Topic: Energy and Environment

Bootleggers & Baptists, a Welcome Correction

In my recent “Bootleggers & Baptists, Sugary Soda Edition” post, I wrote that environmentalists and agribusiness team up to support ethanol subsidies. An alert Cato@Liberty reader writes to my colleague Jerry Taylor:

[Cannon] is no doubt right that environmentalists and agribusiness worked together to promote government subsidies to ethanol through about 2006. But by 2007 (when the ethanol mandate was doubled) the environmentalists had dropped out of the pro-ethanol coalition, to be replaced by national-security hawks! If you run into him, please tell him to stop blaming environmentalists for current biofuels policies!

If environmentalists have recently dropped their support for ethanol subsidies, they deserve credit for that. Mea culpa.

I would rather have been completely wrong about the environmentalists’ support for ethanol subsidies. But I’ll settle for being partly wrong.

November Nail in Rail Coffin?

The New York Times offers an unintentionally hopeful story on Republican candidates running for governor who could become significant obstacles for the Obama administration’s high-speed rail agenda.

As I recently discussed, Wisconsin GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker has taken the position that Washington can keep the $810 million it allocated for a “high-speed” rail line between Madison and Milwaukee that would operate at speeds achieved in the 1930s. The Times article shows that Walker isn’t alone:

Similar concerns are threatening to stall many of the nation’s biggest train projects. In Ohio, the Republican candidate for governor, John Kasich, is vowing to kill a $400 million federal stimulus project to link Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati by rail. In Florida, Rick Scott, the Republican candidate for governor, has questioned whether the state should invest in the planned rail line from Orlando to Tampa. The state got $1.25 billion in federal stimulus money for the project, but it will cost at least twice that much to complete.

And the nation’s most ambitious high-speed rail project, California’s $45 billion plan to link Los Angeles and San Francisco with trains that would go up to 220 miles per hour, could be delayed if Meg Whitman, a Republican, is elected governor. “In the face of the state’s current fiscal crisis, Meg doesn’t believe we can afford the costs associated with new high-speed rail at this time,” said Tucker Bounds, a campaign spokesman.

Whitman is right: California can’t afford high-speed rail, nor can the rest of the country. A Cato essay on high-speed rail notes that it would cost around $1 trillion to build a nationwide system of high-speed rail. That’s a lot of other people’s money to spend on a mode of transportation that “would not likely capture more than about 1 percent of the nation’s market for passenger travel.”

Randal O’Toole nicely sums up why high-speed rail doesn’t make any sense:

The history of transportation shows that we adopt new technologies when they are faster, more convenient, and less expensive than the technologies they replace. High-speed rail is slower than flying, less convenient than driving, and far more expensive than either one. As a result, it will never serve more than a few marginal travelers.

In the meantime, Amtrak – the poster child for bad federal transportation ideas – recently unveiled a $117 billion, 30-year “vision” for high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor.

From the Washington Post:

At a news conference at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station on Tuesday, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman said the proposal is at the visionary stage, and there’s no funding plan in place. It aims for high-speed rail by 2040.

Of course Amtrak has no funding in place – it depends on taxpayer subsidies to remain in operation!

As a series of Cato essays on the Department of Transportation demonstrates, policymakers should be focusing on getting the private sector more involved in the financing and operation of transportation.

The Current Wisdom

NOTE:  This is the first in a series of monthly posts in which Senior Fellow Patrick J. Michaels reviews interesting items on global warming in the scientific literature that may not have received the media attention that they deserved, or have been misinterpreted in the popular press.

The Current Wisdom only comments on science appearing in the refereed, peer-reviewed literature, or that has been peer-screened prior to presentation at a scientific congress.

The Iceman Goeth:  Good News from Greenland and Antarctica

How many of us have heard that global sea level will be about a meter—more than three feet—higher in 2100 than it was in the year 2000?  There are even scarier stories, circulated by NASA’s James E. Hansen, that the rise may approach 6 meters, altering shorelines and inundating major cities and millions of coastal inhabitants worldwide.

Figure 1. Model from a travelling climate change exhibit (currently installed at the Field Museum of natural history in Chicago) of Lower Manhattan showing what 5 meters (16 feet) of sea level rise will look like.

In fact, a major exhibition now at the prestigious Chicago Field Museum includes a 3-D model of Lower Manhattan under 16 feet of water—this despite the general warning from the James Titus, who has been EPA’s sea-level authority for decades:

Researchers and the media need to stop suggesting that Manhattan or even Miami will be lost to a rising sea. That’s not realistic; it promotes denial and panic, not a reasoned consideration of the future.

Titus was commenting upon his 2009 publication on sea-level rise in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

The number one rule of grabbing attention for global warming is to never let the facts stand in the way of a good horror story, so advice like Titus’s is usually ignored.

The catastrophic sea level rise proposition is built upon the idea that large parts of the ice fields that lay atop Greenland and Antarctica will rapidly melt and slip into the sea as temperatures there rise.  Proponents of this idea claim that the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its most recent (2007) Assessment Report,  was far too conservative in its projections of future sea level rise—the mean value of which is a rise by the year 2100 of about 15 inches.

In fact, contrary to virtually all news coverage, the IPCC actually anticipates that Antarctica will gain ice mass (and lower sea level) as the climate warms, since the temperature there is too low to produce much melting even if it warms up several degrees, while the warmer air holds more moisture and therefore precipitates more snow. The IPCC projects Greenland to contribute a couple of inches of sea level rise as ice melts around its periphery.

Alarmist critics claim that the IPCC’s projections are based only on direct melt estimates rather than “dynamic” responses of the glaciers and ice fields to rising temperatures.

These include Al Gore’s favorite explanation—that melt water from the surface percolates down to the bottom of the glacier and lubricates its base, increasing flow and ultimately ice discharge. Alarmists like Gore and Hansen claim that Greenland and Antarctica’s glaciers will then “surge” into the sea, dumping an ever-increasing volume of ice and raising water levels worldwide.

The IPCC did not include this mechanism because it is very hypothetical and not well understood.  Rather, new science argues that the IPCC’s minuscule projections of sea level rise from these two great ice masses are being confirmed.

About a year ago, several different research teams reported that while glaciers may surge from time to time and increase ice discharge rates, these surges are not long-lived and that basal lubrication is not a major factor in these surges. One research group, led by Faezeh Nick and colleagues reported that “our modeling does not support enhanced basal lubrication as the governing process for the observed changes.” Nick and colleagues go on to find that short-term rapid increases in discharge rates are not stable and that “extreme mass loss cannot be dynamically maintained in the long term” and ultimately concluding that “[o]ur results imply that the recent rates of mass loss in Greenland’s outlet glaciers are transient and should not be extrapolated into the future.”

But this is actually old news. The new news is that the commonly-reported (and commonly hyped) satellite estimates of mass loss from both Greenland and Antarctica were a result of improper calibration, overestimating ice loss by  some 50%.

As with any new technology, it takes a while to get all the kinks worked out. In the case of the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite-borne instrumentation, one of the major problems is interpreting just what exactly the satellites are measuring. When trying to ascertain mass changes (for instance, from ice loss) from changes in the earth’s gravity field, you first have to know how the actual land under the ice is vertically moving (in many places it is still slowly adjusting from the removal of the glacial ice load from the last ice age).

The latest research by a team led by Xiaoping Wu from Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory concludes that the adjustment models that were being used by previous researchers working with the GRACE data didn’t do that great of a job. Wu and colleagues enhanced the existing models by incorporating land movements from a network of GPS sensors, and employing more sophisticated statistics. What they found has been turning heads.

Using the GRACE measurements and the improved model, the new estimates of the rates of ice loss from Greenland and Antarctica  are only about half as much as the old ones.

Instead of Greenland losing ~230 gigatons of ice each year since 2002, the new estimate is 104 Gt/yr. And for Antarctica, the old estimate of ~150 Gt/yr has been modified to be about 87 Gt/yr.

 How does this translate into sea level rise?

 It takes about 37.4 gigatons of ice loss to raise the global sea level 0.1 millimeter—four hundredths of an inch. In other words, ice loss from Greenland is currently contributing just over one-fourth of a millimeter of sea level rise per year, or one one-hundreth of an inch.  Antarctica’s contribution is just under one-fourth of a millimeter per year.  So together, these two regions—which contain 99% of all the land ice on earth—are losing ice at a rate which leads to an annual sea level rise of one half of one millimeter per year. This is equivalent to a bit less than 2 hundredths of an inch per year.  If this continues for the next 90 years, the total sea level rise contributed by Greenland and Antarctica by the year 2100 will amount to less than 2 inches.

 Couple this with maybe 6-8 inches from the fact that the ocean rises with increasing temperature,  temperatures and 2-3 inches from melting of other land-based ice, and you get a sum total of about one foot of additional rise by century’s end.

 This is about 1/3rd of the 1 meter estimates and 1/20th of the 6 meter estimates.

Things had better get cooking in a hurry if the real world is going to approach these popular estimates. And there are no signs that such a move is underway.

So far, the 21st century has been pretty much of a downer for global warming alarmists. Not only has the earth been warming at a rate considerably less than the average rate projected by climate models, but now the sea level rise is suffering a similar fate.

Little wonder that political schemes purporting to save us from these projected (non)calamities are also similarly failing to take hold.

References:

Nick, F. M., et al., 2009. Large-scale changes in Greenland outlet glacier dynamics triggered at the terminus. Nature Geoscience, DOI:10.1038, published on-line January 11, 2009.

Titus, J.G., et al., 2009. State and Local Governments Plan for Development of Most Land Vulnerable to Rising Sea Level along the U.S. Atlantic Coast, Environmental Research Letters 4 044008. (doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/4/4/044008).

Wu, X., et al., 2010. Simultaneous estimation of global present-day water treansport and glacial isostatic adjustment. Nature Geoscience, published on-line August 15, 2010, doi: 10.1038/NGE0938.

High-Speed Rail Battle

Wisconsin has become a battleground over the Obama administration’s plan to create a national system of high-speed rail. Of the $8 billion in HSR grants awarded to the states in the stimulus bill, $810 million of it went toward a high-speed route between Milwaukee and Madison.

Ironically, this Wisconsin “high-speed” route would only achieve speeds of 79 mph initially and 110 mph by 2016. As a Cato essay on high-speed rail points out, HSR aficionados don’t even consider 110 mph to be true high-speed. In fact, passenger trains were being run at speeds of 110 mph or more back in the 1930s. And those “high-speed” trains didn’t prevent the decline of passenger trains after World War II.

The Cato essay also notes that the 85-mile line between Milwaukee and Madison “is only a tiny portion of the eventual planned route from Chicago to Minneapolis, and no one knows who will pay the billions necessary to complete that route.” In fact, to build a national system of true high-speed rail on the 12,800 mile network envisioned by the administration, the cost could be close to $1 trillion.

Where would the money come from? State governments are hoping that it would be all from federal taxpayers. As I recently discussed, the states’ interest in grabbing new federal HSR money has dropped now that Congress is requiring a 20 percent state match:

The states already have dedicated revenue sources for federal highway aid matching requirements (also 20 percent). With state tax revenues flat due to the recession, where would the money come from to pay for high-speed rail projects? Proposing new taxes to fund high-speed rail would probably be political suicide. And most state policymakers recognize that shifting money away from more popular programs to pay for high-speed rail won’t be any more politically rewarding.

The issue is even affecting elections in states that are in line to receive federal funding for high-speed rail. Scott Walker, a Republican candidate for governor in Wisconsin, recently said he’d send back the $810 million in stimulus funds the state has received for a rail line between Madison and Milwaukee. Walker appears to understand that his state has more pressing infrastructure needs and that high-speed rail could become a fiscal black hole.

On Tuesday, Walker won the GOP primary to replace outgoing Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, who is an ardent supporter of the Milwaukee-Madison route. Walker’s Democratic opponent, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, supports the route’s construction. According to Stateline.org, the outgoing Doyle administration plans to have $300 million of the money under contract by January, which Walker says he would cancel if elected.

Wisconsin Democrats have made hay out of the fact that former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson first championed the idea of a regional network of high-speed rail. Unfortunately for HSR proponents, Thompson’s past involvement with federally-subsidized rail is a reason not to build the route.

From a Cato essay on Amtrak subsidies:

Amtrak reform legislation in 1997 stipulated that its board be replaced with a “reform board” of directors. The Clinton administration nominated, and the Senate confirmed, politicians that included the then-governor of Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson, and the mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, John Robert Smith. Mayor Smith tried to create a route that would have lost millions linking Atlanta and Dallas via Meridian. Governor Thompson succeeded in creating a route from Chicago to Janesville, Wisconsin. It was eventually discontinued after Thompson’s departure from the board due to low ridership and financial losses.

As is the case with Amtrak, HSR can’t compete with more efficient modes of transportation like automobiles and airplanes without massive subsidies. At a time when the federal debt is heading toward the moon, policymakers should be looking to the private sector to take care of our transportation needs. The country simply can’t afford to sink taxpayer money into high-speed rail when it makes so little economic sense.

Donald Shoup on Free Parking

Donald Shoup, the author of The High Cost of Free Parking, has posted a response to my first post about Tyler Cowen’s op ed against free parking. Shoup points out that I erroneously attributed proposals to him that are in fact only urged by his followers, such as maximum-parking requirements and requirements that all businesses charge for parking. I apologize for that.

In fact, Shoup’s book argues that cities should eliminate minimum-parking requirements and charge market rates for on-street parking. I favor these things as well. Where we may disagree is about the effects of these policies.

My post pointed out that many municipalities do not have minimum-parking requirements, but businesses still offer plenty of free parking to their employees and customers. Shoup asks for “a list of some of these.” Virtually all counties in Texas, most counties in Nevada, and many counties in Indiana have no minimum-parking requirements, and I am sure I could find counties in many other states as well. Unlike California, where Shoup lives, and Oregon, where I live, these states do not restrict urban development to within city limits or urban-growth boundaries, and developments in unincorporated parts of these counties offer plenty of free parking.

Much of Shoup’s response seems to assume that my posts were defending minimum-parking requirements. “City planners have no training that would enable them to estimate the demand for parking, and no financial stake in the success of a development,” says Shoup. “They know much less than developers do about how many parking spaces to provide for each project.” As I pointed out in my later posting on this issue, I entirely agree. My goal was to defend private provision of free parking.

That said, I think Shoup’s worries about the “high cost” of parking are overblown. As I pointed out in my first post, surface parking is cheap, and even structured parking is not terribly expensive in the long run. Most of Shoup’s analysis is not of the high cost of free parking but the high cost of minimum-parking requirements, and there the cost is only of the spaces that developers are forced to provide that they wouldn’t otherwise provide. Shoup and I seem to agree that businesses who want to free parking should be allowed to do so.

Unfortunately, many urban planners disagree; they want to set maximum-parking limits, and they often cite Shoup in their plans and proposals. The negative effects of such limits are likely to be as bad if not worse than minimum-parking requirements. Planners promote such limits in order to discourage driving, which planners say is bad.

Shoup himself relies on anti-auto rhetoric. “Ubiquitous free parking helps explain why American motor vehicles, by themselves, consume one-eighth of the world’s total oil production,” Shoup says, for example. “America’s extravagant consumption of imported oil to fuel our cars is not sustainable, economically or environmentally, and anything that is not sustainable must eventually stop.” But we can find many alternatives to “extravagant consumption of imported oil” without limiting people’s mobility the way many urban planners want to do.

Planners with Portland’s Metro, for example, have set a goal of allowing congestion on most of the region’s highways to reach level of service F (meaning stop-and-go driving). They also promote “traffic calming” (a euphemism for congestion building), “boulevarding” (a euphemism for taking lanes away from autos in busy thoroughfares), and other anti-auto policies. But their own analyses found that these policies would have very little effect on the amount of driving people do. The biggest effect came from a plan to require that all businesses in the region charge for parking – yet even that effect was small, estimated to reduce per capita driving by about 2 percent. Even though such a plan has not been put into effect, at least a few years ago Metro’s transportation models assumed that it would be put into effect sometime in the next couple of decades.

As I have shown at length, trying to save energy or reduce auto emissions by reducing driving is not cost effective, and the resulting reduction in mobility could have serious negative effects on our economy. Instead, it is much more cost effective to make the cars we drive more energy efficient and/or capable of using alternative fuels, and if oil prices go up that will happen without government coercion anyway.

Although Shoup teaches in an urban planning school, he is actually an economist, and he and I share many areas of agreement. I won’t even mind if it turns out that I am wrong: if cities get rid of minimum-parking requirements without imposing maximum-parking limits and it leads businesses to charge for parking that are now offering it for free, that’s just the market at work. My only concern is that many planners are using Shoup’s work to promote their own coercive agendas. I hope he responds to them as vigorously as he responded to me.

One more thing: Shoup asks, “Can you tell me if the Cato Institute offers free parking for its employees? If so, does it also offer commuters the option to cash out their parking subsidies?” I do not work in Cato’s Washington, DC, office, but as far as I know it does offer free parking to at least some of its employees and does not provide a cash-out option. Cato is currently expanding its building and I understand it is installing showers for cyclists, as required by DC zoning codes, and is not providing a cash-out option for cyclists (or other employees) who do not plan to use those showers. As a cyclist, I’ll probably use those showers from time to time on my visits to DC. Perhaps someday Dr. Shoup and I will write a paper titled, “The High Cost of Free Showers.”

Free Parking Revisited

Two weeks ago, I responded with dismay to George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen’s op-ed against free parking. This led to a variety of responses in the blogosphere, none of which address my point. Instead, they all argue against the minimum-parking requirements found in many zoning regulations.

In particular, Cowen himself points to a study that found that Los Angeles’ minimum-parking requirements forced some developers to build more parking than they would have without such requirements. But Cowen’s op-ed was titled, “Free Parking Comes at a Price,” not “Minimum-Parking Requirements Come at a Price.” The op-ed was based on a book by Donald Shoup titled The High Cost of Free Parking, not The High Cost of Minimum-Parking Requirements.

Nothing I wrote defended minimum-parking requirements. Instead, I pointed out that, even without such requirements, most businesses still provide free parking for their employees and customers. It is one thing to oppose minimum-parking requirements as an unnecessary form of government regulation. It is another thing to favor government regulation mandating that private businesses charge for parking.

That certainly seems to be what Cowen favors. His article concluded, “if we’re going to wean ourselves away from excess use of fossil fuels,” then “imposing higher fees for parking may make further changes more palatable by helping to promote higher residential density and support for mass transit.” There are a lot of fallacies in those statements. Will higher residential density significantly reduce use of fossil fuels? Probably not. Will support for mass transit significantly reduce use of fossil fuels? Probably not. Even if you believe we excessively use fossil fuels, do indirect tools such as “imposing parking fees” make sense when more direct tools are available? Certainly not.

Claims that parking is subsidized would carry a lot more weight if 5 percent of the people drove and the other 95 percent had to pay 75 percent of the cost. Those are, in fact, the ratios for transit (less than 5 percent of American workers take transit to work but fares cover less than 25 percent of transit costs), which Cowen wants to promote. With driving, the numbers are practically reversed: discounting air travel, more than 90 percent of travel is by car and auto drivers pay more than 90 percent of the costs of driving.

I suspect someone has made the case for minimum-parking requirements: without such requirements, businesses might try to externalize some of their costs by letting someone else provide parking for them. But let’s ignore that. Cities should get rid of zoning codes that have minimum-parking requirements. (Cities should get rid of zoning codes period.) Cities should charge market rates for on-street parking and any publicly owned off-street parking. But even if these things happen, private businesses will still provide free parking to their employees and customers in many areas – in fact, practically everywhere outside of old downtowns.

Note: My previous post on this subject quoted Cowan quoting Donald Shoup saying, “On average [in the U.S.] a new parking space has cost 17 percent more than a new car.” I commented that this was ridiculous. Someone sent an email saying that Shoup actually estimates there are four parking spaces for every car, and the combined cost of those spaces is more than the average car. Without searching Shoup’s 733-page tome to check his arithmetic, I am still not certain why this is important.

Most people who buy homes want to room to park their cars. People also need room to park at work and elsewhere. Should we only have one bathroom for every four houses because the average bathroom is in use only a couple of hours every day? Is it a waste that almost every home in the country has a kitchen, when there are plenty of kitchens in restaurants (not to mention many workplaces) as well? Then why is it a waste that homes, as well as offices, stores, and other businesses, have parking?