the Initiative. Fuel sold at the station will, according to news reports, come only from countries that do not "export or finance terrorism."

According to the Initiative's website, the following oil companies and fuel providers are, more or less, terror-free:
  • Terror-Free Oil, Inc. itself
  • Sinclair Oil Corp.
  • Flying J, Inc.
  • Hess (Amerada Hess Corp)
  • Yukos (not available in North America)

The site notes that some Hess oil comes from Algeria, which is home to two Islamist terror groups and that some Flying J stations may sell outside brands of gas. Furthermore, the website says that the following companies finance terrorism "by buying oil from the Middle East:"

  • 76 (Conoco / Phillips)
  • Amoco (BP / Amoco)
  • AM/PM (BP / Amoco)
  • ARCO (BP / Amoco
  • Beacon (Valero)
  • British Petroleum (BP / Amoco)
  • Buc-ee's (buys Chevron & Conoco gas)
  • Canadian Tire (buys Irving & Shell gas)
  • Chevron
  • Circle K (Conoco / Phillips)
  • Coastal (Conoco / Phillips)
  • Conoco
  • Diamond Shamrock (Valero)
  • Elf (Total)
  • Esso (ExxonMobil)
  • Exxon (ExxonMobil)
  • Getty (Lukoil)
  • Gulf (Chevron)
  • Irving
  • Jet (Conoco / Phillips)
  • Lukoil
  • Marathon
  • Mirastar (Tesoro)
  • Mobil (ExxonMobil)
  • Murphy Oil USA
  • Petro-Canada
  • Petrofina (Total)
  • Phillips 66
  • Pilot (Marathon)
  • Sheetz
  • Shell
  • Speedway SuperAmerica (Marathon)
  • Starvin' Marvin's (Marathon)
  • Sunoco
  • Tesoro
  • Texaco (Chevron)
  • Total
  • Ultramar (Valero)
  • Unocal (Chevron)
  • Valero

It may be a good idea, if it's for real. The Initiative has some interesting associations, including American Center for Democracy, which started it. This is, essentially, a neo-con group. The Center, according to its website, "is dedicated to exposing the enemies of Freedom and Democracy and their Modus Operandi, and exploring pragmatic ways to defeat them while promoting standards of national and international integrity."

Can't really argue with that per se, until they start a-goin' after the queers and the atheists, of course. The name of our old buddy, Richard Perle, one of the architects of the Iraq invasion, appears more than once in the Center's web pages, and the group is frequently cited on David Horowitz's ultra-right website, FrontPageMag.com.

But nevermind. A good idea is a good idea and sometimes you've got to get in bed with lesser evils in order to defeat a greater one (like we did with Stalin's Soviet Union to defeat the Nazis.) We can always turn on them later if we find that some of Terror-Free Oil's earnings are going to fund Planned Parenthood clinic bombers.

My immediate problem is that the nearest Sinclair is in Stockton and nearest Flying J is somewhere near Gorman, up in the Tehachapis. OK, it’s not that big a problem just now, as I don't own a car… but soon…

What's in a name?
Also, I can't say I much like Terror Free Oil's marketing. If you look at the site you'll see it's all about a dark past -- 9/11 -- and not about a bright future, which is where it will need to go if it is to be a truly viable commercial enterprise and not just a flash-in-the-pan do gooder initiative.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Snow in Malibu!

In which we talk about the weather

An arctic cold front has chilled much of the nation and has even made its way to the sunny southlands of California. Snow has blanketed the Tehachapis, closing a huge swath of I-5, but that happens every other winter or so. What's wild is the canyons above Malibu have seen snow plows, people in Venice have seen their lawns dusted with snow, and even Tarzana --the Valley town named after the famed character who swung through the balmy jungles of Africa in the Edgar Rice Burroughs story -- had a visitation from Snow Miser. Skies have been clear here in Studio City. But I, for one, am hoping for a dusting, if only to get a rare photo. Personally, I like the cold, as long as it's a crisp, sunny cold that doesn't last forever (see below).
This should be a boon to the local ski resorts, which have gotten precious little of the white stuff so far this year.

Going Green(ish), Hollywood Style

In which we shill for a worthy Hollywood enterprise

The love affair between Hollywood's hipster eco-crats and the Toyota Prius hybrid car is well known and sometimes is even the butt of jokes among the blowhards of right wing radio. Until recently, however, stars who wanted to step out for the evening or go to a big Hollywood gala had to rely on old-school, gas-guzzling limousines to convey their carcasses in style. ECOLIMO, which started in 2004 with a few black Priuses (a little small as limos go), today boasts a fleet of hybrid-electric and bio-fueled vehicles that serves all the cities you can abbreviate -- L.A., S.F., D.C. and N.Y.C. The fleets includes the Ford Excursion Turbo Diesel, which runs on biodiesel and the gas-electric Lexus 400h, vehicles much more in line with Hollywood high-style.

Is there much of a gain here? In terms of air pollution there is an incremental gain. In terms of reduced foreign fossil fuel use, it depends on whether the customer chooses a hybrid-electric or a bio-diesel vehicle. Except for the Prius the other hybrid on offer don't get mileage much better than a ordinary passenger car, though significantly better than a standard stretch limo. There's not so much a gain as a flattening out. But that's better than nothing.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Travels Past: Finland

In which we go back in time for a little visit to the old country

Be it known that I am drinking vodka and that I am drinking it ice cold and in shots. This is the way we drank it in Finland. I first arrived at Helsinki-Vantaa airport seven years ago today, January 10, 2000. I was met there by two of the most beautiful women I had ever seen in my life, one blonde, the other dark. They had characteristics in kind, however: They both had what I later came to see as the Finnish nose—a turned-up button with an amused arrogance all its own.

It was not long after I arrived before the Finns, my co-workers, had me out, naked in sauna and drunk off my butt on koskenkorva, the local farmers' booze laced with black licorice hard candy. I was so far gone that when the taxi driver finally let me out at my apartment on the island of Lautasaari I slipped on the ice and sprained my elbow. The meeting with the folks at Nokia, my client, the next morning went off well even though I was a half-hour late, lamely claiming I'd got on the wrong bus.

I am listening to Finnish music videos on YouTube as I type. The band's name is Ultra Bra, and they're a pop band that used to sing in a vocal style pecualiar to Finland in the 1970's, when the country refused to decide if it wanted to be a part of the Soviet Empire or the West. "If you bow to one, you show your ass to the other," as the saying went. I just love to listen to the Finnish language as they sing it.

None of that matters. What matters is that I'm drunk and I miss my Suomalainen. I miss them terribly.

Helsinki is a city of light. I arrived there in the dark, though by my California watch it should have been broad daylight. Light in Finland is everything. In the high winter months—when it is so very dark for so very long—every bar, lounge, and dining place is illuminated not with noisome neon but with quiet, dancing flame. Every bar has its candelabras, every entryway its torches. Fire is everywhere in the Helsinki winter. Too, there are the sun-lamps that blaze relentlessly in the offices of working Finns who would fall asleep in the bitter dark but for their painful glow. Light is more than therapy in the wintertime. Light is salvation. Light is life.

As a Californian, I had never seen a frozen sea. That soon changed. A week or two after I had arrived in Helsinki I was walking over the bridge from the island of Lautasaari to my office on the mainland. The day before, the Gulf of Finland had been choppy, with a few bits of ice here and there and the ferry boats going to a fro at will. But this morning was different. It was colder, quieter and more still. There was nothing to hear. There were no cars on the road, just the crunch… crunch… crunch of the snow-covered sidewalk beneath my boots. And then I looked up. What had before been a sea was now an expanse of pure white that glowed brightly in the strange, orange, glimmering dawn. I stopped, stunned. My jaw dropped. Over the long, long night the very sea itself had become a sheet of ice and snow. A few days later there were people trekking across it on skis and snow-shoes. Once I even saw an '80s era Chevy Caprice Classic doing donuts on the ice, its seats filled with laughing teenagers.

It seems strange, living in the sun as I do now, to miss a place so cold and dark. And I miss the place, true. But mostly I miss the people that made the place the place that it was for me. They were like a warm campfire on a cold night…

Hyvää Suomi!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Big trees and little aches

Xmas 06 009In which we visit snow and sequoia in the High Sierra

Lit out for a little road trip Christmas weekend to do a some cross country skiing and a little Olde West sightseein' on the western slope of the Sierra Nevadas. I headed North, up over the Tehachapis, to Highway 99 and down through the gray and drear San Joaquin Valley. I hung a hard right just south of Stockton and headed up Highway 4, a scenic two-way byway that winds gradually up from the Valley floor through the foothills and into the mountains.

Great horny toads!
At Angel's Camp I stopped for a little historical look-see. Mark Twain fans will remember Angel's Camp from his famed 1868 short, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." The story is fiction, but it's based on a true event---the jumping frog contest that has happened Angel's Camp Jumping Frog Walk of Fameevery year in Angel's Camp since it was, well, nothing but an actual camp. Today the Jumping Frog Jubilee, held each May, is the town's primary attraction. Even so, as I strolled down the main drag, I was surprised to see a sort of Jumping Frog Walk of Fame of brass plaques embedded in the sidewalk, each reading the name of a famous frog, the name and home town of its owner and its record jump. "Tule Jim" jumped a whopping 15' 5 ½"in 1958. (By comparison, the world's record frog jump, set in 1986 by "Rosie the Ribeter," is 21’ 5 3/4”; the world's record for a human standing broad jump is just 11' 11", set by Johan Kristian Evang of Norway.)

I stopped into the local haunt for a bit of liquid refreshment. What few locals were around the afternoon of Christmas Eve were friendly and the tavern itself one of those places that serves as community hub, bank and post office all rolled into one. Most of the businesses and attractions were closed, however, so I continued up into the high country and Bear Valley, my first destination.

Cross country (and cross your legs)
Bear Valley Village stands at about 6,000' above sea level, and serves the Bear Valley Resort, a modest alpine ski and snowboard destination with a vertical drop of about 2000' and 67 trails. The village is also adjacent to Bear Valley Cross Country, which claims to have one of the largest x-country trail systems in the U.S.

I paid my day use fee ($25), strapped on my skis, took up poles and set off. Wow, am I out of practice. I hadn't gone more than 200 yards before the insides of my thighs were shrieking for mercy louder than heretic being racked by Torquemada. I didn't cross country ski last year, and the year before I was really just getting the hang of it. I could skate and turn and brake well enough back then. But this time my balance was all over the place, my knees were locking up, and I was cursing the damned skis to go the right direction on the down slopes, lest I make cozy with a tree trunk. I lasted about an hour-and-half out on the trails, which I have to say could have been better marked and groomed, before I decided to call it a day.

Not that Squaw Valley
Next morning I headed back down the 99 to my next destination, Sequoia National Forest. I still ached. At Fresno I hung a right onto Highway 180 climbed again up through the foothills and into the high country. Along the way I went through a place called Squaw Valley, not to be confused with its Tahoe-area cousin to the North. It's a place of rough beauty, where stone foundations jut up through the earth in great jagged boulders. The valley floor is orchards and vineyards while the surrounding hills are stone crags and grass. I've never seen a place quite like it. I'll keep it in mind as a site for my country house, ranch and winery.

Giant Sequoia

Totally big trees
Sequoia National Forest is home to the world's largest trees, as well as the world's largest grove of the world's largest trees, the giant Sequoias (hence the name). Having seen the world's oldest trees, the Bristlecone Pines in the White Mountains above the Owens Valley, it seemed fitting to see the world's largest. (Sadly, while on my Bristlecone trek, I may well have seen the world's oldest tree itself, Methuselah (5,000 years old), but I can't know for sure because it's not marked due to fears of vandalism, probably from religious crackers who believe the world to be no more than 3,000 years old.)

Original lumberman's cabin, built in the 1870sOne can't help but describe these trees as "really, really big." They're not the tallest trees in the world---there are redwoods that are taller---but in terms of sheer mass, they're the biggest. Like their redwood cousins, Sequoias are a type of cypress tree. They can reach a height of more than 300 feet and can have bark more than a foot thick. They look strange, almost artificial, like great hewn columns topped with a fringe of green far above the forest floor. They look like trees crafted by the set designers at Wingnut Studios for the Elven Queen from "Lord of the Rings" to flit around in.

The largest living tree in the world is called the General Sherman. Although it is "only" 275 feet high, it has a base circumference of 103 feet. Its trunk, which boasts bark 31 inches think, is believed to weigh 1,385 tons. Each year the General puts on enough new wood to make a 60 foot tall tree. That's a lot a timber.

After picking up a new badge for my walking stick at the ranger station gift shop, I took the 198 Highway loop back down the hill. It's a treacherous route of up 7 percent grades but well worth it because of the splendid views. I'm a natural sucker for magnificent rock formations and was not disappointed.

Xmas 06 012Hardley Davidson
On my way through the southern end of Squaw Valley along the 198 I was slowed by a group of people on Harleys. I don't know why they were driving so slow, but I suspect it had to do with the fact that they were the fattest herd of motorcyclists I have ever had the misfortune to clap eyes on. Now, just buying a Harley is likely to cause at least 30 pounds of weight gain, from what I've seen. But these guys (and gals) were positively hefer-esque. Their re-enforced rebar-and-concrete bikes could barely hold them without crumpling. You could almost see the steel bending beneath their great, flabby folds of flesh, and the engines of their hard-laboring machines huffing and puffing to propel their immense carcasses at a mere 50 mile-per-hour clip.

I blame trans-fats. And television.

Angel's Camp
38°4′25″N, 120°32′57″W
Rating: ♠ ♠ ♠ 1/2
Nice town with old west charm; friendly people; mostly closed on Christmas Eve

Bear Valley Cross Country
38°2'09"N, 120°29'50"W
Rating: ♠ ♠ 1/2
Among the largest x-country trail system in the U.S.; trails need to be better marked and groomed; views not that great; worth another go when I get my trail legs back

Sequoia National Monument and Forest
Rating: ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
Wow. Great history in a gorgeous high country setting.