Big Oil Bought my Favorite Science Influencer
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Hello there, I’m Rebecca Watson and I’d like to first welcome new viewers to the channel before I immediately dismiss you in order to direct a question at returning viewers: have you ever wondered why you’ve never seen my stop mid-video to tell you to sign up for a certain VPN provider, or to eat a certain kind of cereal, or to buy a one-square-foot piece of property in Scotland? Instead I get by with whatever ads YouTube thinks you might like to see, plus my Patreon, even though I get emails every week from companies who would like to sponsor this channel. Today’s video is a very good illustration for why I send all those emails right into the trash can.
Despite being extremely old on the YouTuber scale, I try to keep up with what the kids are doing and so I have a TikTok account, which I occasionally remember to post to. I quickly found that I hate most things on TikTok, but I was able to follow some people I already know and like, mostly friends and fellow science communicators. Like “The Space Gal,” aka Emily Calandrelli, who is very bubbly and fun and smart, especially (as you might guess from her handle) about NASA and other space-related stuff. I immediately knew that I would never, EVER make videos that look anything like hers, which is why I will probably never achieve true TikTok fame, but I kept following her and when I think to look at TikTok once a month, I’m pleased when she pops up in my feed.
That is, until I saw a very peculiar video in which Calandrelli is talking about propane. Now, there’s only one influencer I fully trust to talk to me about propane and propane accessories and he does not look like that. So I was immediately a bit skeptical, as Calandrelli is an expert on space and it’s always worth having your guard up when you see someone speaking on a topic that isn’t in their expertise. For instance, I’m an expert in nothing, so you should have your guard up for every one of my videos you watch. I know, it’s exhausting but if you think of it like a brain workout then you can feel good about yourself when it’s over. That’s why I’m so popular here on YouTube. Because my videos are like a workout you don’t want to do.
Anyway, Calandrelli’s TikTok was about school buses, and how bad they are for the environment and for the health of the children who ride them every day. And that’s true! Here in the United States, where we have pretty poor public transportation options even in our large cities AND we have a lot of kids living in more rural areas that have no public transport at all, school buses are integral for getting kids educated. But most of those buses are powered by diesel, and many even predate emissions standards, even here in my own supposed progressive paradise of California. Those diesel buses pump a disturbing number of toxic particulates into the air that children breathe in, and that is bad. Obviously.
The solution to that is to upgrade these buses to zero emission electric vehicles, which Calandrelli mentions and then quickly dismisses as unrealistic: electric buses are super expensive! That might work for richy rich school districts, but not for the common people. For everyone else, she suggests that the solution is replacing diesel with propane at a third of the cost and might even be funded by a new program via the EPA. Propane power is also known as “autogas” outside of the US.
Propane, if you are not aware, is, like diesel, ALSO a fossil fuel: we get it as a byproduct when we process and refine natural gas and petroleum. So it is still absolutely terrible for the environment, but once we have it and we burn it as fuel, it’s way cleaner than burning things like coal, which is why I have some on hand for cooking food while camping. It’s also cleaner than unleaded gasoline, which is why a school bus that runs on propane really would be less toxic to children compared to a bus that runs on diesel.
So, what’s the big deal? If a school doesn’t have the money for an electric bus, they should just buy a propane bus and throw the diesel bus away, right?
Uh, no. Like I said, propane is ALSO still really fucking bad for the environment: just because it releases fewer harmful particulates and less sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide, greenhouse gas, methane and non-methane overall organic carbon into the air compared to diesel, doesn’t erase the tremendous cost of extracting and refining it for use: millions of metric tons of carbon released into the atmosphere, toxic and carcinogenic air pollutants like benzene, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide–processes that destroy the communities where these refineries exist while spreading the damage far beyond in terms of climate change.
If you search for information about the overwhelming damage caused by oil and natural gas refining you will find that quite easily, but if you search for information on the damage caused by propane, you’ll find pretty much nothing but press releases from the propane industry bragging about how burning it isn’t as bad as burning diesel. And that, I’m sad to say, is what Calandrelli’s video is: propaganda wholly funded by the Propane Education and Research Council, or PERC, a fossil fuel industry group that the New York Times recently exposed as an ethically (and maybe legally) shady operation that is currently spending millions of dollars to hire “influencers” on TikTok, YouTube, and cable TV to sow misinformation about zero-emission energy, despite the fact that the law that allowed them to collect that money apparently stipulates that it be used for “research and safety.”
The quotes the New York Times got from propane industry leaders are absolutely disgusting, like one executive saying that they need to “combat the growing narrative that fossil fuel combustion is the main cause of climate change, and that propane is a dirty fossil fuel,” which, you know, it is and it is? They see zero-emission electric as a “threat to (their) industry,” which it is, which is good.
When PERC isn’t funding TikTok influencers to sing the praises of propane, according to the New York Times they’re spending $900,000 fighting just New York state’s recent law to help stop climate change by making all buildings and vehicles greenhouse gas-free by 2040. The New York Times quotes an energy expert saying that overall, “PERC is running the largest national anti-electrification campaign (he has) encountered anywhere in the United States,” and that “propane customers” like me are “unwittingly funding PERC’s anti-climate agenda.”
Even worse, science communicators are now profiting off that anti-climate agenda. In addition to her TikTok videos, Calendrelli has appeared on local news programs to promote propane. After the New York Times article hit the streets, she responded with an unapologetic Twitter thread where she argues that buying new propane buses is “the most efficient way” to fix the problem of diesel bus pollution, and that the federal program to give schools $5 billion to buy new electric buses isn’t enough because that would only account for 1% of buses each year.
It’s true that propane buses are cheaper than electric buses, but she completely ignores several inconvenient facts. For a start, there are other sources of money besides the $5 billion from the Clean School Bus Program. That report I referenced earlier from last year in California breaks down funding from sources like the state government, local city and township governments, and even corporations like Volkswagen’s Mitigation Trust, which provided California with $423 million to try to make up for that bullshit they pulled back in 2019. Our school children thank you, you lying Nazi-founded fucks.
But I digress: that California report makes a very important point when pointing out that school buses are expected to be in service for 30 or more years: “Because school buses can have such a long life, it’s important to replace older buses with the cleanest possible new buses.” Over a period of 30 years, why spend $3,000 a year on a bus that is still poisoning our kids and our planet when you can spend $9,000 a year on a bus that doesn’t do any of that? Considering that filters already reduce toxic emissions of existing diesel buses by 90%, why don’t we just retrofit those old buses (as states like California already do at a pitiable fraction of the cost of buying a new propane bus) until we have the funds to buy new zero-emission electric buses to replace them?
And all of that completely ignores the simple fact that as demand for electric vehicles increases, the price goes DOWN. According to the US Department of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, “The discrepancy between electric and combustion buses is primarily a result of the battery cost and manufacturing economies of scale.
“As the electric school bus industry matures and the cost of batteries decreases electric school bus capital costs are projected to decrease just as transit buses have,” which they point out is down 35% in the past decade.
The only other defense Calandrelli offers is that fossil fuel school buses have a larger range than electric buses, which she says have about 100 miles of range. Wow, is that all? Gosh never mind, let’s not bother. Oh wait, it’s actually an average of 100 to 155 miles per charge and here’s a study that found that school buses are a perfect fit for electrification based on usage data that shows “the average school bus travels a 31.7-mile route twice daily for a total of 63.4 miles per day, with 99.7 percent of all school buses traveling less than 155 miles per route…Such short duty cycles allow school buses to comfortably
complete entire routes on a single charge, with no worry of operating failure due to a lack of
Additionally, the researchers found that “Large commercial vehicles that drive at low speeds and require frequent stops and starts, such as school buses, operate more efficiently with electric drive trains. Electric motors are more energy efficient at low speeds and can preserve energy through regenerative braking.” Also, because school buses generally only complete two routes per day with ample time to recharge between each one, buses can “take advantage of cheaper electricity prices during the day. Additionally, these significant idle times may allow (them) to access a new source of revenue in Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) charging.”
So no, there really is no reason for schools to start dropping $100,000 per bus on terribly outdated fossil fuel technology. We can easily clean up the existing fleet while replacing diesel buses with clean, zero emission electric buses as our government finds the money to do it. Should they be finding that money more quickly? Yes! Of course! But giving money to fossil fuel companies in the meanwhile isn’t going to improve things.
I feel for Calandrelli only because it’s hard out there for a science communicator, especially in these days of “influencing,” when people expect to make a living on social media thanks in large part to corporations who want to advertise with them. If your “brand” is looking hot and going to tropical islands, you don’t necessarily have to worry about what you’re promoting to your audience – I mean, assuming a complete lack of ethics. But if your “brand” is science, I think you also have to have higher ethical standards. Honestly, I would LOVE to have that brand deal money. I was once blown away to see a friend get a deal with a whiskey company – I thought that was awesome, because I love whiskey, and you’re saying I could get whiskey AND money? What could possibly be the downside of that? And then I remember that just last week I made a video all about how alcohol is poison and the alcohol industry is funding bad science to convince the general public that it’s actually healthy. Would I have made that video if it was sponsored by Wild Turkey? Probably not.
So thanks as always to my patrons for keeping me as honest as possible. I may not be an expert in anything, but I’m also not ever going to read you some company’s press release and call it “science.”
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