Topic: Energy and Environment

COP-Out: Political Storyboarding in Peru

The 20th annual “Conference of the Parties” to the UN’s 1992 climate treaty (“COP-20”) is in its second week in Lima, Peru and the news is the same as from pretty much every other one.

You don’t need a calendar to know when these are coming up, as the media are flooded with global warming horror stories every November. This year’s version is that West Antarctic glaciers are shedding a “Mount Everest” of ice every year. That really does raise sea level—about 2/100 of an inch per year. As we noted here, that reality probably wouldn’t have made a headline anywhere.

The meetings are also preceded by some great climate policy “breakthrough.” This year’s was the president’s announcement that China, for the first time, was committed to capping its emissions by 2030. They did no such thing; they said they “intend” to level their emissions off “around” 2030. People “intend” to do a lot of things that don’t happen.

During the first week of these two-day meetings, developing nations coalesce around the notion the developed world (read: United States) must pay them $100 billion per year in perpetuity in order for them to even think about capping their emissions. It’s happened in at least the last five COPs.

In the second week, the UN announces, dolefully, that the conference is deadlocked, usually because the developing world has chosen not to commit economic suicide. Just yesterday, India announced that it simply wasn’t going to reduce its emissions at the expense of development.

Then an American savior descends. In Bali, in 2007, it was Al Gore. In 2009, Barack Obama arrived and barged into one of the developing nation caucuses, only to be asked politely to leave. This week it will be Secretary of State John Kerry, who earned his pre-meeting bones by announcing that climate change is the greatest threat in the world.

I guess nuclear war isn’t so bad after all.

As the deadlock will continue, the UN will announce that the meeting is going to go overtime, beyond its scheduled Friday end. Sometime on the weekend—and usually just in time to get to the Sunday morning newsy shows—Secretary Kerry will announce a breakthrough, the meeting will adjourn, and everyone will go home to begin the cycle anew until next December’s COP-21 in Paris, where a historic agreement will be inked.

Actually, there was something a little different in Lima this year: Given all the travel and its relative distance from Eurasia, COP-20 set the all-time record for carbon dioxide emissions associated with these annual gabfests.

The Purple Line Will Waste Money, Time, and Energy

Maryland’s Governor-Elect Larry Hogan has promised to cancel the Purple Line, another low-capacity rail boondoggle in suburban Washington DC that would cost taxpayers at least $2.4 billion to build and much more to operate and maintain. The initial projections for the line were that it would carry so few passengers that the Federal Transit Administration wouldn’t even fund it under the rules then in place. Obama has since changed those rules, but not to take any chances, Maryland’s current governor, Martin O’Malley, hired Parsons Brinckerhoff with the explicit goal of boosting ridership estimates to make it a fundable project.

I first looked at the Purple Line in April 2013, when the draft EIS (written by a team led by Parsons Brinckerhoff) was out projecting the line would carry more than 36,000 trips each weekday in 2030. This is far more than the 23,000 trips per weekday carried by the average light-rail line in the country in 2012. Despite this optimistic projection, the DEIS revealed that the rail project would both increase congestion and use more energy than all the cars it took off the road (though to find the congestion result you had to read the accompanying traffic analysis technical report, pp. 4-1 and 4-2).

A few months after I made these points in a blog post and various public presentations, Maryland published Parsons Brinckerhoff’s final EIS, which made an even more optimistic ridership projection: 46,000 riders per day in 2030, 28 percent more than in the draft. If measured by trips per station or mile of rail line, only the light-rail systems in Boston and Los Angeles carry more riders than the FEIS projected for the purple line.

Considering the huge demographic differences between Boston, Los Angeles, and Montgomery County, Maryland, it isn’t credible to think that the Purple Line’s performance will approach Boston and L.A. rail lines. First, urban Suffolk County (Boston) has 12,600 people per square mile and urban Los Angeles County has 6,900 people per square mile, both far more than urban Montgomery County’s 3,500 people per square mile.

However, it is not population densities but job densities that really make transit successful. Boston’s downtown, the destination of most of its light-rail (Green Line) trips, has 243,000 jobs. Los Angeles’s downtown, which is at the end of all but one of its light-rail lines, has 137,000 downtown jobs. LA’s Green Line doesn’t go downtown, but it serves LA Airport, which has and is surrounded by 135,000 jobs.

Montgomery County, where the Purple Line will go, really no major job centers. The closest is the University of Maryland which has about 46,000 jobs and students, a small fraction of the LA and Boston job centers. Though the university is on the proposed Purple Line, the campus covers 1,250 acres, which means many students and employees will not work or have classes within easy walking distance of the rail stations. Thus, the ridership projections for the Purple Line are not credible.

You Ought to Have A Look: Global Warming Will Make the Earth Uninhabitable and Other Cli-Fi Funnies

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

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A favorite global warming chesnut is that human-caused climate change will make the planet uninhabitable for Homo sapiens (that’s us). The latest iteration of this cli-fi classic appears in this week’s New York Times’ coverage of the U.N. climate talks taking place in Lima, Peru (talks that are destined to fail, as we point out here).

Back in September, The World Health Organization (WHO) released a study claiming that global warming as a result of our pernicious economic activity will lead to a quarter million extra deaths each year during 2030 to 2050.  Yup, starting a mere 15 years from today. Holy cats!

That raised the antennae of Indur M. Goklany, a science and technical policy analyst who studies humanity’s well-being and the impact of environmental change upon it. Goklany detailed many of his findings in a 2007 book he wrote for Cato, The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet.

As you may imagine, Goklany, found much at fault with the WHO study and wrote his findings up for the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF)—a U.K. think tank which produces a lot of good material on global warming.

In “Unhealthy Exaggeration: The WHO report on climate change” Goklany doesn’t pull any punches. You ought to have a look at the full report, but in the meantime, here is the Summary:

Some Perspective on the Headlining Antarctic Ice Loss Trends

The mainstream media has lit up the past few days with headlines of “alarming” news coming out of Antarctica highlighting new research on a more rapid than expected loss of ice from glaciers there.

But, as typical with blame-it-on-humans climate change stories, the coverage lacks detail, depth, and implication as well as being curiously timed.

We explain.

The research, by a team led by University of Cal-Irvine doctoral candidate Tyler Sutterley, first appeared online at the journal Geophysical Research Letters on November 15th, about two weeks before Thanksgiving. So why is it making headlines now? Probably because the National Aeronautics and Space Administration issued a press release on the new paper on December 2nd. Why wait so long? Because on December 1st, the United Nations kicked off its annual climate confab and the Obama administration is keen on orchestrating its release of scary-sounding climate stories so as to attempt to generate support for its executively commanded (i.e., avoiding Congress) carbon dioxide reduction initiatives that will be on display there. This also explains the recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration speculation that 2014 is going to be the “warmest year on record”—another headline grabber—two months before all the data will be collected and analyzed.

This is all predictable—and will essentially be unsuccessful.

Missing from the hype are the broader facts.

The new Sutterley research finds that glaciers in the Amundsen Sea Embayment region along the coast of West Antarctica are speeding up and losing ice. This is potentially important because the ice loss contributes to global sea level rise. The press coverage is aimed to make this sound alarming—“This West Antarctic region sheds a Mount Everest-sized amount of ice every two years, study says” screamed the Washington Post.

Wow! That sounds like a lot. Turns out, it isn’t.

Making War on User Fees

The Highway Trust Fund hasn’t worked, says a new report from the Eno Transportation Foundation, so Congress should consider getting rid of it and funding all transportation out of general funds. In other words, the transportation system is breaking down because it has become too politicized, so we should solve the problem by making transportation even more political.

Eno (which was founded by William Phelps Eno, who is known as the “father of traffic safety”) claims this report is the result of 18 months of work by its policy experts. Despite all that work, the report’s conclusions would only make matters worse.

“The user pay principle works in theory,” says the report, “but has not worked in practice, at least as applied to federal transportation funding in the United States to date.” Actually, it worked great as long as Congress respected that principle, which it did from roughly 1956 through 1982. It only started to break down when Congress began diverting funds from highways to other programs. Then it really broke down when Congress, in its infinite wisdom, decided to spend more from the Trust Fund than it was earning from user fees. (It made the decision to spend a fixed amount each year regardless of revenues in 1998, but spending only actually exceeded revenues starting around 2008.)

Some argue that such breakdowns in the user-fee principle are inevitable when politicians get involved. This suggests that the government should get out of the way and let user fees work again. But Eno ignores that idea, and simply dismisses user fees altogether.

Eno suggests Congress has three options:

  1. Adjust spending to revenues, either by raising gas taxes or reducing spending.
  2. Fund some things out of gas taxes and some things out of general funds (which is more-or-less the status quo).
  3. Get rid of the Highway Trust Fund and just fund all transportation out of general funds.

“Any of these ideas would represent a dramatic improvement over the existing system,” says Eno, which isn’t true since the second idea is, pretty much, the existing system. But “based on our analysis, solution 3 is at least worth exploring.”

Champions at Making Promises

The White House has applauded Portland, Ore., and 15 other local governments as “climate action champions” for promising to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps the White House should have waited to see whether any of the communities managed to meet their goals before patting them on the back.

Portland’s “modest” goal is to reduce the city and Multnomah County emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. Planners claim that, as of 2010, the city and county had reduced emissions by 6 percent from 1990 levels. However, this claim is full of hot air as all of the reductions are due to causes beyond planners’ control.

Almost two-thirds of the reduction was in the industrial sector, and virtually all of that was due to the closure in 2000 of an aluminum plant that once employed 520 people. The closure of that plant hasn’t led anyone to use less aluminum, so all it did was move emissions elsewhere.

Another 22 percent of the reduction was in residential emissions, and that was due solely to 2010’s “anomalously mild winter” and below-average summer temperatures, as 2009 emissions were greater than those in 1990. Only 7 percent of the reduction was in the transportation sector, for which Portland is famous. But all of that reduction was due to the recession, not the city’s climate plan, as transport-related emissions grew through 2005 and the city didn’t record a reduction until 2009. 

Portland doesn’t have many more large factories that it can put out of business to achieve its climate goals. Nor can the city count on a continued economic depression to keep people from driving or an anomalously mild climate to keep people from turning on their heat or air conditioning.

The lesson here is that cities and counties are the wrong level to try to reduce emissions of something like greenhouse gases. This is a lesson we should have learned already based on our experience with toxic pollutants such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides.

Mississippi Copies Misguided Energy Subsidies

The federal government has a long history of “green energy” failures. Many states have also foolishly subsidized green energy, including Mississippi.

KiOR biofuels launched several years ago with much fanfare. The company was supposed to turn wood chips into liquid hydrocarbons for use as fuel and promised to revolutionize the energy industry. Its chief investor, Vinod Khosla, described KiOR’s refinery as “an amazing facility.”

The company benefited from a federal biofuel requirement that mandated refiners use 16 billion gallons of biofuels annually by 2022. It then sought out state subsidies. The company decided to locate in Mississippi after the state offered a $75 million, no-interest loan. In exchange, the company promised to create 1,000 jobs by December 2015.

Yet the company had financial problems that were apparent from the start. Operating costs  ran $5 to $10 a gallon. The Washington Post reports that court papers estimated KiOR’s revenue at just $2.25 million but losses of $629.3 million.  

Production issues also plagued the facility. The system that fed wood chips into the plant frequently malfunctioned. The process converted less than 40 percent of its inputs into gasoline or diesel, leading to higher costs.

The problems were too much for the company to overcome. It filed bankruptcy in November and  still owes Mississippi $69.5 million.

This loan is just one of the many types of energy subsidies that Mississippi provides to green energy companies. The state exempts some green energy manufacturers from taxes. It has provided grants and loans to multiple companies.