Topic: Energy and Environment

Cut Saturday Mail to Fund Highways?

The Highway Trust Fund will be out of money in a few months, mainly because Congress insists on spending more than it takes in. To avert this supposed crisis, Republican leaders are proposing to cut Saturday deliveries of mail and use the savings to replenish the trust fund.

There’s actually a tiny grain of Constitutional sense behind this proposal. The original legal justification for federal involvement in highways, back when members of Congress actually cared about such things, was that the Constitution authorizes Congress “to establish Post Offices and post Roads.” If the “post roads” aren’t paying for themselves, then who better to pay for them than the post offices?

In this sense, the Republican proposal is slightly more rational than President Obama’s proposal to use the increased revenues from a corporate income tax reform that will eliminate loopholes but reduce corporate tax rates. The administration predicts reducing rates will reduce corporate tax obligations in the long run but closing loopholes will increase revenues in the short run (interesting how Obama is promising corporations lower taxes after he is out of office in exchange for higher taxes when he is still in office). Obama wants to use some of those increased revenues to supplement the Highway Trust Fund.

More than offsetting the tiny Constitutional sense of the Republican proposal is that it will take ten years of Postal Service cuts in order to cover one year’s worth of red ink from the Highway Trust Fund. In other words, the plan is far from sustainable and will simply lead to another transportation cliff in a year or so.

Move DC or Move Out of DC?

Washington DC has proposed an anti-auto transportation plan that is ironically called “MoveDC” when its real goal is to reduce the mobility of DC residents. The plan calls for reducing auto commuting from 54 percent to no more than 25 percent of all workers in the district, while favoring transit, cycling, and walking.

Click image to download the plan’s executive summary. Click here to download other parts of the plan.

The plan would discourage auto driving by tolling roads entering the district and cordon-pricing. Tolls aren’t necessarily a bad idea: as I explained in this paper, properly designed tolls can relieve congestion and actually increase roadway capacities. But you can count on DC to design them wrong, using them more as a punitive and fundraising tool than as a way to relieve congestion. Cordon pricing is invariably a bad idea, much more of a way for cities to capture dollars from suburban commuters than to influence travel habits.

The plan assumes that the district’s population will increase by 170,000 people over the next 25 years, which is supposed to have some kind of apocalyptic result if all of those people drive as much as people drive today. The district’s official population in 2010 was 602,000 people, a 155,000-person drop from 1970. While Census Bureau estimates say the district’s population is once again growing, it doesn’t seem all that apocalyptic if the population returns to 1970 levels.

The Census Bureau estimates that 54 percent of people employed in the district drove to work, while only 37 percent took transit in 2012. Since part of the MoveDC plan calls for discouraging people outside the district from driving to work in the district, it appears the goal is to cut that 54 percent by more than half. DC’s plan to discourage driving by taxing commuters through cordon pricing is more likely to push jobs into the suburbs than to reach this goal.

Congestion isn’t a serious problem in the district, mainly because the legal height limit prevents Manhattan-like job concentrations. Instead, the main congestion problems are on the highways entering the district. These problems can be solved through congestion tolls, which would encourage some travelers to shift the time they drive. Because road capacities dramatically decline when they become congested, keeping the roads uncongested would effectively double their capacity during rush hour, which ironically could allow even more people to drive to work. DC’s anti-auto planners won’t want to do that, which is why they are likely to focus more on cordon pricing than congestion tolling.

If reducing congestion isn’t the issue, then what is the goal of the anti-auto emphasis? MoveDC says it is “rapidly rising travel costs, and concerns about rising carbon emissions.” People deal with rising travel costs by replacing their cars less frequently and buying more fuel-efficient cars when they do replace them. MoveDC’s solution is to substitute high-cost urban transit for low-cost driving, even though transit actually emits more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than driving.

An Appalling Lack of Truthfulness at the EPA

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.”


In preparation for President Obama’s unveiling, today, of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new proposed regulations to limit carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, the EPA has released its updated “Climate Change Indicators in the United States.” As you may have guessed, the report claims manmade climate change is upon us and it is bad.

Last summer, the president announced his Climate Action Plan aimed at mitigating future climate change by executive fiat—in other words, avoiding Congress and public opinion—and simply commanding from on high that U.S. carbon  emissions be reduced (never mind that they were already declining, or that any U.S. reductions, no matter how large, would have no meaningful effect on the future course of the climate).

Since then, the administration and the scientists it pays to study global warming have been rolling out report after report pointing to the horrors that have already occurred (like the record-long time since a Category 3 hurricane crossed a U.S. beach?), and how things will certainly get much worse from human-caused global warming if we don’t act now to head it off—that is, stop burning coal to produce electricity.

First was a report from the scientists’ lobby for government funding, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), then came the federal National Climate Assessment report, and now the latest from the EPA—just in time for the president to cite in his remarks.

All along we have been saying that these reports are not scientific, but instead are purely political, documents. That became quite clear in last week’s congressional hearing testimony by Daniel B. Botkin, who once believed global warming was a terrible problem, but has since taken the opposite position.

Perhaps there is no finer example of the politicization of “science” than what the “Indicators” report the EPA just handed us.

Piling On: More New Research Shows No Link Between “Polar Vortex” and Global Warming

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.”


This is getting embarrassing.

Another scientific paper has just been published that again finds no association between Arctic sea ice loss and extreme cold and wintery conditions across the U.S.—White House Science Advisor John Holdren’s favorite mechanism for tying last winter’s persistent “polar vortex” over the eastern US to anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

We wonder just what it will take for the White House to publicly admit that it was grossly wrong. At the very least, it needs to disavow a widely-disseminated YouTube video featuring Holdren explaining the link between last winter’s polar vortex and human-caused climate change. There is no such link. Of course, this won’t happen, as Holdren was simply engaging in a publicity stunt relying on tenuous science to scare up support for President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.  The President is hell-bent on an endless string of executive actions aimed at manipulating the energy market and reducing our energy choices along the way.

Herding the Poor

TransForm, a smart-growth group in Oakland, has analyzed California’s household travel survey data and made what it thinks is an important discovery: poor people drive less than rich people. Moreover, poor people especially drive less than rich people if the poor live in a high-density development served by frequent transit (that is, a transit-oriented development or TOD).

According to TransForm’s report, poor households who live in TODs drive only half as much as poor households who live away from TODs, while rich households who live in TODs drive about two-thirds as much as rich households who don’t live near TODs (see figure 1 on page 7).

Based on this, TransForm proposes that California build lots of “affordable housing” in the TODs, then herd encourage poor people to live in the TODs. Apparently, TransForm’s thinking is that moving poor people into TODs will have the greatest effect on driving, energy consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions. Putting “more affordable homes near transit … would be a powerful and durable GHG reduction strategy,” says TransForm (emphasis in the original).

Unfortunately, TransForm’s proposal is grounded on a seriously flawed analysis and morally questionable reasoning. First, TransForm has committed a simple arithmetic error when it concludes that the best greenhouse-gas reduction strategy would be to focus on low-income people. Though the data show rich people in TODs drive only a third less than rich people away from TODs, the rich drive so much more than the poor that the greatest impact would come from herding the rich into the TODs.

According to TransForm’s data, poor households in TODs drive about 21 fewer miles per day than poor households away from TODs. But rich people in TODs drive 29 miles less than rich people away from TODs. Thus, if you believe TransForm’s numbers, the best greenhouse-gas reduction strategy would be to coerce encourage rich people to live in TODs.

However, I don’t believe TransForm’s numbers because TransForm has made the classic error of ignoring self-selection. That is, people of all incomes who want to drive less are more likely to live in TOD-like places, while people who want to drive more are more likely to live away from TOD-like places (which are typically the most congested and least auto-friendly).

Note that all of TransForm’s numbers measure miles of driving and other factors per household, not per person. Households in TODs tend to have no children, while households with children are far more likely to live away from TODs. It’s a mistake to think that, because people who want to drive less tend to live in TODs, getting people who want to drive more to live in TODs will lead them to drive much less than they do. As economist David Brownstone concludes, after taking self-selection into account, the effect of urban form on driving is “too small to be useful” in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Putting Out Fires by Throwing Money on Them

Now that forest fires are in the news, someone noticed that President Obama has proposed a new way of funding wild firefighting. Instead of borrowing from its fuels treatment funds when the Forest Service exhausts its regular fire-fighting budget, Obama wants to let the agency draw upon a new “special disaster account” that is “adjusted each year to reflect the 10-year average cost of responding to such events.”

Treating excessive firefighting costs by giving the Forest Service more money makes as much sense as attempting to suppress forest fires by throwing gasoline on them. In case you don’t hear the sarcasm, it makes no sense at all.

Obama is focusing on the wrong problem, the drawdown of funds intended for fuel treatments. The real problem is the incentives the Forest Service has to spend wildly on firefighting.

As far as I know, no democracy has given any government agency a blank check to accomplish any goal–except the Forest Service for fighting fires. Even the Pentagon was given budgets for fighting World War II, the Cold War, and other wars. But in 1908, Congress gave the Forest Service a blank check for firefighting, saying the agency could spend as much as it needed to suppress fires, and Congress would reimburse it later.

Climate Science: No Dissent Allowed

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.”

Award-winning climate modeler experiences “a situation that reminds me about the time of McCarthy”

An interesting juxtaposition of items appeared in our Inbox today.

First was an announcement that Dr. Lennart Bengtsson, former director of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, had resigned from the Academic Advisory Council of the U.K.’s Global Warming Policy Foundation. What was surprising about this announcement was that it was just announced a week or so ago that Dr. Bengtsson—a prominent and leading climate modeler and research scientist—was joining the GWPF Council. At that time, there was some wondering aloud as to why Dr. Bengtsson would join an organization that was somewhat “skeptical” when it comes to the projections and impacts of climate change and the effectiveness and direction of climate change policy.

During one recent interview Dr. Bengtsson explained:

I think the climate community shall be more critical and spend more time to understand what they are doing instead of presenting endless and often superficial results and to do this with a critical mind. I do not believe that the IPCC machinery is what is best for science in the long term. We are still in a situation where our knowledge is insufficient and climate models are not good enough. What we need is more basic research freely organized and driven by leading scientists without time pressure to deliver and only deliver when they believe the result is good and solid enough. It is not for scientists to determine what society should do. In order for society to make sensible decisions in complex issues it is essential to have input from different areas and from different individuals. The whole concept behind IPCC is basically wrong.

A good summary of the buzz that surrounded Dr. Bengtsson and his association with GWPF is contained over at Judith Curry’s website, Climate Etc.

So why did Dr. Bengtsson suddenly resign?