Topic: Energy and Environment

Recent Hurricane Activity in Perspective

Harvey. Irma. Maria. Michael.  Four strong (category 3 or higher) hurricanes in 14 months. Something is happening, right?

When category 4 hurricane Harvey banged into Rockport, Texas, and then decided to hang around for five days visiting the fine folks of Houston and vicinity, it broke the 11.8 year “hurricane drought”, by far the longest period in the record without a major (category 3 or higher) landfall.[1],[2] Because of its unfortunate stall, Harvey also broke the record for a single-storm rainfall in the U.S., with 60.58 inches at Nederland, Texas.

What about a human influence from dreaded carbon dioxide? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations (NOAA) Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) dryly stated on September 20:

In the Atlantic, it is premature to conclude that human activities–and particularly greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming–have already had a detectable impact on hurricane activity.

More From Ed Calabrese on Environmental Regulation

University of Massachusetts toxicologist (and Cato adjunct scholar) Edward J. Calabrese has arrived.  On October 3, he testified to the Senate Subcommittee on Superfund, Waste Management, and Regulatory Oversight, a part of the larger Committee on Environment and Public Works, chaired by John Barrasso (R-WY).

Calabrese was asked for his expert opinion on a draft EPA proposal to consider alternative regulatory models, including ditching the “Linear-No Threshold” (LNT) model that it employs, as does almost every other regulatory agency on earth.  You can read about EPA’s proposal here.

The LNT model assumes that the first photon of ionizing radiation (or the first molecule of a carcinogen) is capable of inducing a genetic mutation (i.e. altered DNA) that can be then transmitted to future generations.

Many years ago, Calabrese went looking for the scientific basis for the LNT, for it ran counter to what he was finding in his toxicological research—that low doses of some toxins or ionizing radiation may actually confer benefits. That, of course, is also the basis for much of modern chemical pharmacology.

Try as he could, and he tried for years, he could not locate the seminal science that gave rise to the LNT.  But he did find its progenitor, Hermann Muller, who claimed to have induced heritable point mutations with X-rays in the fruit-fly Drosophila. But where was the data and the peer-reviewed study?  Muller did author a brief article in Science on July 22, 1927, but, as Calabrese notes in his brand new paper, “He made this gene mutation claim/interpretation in an article that discussed his findings, but failed to include any data.”  The Science article said the data would be in a subsequent publication.

In fact, the data underlying what may have been the most important claim in the history of regulatory science, were never published in a peer-reviewed journal. 

Nonetheless amidst public concern about atomic radiation, the National Academy of Sciences formed the Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation (BEAR-1) panel, which reported its findings in Science in 1956.  Muller was obviously highly influential, and the Science report clearly established the LNT:

Any radiation dose, however small, can induce some mutations. There is no minimum amount of radiation dose, that is, which must be exceeded before any harmful mutations occur.

Calabrese documents that Muller’s good friend and another Drosophila geneticist, Edgar Altenberg, confidentially challenged Muller’s interpretation that he was inducing point mutations.  Rather, the very large doses of x-rays that Muller subjected the fruit flies to was simply knocking out wholesale portions of the chromosomes. 

But Altenburg never went public with his criticism.  Perhaps, Calabrese speculates, it was because of personal loyalty and a deep relationship.  When Muller attempted suicide in 1932, rather than addressing his family, his final note was to Altenburg. Muller and Altenburg ultimately lived until 1967, dying within months of each other.

Muller’s Science publication allowed him to claim research primacy, which landed him both prestige and the eventual 1946 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

That prize validated Muller’s hypothesis and ultimately enshrined the LNT model as gospel, and it spread beyond ionizing radiation to other carcinogens and mutagens, as well as to many toxic chemicals in which, literally, the dose makes the poison. In Calabrese’s words,

…it has been Muller’s incorrect gene mutation interpretation and its legacy that created the LNT dose response model, leading to its recommendation by the US National Academy of Sciences in 1956…and then subsequently adopted by all regulatory programs throughout the world.

As a result of his recent testimony and publication, Calabrese may be changing the regulatory world. 

Unlinked References:

Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation Panel, 1956. Genetic effects of atomic radiation.  Science 123, 1157-64.

Muller H. J, 1927.  Artificial transmutation of the gene. Science 66, 84–87

 

Bloomberg/NYU Center Embeds Lawyers In AG Offices To Pursue Green Causes

When is it appropriate to privatize the work of public prosecutors? And does it make things better or worse when “cause” lawyering is at issue? As Jeff Patch reports at Real Clear Investigations, a project called the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center at New York University supplies seasoned lawyers to the offices of nine state attorney general offices, plus D.C. They serve there in such roles as special assistant attorney general while being paid by the NYU project, which is funded by and closely identified with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The catch, which explains why the program is not likely to hold appeal for AGs in some other states: “Under terms of the arrangement, the fellows work solely to advance progressive environmental policy at a time when Democratic state attorneys general have investigated and sued ExxonMobil and other energy companies over alleged damages due to climate change.” 

Private funding of lawyers inside public prosecutors’ offices is not a new idea. Iowa’s AG office, for example, told Patch that it has employed legal talent from an American Bar Association-supported program. In another variation, it is not unusual for prosecutors to accept funding from the insurance industry for efforts to combat insurance fraud. Undergirding the political viability of these schemes is the (perhaps wobbly) premise that the state office is not farming out influence over politically or ideologically sensitive policy matters to outside groups that may have their own agenda.  

The AG offices participating in the program (Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington state, as well as the District of Columbia) might plausibly argue that the projects they’re paying the Bloomberg embeds to work on are mostly ones they’d want to pursue zealously in any case, such as suing the EPA and other federal agencies over alleged lapses. Critics point to the ideologically fraught nature of the work and say the arrangement could violate some states’ ethics rules or generate improper conflicts of interest, as through an obligation to report activities back to the Bloomberg center. 

The spotlight on backstage doings at state AG offices arises from reports by Chris Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute based on public records requests that were fought tooth and nail by various AGs. (Besides the CEI report on attorneys general, Horner’s written a companion report on governors.) CEI is anything but a disinterested party in all this, of course, having been hit with a AG subpoena (later beaten back in court) over its supposedly wrongful advocacy on climate issues. That was itself part of a subpoena campaign targeting more than 100 research and advocacy groups, scientists, and private figures on the putatively wrong side of climate debates, which we and others decried at the time as a flagrant attack on rights protected by the First Amendment. 

Donald Trump, 60 Minutes, and Global Warming

Earlier this week, Leslie Stahl and 60 Minutes got into the subject of global warming with President Trump.  

Her question, “Do you still think climate change is a hoax” followed background on recent hurricanes Michael, Florence, Maria, and Harvey.

The President’s response was “I think something’s happening. Something’s changing and it’ll change back again. I don’t think it’s a hoax, I think there’s probably a difference. But I don’t know that it’s manmade.” 

This is a huge walk-back from his old rhetoric, which was enough to make scientists like me cringe. 

And in the context of hurricanes, his comment is also is consistent with what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) said in its September 20 statement titled “Global Warming and Hurricanes”: “In the Atlantic, it is premature to conclude that human activities–and particularly greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming–have already had a detectable impact on hurricane activity.”

It is noteworthy that GFDL’s statement was in an update, and that “Global Warming and Hurricanes” has said the same about Atlantic hurricanes for years, long predating the Trump Administration.

Stahl then went on to Greenland.  Here’s the relevant transcript:

Lesley Stahl: I wish you could go to Greenland, watch these huge chunks of ice just falling into the ocean, raising the sea levels.

President Donald Trump: And you don’t know whether that would have happened with or without man. You don’t know.

Another reasonable response. For reasons having nothing to do with humans, ice-covered areas in Greenland endured 6,000 years of warming centering around 118,000 years ago that, in terms of integrated heating, was larger than anything humans can do to it. Yet it only lost about 30% of its ice. There were certainly more “huge chunks of ice just falling into the ocean raising sea levels” back then, with no human influence on climate.

It’s also true that the current high-latitude north polar warming is largely (but not completely) consistent with global warming theory.

Finally, they got into a “he said, he said” discussion about climate scientists’ various viewpoints.  Here’s how it ended:

Lesley Stahl: Yeah, but what about the scientists who say it’s worse than ever?

President Donald Trump: You’d have to show me the scientists because they have a very big political agenda, Lesley.

Lesley Stahl: I can’t bring them in.

President Donald Trump: Look, scientists also have a political agenda.

No, 60 Minutes cannot be expected to bring in hundreds of scientists on either side of this debate to investigate whether or not they have a political agenda.  But Al Gore may have been on to something in his comments on the recent UN report claiming temperature increases of a mere 0.6°C will be catastrophic.  He said it was “torqued up a little bit, appropriately – how [else] do they get the attention of policy-makers around the world”[?].

Hmmm. Seems like a political agenda.

Highways and Gas Tax Diversions

The federal government imposes a gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon. Lobby groups are pressing for an increase and President Trump has suggested that he may support one. But a federal gas tax increase makes no sense.

State governments own America’s highways, and they are free to raise their own gas taxes whenever they want. Indeed, 19 states have raised their gas taxes just since 2015, showing that the states are entirely capable of raising funds for their own transportation needs. State gas taxes average 34 cents per gallon.

Also consider that gas taxes used to be a more pure user charge for highways, but these days gas tax money is diverted to inefficient nonhighway uses such as transit. Politicians say, “We need a gas tax increase to fix our crumbling highways,” and then they spend the money on other things. It is a bait-and-switch.

Federal fuel taxes and vehicle fees raise about $41 billion per year. About 20 percent of those funds (about $8 billion) are diverted to transit and other nonhighway uses.

With state fuel taxes the diversion is even larger, as shown in this Federal Highway Administration table. In 2016, state governments raised $44 billion from fuel taxes, and they diverted 24 percent—14 percent to transit and 10 percent to other activities. Texas, for example, diverts 25 percent of its fuel taxes to education spending.

The states also raised $38 billion from vehicle fees. They diverted 34 percent of those funds—13 percent to transit and 21 percent to other activities.

In total, states raised $82 billion from fuel taxes and vehicle fees. They spent $59 billion (72 percent) on highways and $23 billion (28 percent) on other activities. If the highways in your state have congestion and potholes, it may because your government is taking money raised from highway users and diverting it to other activities.  

The chart below shows the shares of state fuel taxes and vehicle fees diverted to nonhighway uses. South Carolina, for example, diverts 31 percent.

Last year, South Carolina’s governor Henry McMaster vetoed a gas tax increase. He objected to his state’s diversion: “Over one-fourth of your gas-tax dollars are not used for road repairs … They’re siphoned off for government agency overhead and programs that have nothing to do with roads.”

As a rough user charge, gas taxes are a good way to fund highways, and our highways do need more investment. But motorists should be skeptical of gas tax increases until policymakers stop diverting funds to inefficient transit systems with declining riderships.

Many transportation experts say that the rise of electric vehicles will be the end of the road for gas taxes, and they are eager to impose new vehicle miles traveled (VMT) charges to fund highways. However, governments are diverting more than $30 billion in fuel tax revenues and vehicle charges a year to nonhighway uses. If that diversion was ended, these revenues could continue to be America’s highway funding source for years to come.

 

More on highways and the gas tax:

https://www.downsizinggovernment.org/transportation/federal-highway-policies

https://www.downsizinggovernment.org/infrastructure-investment

https://www.downsizinggovernment.org/chamber-commerce-misguided-gas-tax

https://www.cato.org/blog/federal-gas-tax-increase-misguided

https://www.cato.org/blog/federal-gas-tax-lahood-makes-no-sense

About 1,100 Puerto Rican Deaths from Maria — NOT 2,795 or 4,645

The estimated number of above-average “excess deaths” in Puerto Rico attributed to Hurricane Maria (Sept 20, 2017) is a difficult figure to estimate objectively.  Puerto Rico’s official figure of 64 deaths by December 9, 2017 (which the President remembered) counted only those deaths directly attributed to the storm and confirmed by medical examiners.  Most of the direct deaths from Katrina were from drowning – which is much easier to attribute to the storm than many other causes of death. Studies of Puerto Rican deaths from Maria aspire to account for a wide range of indirect effects that are presumed (not proven) to be consequences of the storm such as suicides and heart attacks, infectious diseases, and damage to electricity and therefore to dialysis and respirator equipment.

Among at least eight major studies of direct and indirect effects on mortality attributed to Maria, two outliers stand out as being 3-5 times larger than the others, which all cluster around 1000. The first big number was from Harvard. On September 13, Time said, “Harvard’s report, which was based on systematic household surveys throughout Puerto Rico, reached an estimate of 4,645 storm-related deaths between September and December 2017, many as a result of ‘delayed or interrupted health care.’”  Nonsense. The Harvard study extrapolated from only 15 deaths reported in a survey of 3299 households to estimate that “between 793 and 8498 people died … up to the end of 2017.” By adding 793 and 8498 and dividing the result by 2, Time and others came up with a totally meaningless “average” which were widely reported with predictable sensationalism: “The hurricane that struck Puerto Rico in September was responsible for more deaths than the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina combined,” exclaimed The Daily Beast.” In reality, these “estimates of death from people who were interviewed” are little better than an opinion poll, and finding 15 deaths out of a sample of 3299 can’t plausibly be multiplied into 4645 for the whole island.

The latest sensational estimate of 2,975 excess deaths over six months is from an August 28 report from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University  (GWU) commissioned by the Government of Puerto Rico. The study mentions two “scenarios” (census and displacement) yet only publicized the one with the biggest number: “Total excess mortality post-hurricane using the migration displacement scenario is estimated to be 2,975 (2,658-3,290) for the total study period of September 2017 through February 2018.” 

The 2,975 estimate only applies to the “displacement scenario.”  That is, the study “estimates cumulative excess net migration from Puerto Rico in the months from September 2017 through February 2018 and subtracts this from the census population estimates in these months.”  The population fell by about 8%, mainly due to migration rather than death, so the fact that there were more deaths than average after the hurricane means the death rate (deaths per thousand) rose more than the unadjusted statistics would suggest because the population is smaller.  But this issue is the number of deaths, not the death rate, and displacement (migration) did not make that number any higher than half a dozen other studies found (about 1000) much less three times higher.  

Government Crowd Out in Transportation

The existence of government infrastructure deters or “crowds out” private investment. Many airports, bridges, and urban transit systems in the United States used to be private, but during the mid-20th century entrepreneurs were squeezed out by governments.

The provision of federal aid or subsidies to government-owned airports, bridges, and transit facilities was a key factor in pushing out private enterprise. That is one reason why I favor repealing federal aid for transportation.

AIRPORTS

In the early years of commercial aviation, private airports served many American cities. For example, the main airports in Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. were for-profit business ventures in the 1930s.

The airports were generally successful and innovative, but they lost ground over time due to unfair government competition:

  • City governments were often eager to set up their own airports, even if private airports already served an area.
  • Cities issued tax-exempt bonds to finance their airports, giving them a financial edge over private airports.
  • Private airports pay taxes. Government airports do not, giving them another financial edge.
  • The U.S. military and the Post Office promoted government airports over private ones.
  • Federal New Deal programs provided aid to government airports, not private ones.
  • Congress provided aid to government airports for national defense purposes during World War II.
  • The federal Surplus Property Act after the war transferred excess military bases to the states for government airport use.
  • The federal Airport Act of 1946 began regular federal aid to government airports, not private ones.
  • The new Federal Aviation Administration in 1958 “prohibited private airports from offering commercial service.”

So governments banished entrepreneurs from a major part of America’s aviation industry. In the early 1930s, about half of the nation’s more than 1,100 airports were private, but by the 1960s, private commercial airports had mainly disappeared. Very sad, as I discuss here.

However, there is good news about airports. A privatized commercial airport industry is booming abroad, particularly in Europe. U.S. policymakers should let entrepreneurs take another crack at our airport industry.

BRIDGES

Bob Poole discusses government crowd out of private bridges in his new book Rethinking America’s Highways. In the 1920s, four main bridges built in the San Francisco area were private toll facilities. In the 1930s, the Golden Gate Bridge and Oakland Bay Bridge were built as government toll facilities.

Poole picks up the story:

All six of these bridges suffered declines in traffic and revenue due to the Depression, but the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate opened closer to its end and were therefore less affected. Their financing costs were also lower, with the Bay Bridge getting low-cost financing from the New Deal’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and the Golden Gate being able to issue tax-exempt toll revenue bonds, rather than the taxable bonds issued by the toll bridge companies.

In addition, the California legislature voted in 1933 to relieve the Bay Bridge of having to cover operating and maintenance costs out of toll revenues, allocating state highway fund (gas tax) monies to cover those costs. The four private toll bridges all went into receivership by 1940. Unlike the Ambassador Bridge (in Michigan), they were unable to work out refinancing plans and were eventually acquired by the state, with the Dumbarton and San Mateo transfers not taking place until the early 1950s; their shares traded on the Pacific Coast Exchange until then.

A similar fate befell many of the other 200-odd private toll bridges during the Depression. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation provided low-cost loans to public-sector toll bridges, but not to investor-owned ones. Relatively new government toll agencies offered buyouts to struggling bridge owners during those years. The New York State Bridge Commission bought four private toll bridges over the Hudson River; the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission acquired at least six private toll bridges; and the city of Dallas bought the toll bridge on the Trinity River in order to eliminate tolls.

By 1940, the Public Roads Administration (the former Bureau of Public Roads, now part of the Federal Works Agency) reported that the number of US toll bridges had declined to 241, of which 142 were still investor-owned. But nearly all the bridges had been bought out by toll agencies or state and local governments by the mid-1950s.

URBAN TRANSIT

The early history of urban transit in America is one of private-sector funding and innovation, as Randal O’Toole discusses in this study. Hundreds of cities had private streetcar and bus companies moving people in downtowns and the growing suburbs in the early 20th century.

As the century progressed, however, the rise of automobiles undermined the demand for transit. At the same time, transit firms had difficulty cutting costs because their workforces were dominated by labor unions and governments resisted allowing them to cut services on unprofitable routes.

The nail in the coffin for private transit was the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, which provided federal aid to government-owned bus and rail systems. The act encouraged state and local governments to take over private systems, and a century of private transit investment came to a close.

This Transportation Research Board study discusses the decline of private transit:

As the declining fortunes of America’s cities gained national recognition during the 1960s, Congress passed legislation that for the first time gave the federal government a prominent role in the provision of urban transit. The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 (later redesignated the Federal Transit Act) provided loans and grants for transit capital acquisition, construction, and planning activities.

… Notably, only public entities could apply for the federal grants. Given the availability of federal aid, many cities, states, and counties purchased or otherwise took over their local rail and bus systems. Thus by the 1970s, a largely new model of transit provision—public ownership—had become increasingly prevalent in the United States. Many jurisdictions consolidated the operations of smaller private and public systems under the auspices of regional transit authorities. A few states, such as Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Jersey, formed statewide transit agencies.

… In 1940, only 20 transit systems in the country were publicly owned, and they accounted for just 2 percent of ridership. By 1960, although the vast majority of all systems were still in private ownership, properties in public ownership accounted for nearly half of all transit ridership, mainly because the country’s very largest systems were publicly owned. By 1980, more than 500 systems were publicly owned, accounting for 95 percent of ridership nationally.

In sum, the bad news is that when the government advances, the private sector retreats. But the good news we have seen around the world in recent decades is that when the government gets out of the way, the private sector steps in to provide better services at lower costs.

Further reading:

https://www.downsizinggovernment.org/transportation

https://www.downsizinggovernment.org/infrastructure-investment

https://www.downsizinggovernment.org/privatization

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