The White House wants to put more natural gas powered trucks on the road. To do it, he'll have to create a whole infrastructure network and a commercial market from scratch.
If you haven't spent much of your life thinking about the future of natural gas-powered vehicles, don't worry, you're not alone. Less sexy than electric car, and in many ways even more impractical, they've never been much more than a footnote in the long debate about how to wean the United States off its oil dependence.
But these days, natural gas vehicles have a big fan in the White House. President Obama is making a hard push for them, and he spent part of a campaign stop Thursday in Las Vegas plugging his plans. His strategy focuses on providing incentives for companies with large truck fleets to buy natural gas-powered models while encouraging the construction of more fueling stations along major highways.
There's logic to promoting natural gas at this juncture. Oil prices are high. As the world gets richer, there will be more drivers, and prices will keep going up. Meanwhile, massive shale discoveries have turned the U.S. into the world's top producer of natural gas. We've drilled for so much of the stuff that prices are now at historic lows. Why wouldn't we want to put it in our cars?
There might be some policy reasons to argue against it. Natural gas is used to generate electricity and heat homes. If it were to become a popular vehicle fuel, its price would likely rise along with consumers' utility bills. Manufacturers, which are heavy users of natural gas,
would also like to keep prices of their fuel stock low.
But there's a much more practical issue to consider: Logistics.
THE CATCH-22 OF NATURAL GAS
Right now, there isn't an infrastructure network to support the widespread adoption of natural gas powered cars or large trucks. There are two major problems standing in the way of creating one. And both of them are nasty Catch-22s.
First, companies don't buy natural gas trucks because they're expensive. And they're expensive, in part, because not enough companies buy them. According to the Wall Street Journal, there are fewer than 1,000 natural gas-powered 18-wheeler tractors rolling in the United States. As one source told the paper, the market is so small that they are "just about being hand-built, much like a Rolls Royce." Prices won't come down until there's enough demand to jumpstart mass production.
The second Catch-22 is that nobody wants to drive a natural gas vehicle unless there's a place to refuel it. And almost nobody wants to build a re-fueling station until there are people driving natural gas vehicles.
These problems aren't unique to natural gas. Electric cars have faced almost the exact same hurdles. But electric car makers have found creative ways to get around the infrastructure issue, either by marketing their vehicles to commuters or adding small gas engines for extended range. And some well-off car buyers are willing to pay a premium for an environmentally friendly ride.
With natural gas, there's less wiggle room. For 18-wheelers to use it, you need fueling stations along the route, plain and simple.* And companies aren't likely pay for an expensive truck unless it makes strict economic sense.
WHAT DO WE NEED: SUBSIDIES OR CERTAINTIES?
The administration seems to think it can overcome those obstacles with a generous round of subsidies. After receiving a $5.5 million stimulus grant, UPS purchased 48 new natural gas trucks and partnered with Clean Energy Fuels Corp., the company part-owned by billionaire natural gas advocate T. Boone Pickens, to build a refueling station between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. On Thursday, Obama spoke at a UPS plant, where he advocated tax incentives for companies that buy natural gas trucks and promised to work with the private sector to develop five "natural gas corridors" along U.S. highways where the vehicles will be able to easily fill up their tanks.
The president's proposal is similar to the Nat Gas Act, a pending bipartisan bill that would provide large tax breaks for investments in both natural gas trucks and fueling equipment. Cost estimates range between $5 billion and $9 billion, and Pickens, one of the legislation's most vocal public supporters, claims it would put 140,000 trucks on the road along with enough fueling stations to service them. But pulling that off would almost certainly require an incredible amount of coordination along the lines of what his company achieved with UPS. After all, how many businesses will take advantage of a tax deduction for a large capital investment based on the mere possibility that someone else will build out the infrastructure necessary to use it? Meanwhile, even with a write-off for the initial investment, gas station owners might not want a little used pump taking up real estate on their property. It sounds minor, but it's an actual concern I heard while reporting on this topic a few years ago.
No, to make natural gas take off, both sides will need a degree of certainty. The subsidies alone won't do it.
Obama's natural gas plan does have a second, more easily achievable half. He wants federal agencies and local governments to buy more natural gas vehicles for their fleets. Think natural gas powered post office trucks and school buses, for instance. That goal is simpler, since most government fleets are fueled at a central location, where they return each day. Install a pump, and you're good to go.
But encouraging natural gas fleets won't influence what happens in the long-haul trucking industry. That's because post office trucks, school buses, and secret-service SUVs would run on compressed natural gas. That's a different form of fuel than the liquified natural gas cargo trucks use and requires a separate pump to deliver. Encouraging truck stops to carry liquefied natural gas will take its own separate effort.
Cooperation between the public and private sector has become the Obama administration's big rallying cry of late. Getting natural gas trucks on the road would be a small but tough test of his ability to actually make it happen.
*There are bi-fuel vehicles available, which can run on diesel or natural gas. But, as the Department of Energy points out, they perform worse than dedicated natural gas vehicles.
Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*
Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protestors taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.
After a five-month delay, Loretta Lynch made history last week. On Thursday, the Senate confirmed Lynch as the next U.S. attorney general, the first African American woman ever to hold this Cabinet position. Her long-stalled nomination sometimes seemed in doubt, held hostage to partisan jockeying between Democrats and Republicans. But one political bloc never gave up, relentlessly rallying its support behind Lynch: the black sorority.
During her initial hearing, the seats behind Lynch were filled with more than two dozen of her Delta Sigma Theta Sorority sisters arrayed in crimson-and-cream blazers and blouses, ensuring their visibility on the national stage. These Delta women—U.S. Representatives Marcia Fudge and Joyce Beatty among them—were there to lend moral support and show the committee that they meant business. The Deltas were not alone. The Lynch nomination also drew support from congressional representatives from other black sororities: Alpha Kappa Alpha members Terri Sewell and Sheila Jackson Lee took to the House floor to advocate for a vote while Sigma Gamma Rho members Corinne Brown and Robin Kelly and Zeta Phi Beta member Donna Edwards used social media and press conferences to campaign on Lynch’s behalf.
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
I’m not a dog person. I prefer cats. Cats make you work to have a relationship with them, and I like that. But I have adopted several dogs, caving in to pressure from my kids. The first was Teddy, a rottweiler-chow mix whose bushy hair was cut into a lion mane. Kids loved him, and he grew on me, too. Teddy was probably ten years when we adopted him. Five years later he had multiple organs failing and it was time to put him to sleep.
When I arrived at the vet, he said I could drop him off. I was aghast. No. I needed to stay with Teddy.As the vet prepped the syringe to put him to sleep, I started sobbing. The vet gave me a couple minutes to collect myself and say goodbye. I held Teddy's paw until he died. Honestly, I didn't think I was that attached.
In her new book No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson tells readers a story about her friend, Tim. When Tim started a new job as a manager, one of his top priorities was communicating to his team that he valued each member’s input. So at team meetings, as each member spoke up about whatever project they were working on, Tim made sure he put on his “active-listening face” to signal that he cared about what each person was saying.
But after meeting with him a few times, Tim’s team got a very different message from the one he intended to send. “After a few weeks of meetings,” Halvorson explains, “one team member finally summoned up the courage to ask him the question that had been on everyone’s mind.” That question was: “Tim, are you angry with us right now?” When Tim explained that he wasn’t at all angry—that he was just putting on his “active-listening face”—his colleague gently explained that his active-listening face looked a lot like his angry face.
A magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal early on Saturday, centered 10 miles below the surface, less than 50 miles from the capital of Kathmandu. At least 2,200 are already reported to have been killed by the quake and subsequent avalanches triggered in the Himalayas. Historic buildings and temples were destroyed, leaving massive piles of debris in streets as rescue workers and neighbors work to find and help those still trapped beneath rubble. Below are images from the region of the immediate aftermath of one of the most powerful earthquakes to strike Nepal in decades. (Editor's note, some of the images are graphic in nature.)
This week we have images of a Chilean volcano, migrants shipwrecked in the Mediterranean, the "Blue Forest" in Belgium, Kim Jong Un atop Mt Paektu, the Boston Marathon, Orcas hunting on a Patagonian beach, Saudi attacks on Yemen, tule elk along California's coastline, and much more.
In Baltimore, where 25-year-old Freddie Gray died shortly after being taken into police custody, an investigation may uncover homicidal misconduct by law enforcement, as happened in the North Charleston, South Carolina, killing of Walter Scott. Or the facts may confound the darkest suspicions of protestors, as when the Department of Justice released its report on the killing of Michael Brown.
What's crucial to understand, as Baltimore residents take to the streets in long-simmering frustration, is that their general grievances are valid regardless of how this case plays out. For as in Ferguson, where residents suffered through years of misconduct so egregious that most Americans could scarcely conceive of what was going on, the people of Baltimore are policed by an entity that perpetrates stunning abuses. The difference is that this time we needn't wait for a DOJ report to tell us so. Harrowing evidence has been presented. Yet America hasn't looked.
In the fall of 2011, the U.S. Secret Service orchestrated a sting operation. The target was a Vietnamese man named Hieu Minh Ngo. Investigators believed he was a big-time identity thief who sold packages of data known as “fullz,” each of which typically included a person’s name, date of birth, mother’s maiden name, Social Security number, and e-mail address and password. Criminals could buy fullz from Ngo for as little as eight cents and then use them to open credit cards, take out loans, or file for bogus tax refunds. They could also pay Ngo for access to a vast database of people’s personal records.
As part of the operation, an agent attempted to buy the identities of hundreds of U.S. citizens. In such illegal transactions—be they for drugs, guns, or stolen identities—finding a payment system that both sides trust can be tricky. Cash is safest because it leaves no record. But handing over a briefcase stuffed with bills isn’t an option when the parties are on opposite sides of the planet. Ngo suggested an alternative. In an e-mail to the agent, he offered simple instructions: “Please pay to our LR: U8109093.”
Soon, thousand of police officers across the country will don body-worn cameras when they go out among the public. Those cameras will generate millions of hours of footage—intimate views of commuters receiving speeding tickets, teens getting arrested for marijuana possession, and assault victims at some of the worst moments of their lives.
As the Washington Post and the Associated Press have reported, lawmakers in at least 15 states have proposed exempting body-cam footage from local open records laws. But the flurry of lawmaking speaks to a larger crisis: Once those millions of hours of footage have been captured, no one is sure what to do with them.
I talked to several representatives from privacy, civil rights, and progressive advocacy groups working on body cameras. Even among these often allied groups, there’s little consensus about the kind of policies that should exist around releasing footage.