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01.23.08

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs


Biofuels debunked, Santa Cruz gets bike-friendliness award and Arana Gulch bike path may head to courté again.

Bursting Biofuel's Bubble

As a longtime scholar of international oil policy, David Fridley understands the problems that tightening oil supplies will pose for the global economy. Yet when Fridley, a researcher at the Lawrence Livermore Labs, began reading about how some politicians wanted to solve the impending shortage—by switching to biofuels—his skeptical instincts quickly kicked in. Fridley decided to launch into a scientific research project to sort proven fact from politicized rhetoric."We were on the verge of committing huge amounts of resources, both financial and physical, to [a plan] that had potentially tremendous impacts on energy and the environment," he remembers.

After two years of research, Fridley is ready to hit the road with warnings about the environmental and economic consequences of increasing our reliance on biomass-derived fuel. He comes to Santa Cruz on Thursday, Jan. 24, to give a talk at the Louden Nelson Community Center.

Fridley has studied oil economics and logistics in China for over 25 years. His background in traditional energy allows him a comparative framework with which to analyze the energy potential of biofuels and other petroleum alternatives. His conclusion, to put it simply, is that the potential is overhyped. For example, ethanol has terrible return rates in terms of both energy and investor profits.

"During the height of oil extraction in the United States around 1930, we were only using one unit of energy to make 100 units. So what was left over to run the rest of society was enormous," he notes. "Now, it also takes energy to make ethanol. You can use any energy form-natural gas for the plants, oil for the tractors, etc.—but you aren't getting much energy out once you spend a lot of energy to make this stuff."

Fridley cites a UC-Berkeley School of Public Policy study ("Biofuel Analysis Meta-Model") published in the journal Science in 2006 showing that ethanol has a 20 percent return on energy investment. Fridley doubts whether this return percentage can compete with the much higher returns of conventional petroleum, which he estimates have historically ranged from 100 percent to 10,000 percent.

Fridley is well aware that oil is implicated in numerous crimes against nature, but he reminds the biofuel cheering section that the environmental consequences of planting fuel crops on sensitive land have already come home to roost in Malaysia, Indonesia and Brazil.

"We see for palm oil production in Malaysia and Indonesia the deforestation of millions of acres of land that's already threatening the habitat for the Sumatran tiger and the Orangutan," argues Fridley. "This also releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the air due to the oxidization of the peat that lies beneath these forests."

Don't even get Fridley started on cellulosic biofuel production—the creation of fuel from things like lawn trimmings or a fallen tree branch.

"People don't recognize how many technical hurdles there are before this can be done," he says. "There is no way to get the sugars out of the cellulose without expending huge amounts of energy. Then you'd still have to distill it."

After Fridley was done shattering Nūz's fragile hopes, there was only one question left: What is the solution? For Fridley, it boils down to resurrecting an oft-ignored concept known in the olden days as "conservation."

"Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of what you read from any official source on the energy crisis has been arguing how to create more supply. What you rarely hear is how to manage the demand," says Fridley. "None of the alternatives we're talking about—solar, wind or biofuels—can be scaled up at the speed and rate and volume necessary to offset the impact of a declining oil supply."

DAVID FRIDLEY speaks Thursday, Jan. 24, at 7pm at Louden Nelson Community Center, Room 3. Admission is free; donations accepted. Afterward, NASA researcher and member of the board of directors for Ecology Action Joe Jordan facilitates a discussion on local energy independence.

Medal to the Pedal

Anyone who has taken a bicycle ride along the coastline to Wilder Ranch or pedaled along the rugged mountains trails cutting through the redwoods is already well aware of the joys of riding a bicycle in Santa Cruz. As of presstime, the League of American Bicyclists was set to officially join those in the know on Jan. 22 and award the Santa Cruz City Council its silver award for encouraging a bicycle-friendly community.

While the gorgeous scenery and well-kept trails in Santa Cruz's more rural areas figured into the award, the League was also impressed with the city's efforts to encourage safety, create bicycle infrastructure and foster a cultural atmosphere conducive to bicycling. Examples of projects that caught the League's eye include the protected two-way bike lanes on Beach and High streets, the wide availability of bike parking downtown, well established bike businesses and co-ops, safety education in the schools and the large turnout at Bike to School days.Piet Canin, Ecology Action's transportation director and a driving force in expanding the city's Bike to Work program, is happy to see the local bicycling community getting the recognition it deserves. He hopes the award will stimulate efforts to make Santa Cruz even more bike-friendly in the future.

"This award recognizes the accomplishments that have been made in Santa Cruz, even for those who think that more can be done," says Canin, adding, "There are rewards for tourism that come with this designation, and that encourages city leaders to put more towards bike improvements."

Projects that might rocket Santa Cruz to gold status, or at least cut down on bicycle-related injuries and deaths, include building the Rail Trail, linking together intermittent bike lanes along major transit corridors like Soquel Avenue and creating an alternate route for bicyclists traveling along Mission Street. City planners are in the early stages of considering a bike boulevard along King Street for this purpose.

Furthermore, with climate change a hot political issue (excuse the pun), Canin hopes Santa Cruz's attention to bike-friendliness will only improve.

"We already have the zero-pollution vehicle," boasts Canin. "GM and Chevron might be planning for one in the future, but with climate change the future is now."

Arana Arises Again

The word "tarplant" will once again be echoing throughout the chambers of justice. The Santa Cruz tarplant, an endangered species found in the Arana Gulch greenbelt on the east side of Santa Cruz, became the focus of a court battle last year after the city revealed plans to pave a bike path through the plant's habitat. In November the court ruled in the city's favor, but on Tuesday, Jan. 8, the California Native Plant Society filed an appeal of that decision. No court date has been set yet.

The bike path is planned to be about 11 feet wide and is meant to connect the east side of Santa Cruz with the rest of town, allowing bikers to cross the city without having to do battle with cars. The Native Plant Society and its allies in the community, organized under the moniker Friends of Arana Gulch, claim this convenience for bikers (and those wheelchair-bound nature lovers, Nūz might add) will mean extinction for the tarplant. Judge Paul Burdick seemed to think that was a bit of an overstatement when he ruled with the city, but Native Plant Society lawyer William Parkin will now have the opportunity to make his case in front of the Sixth District Appeals Court.


Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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