Eight Presidents, One Pledge: To Reduce Dependence on Foreign Oil

At a time when partisanship seems to lead most every story in politics, it’s worth highlighting a sweeping bipartisan push that’s lasted four decades…

Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have all made the same pledge to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. And yet at the end of each administration so far, imports have been higher than before.

The pledge seems to have meant little–until now. By the time President Obama leaves office, oil imports will be lower and this trend will continue. And to be fair, it’s not all thanks to Obama.

Decreased dependence on foreign oil is the cumulative result of many events that set the stage for natural gas. Government policies since the 1970s funded advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (already available since the 1930s and 1950s respectively). Later, high gas prices provided market incentives to locate new wells on private lands utilizing these technologies. Most recently, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 excluded hydraulic fracturing from underground injection regulations. It’s a rare instance in which markets, government, and technology worked together with a common goal. And succeeded.

As a result, the energy transition is now in play, but most people haven’t noticed yet. In fact, Dr. Michael Webber, Deputy Director of the Energy Institute at The University of Texas at Austin, predicts natural gas will overtake petroleum as the dominant energy source in the U.S. within 10-20 years. Perhaps when this occurs and we finally achieve that famous political pledge to “reduce dependence on foreign oil,” more Americans will recognize the significance of what’s taking place.

 

Let’s Get Honest About Women In Science

There has been a good deal written recently about women in the scientific workforce. It’s not a new conversation, but I’ve been reconsidering why more of us aren’t forging ahead in STEM while preparing a talk for Women’s History Month.

I’ve posted many, many, many times about the unique obstacles we face in academia. Women lack visibly successful role models, face a good deal of gender discrimination and, at times, sexual harassment, and – most importantly – the academic lifestyle is not ideal for raising a family. I’d like to focus on that last one.

As a new mom, I will return to work on Monday–when my son is just nine weeks old. I am fortunate to have a flexible schedule, supportive husband, and wonderful colleagues, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy. When I discuss motherhood, there are usually comments about how fathers are ignored in the conversation. So first let me be perfectly clear: Partners are extremely important and often play a very active role in childcare. But there are also significant differences.

Here’s a big one: When I fly out of state on Thursday, there’s suddenly a lot more to figure out. No one prepares you for traveling with a breast pump or explains how to freeze enough milk for the day. And that’s only the beginning. There are lots of little and big things like that we just don’t talk about in academia. I think balancing a family and career would be easier if we have these conversations. Openly.

What I know for sure is that no matter what else I do – whether I write more books, move back into research, or return to policy – the most important job I will ever have is being a mom. Not every woman in science will decide to be a parent and not all of us will choose to stay in the scientific workforce, but if the goal is to get more women into positions of influence in STEM, there’s one clear solution. We must make these two more compatible.

2013: Energy issues on front burner

(CNN) – After a year of tumultuous weather and global change, it should not be surprising that 2012 proved to be a transformative period for public opinion on energy.

Changing attitudes on the most hotly debated topics matter a great deal because they set the course for future policy decisions. Taking a closer look at trends over the past 12 months hints at what to expect in several key areas of the U.S. energy landscape in 2013.

Natural gas boom — and controversy

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” has been around for more than half a century, but recently expanded rapidly because of advances in horizontal drilling deep underground.

Despite this proliferation of new wells, 59% of Americans say they are unfamiliar with the term, down from 63% in March, according to the latest findings from the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Poll. (continue reading Sheril’s full piece…)

This article originally appeared at CNN on December 28, 2012.

NASA-NOAA Satellite Reveals New Views of Earth at Night

This new global view and animation of Earth’s city lights is a composite assembled from data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite. The data was acquired over nine days in April 2012 and 13 days in October 2012. It took 312 orbits to get a clear shot of every parcel of Earth’s land surface and islands. This new data was then mapped over existing Blue Marble imagery of Earth to provide a realistic view of the planet.
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC
High-resolution download

What YOU Need To Know About Iron Fertilization

You’ve likely seen the story already:

A California businessman chartered a fishing boat in July, loaded it with 100 tons of iron dust and cruised through Pacific waters off western Canada, spewing his cargo into the sea in an ecological experiment that has outraged scientists and government officials.

Just *scientists and government officials*? In reality, all of us should be outraged, including you. Over the years, I’ve written quite a bit about the prospect of iron fertilization–a geoengineering strategy that involves dumping large amounts of iron into the ocean. Back in 2008, I described how a for-profit company called “Planktos”canceled its field tests due to a lack of funds–blaming a “highly effective disinformation campaign.”

Now the 62 year old so-called “chief executive” of that company, Russ George, has taken it upon himself to experiment with planet Earth. That’s not okay. Further, it’s not legal. You can read about his egregious and irresponsible behavior at the NYTimes, but I’d like to provide a bit more background on iron fertilization for readers.

The idea is relatively simple: In certain regions of the ocean, a lack of iron limits the growth of phytoplankton.  When dust containing iron settles onto these regions, plankton blooms occur which take up CO2 from the atmosphere. When the algae die, the carbon sinks, and can be stored for varying amounts of time.

For-profit investors hope to earn carbon credits through this kind of carbon-offset scheme. But the truth is, iron fertilization cannot be viewed as a simple input and output equation and therefore it’s difficult to quantify what to expect.  The great deal of uncertainty makes policy governing these kind of large-scale geoengineering projects critical before any action is taken for profit.  This is because the implications of altering our climate and oceans have the potential to impact everyone.

Here’s what you need to know:

* Location, season, temperature, water chemistry, species composition, and so on – factors that are already independently in flux – may significantly impact the phytoplankton response.

* We do not know much about the ability to manipulate ecosystems.

* Effectiveness will depend on the the environmental consequences of the process and the final fate of carbon in the system.

* Results observed in studies so far may not apply to areas where future iron fertilization would take place.   In fact, some areas that have not been tested may be more promising for iron fertilization.

* In the short-term, iron fertilization typically leads to phytoplankton blooms, but the long-term effects are mostly unknown.

* Science has a great deal to learn about creating the right market to facilitate offset efforts.  The scientific community has yet to reach a consensus on biophysical and social impacts of the process.

Read more on Iron Fertilization here and here [pdf].

Energy Perception And Policy Reality

As the election nears, energy policy remains a regular topic on the campaign trail. Controversial subjects like arctic drilling and hydraulic fracturing continue making headlines as the political class debate our nation’s changing energy mix. But let’s not deceive ourselves, or the public at large, about a president’s real role and reach.

Although certain real-world outcomes will be dependent on voters this November, the rhetoric may not match the reality on some fronts this election season. For example, coal supporters generally favor Mitt Romney, yet the United States will become ever less dependent on coal no matter who wins due to abundantly available natural gas. Likewise, opponents of the Keystone XL Pipeline typically rally around President Obama, even though that project will probably roll ahead regardless of the victor.

Perhaps the most telling sign of the vast disconnect between perception and reality has to do with gasoline prices. According to the latest poll numbers, 45 percent of Americans ranked the cost of gasoline as the energy topic they would most like to see the candidates address during the presidential debates. For comparison, U.S. energy security was the second-most-popular response, garnering a total of just 10 percentage points. Other choices, such as energy efficiency, climate change and offshore drilling, did not break out of the single digits.

Politicians are acutely attuned to the interests of their constituents. So it’s not surprising that gas prices featured prominently in speeches at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. We have been hearing a good deal of related rhetoric for years. The price we pay at the pump memorably took central stage in Michele Bachmann’s campaign during the summer of 2011 when she told crowds she would reduce the cost of gasoline.

“Under President Bachmann you will see gasoline come down below $2 a gallon again,” she promised. “That will happen.”

Of course, Bachmann never outlined just how she would achieve this feat because a sitting president cannot simply make it so. What she didn’t understand — and what most voters do not seem to grasp — is that gasoline prices are tied to a global crude oil market. Therefore, even if our government goes so far as to enact policies that expand domestic drilling, the excess production at home could very well be offset by other factors, such as reduced OPEC production.

But right or wrong, voters’ perceptions on these issues do matter tremendously. Tomorrow’s energy solutions require more than cutting-edge technologies and carefully crafted legislation. Public opinion — what people really think about energy — plays the most critical role in shaping America’s energy future.

Personal attitudes, concerns, and priorities are determined by more than just “the facts.” We take into account stories in the media, the talking points of politicians, vocal celebrities and religious leaders, as well as the opinions of family and friends. All of these perspectives flow together to, in the aggregate, influence which energy issues our representatives — regional and national — address through policy and legislation.

Just weeks before we go to the polls, there are countless partisan claims being made regarding where Obama and Romney sit on every hot-button issue. But in reality, national energy strategies don’t fit so neatly into red or blue compartments. The boundaries are blurry, motivated by more than a candidate’s platform. Energy policies often cross party lines and we must open our eyes to when and where they do. More importantly, we must, at times, be willing to cross party lines along with them.

This post originally appeared at NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog.

On Balancing A Blog, Career, and Motherhood

Lately a lot of readers have been asking why I’m not posting here as often. The truth is, a lot has changed professionally and personally since I began in 2006. I’m working hard to strike a balance between career obligations, family, and life on- and offline.

When I composed my first blog post, I was living as a policy staffer in DC. Hours on the Hill were long, but I enjoyed getting my thoughts about the convergence of science, policy, and culture down at the end of each day. Blogging felt cathartic and I did my best writing very late into the night–the same schedule I kept while composing my thesis during grad school. Sure I had a full-time job, but I was single, living in the city, with boundless energy and relatively few commitments.

By the following year, I started taking my role in the science online community more seriously. I joined Chris Mooney at Scienceblogs where we posted every day. There were far fewer science bloggers at the time and we all knew–or knew of–each other, participating in a kind of ongoing conversation. My online contributions not only helped me organize my thoughts, but also provided an informal education about journalism, leading to books about the role of science in our culture. I started writing regular articles and giving talks, while trying to include some sort of social life along the way.

By early 2012, I was traveling every week–sometimes for weeks at a time–and wading into my newest role as director of the Energy Poll at The University of Texas at Austin. I’m also married now, with a newborn baby boy.

In other words, we grow and change. Being at the helm of university project takes a lot of planning, analysis, and time. And as for those late-nights writing until 4am? These days, motherhood has me ready for bed by 9pm. I still continue to travel regularly for book talks and job obligations. In fact, with our upcoming energy poll release focused on voting behavior, it will continue to be a whirlwind up to the election. So right now I’m working hard at balancing career, parenting, and contributing to the online science community.

We hear a lot about whether women can–or should try to–”have it all.” I suspect the answer is quite nuanced. We can do different things very well at different times in our lives as we change. With every passing year, I’m learning more about myself and figuring out what works for me.

Be assured Culture of Science will continue. This blog has been through five incarnations at various networks over six years. You might even say I’m a veteran in the community at this point. So yes, I will keep posting when I have meaningful ideas to contribute. And always know I’m glad to have you along on the journey.

Under The Microscope: Feminism, Scientists and Sexiness

Earlier this year Nicholas Kristof wondered aloud (via twitter), “Why are most pundits men?” In another context, we might ask why men compose 97% of OpEds in the Wall Street Journal. Both involve the hesitancy of women to express opinions. Yet prominent female voices in our culture matter tremendously because they help to define our place in society. But if men get cast into the spotlight, you might say that women are examined under the microscope. As an author, blogger, researcher, and former Hill staffer, I regularly observe problems with the status quo across arenas. Rather then help women find their voices, we tend to send those testing the waters of public punditry dashing back out of focus.

Having spent my formative years as a run-of-the-mill tomboy, I never considered using the “feminist” label and naively assumed that since I was as good at science and math as the boys, my sex wouldn’t matter. But a funny thing happened when I entered academia; I learned that when a woman expresses herself visibly in any traditionally male-dominated field, the platform comes with the expectation that she will address gender issues. And over time it becomes a necessity. Last week Luke Muehlhauser caused a stir when he included me on a list of “sexy scientists.” Early on that thread, “Hansen” noted:

Oh dear, you may be in serious trouble now for placing Sheril Kirshenbaum on that list.

The link leads to “Singled Out“: My response from March 2009 to the remarks about my appearance heard ’round the science blogosphere when Chris and I joined the Discover network. Luke followed up with a second post asking whether he’s sexist, a third summarizing the hundreds of comments piling in, and a fourth on objectification. He also emailed me personally and seems genuinely interested to hear my perspective. So I’ve decided to weigh in and explore the topic with readers.

Long before I set out to write a book dealing with human sexual behavior, I knew that evolution primed us to notice the alluring qualities of other members of our species. These are often indicative of health and fertility and women are held to different standards of judgment than men. But even if biology has an influence on how we behave, it’s not an adequate scapegoat. After all, we also have a large cerebral cortex that allows us to choose the way we interact in our communities.

In my profession today I work closely with many talented men. We write on related topics and speak to similar audiences. Yet, I’m regularly reminded that I face many challenges they don’t have to deal with. No one jokingly whispers about their receptivity to sex during conferences just loud enough to overhear. No one questions whether they were hired so the boss could to get some “tail.” These kinds of experiences are common for women in and out of the ivory towers. We rarely complain for fear of being considered troublemakers or worse. We work hard and don’t want special treatment or penalization, so we turn a deaf ear, aware that some will never see past what’s on the surface. We stop speaking up and a negative feedback loop continues to reinforce gender roles over time.

Just consider the political arena: While candidates should never be chosen based on a number of X chromosomes, it would benefit everyone if women became more involved in the decision-making process given we represent about 50% of the population. But watching the way Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton were each cast as stereotypes, ogled, and photo-shopped by the media during their 2008 campaigns, I often wondered to myself why any little girl would dream of being in that position someday?

So Mr. Kristof, that’s likely why there aren’t more female pundits and commentators. Increasing our numbers will involve changing cultural expectations by highlighting the accomplishments of a wider spectrum of women to demonstrate what we are capable of.

Returning to the hullabaloo over last week’s “sexy scientists” list, I honestly don’t think any real harm has been done to me personally. And it’s worth pointing out that in 2005 when Chris was named one of Wired Magazine’s “Sexiest Geeks,” no one complained. So while this may not be the way I’d most like to be featured, far worse items pop up across the Internet about me on a regular basis. To survive in the blogosphere, you grow a thick skin and keep in mind that there’s more to life than what happens online.

That said, I would like to see Luke, and others, think more carefully about the ripple effects of such posts. He can moderate his own site, but also doesn’t have to deal with the related extended commentary now percolating about the web because of his actions. For example, I’m currently receiving comments such as “I’d hit that,” which are promptly deleted, but do make me uncomfortable regardless. And since I can only filter content here, who knows what else is being added to message boards and websites elsewhere. In other words, it’s important to remember that words travel well beyond one’s own blog and can quickly get out of hand. That’s the nature of new media communication–you can’t control or keep up with what’s out there. So it’s important to acknowledge that there are often unintended consequences down the line for those unknowingly involved.

Additionally, in response to Luke’s commentors, I’ll clarify that I’m not offended by being called a “woman in science.” It’s an accurate description. (In fact, in a few months I’ll be moderating a L’Oreal/Discover panel on Capitol Hill about that very topic). When I wrote that “I’d rather not be labeled a woman in science,” I meant that I would prefer that others recognize there are more dimensions to who I am and what I do than those assigned by base pairs.

What I know for sure is that we need to find more ways to acknowledge women who speak up, take a nontraditional path, defy expectations, and contribute to society in and out of science. And there are better ways to do so than commentary on our physical assets. But I also want to emphasize that I appreciate the way Luke is taking the time to explore a topic that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. When someone is willing to engage others and turn over ideas on sexism and gender–especially when they are attempting to understand the other side–it can be quite a constructive dialog. Further, this conversation isn’t really about photos on a blog post. It’s vastly more complex and deals with social and cultural mores and the objectification of females in our society.

In conclusion, given women will remain under the microscope indefinitely, I hope increasing numbers aim for high magnification for reasons beyond appearances. To achieve more equal representation in all realms, it will be necessary to identify and celebrate a diverse set of talented and motivated individuals so that they may become the role models our children deserve. Superficial beauty is ephemeral after all, so we we ought to spend more time focusing on the qualities that matter more and last indefinitely. And if we succeed, today’s visible voices will motivate the career aspirations of tomorrow’s leaders across the gender divide from Mars to Venus.