June 27 News: Obama Considers 56 MPG by 2025; Europe Promotes Alternatives to Driving

Feds set sights on 56.2 mpg by 2025

The Obama administration is considering requiring cars and light trucks to average 56.2 miles per gallon by 2025 — a move that could boost the cost of vehicles by $2,100 or more.

Top federal regulators and White House aides disclosed their initial proposal — requiring 5 percent average annual increases in efficiency over an eight-year period — in separate, private meetings this week with Detroit’s Big Three automakers, four people briefed on the matter told The Detroit News.

General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC declined comment.

Administration officials will hold similar sessions with major foreign automakers Tuesday and Wednesday, as they try to win support for a dramatic increase in fuel efficiency. The White House also has met with the UAW on the issue.

The 56.2 mpg figure and EPA’s proposed greenhouse gas emissions limits equivalent likely is an opening bargaining point. The final proposal could change as automakers and the White House hold more meetings to try to again reach agreement.

The administration plans to formally propose new standards in September and finalize them by July 2012.

It estimated last fall that hiking fuel efficiency to 56 mpg by 2025 would boost the average vehicle cost by $2,100 to $2,600. But the administration said the rule would save car owners $5,500 to $7,000 over the vehicle’s lifetime in fuel costs, and owners would recoup the additional up-front cost within 2.5 to 3.5 years.

The high mileage requirement would dramatically reshape what Americans drive. Currently, passenger vehicles must average 30.2 mpg and light trucks 24.1 mpg in government testing, but vehicles get far less in real-world driving.

Europe Promotes Alternatives to Driving

While American cities are synchronizing green lights to improve traffic flow and offering apps to help drivers find parking, many European cities are doing the opposite: creating environments openly hostile to cars. The methods vary, but the mission is clear — to make car use expensive and just plain miserable enough to tilt drivers toward more environmentally friendly modes of transportation.

Cities including Vienna to Munich and Copenhagen have closed vast swaths of streets to car traffic. Barcelona and Paris have had car lanes eroded by popular bike-sharing programs. Drivers in London and Stockholm pay hefty congestion charges just for entering the heart of the city. And over the past two years, dozens of German cities have joined a national network of “environmental zones” where only cars with low carbon dioxide emissions may enter.

Likeminded cities welcome new shopping malls and apartment buildings but severely restrict the allowable number of parking spaces. On-street parking is vanishing. In recent years, even former car capitals like Munich have evolved into “walkers’ paradises,” said Lee Schipper, a senior research engineer at Stanford University who specializes in sustainable transportation.

“In the United States, there has been much more of a tendency to adapt cities to accommodate driving,” said Peder Jensen, head of the Energy and Transport Group at the European Environment Agency. “Here there has been more movement to make cities more livable for people, to get cities relatively free of cars.”

Lawmakers Urge Obama To Pursue Energy Security Through Natural Gas

Eight members of Congress, including several representatives of powerful national security committees, have prepared a letter imploring President Obama to press for expanded natural gas exploration and production in the United States — primarily though the use of an unconventional and contentious technique known as horizontal hydraulic fracturing.

“As members of both political parties and as citizens in support of your call to get serious about a long-term policy for secure and affordable energy,” reads the Monday dated letter from the group, comprised of four Republicans and four Democrats, “we urge you and members of your administration to take a leadership role in encouraging the continued development and utilization of our nation’s vast natural gas resources by any means necessary, but most specifically, by unconventional shale gas recovery.”

Hydraulic fracturing involves the high-pressure injection of a cocktail of water, sand and a variety of chemicals thousands of feet underground to crack open rock formations and stimulate the release of natural gas. Though the process is not new, refinements in the technique — including the ability to branch horizontally, in multiple directions, through deep-shale layers from a single bore hole — are touted by the industry, as well as by the authors of Monday’s letter, as being safe, tested and capable of unlocking vast and previously unreachable deposits of natural gas.

But a host of environmental and health concerns have been raised in recent years over lax government oversight of the industry and the potential for chemicals and methane to bleed from poorly constructed wells and into surrounding rock formations, eventually contaminating drinking water supplies closer to the surface.

First Packaging-Free, Zero-Waste Grocery Store In US Coming To Austin, Texas

It’s gotten harder and harder over the years to avoid excess packaging when shopping for everyday items, but plans are in the works for a store in Austin (also the home of Whole Foods) that will specialize in local and organic ingredients, but more importantly, will eliminate all packaging from the store. If it succeeds and the bulk trend catches on, the environmental footprint—petroleum consumption and transportation emissions specifically—of our country’s grocery runs could be slashed pretty quickly.

In.gredients plans to become the country’s very first “package-free, zero waste grocery store.” GOOD describes the store in this fitting and awesome way: “It’s as if the specialty bulk food section rebelled and took over the rest of a traditional grocery store.”

GOOD outlines the benefits of bulk food in numbers:

Wandering gray whale points to climate change

When a 43- foot gray whale was spotted off the Israeli  town of Herzliya last year, scientists came to a startling conclusion: It must have wandered across the normally icebound route above Canada, where warm weather briefly opened a clear channel three years earlier.

On a microscopic level, scientists also have found plankton in the North Atlantic where it had not existed for at least 800,000 years.

The whale’s odyssey and the surprising appearance of the plankton indicate a migration of species through the Northwest Passage, a worrying sign of how global warming is affecting animals and plants in the oceans as well as on land.

“The implications are enormous. It’s a threshold that has been crossed,” said Philip Reid of the Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science in Plymouth, England.

America’s Reviving Its Highway System for Cyclists

Back in the early 1980s, America started building a highway system for cyclists—a grand national grid of bike paths. The first two stretches of the U.S. Bicycle Route System were going to run from Maine to Florida and from Virginia to Oregon. But only small parts of those routes were ever made official and the idea lost steam. Why build infrastructure for a prehistoric mode of transportation like the bicycle? Who’s going to need that in the 21st century?

Well, as it turns out, biking is on the rise. Americans made 4 billion biking trips in 2009, compared with just 3.3 billion in 2001. With this new interest in cycling, the idea of a national network of bike routes is back. As U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood recently noted on his blog, the Association of American State Highway and Transportation Officials has approved the first new routes in the national bike system in more than 30 years. The six new routes are in Maine, New Hampshire, Michigan, and Alaska. The AASHTO has also released a map showing “prioritized corridors,” to be developed as other states get on board. The idea is to eventually have a comprehensive network of routes crisscrossing America.

New discovery might lead to laptops powered through typing

Everlasting batteries and self-powered portable electronics have come one step closer to reality, according to the results of new research by Australian scientists from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). The researchers successfully measured a piezoelectric thin film’s capacity for turning mechanical pressure into electricity. It may sound like an idea from the realm of science fiction, but the discovery could eventually lead to laptops powered through typing.

Piezoelectric materials are able to to convert mechanical energy into electric power. Piezoelectricity as a phenomenon was discovered in the 19th century, and is used in things like electric cigarette lighters, which use a piezoelectric crystal capable of producing a high voltage electric current after being hit by a spring-loaded hammer, to ignite gas. Piezoelectric bulk or block materials (like crystals or ceramics) have been studied thoroughly, but research on thin films is relatively new, according to the lead co-author of the research, Dr. Madhu Bhaskaran.

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