Topic: Energy and Environment

You Ought to Have a Look: Ethanol, Louisiana Floods, Carbon Tax Flip-flop

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.

It looks like a new investigation into the use of ethanol as a substitute for gasoline found pretty much what most people have known all along—it’s just a bad idea.

Car mechanics know it. Drivers know it. Food analysts know it. Land conservationists know it. The last bastion of holdouts (aside from Midwestern corn farmers and their Congressional representatives) were the climate change do-gooders, claiming that all of the above sacrifices were small prices to pay for the benefit to the climate that ethanol was producing.  After all, they argued, burning ethanol produces fewer carbon dioxide emissions on net than burning “fossil” fuels because the carbon liberated in the process (for more on liberated carbon check out Andy Revkin’s contribution) was being recycled at a quicker rate than the geologic times scales necessary to produce oil.

While this may be technically true, it turns out that the rate of ethanol carbon recycling was being oversold by its supporters. At least this is the conclusion of a new paper authored by John DeCicco of the University of Michigan Energy Institute and colleagues. According to the paper’s press release:

A new study from University of Michigan researchers challenges the widely held assumption that biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel are inherently carbon neutral.

Contrary to popular belief, the heat-trapping carbon dioxide gas emitted when biofuels are burned is not fully balanced by the CO2 uptake that occurs as the plants grow, according to a study by research professor John DeCicco and co-authors at the U-M Energy Institute.

The study, based on U.S. Department of Agriculture crop-production data, shows that during the period when U.S. biofuel production rapidly ramped up, the increased carbon dioxide uptake by the crops was only enough to offset 37 percent of the CO2 emissions due to biofuel combustion.

The researchers conclude that rising biofuel use has been associated with a net increase—rather than a net decrease, as many have claimed—in the carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming. The findings were published online Aug. 25 in the journal Climatic Change.

Interestingly, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recently been called to task for not investigating the supposed climate impact of the Congressionally mandated ethanol standards—a report that the EPA was required to produce by law. The EPA’s response: “we ran out of money and Congress didn’t pay attention to us last time we tried to issue a report.” But, they said they’d get right on it—and have a report ready by 2024.

We have a better idea: skip the report and just drop the standards.

You Ought to Have a Look: Natural Climate Variability

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.

We’ve got a lot cover this week, so let’s get right to it.

On the science front, we want to highlight two new papers that both suggest that attributing heavy precipitation events in the United States to human-caused climate change is a fool’s errand (not that there aren’t plenty of fools running around out there). This is a timely topic to explore with the big rains in Louisiana over the weekend leading the news coverage.

One paper by a research team from the University of Iowa found that “the stronger storms are not getting stronger” and that there has not been any change in the seasonality of heavy rainfall events by examining trends in the magnitude, frequency, and seasonality of heavy rainfall events in the United States. They did report that the frequency of heavy rain events was increasing across much of the United States, with the exception of the Northwest. As to the reason behind the observed patterns, the authors write “[o]ur findings indicate that the climate variability of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans can exert a large control on the precipitation frequency and magnitude over the contiguous USA.”

The other paper, from a research team led by NOAA/GFDL’s Karin van der Wiel, examined climate model projections and observed trends in heavy precipitation events across the United States and concludes:

Finally, the observed record and historical model experiments were used to investigate changes in the recent past. In part because of large intrinsic variability, no evidence was found for changes in extreme precipitation attributable to climate change in the available observed record.

Pretty emphatic and straightforward summary.

So, the next time you read that such and such extreme precipitation event was made worse by global warming, you’ll know that there is precious little actual science to back that up.

The Environmental Lightning Rod Known as Fracking

Of all issues energizing environmentalists, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of the subsurface rocks during the production of oil and gas is near the very top of the list.

In spite of this, several recent government decisions and court rulings have come down on the side of fracking. For example, overshadowed in May by Brexit coverage, elected officials in Yorkshire, England gave the thumbs up to fracking operations there in an effort to boost natural gas production. Also in May, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down fracking bans passed by the city governments of Fort Collins and Longmont, in a ruling that upheld the legality of the state to regulate fracking, versus the municipalities’ lack of standing to ban use of the technology.

Six Decades of Temperature and Precipitation in Kentucky

Air temperature and precipitation, in the words of Chattopadhyay and Edwards (2016), are “two of the most important variables in the fields of climate sciences and hydrology.” Understanding how and why they change has long been the subject of research, and reliable detection and characterization of trends in these variables is necessary, especially at the scale of a political decision-making entity such as a state. Chattopadhyay and Edwards evaluated trends in precipitation and air temperature for the Commonwealth of Kentucky in the hopes that their analysis would “serve as a necessary input to forecasting, decision-making and planning processes to mitigate any adverse consequences of changing climate.”

Data used in their study originated from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and consisted of time series of daily precipitation and maximum and minimum air temperatures for each Kentucky county. The two researchers focused on the 61-year period from 1950-2010 to maximize standardization among stations and to ensure acceptable record length. In all, a total of 84 stations met their initial criteria. Next, Chattopadhyay and Edwards subjected the individual station records to a series of statistical analyses to test for homogeneity, which reduced the number of stations analyzed for precipitation and temperature trends to 60 and 42, respectively. Thereafter, these remaining station records were subjected to non-parametric Mann-Kendall testing to assess the presence of significant trends and the Theil-Sen approach to quantify the significance of any linear trends in the time series. What did these procedures reveal?

For precipitation, Chattopadhyay and Edwards report only two of the 60 stations exhibited a significant trend in precipitation, leading the two University of Kentucky researchers to state “the findings clearly indicate that, according to the dataset and methods used in this study, annual rainfall depths in Kentucky generally exhibit no statistically significant trends with respect to time.” With respect to temperature, a similar result was found. Only three of the 42 stations examined had a significant trend. Once again, Chattopadhyay and Edwards conclude the data analyzed in their study “indicate that, broadly speaking, mean annual temperatures in Kentucky have not demonstrated a statistically significant trend with regard to time.”

Given such findings, it would seem that the vast bulk of anthropogenic CO2 emissions that have been emitted into the atmosphere since 1950 have had little impact on Kentucky temperature and precipitation, because there have been no systematic trends in either variable.

 

Reference

Chattopadhyay, S. and Edwards, D.R. 2016. Long-term trend analysis of precipitation and air temperature for Kentucky, United States. Climate 4: 10; doi:10.3390/cli4010010.

You Ought to Have a Look: Platform Planks on Energy and the Environment

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.

With the end of Convention season mercifully upon us, we thought we ought to have a look at what the party platforms have to say about energy and the environment, with an eye on climate change policies in particular.

We’ll start out with the Democratic Party Platform.

The Democrats are of the mind that human-caused climate change is one of the major problems facing the country/world today, describing it as “an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time.”

It’s unclear that the voters feel that way… although part of the Democrats strategy for this election seems to be to try to persuade them otherwise.

The Democratic platform is chock full of government actions that promise to initiate, broaden and extend the current set of rules, regulation, and orders seeking to reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases), largely by way of lessening (on the way to eliminating) our reliance on fossil fuels as our primary source of energy production. This collection of promised federal actions is large both in scope and number and includes everything from pursuing a carbon tax

Human Mortality Due to Heat Is NOT Rising!

In previous postings, we investigated the likelihood of a serious climate-related concern expressed by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that CO2-induced global warming will lead to a future increase in the number of heat related deaths worldwide (see, for example, On The Bright Side: Declining Deaths Due to Hot and Cold Temperatures in Hong Kong and Response to Heat Stress in the United States: Are More Dying or Are More Adapting?). In short, we found there is an absence of empirical data to support the IPCC’s claim.

The latest study to investigate this topic comes from Arbuthnott et al. (2016), who introduce their work by noting that “interest in understanding temperature related health effects is growing.” And as their contribution to the subject, they set out to examine “variations in temperature related mortality risks over the 20th and 21st centuries [in order to] determine whether population adaptation to heat and/or cold has occurred.”

A search of 9183 titles and abstracts dealing with the subject returned eleven studies examining the effects of ambient temperature over time (i.e., relative risk or RR) and six studies comparing the effect of different heatwaves at specific points in time. Out of the eleven RR studies, with respect to the hot end of the temperature spectrum, Arbuthnott et al. report “all except one found some evidence of decreasing susceptibility,” leading the team of four UK researchers to conclude that “susceptibility to heat [has] appeared to stabilize over the last part of the century.” Interestingly, however, at the cold end of the temperature spectrum, they say “there is little consistent evidence for decreasing cold related mortality, especially over the latter part of the last century.”

With respect to the impacts of specific heatwave events on human health, Arbuthnott et al. state that four of the six papers included in this portion of their analysis revealed “a decrease in expected mortality,” again signaling there has been a decrease in the vulnerability of the human populations studied over time. As for the cause(s) of the observed temperature-induced mortality declines, the authors acknowledge their methods are incapable of making that determination.  However, they opine that it may, in part, be related to physiological acclimatization (human adaptation) to temperature.

Whatever the cause, one thing is certain: despite current temperatures rising to levels characterized by the IPCC and others as unprecedented over the past two millennia or more, the relative risk of temperature-related human mortality events has not increased, which observation is just the opposite of climate alarmist projections.

 

Reference

Arbuthnott, K., Hajat, S., Heaviside, C. and Vardoulakis, S. 2016. Changes in population susceptibility to heat and cold over time: assessing adaptation to climate change. Environmental Health 15: 33, DOI 10.1186/s12940-016-0102-7.

The Economics of the Saudis’ “Take-the-Money-and-Run” Strategy

As the Financial Times reported on 12 July, Saudi Arabia’s oil-output reached record highs in June 2016. Increasing production 280,000 barrels/day to 10.6m b/d, Saudi Arabia has once again waved off OPEC’s request not to glut the market with oil. 

As it turns out, economic principles explain why the Saudis began, in late 2014, to pump crude as fast as they could – or close to as fast as possible. In fact, there is a good reason why the Saudi princes are panicked and pumping. 

Let’s take a look at the simple analytics of production. The economic production rate for oil is determined by the following equation: P – V = MC, where P is the current market price of a barrel of oil, V is the present value of a barrel of reserves, and MC is the marginal recovery cost of a barrel of oil.

To understand the economics that drive the Saudis to increase their production, we must understand the forces that tend to raise the Saudis’ discount rates. To determine the present value of a barrel of reserves (V in our production equation), we must forecast the price that would be received from liquidating a barrel of reserves at some future date and then discount this price to present value. In consequence, when the discount rate is raised, the value of reserves (V) falls, the gross value of current production (P – V) rises, and increased rates of current production are justified.

When it comes to the political instability in the Middle East, the popular view is that increased tensions in the region will reduce oil production. However, economic analysis suggests that political instability and tensions (read: less certain property rights) will work to increase oil production.

Let’s suppose that the real risk-adjusted rate of discount, without any prospect of property expropriation, is 20% for the Saudis. Now, consider what happens to the discount rate if there is a 50-50 chance that a belligerent will overthrow the House of Saud within the next 10 years. In this case, in any given year, there would be a 6.7% chance of an overthrow. This risk to the Saudis would cause them to compute a new real risk-adjusted rate of discount, with the prospect of having their oil reserves expropriated. In this example, the relevant discount rate would increase to 28.6% from 20% (see the accompanying table for alternative scenarios). This increase in the discount rate will cause the present value of reserves to decrease dramatically. For example, the present value of $1 in 10 years at 20% is $0.16, while it is worth only $0.08 at 28.6%. The reduction in the present value of reserves will make increased current production more attractive because the gross value of current production (P – V) will be higher.

 

So, the Saudi princes are panicked and pumping oil today – a take the money and run strategy – because they know the oil reserves might not be theirs tomorrow. As they say, the neighborhood is unstable. In consequence, property rights are problematic. This state of affairs results in the rapid exploitation of oil reserves.