Archive for January, 2010

Biofuels: Where’s the energy?

January 31, 2010

In addition to detainee policy, I also got a chance to ask Senator Chuck Grassley about his thoughts on biofuels subsidies. Biodiesel manufacturers have been suffering mightily since Jan. 1 when their $1 per gallon federal subsidy expired. Many plants, including the one in my current town of Washington, Iowa, had to shut down.

Grassley promised to work for the renewal of the biodiesel subsidy when the Senate reconvened on Jan. 19. I had recently read that a number of groups from across the political spectrum had expressed their opposition to biofuels subsidies and I asked Grassley for his thoughts on the matter:

Hallman: Oxfam America and the Cato Institute are on record as being against biofuels. Does that bother you?

Grassley: Of course it bothers me. They think the American farmer doesn’t have the capability of producing products for food, fiber and fuel. They think the farmer only has the capability of doing it for feed.

The truth is, crops such as soybeans and corn are a finite commodity with alternative uses. Crops that are used for fuel are crops that can’t be used for food. That’s also true for the land the corn is grown on and all of the materials that go into producing the fuels.

A Congressional Budget Office report released in April indicated that ethanol production was responsible for 10 to 15 percent of the increase in food prices between April 2007 and April 2008.

What is more, research conducted by professors David Pimentel of Cornell and Tad W. Patzek of Berkeley revealed that there is no benefit to using plant biomass (whether corn, soybeans, or switch grass) as fuel, because they all require more energy to make than they give off in combustion.

In the report, Pimentel and Patzek claim that corn ethanol requires 29 more fossil fuel energy than it produces and soybean plants used for biodiesel require 27 percent more fossil fuel.

A summary of Pimentel and Patzek’s findings can be found here. The PDF version of their report, which appeared in Natural Resources Research, can be found here.

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My interview with Chuck Grassley

January 26, 2010

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting with Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley after his town hall meeting in Kalona, Iowa, just 15 miles from where I live in Washington. While I am pleased Grassley keeps in close touch with all 99 counties in the state, I was put off by many of the statements he made.

I asked Grassley what he thought of Attorney General Eric Holder’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee in November when he said that Guantánamo detainees who are acquitted of terrorism charges may still be kept in prison. What follows is the transcript of my conversation with Senator Grassley.

Hallman: Do you think suspects should continue to be held after they are acquitted?

Grassley: I would hope they would be.

Hallman: Even after they are acquitted?

Grassley: Do you want someone like the Sheikh running out in the United States? [presumably referring to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed]

Hallman: What is the purpose of the trial?

Grassley: That’s the same question I asked Holder when he came before us.

Hallman: What was his answer then?

Grassley: If I’m leaving the impression that these people are acquitted that they’re going to be out roaming our streets, we have authority under other law to hold them. That’s my point. Then why did you bring them here in the first place?

I’m glad Grassley sees no point in putting on a trial where the government ignores the verdict. What concerns me is that his solution is to refuse the detainees trials in the first place, instead of what I think is the more sensible solution of honoring the verdict.

U.S. power knows no bounds

January 8, 2010

The United States is clearly the most powerful country in the world. It spends nearly as much on its military as the rest of the world combined. Such an extreme concentration of power deserves special scrutiny, no matter how benevolently it is exercised.

As it turns out, there is good reason to be worried of US global dominance. In a court ruling issued earlier this week, U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit argued in Al Bihani v. Obama that the President’s war powers are not bound by international law or treaties ratified by the Senate.

The US government can arrest you and pretty much do whatever it wants to you because you have no rights (if you’re a non-citizen). It can detain you indefinitely without ever having to try you in a court of law.

The Obama Administration, which many civil libertarians thought would have more sensible views on detainee policy, supports indefinite detention of suspects even after they have been tried and acquited.

Salon contributor Glenn Greenwald has time and again shredded the administration’s legal arguments on indefinite detention. Greenwald has a great article about the administration’s plans to move detainees from Guantánamo Bay to a supermax facility in Thomson, Ill. GOP Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois raised a stink over the idea, and sent a list of questions about the move to the administration. Obama’s Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn responded to Kirk’s questions in a letter:

Lynn: Consistent with longstanding policy regarding criminal prosecutions, the Department of Justice will pursue prosecutions of Guantánamo Bay detainees in Federal court only when admissible evidence or potentially available admissible evidence will probably be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction. The Attorney General has made clear that he would not have decided to pursue prosecution of the accused 9/11 co-conspirators in Federal court if he did not believe prosecutors could secure a conviction.

Greenwald’s response hits the nail on the head:

Greenwald: But traditionally, what happens when such evidence is insufficient is not that the state just imprisons them anyway with no trial or puts them before some less rigorous tribunal; what’s supposed to happen when the state cannot convict someone is that the individuals are not charged and therefore not imprisoned. But here, the Obama administration is turning that most basic principle on its head: only those who it knows it can convict will get trials, but the rest will be shipped to Thomson — Gitmo North — to be put before a military commission or simply imprisoned without charges of any kind.

But these detainees are the hardest of the hardcore Al Qaeda terrorists, right? Actually, it turns out you don’t have to do much to be labeled an “enemy combatant” and thrown into this netherworld of a justice system. Ghaleb Nassar Al Bihani simply cooked meals for the Taliban and is now detained at Guantánamo Bay. As the D.C. Judge Richard Leon wrote about Al Bihani’s activities last January, ”Napoleon himself was fond of pointing out: an army marches on its stomach.”