Topic: Energy and Environment

Downsize the Department of Energy

The Department of Energy spends $29 billion per year on various schemes with a disastrous track record, often with bipartisan support. From regulations that destabilize markets, decrease domestic output and harm consumers, to subsidies that pick and choose winners and losers, this department is a perfect example of a white elephant – an expensive project of little to no useful purpose.

Solyndra is the best example of such waste. The solar panel company received a $535 million loan before filing for bankruptcy in 2011. The federal government will likely recover just $27 million from that loan.

The department can be abolished by relegating security and clean-up-related tasks to the EPA or the Department of Defense and by returning research functions to the private sector. In all, abolishing the Department of Energy would save taxpayers about $7 billion a year. To that end we’ve created a short video which makes these and other points, which you can watch below.

Is Free Trade in Energy Finally on the Horizon?

Over the last few months, the media and the policy world have discovered that America’s archaic crude oil export restrictions are really bad policy. Two new and important developments give this welcome and growing movement even more momentum:

  • In a much-publicized speech yesterday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), ranking member of the Senate Energy Committee, advocated modernizing U.S. export restrictions on energy products, particularly natural gas and crude oil. Accompanying her speech was a new white paper on the same topic, which (i) highlights the serious economic problems caused by the current crude oil export licensing system (which is effectively a ban on exports to all countries except Canada); (ii) confirms the widely held view that oil exports won’t cause higher gas prices; and (iii) recommends that the president, the Commerce Department, or–if they continue to do nothing–Congress relax the export ban. Just as importantly, Murkowski’s views were recently echoed by Sen. Mary Landrieu, (D-LA) who stands to take over the Senate Energy Committee this year. Thus, there could be bi-partisan support for easing the U.S. crude oil ban on the Senate committee arguably most integral to any such reforms.
  • Also, today, the American Petroleum Institute’s president and CEO Jack Gerard reiterated his organization’s support for lifting the crude oil export ban:

Gerards’s formal announcement echoes a few previous statements from folks at API (which is the largest U.S. energy trade association and a big player on Capitol Hill) and is a good sign that they’re going to push harder on this issue in the future. (API’s related blog post, which calls the crude export ban “obsolete,” certainly indicates as much.)

These two developments should be welcome news for anyone concerned with free markets, economic growth, and well-functioning energy markets. As I argued in a February 2013 Cato paper (and subsequent podcast), the crude oil export restrictions–and the similar, more well-known restrictions on U.S. natural gas exports–raise a host of economic, legal, and policy concerns. These restrictions should be replaced with a simple, transparent, and automatic licensing system for all exports of U.S. energy goods (not just fossil fuels).

‘Worse Than We Thought’ Rears Ugly Head Again

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.”

Our last post was a brief run-through of some items of interest from the recent scientific literature that buck the popular alarmist meme that human-caused climate change is always “worse than we thought.” But as we said in that post, finding coverage of such results in the dinosaur media is a fool’s errand. Instead, it thrives on “worse than we thought” stories, despite their becoming a detriment to science itself.

Not to disappoint, headlines from the first major climate change story of the new year claim “Climate change models underestimate likely temperature rise, report shows,” and it’s clearly Worse Than We Thought. In its January 5 (Sunday) paper, the editorial board of the Washington Post points to the new results as a call for action on climate change.

The trumpeted results appear in a paper published in the January 2nd 2014 issue of Nature magazine by a team led by University of New South Wales professor Steven Sherwood and colleagues which claims that the earth’s equilibrium climate sensitivity—how much the global average surface temperature will rise as a result of a doubling of the atmospheric carbon dioxide content—is being underestimated by most climate models. Sherwood’s team finds “a most likely climate sensitivity of about 4°C, with a lower limit of about 3°C.”

Sherwood’s most likely value of 4°C is about twice the value arrived at by a rather largish collection of other research published during the past 2-3 years and lies very close to the top of the likely range (1.5°C to 4.5°C) given in the new report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

While there are a host of reasons as to why our understanding of the true value of the climate sensitivity is little better constrained now that it was some 20+ years ago (it was given as 1.5°C to 4.5°C in the IPCC’s first report issued, almost a quarter-century ago), it is widely recognized that our understanding of the role of clouds in a changing climate is central to the issue.

In describing the why climate models have such different climate sensitivity values, the IPCC writes, in the 2013 edition of it’s science compendium,

There is very high confidence that uncertainties in cloud processes explain much of the spread in modelled climate sensitivity.

Sherwood and colleague set out to see if they could help nail down the specific cloud processes involved in the model spread and to see if recent observations could help better understand which models were handling  processes related to cloud behavior better than others.

Is Warmer Better? Florida Soon to Surpass New York as Nation’s Third Most Populous State

Hmmm. A pounding blizzard hits the Northeast, followed by an Arctic cold blast. All the while, Florida is set to oust New York and join California and Texas as the top 3 most populous states in the U.S.

Here is the story according to the Associated Press:

So while some folks yammer on about the perils of a warming climate (and try to force regulations upon us aimed at “doing something” about it), a great many others are actively seeking out warmer places to live. Perhaps not entirely for the climate, but that factor is almost assuredly not out of mind.

Maybe the public doesn’t think that its “health” is as “endangered” by a warmer climate as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency contends.

California Thinks Your Time Is Worthless

California’s S.B. 375 mandates that cities increase the population densities of targeted neighborhoods because everyone knows that people drive less in higher densities and transit-oriented developments relieve congestion. One problem, however, is that transportation models reveal that increased densities actually increase congestion, as measured by “level of service,” which measures traffic as a percent of a roadway’s capacity and which in turn can be used to estimate the hours of delay people suffer.

The California legislature has come up with a solution: S.B. 743, which exempts cities from having to calculate and disclose levels of service in their environmental impact reports for densification projects. Instead, the law requires planners to come up with alternative measures of the impacts of densification.

On Monday, December 30, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research released a “preliminary evaluation of alternative methods of transportation analysis. The document notes that one problem with trying to measure levels of service is that it is “difficult and expensive to calculate.” Well, boo hoo. Life is complicated, and if you want to centrally plan society, you can either deal with difficult and expensive measurement problems, or you will botch things up even worse than if you do deal with those problems.

The paper also argues that measuring congestion leads people to want projects that might actually relieve congestion, such as increasing roadway capacities. This would be bad, says the paper, because increased capacities might simply “induce” more travel. The fact that such increased travel might actually produce some economic benefits for the state is ignored. Instead, suppressing travel (and therefore suppressing economic productivity) should be the goal.

The document suggests five alternative measures of the impacts of densfication on transportation:

  1. Vehicle miles traveled;
  2. Auto trips generated;
  3. Multi-model level of service;
  4. Auto fuel use; and
  5. Motor vehicle hours traveled.

There are many problems with these alternatives. First, they really aren’t any simpler to reliably calculate than levels of service. Second, they ignore the impact on people’s time and lives: if densification reduces per capita vehicle miles traveled by 1 percent, planners will regard it as a victory even if the other 99 percent of travel is slowed by millions of hours per year. Third, despite the “multi-modal” measure, these measures ignore the environmental impacts of transit. For example, they propose to estimate automotive fuel consumption, but ignore transit energy consumption.

Worst of all, the final “measure” proposed by state planners is to simply presume, without making any estimates, that there is no significant transportation impact from densification. After all, if you add one vehicle to a congested highway and traffic bogs down, can you blame that one vehicle, or is everyone else equally to blame? If the latter, then it seems ridiculous, at least to the planners, to blame densification for increased congestion when the existing residents contribute to the congestion as well. By the same token, if an airplane is full, and one more person wants to take that flight, then the airline should punish everyone who is already on board by simply delaying the plane until someone voluntarily gets off.

The real problem is that planners and planning enthusiasts in the legislature don’t like the results of their own plans, so they simply want to ignore them. What good is an environmental impact report process if the legislature mandates that any impacts it doesn’t like should simply not be evaluated in that process?

All of this is a predictable outcome of attempts to improve peoples’ lives through planning. Planners can’t deal with complexity, so they oversimplify. Planners can’t deal with letting people make their own decisions, so they try to constrict those decisions. Planners can’t imagine that anyone wants to live any way but the way planners think they should live, so they ignore the 80 to 90 percent who drive and want to live in single-family homes as they impose their lifestyle ideologies on as many people as possible. The result is the planning disaster known as California.

Spreading Some Holiday Cheer: Global Warming Not Always ‘Worse Than We Thought’

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.”

We know this: Every holiday season some of our readers make some offhanded comment at a party, to the effect that, well, global warming (or its effects) appear to have been a bit overblown. Before you finish, you’re likely to be assaulted by a sharp ranch dressing-laden carrot stick or you might get a face full of dill-dipped broccoli.

Fight back! Before things escalate to the level of food assaults, trot out some of the facts in this, our annual guide for holiday parties.

First of all, the tendency for prominent findings about the impacts from human-caused global warming to be “worse than we thought” is not only a pure play for press coverage, but also strains, if not obliterates, scientific credibility.

The unscientific preponderance of “worse than we thought” stories is starting to become more widely recognized (although we have been talking about it for years). And it is having consequences. Fresh from accepting his Nobel Prize for physiology/medicine, University of California’s Randy Schekman announced that his lab would no longer be sending any research papers to “luxury journals” like Science and Nature because of their preference to select papers “that will make waves because they explore sexy subjects.” Schekman explains that “These journals aggressively curate their brands, in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research.” Global warming alarmism is a prime example of this.

In fact, there are scientific studies that conclude that things aren’t likely to be worse than we thought, but looking to the “luxury journals” or to the press to highlight them is a fool’s errand.

But that’s where we can help!

In the spirit of this season of good cheer, and as a respite for the increasing number of those out there suffering from “apocalypse fatigue,” your obedient servants at the Center for the Study of Science are here to bring you a little holiday joy and good news.

Below, we’ve collected some clips and quips culled from the recently published scientific  literature (and observations) that show that perhaps the impacts from climate change resulting from our production of energy from fossil fuels isn’t going to worse than we thought—and, in fact, may not prove to be so bad at all.

Carbon Taxes vs. Carbon Subsidies

To address global warming, many economists advocate raising carbon taxes while lowering income taxes or other distorting taxes. This makes sense in principle—if global warming concerns are valid—but in practice the approach can easily generate more cost than benefit.

For those who believe global warming merits a policy response, therefore, the question is whether any policy change can generate greater benefit than cost.

The answer is yes: removal of existing carbon subsidies. As documented by economist Lucas Davis (Berkeley), many countries keep gasoline and diesel prices far below market levels, thus encouraging over-consumption. These subsidies harm economic efficiency, independent of global warming.

Other policies have the same features as carbon subsidies: they reduce economic efficiency and encourage over-consumption of energy. One example is the deductibility of mortgage interest, which means bigger houses and therefore higher heating and cooling bills. A second example is agriculture subsidies, which encourage production in inefficient locales that require energy-intensive techniques like irrigation.

Repeal of all such policies is thus a no-brainer. When policy is shooting the economy in the foot, the best response is less shooting, not new taxes to fund a bullet-proof shoe.