Archives: 01/2015

Proposed EPA Methane Emissions Regulations Are a Waste of Time and Energy

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

New Actions to Reduce Methane Emissions Will Curb Climate Change, Cut Down on Wasted Energy” reads the headline from Wednesday’s White House blog, posted by Counselor to the President John Podesta (who will be leaving this post soon to serve as a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s presumed 2016 presidential campaign).

Let’s hope Podesta didn’t write the title, because it is completely wrong.

First off, methane isn’t energy. It’s a gas. Like anything else, it can be converted to energy, and like a fuel the conversion process produces more energy than it takes to perform it. But methane leaks from the oil and gas sectors no more represent “wasted energy” than does cow flatulence.

More accurately, methane leaks represent lost revenue. Or at least they would if natural gas prices were higher. With prices as low as they are, companies sometime find it more costly to stop the leaks than what they gain by capturing the methane and bringing it to market.

Consider that the price of natural gas is so low in many regions where oil is being extracted from tight shale deposits (for example, the Bakken region of North Dakota and in west Texas) that the methane that is produced along with the oil is simply flared (burned) on site, rather than being captured and brought to market. It is more expensive to develop the transport infrastructure (largely it has to be transported via pipeline) than the return on the sale of natural gas.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that in 2013, more than 260 billion cubic feet of methane was flared in the United States. In essence, this methane represented more “unwanted” energy than “wasted” energy.

Warmest Year on Record Is Still Bad News for Climate Models

Yesterday, Jason Samenow of the Washington Post asked me for a brief comment on NOAA’s upcoming pronouncement of the warmest year in their record. Jason runs CapitalWeather (or “CapitalWeatherGang” or “CWG” to those in the know in Washington) for the Post, and it is a very popular site as he may be the best forecaster around when it comes to D.C.’s hard-to-predict winter weather.

Here is what I sent to him:

Whether or not a given year is a hundredth of a degree or so above a previous record is not the issue. What IS the issue is how observed temperatures compare to what has been forecast to happen. John Christy and Richard McNider, from the University of Alabama (Huntsville), recently compared climate model projections to observed lower atmospheric temperatures as measured by two independent sources: satellites and weather balloons, and they found that the average warming predicted to have occurred since 1979 (when the satellite data starts) is approximately three times larger than what is being observed. CWG would give itself probably a D- if it forecast 12 inches of snow and got only 3.

FYI, here’s the comparison, through 2013 (it was published in 2014).

Adam Smith on Infrastructure

I love Adam Smith. He didn’t get everything right, but he got the big things right. Oftentimes, he really nailed it.

Today, I woke up early and my newspaper had not arrived yet. So I cracked open The Wealth of Nations on the infrastructure section, Book V, Part III.

With the highway bill soon in front of Congress, and there being lots of agitation to increase federal funding, Smith had words of wisdom for policymakers. He advocated user-pays and decentralization.

Smith said user-pays is often possible, is equitable, and prevents political corruption, as opposed to what we saw with the Bridge to Nowhere:

It does not seem necessary that the expence of those public works should be defrayed from that public revenue, as it is commonly called, of which the collection and application are in most countries assigned to the executive power. The greater part of such public works may easily be so managed, as to afford a particular revenue sufficient for defraying their own expence, without bringing any burden upon the general revenue of the society.

A highway, a bridge, a navigable canal, for example, may in most cases be both made and maintained by a small toll upon the carriages which make use of them: a harbour, by a moderate port-duty upon the tunnage of the shipping which load or unload in it.

… When the carriages which pass over a highway or a bridge, and the lighters which sail upon a navigable canal, pay toll in proportion to their weight or their tunnage, they pay for the maintenance of those public works exactly in proportion to the wear and tear which they occasion of them. It seems scarce possible to invent a more equitable way of maintaining such works.

… When high roads, bridges, canals, &c. are in this manner made and supported by the commerce which is carried on by means of them, they can be made only where that commerce requires them, and consequently where it is proper to make them. Their expence too, their grandeur and magnificence, must be suited to what that commerce can afford to pay. They must be made consequently as it is proper to make them. A magnificent high road cannot be made through a desart country where there is little or no commerce, or merely because it happens to lead to the country villa of the intendant of the province, or to that of some great lord to whom the intendant finds it convenient to make his court. A great bridge cannot be thrown over a river at a place where nobody passes, or merely to embellish the view from the windows of a neighbouring palace: things which sometimes happen, in countries where works of this kind are carried on by any other revenue than that which they themselves are capable of affording.

Smith said that when user revenues are not enough to pay for useful infrastructure, it should be funded by local governments, not the national government. The result will be higher quality services, lower costs, and less chance of abuse:

Even those public works which are of such a nature that they cannot afford any revenue for maintaining themselves, but of which the conveniency is nearly confined to some particular place or district, are always better maintained by a local or provincial revenue, under the management of a local and provincial administration, than by the general revenue of the state, of which the executive power must always have the management. Were the streets of London to be lighted and paved at the expence of the treasury, is there any probability that they would be so well lighted and paved as they are at present, or even at so small an expence?

… The abuses which sometimes creep into the local and provincial administration of a local and provincial revenue, how enormous soever they may appear, are in reality, however, almost always very trifling, in comparison of those which commonly take place in the administration and expenditure of the revenue of a great empire. They are, besides, much more easily corrected.

Is a Sock Drug Paraphernalia?

Yes, according to the attorney general. And the “crime” of possessing drug paraphernalia is serious enough to warrant deportation of a legal permanent resident:

At the U. S. Supreme Court Wednesday, the question before the justices boiled down to whether a sock can be considered drug paraphernalia.

Each year 30-35,000 people are deported for drug crimes. But federal law does not treat all drug crimes equally. The question before the justices was whether the government can deport legal permanent residents for minor drug offenses.

Moones Mellouli came to the U.S. on a student visa from Tunisia in 2004. He graduated with honors, then went on to earn two master’s degrees—in applied mathematics and economics—from the University of Missouri-Columbia. He became a lawful permanent resident, worked as an actuary, and taught mathematics at the university.

But in 2010, he was arrested for driving under the influence and having four Adderall pills in his sock. Adderall is a drug prescribed to treat hyperactivity, but it’s widely used by students and others to study and stay awake. Millouli pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for possession of drug paraphernalia—namely the sock in which he had the four pills. He got a suspended sentence plus a year’s probation, and he was subsequently deported.

He appealed his deportation all the way to the Supreme Court.

Campaign Finance Censors Lose Debate to Reddit

Yesterday, the website Reddit, which is aptly called “the front page of the Internet,” featured an interesting discussion on attempts to overturn Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court case that held that the First Amendment protects the right of corporations and unions to make independent expenditures in elections. A group of five people working to overturn the decision fielded questions from the community in a so-called “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) thread. Past AMAs have been created by a wide-range of famous and interesting people, including Jon Stewart and even Barack Obama.

The five advocates titled the thread “We’re Working on Overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court Decision – Ask Us Anything!” Fielding questions were Aquene Freechild from Public Citizen, Daniel Lee from Move to Amend, John Bonifaz from Free Speech for People, Lisa Graves from Center for Media and Democracy, and Zephyr Teachout former candidate for New York governor and associate professor of law at Fordham University.

At the beginning of the AMA they proclaimed:

January 21st is the 5th Anniversary of the disastrous Supreme Court Citizens United v. FEC decision that unleashed the floodgates of money from special interests.

Hundreds of groups across the country are working hard to overturn Citizens United. To raise awareness about all the progress that has happened behind the scenes in the past five years, we’ve organized a few people on the front lines to share the latest.

Surprisingly, at least to me, the AMA was a disaster. Reddit caters to younger people and, as such, it is generally quite left-wing. The Reddit “Politics” community, in particular, is known for having a substantial left-wing tilt. I had thought the community would rally around the advocates—pat them on the back, complain about the Koch brothers, and pontificate on how no “real” policy change can occur until “big money” is silenced.

Instead, the community not only asked excellent and difficult questions, but they clearly identified the fundamental problems with the advocates’ position.

The Government Should Spend More Money!

From today’s New York Times editorial page:

What is a year of your life worth? How about 10 years? Or 20? In many ways the question is unanswerable: Who can assign a dollar amount to the experience of watching a child grow up, of being able to care for an elderly parent?

But when the government has wrongfully convicted and imprisoned someone, a cash payout is the most meaningful way to make amends and achieve some measure of belated justice….

Thirty states, the federal government and the District of Columbia have laws providing for compensation to the wrongfully convicted — from $5,000 per year in Wisconsin to $80,000 per year in Texas. But, over all, almost a third of those exonerated get nothing.

Wait, let’s go over that one more time: A third of the persons wrongfully imprisoned receive no compensation from the government?  What to make of policymakers who manage to spend billions of dollars and yet say there is no room in the budget for compensating the victims of government mistakes or misconduct?

The Pope Weighs in on Charlie Hebdo

Just when the West is struggling to make clear to the rest of the world the nature and importance of free speech—and the underlying political separation of sacred and secular—Pope Francis weighs in and muddies the waters. Responding during a flight to the Philippines today to press questions about the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris last week, the Pope said clearly that “One cannot make war [or] kill in the name of one’s own religion, that is, in the name of God. To kill in the name of God is an aberration.” He said also, however, that free speech does not imply total license to insult or offend another’s faith: “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith. Every religion has its dignity.”

So far so good—insofar as his “cannot” implies simply that one “ought not” to make fun of another’s faith, as a matter of good behavior, other things being equal. That caveat is necessary because there are times when religious claims and, especially, practices are rightly ridiculed, as when they threaten to restrict the freedom of those of no or of other faiths. Thus understood, however, the Pope is simply distinguishing between what one has a right to do—speak freely, even if offensively—and what one ought to do—refrain from giving gratuitous offense.

But the Pope did not stop there. He added, “In freedom of expression there are limits, like in regard to my mom”—alluding to an earlier comment, “If [a dear friend] says a swear word against my mother, he’s going to get a punch in the nose. That’s normal.” To be sure, it may be “normal,” but it breaks down the distinction between speech and force—and opens the door to justifying the use of force to punish speech. If legitimate in the personal sphere, why not in the public sphere as well? In fact, American law has such a doctrine, the “fighting words doctrine,” which the Supreme Court held in 1942 in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire to refer to words that “by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” and are among the “well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech the prevention and punishment of [which] … have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem.”

But that doctrine has never sat comfortably within our free speech jurisprudence, and in fact it has been steadily narrowed over the years, for good reason. The proper response to offensive speech is speech in turn. Otherwise, were the force of law to be sanctioned as a proper response, there would be no end to the fine lines that would need to be drawn to distinguish when and when not force would be justified—and no clear bounds on official powers to sanction. Indeed, do we need more than to look around the world to places where speech is not protected? Surely, the Pope did not mean to open the door to blasphemy laws, but he cracked the door just a little.