Topic: Energy and Environment

Is Global Warming Melting Greenland’s Ice Sheet?

Al Gore’s cinematic lecture contends, in part, that rising global temperatures from industrial greenhouse gas emissions are at this very moment melting the Greenland Ice Sheet, a phenomenon that will eventually inundate global coastal areas and submerge countless cities. True? Not according to a new paper that appears in the June 13 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, a prominent peer-reviewed publication of the American Geophysical Union. The authors conclude their study with the following discussion:

We have analyzed temperature time series from available Greenland locations and we have found that:

i) The years 1995 to 2005 have been characterized by generally increasing temperatures at the Greenland coastal stations. The year 2003 was extremely warm on the southeastern coast of Greenland. The average annual temperature and the average summer temperature for 2003 at Ammassalik was a record high since 1895. The years 2004 and 2005 were closer to normal being well below temperatures reached in 1930s and 1940s (Figure 2).

Although the annual average temperatures and the average summer temperatures at Godthab Nuuk, representing the southwestern coast, were also increasing during the 1995-2005 period, they stayed generally below the values typical for the 1920-1940 period.

ii) The 1955 to 2005 averages of the summer temperatures and the temperatures of the warmest month at both Godthaab Nuuk and Ammassalik are significantly lower than the corresponding averages for the previous 50 years (1905-1955). The summers at both the southwestern and the southeastern coast of Greenland were significantly colder within the 1955-2005 period compared to the 1905-1955 years.

iii) Although the last decade of 1995-2005 was relatively warm, almost all decades within 1915 to 1965 were even warmer at both the southwestern (Godthab Nuuk) and the southeastern (Ammassalik) coasts of Greenland.

iv) The Greenland warming of the 1995-2005 period is similar to the warming of 1920-1930, although the rate of temperature increase was by about 50% higher during the 1920-1930 warming period.

v) There are significant differences between the global temperature and the Greenland temperature records within the 1881-2005 period. While all the decadal averages of the post-1955 global temperature are higher (warmer climate) than the pre-1955 average, almost all post-1955 temperature averages at Greenland stations are lower (colder climate) than the pre-1955 temperature average.

An important question is to what extent can the current (1995-2005) temperature increase in Greenland coastal regions be interpreted as evidence of man-induced global warming? Although there has been a considerable temperature increase during the last decade (1995 to 2005) a similar increase and at a faster rate occurred during the early part of the 20th century (1920 to 1930) when carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases could not be a cause. The Greenland warming of 1920 to 1930 demonstrates that a high concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is not a necessary condition for period of warming to arise. The observed 1995-2005 temperature increase seems to be within a natural variability of Greenland climate. A general increase in solar activity [Scafetta and West, 2006] since 1990s can be a contributing factor as well as the sea surface temperature changes of tropical ocean [Hoerling et al., 2001].

The glacier acceleration observed during the 1996-2005 period [Rignot and Kanagaratnam, 2006] has probably occurred previously. There should have been the same or more extensive acceleration during the 1920-1930 warming as well as during the Medieval Warm period in Greenland [Dahl-Jensen et al., 1998; DeMenocal et al., 2000] when Greenland temperatures were generally higher than today. The total Greenland mass seems to be stable or slightly growing [Zwally et al., 2005].

To summarize, we find no direct evidence to support the claims that the Greenland ice sheet is melting due to increased temperature caused by increased atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. The rate of warming from 1995 to 2005 was in fact lower than the warming that occurred from 1920 to 1930. The temperature trend during the next ten years may be a decisive factor in a possible detection of an anthropogenic part of climate signal over area of the Greenland ice sheet.

So who are you going to believe—a couple of scientists from Los Alamos and an atmospheric physicist … or a politician who is, ahem, NOT a scientist and his similarly uncredentialed Hollywood friends? The latter group may turn out to be right, of course, but if you only paid attention to what was in the New York Times, you’d think studies such as the one above are the paid figments of oil company imagination. They are not.

BP Dismisses “Peak Oil” Concerns

The interesting thing to me about the “are we running out of oil” debate is that those who know the most about the oil business and with the most at stake in the answer - the major investor-owned oil companies - by and large aren’t worried. The further away you get from the oil producers themselves, the more you encounter worriers.

In that vein, it’s worth reading this summary of BP CEO’s John Browne’s interview with Der Spiegel that appeared yesterday. The only investor-owned oil company that I am aware of that has any substantial disagreement with Browne’s analysis is Chevron. But then again, Chevron is relatively terrible at finding oil compared to their competitors, so perhaps their worries about depletion are handy rationales for poor past performance.

By the way, I wrote an essay on oil depletion for Chevron’s “Will You Join Us?” webpage when it was initially launched, but, alas, it hasn’t seemed to change Chevron’s mind much.

Taylor vs. Corn

FYI, I’ll be on Kudlow & Company (probably around 5:30 EST) to debate ethanol subsidies with Frank Gaffney.  

Something to chew over while you wait for the beating to come: wholesale ethanol is selling today for July delivery at the Chicago Board of Trade for $3.40 a gallon.  Given that ethanol has only two-thirds the energy content of conventional unleaded gasoline, we have to multiply that price by 1.5 if we want to compare apples with apples.  So to get the same amount of energy from ethanol that we would get with a gallon of conventional unleaded, we would have to pay $5.10 a gallon.  What is the wholesale price today for conventional unleaded for July delivery?  All of $2.10 a gallon at the NYMEX.

But that’s not all.  Gasoline moves from refineries to retail distribution centers via pipelines, and transportation costs are low.  It costs a lot more money, however, to move ethanol from processing plants in the Midwest to retail distribution centers because it must be moved by truck and barge (one can’t use pipelines to move ethanol for various technical reasons).  So add another couple of dimes to the differential between the price of ethanol and conventional unleaded to account for that, and perhaps another dime or more if you’re shipping that ethanol to the Atlantic or Pacific coasts.

If the answer is ethanol, what exactly is the question?

Enviros Embrace “Free Market Environmentalism”!

We don’t need no stinkin’ environmental regulations to save the earth – all we need are well functioning property rights for environmental resources and common law courts to protect that property against trespass. Pollution is simply a neighbor’s garbage dumped in your backyard without permission. If we simply recognize and enforce property rights for nature, the need for most environmental regulation goes away.

That’s the libertarian pitch anyway, and it goes by the moniker “Free Market Environmentalism,” or “FME” to its acolytes.  FME was given a firm theoretical foundation by Ronald Coase, embellished and blessed by libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, given academic life by the Political Economy Research Center and the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, popularized in Washington by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and even pitched by yours truly to the Board of Trustees of the Natural Resources Defense Council about nine years ago.

Alas, there has never been much evidence to suggest that libertarians were making much headway with these arguments and I have come to believe that they have less promise than I had once imagined. But what do you know? FME is now all the rage amongst environmentalists who have discovered that suing polluters for tresspass is easier than passing satisfactory laws against the same.

Think I’m pulling your leg? Read this from Darren Samuelsohn in today’s issue of Greenwire (subscription required):

Efforts to force a stronger U.S. global warming policy through the courtroom came under sharp scrutiny yesterday as eight states, New York City and conservation groups pressed for reduced greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s five largest electric utilities.

A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals pressed plaintiffs over why their case was necessary when other avenues exist for addressing global warming – from Capitol Hill to state courts. “My basic question is should we be invoking this doctrine in this very unusual case when there are many other remedies available?” asked Judge Sonia Sotomayor, the lone Democratic appointee on the 2nd Circuit’s panel.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) replied that the utilities’ emissions violate federal common law by harming residents in multiple states. The utilities’ emissions are creating a public nuisance and must be reduced to counteract a variety of global warming effects, including California’s diminished snow pack and more intense heat waves.

Addressing Sotomayor’s question, Blumenthal said his case is not unusual compared with other seminal common law challenges upheld by the Supreme Court, including suits over Illinois sewer water running into Lake Michigan and air pollution from two Tennessee smelters.

“We’re dealing with a developing area of science where federal common law provides a remedy under the doctrines that exist,” Blumenthal said.

Plaintiffs singled out the five companies and their subsidiaries for litigation almost two years ago because they are the largest emitters of carbon dioxide from the power sector in the United States.

… The electric utilities’ defense covered some of the same ground offered successfully last summer before a federal district court, which dismissed the case on the grounds it raised political questions better left to the other two government branches. Both current and former sessions of Congress and presidents have not adopted such an aggressive climate change policy, argued Washington-based industry attorney Joseph Guerra.

Guerra also insisted federal common law has not been applied to an issue of such sweeping scale. Of the Supreme Court precedents Blumenthal cited, Guerra replied, “None of those cases could have possibly affected the entire U.S. economy.”

Pushing another line of the industry’s defense, Guerra cautioned the litigation would be a precursor to more global-warming nuisance claims – with no end in sight as plaintiffs tick through other sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

But Sotomayor, who asked the bulk of the questions during the hearing, took issue with the line of industry defense. “That’s the nature of every tort action,” she told the utility attorney.

Sotomayor also said she had a problem with dismissing the case just because potential remedies were so large.

OK, I’ll grant that enviros are going the common law route less out of conviction than out of necessity.  But so what?  What was once a fringe argument has now migrated into the political and legal mainstream with a vengeance.  Good news for libertarians, right?

Well, if libertarians and fellow-travelling conservatives are popping champagne bottles, it has escaped my attention.  FME blogs are dead silent. Conservatives are taking the corporate line that common law is an inappropriate venue for all of this with no dissenters that I can tell.  In short, FME’ers either aren’t paying attention or aren’t willing to back their doctrines when they are employed by the Left.

Sure, one can argue that the plaintiffs don’t have proper standing, that there is really no nuisance here to begin with, that the tort system is so messed up that employing it in such cases is problematic, etc.  But nonetheless, this is a growing trend and libertarians seem surprisingly ambivalent about it.

Bloviating about “Boutique” Fuels

The House Energy & Commerce Committee held a hearing today on the subject of “boutique” fuels. Republicans are positively obsessed with this matter, convinced beyond sanity or reason that gasoline prices are high in large part because EPA is tolerating a large number of different gasoline blends around the country.

Ed Murphy, group director for downstream and industry operations at the American Petroleum Institute, gamely tried to introduce a bit of economic rationality into this debate. While there are certainly reasons to decry the proliferation of gasoline blends around the country, the recent run-up of gasoline prices has nothing to do with them. His testimony, however, apparently failed to impress Republicans according to the trade pub Greenwire.

Now, if EPA were making gasoline more expensive, I’m sure API would be the first bunch to say so. The fact that they are not speaks volumes. That is, it speaks volumes only to those interested in listening. Beating up on Greens is more important to the GOP than beating up on high prices. Having even a scintilla of evidence to back up their charges is apparently irrelevent.

Should We Criminalize OPEC?

Well, should we? An increasing number of Congressmen seem to think so. Last year, Sen. Mike DeWine (R-OH) introduced the “No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act” (S. 555), aka “NOPEC,” which would make oil-producing and exporting cartels abroad illegal. Although the bill went nowhere, supporters have tried repeatedly to attach it to energy legislation moving through the House and Senate. The idea was last spotted when Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) embraced elements of the bill in his relatively unhinged “Oil and Gas Antitrust Act of 2006” (S. 2557), and the trade press is full of reports that the next GOP energy bill might well include NOPEC in its legislative basket of economic buffoonery.

You might think that imposing U.S. antitrust law on foreign, state-owned companies that (with the exception of CITGO) operate nowhere near U.S. borders is such a crackpot idea that only an American politician could entertain such a thing with a straight face. You would be wrong. The other day, Ariel Cohen and William Schirano at the Heritage Foundation gave NOPEC an enthusiastic thumbs-up. “If Congress is serious about alleviating the price-gouging that contributes to high gas prices,” they wrote, “it ought to begin by allowing the federal government to sue OPEC.”

The temptation is to simply ignore nonsense like this. But nonsense like this (particularly on the energy front) is increasingly the coin of the legislative realm. So let’s do what its proponents have obviously not done and give the idea a few moments of thought.

First, the obvious question arises—exactly how would the U.S. government enforce such a law? After all, I rather doubt that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Venezuela, et al will quickly disband the cartel in a panic once Uncle Sam deems their club illegal under U.S. law. “You and who’s army?!” is the natural response we might expect. Given that no army would be on the way to stamp out such illegal activity, which leaves trade sanctions or nothing. The former would be counterproductive while the latter would be embarrassing.

Next, exactly what gives the Congress the right to impose U.S. economic regulations on companies that aren’t doing business in the United States? Do all national governments have this right, or only the United States? If the former, what’s to prevent Saudi Arabia from declaring it illegal for U.S. banks to charge interest on loans (an activity ostensibly banned in many Islamic countries)? If the latter, then it’s a naked statement that U.S. policy is premised upon the idea that the biggest guy on the playground makes the rules for everyone else whether they like it or not—might makes right. And if so, then wouldn’t those forced against their will to live under U.S. law rightly argue that subjects of governmental power ought to have a right to vote about the laws they are compelled to live under? Or is that a right that only applies for some and not others?

Finally, there’s an economic principle of real importance at stake. To wit, who should have the final say over how much of a product or service is delivered by a commercial enterprise; the owners or the customers? If the latter, then companies are merely slaves of the state, dictated to produce as much as the public wants regardless of business considerations. Does the Heritage Foundation really want to plant their flag on that proposition?

One might argue that the state can prohibit price fixing and collusion without prohibiting companies from having the final say over their own production schedules absent coordination between firms. But there are a large number of oil economists who maintain that OPEC is not really a cartel at all—it’s simply a vehicle through which Saudi Arabia unilaterally exercises power over the market—and that collusion within OPEC is not particularly meaningful. If so, then NOPEC would have little effect even if by some miracle it could be enforced.

Even so, what if OPEC countries preferred to constrain production so that sufficient reserves would be available down the road when they would presumably be more valuable? In that case, production restraint might simply be another form of national savings. Should the U.S. Congress be in the business of declaring such trade-offs between present and future revenues “illegal”?

Sure, it would be wonderful if private companies owned oil reserves, not national governments. And it would be nice from the consumers’ point of view if those companies produced as many barrels of crude as a normal profit would allow. And it would be wonderful if OPEC disappeared tomorrow. But Congress’ ability to translate those wishes into reality as far as foreign petroleum operations are concerned is probably nonexistent.

The best we can do is to refuse to help the Cartel or its members in the course of their enterprise. Sending the Texas Rangers or some such after them would render us an international joke.