Topic: Energy and Environment

Keystone XL Passes Another Hurdle

On Friday, the State Department released its draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the Keystone XL pipeline. It could not have been much worse for pipeline opponents.

The majority of the opposition has united around the climate change meme—that the approval of the Keystone XL will assure the viability of the Alberta tar sands as a major global oil supplier, a situation which they claim would mean “game over” for the climate.

I have been arguing that such a characterization of the project is nonsense.

The State Department sees things the same as me.

Here is a particularly salient point from the just-released EIS:

If all such pipeline capacity were restricted in the medium-to-long-term, the incremental increase in cost of the non-pipeline transport options could result in a decrease in production from the oil sands, perhaps 90,000 to 210,000 barrels per day (bpd) (approximately 2 to 4 percent) by 2030. If the proposed Project were denied but other proposed new and expanded pipelines go forward, the incremental decrease in production could be approximately 20,000 to 30,000 bpd (from 0.4 to 0.6 percent of total [Alberta tar sands] production) by 2030. (As examined in section 4.15, such production decreases would be associated with a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions in the range of 0.35 to 5.3 MMTCO2e annually if all pipeline projects were denied, and in the range of 0.07 to 0.83 million metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2e) annually if the proposed Project were not built.)

Translating the State Department’s calculated emissions reductions into global temperature savings, 0.35 to 5.3 MMTCO2e becomes 0.0000002°C to 0.000003°C of temperature savings annually for not building the Keystone XL and all other pipelines for transporting tar sands oil (in both Canada and the U.S.), and the 0.07 to 0.83 MMTCO2e becomes 0.00000004°C to 0.0000005°C of annual temperature savings if the Keystone XL were denied but other proposed new and expanded pipelines go forward.

Even for our climatically-concerned president, these amounts are insignificant and not worth pursuing.

Basically, the State Department’s EIS offers nothing for President Obama to hide behind if he were to deny the project on climate concerns.

Environmental activists Bill McKibben, James Hansen, Robert Kennedy Jr., and the likes have lost the battle in terms of the science.

All they can hope for now is a decision heavy on symbolism and emotion and light on facts and science.

The rest of us can hope that common sense prevails.

Being that we are dealing with Washington DC decision-making, the odds are probably pretty much stacked against us.

Brookings Glosses Over Amtrak’s Failings

Intercity passenger trains are experiencing a “renaissance” with Amtrak ridership growing “faster than other major travel modes,” says a new report from the Brookings Institution. Indeed, the report continues, Amtrak’s short-distance trains (generally, routes of around 200 to 600 miles) have, on average, a “positive operating balance,” so more such short-distance routes should be added.

As a long-time lover of passenger trains, I wish the report’s statements were true, but they are not. To reach these conclusions, Brookings scholars have selectively used data; ignored one of the major travel modes; and relied on Amtrak accounting tricks to disguise losses.

The rapid growth of rail passenger travel that they report is from 1997 to 2012, but 1997 was near the bottom of a trough in Amtrak ridership. If they had gone back to 1991, which was Amtrak’s peak before 2010, the would have revealed a very different story.

From 1991 to 2012, Amtrak passenger miles grew by a paltry 8 percent (compared with 32 percent between 1997 and 2012), while airline passenger miles grew by 68 percent (vs. 26 percent from 1997 to 2012). Let’s see: air travel grew 68 percent; Amtrak 8 percent. Not much of a rail renaissance, is there?

Of course, using 1991 instead of 1997 makes me just as selective as Brookings. So the chart above just compares the trends from 1990 to 2012. The important thing to note about the chart: Amtrak is insigificant, carrying in recent years little more than 1 percent as many passenger miles as the airlines. Amtrak would appear even more insignificant if the vertical scale were raised to show intercity driving of personal vehicles (as opposed to trucks and buses), which moves about 200 times as many passenger miles as Amtrak.

Amtrak’s performance looks even more dismal on a per capita basis. Amtrak may have posted record ridership in 2012, but the nation’s population was also 25 percent greater than in 1991 when Amtrak per capita ridership peaked at a mere 25 miles per person. Today, it is 13 percent less.  

When Brookings compares Amtrak with “other major travel modes,” it implies that Amtrak itself is a major travel mode. In fact, Amtrak’s 22 miles per person in 2012 compares with more than 1,800 miles in air travel and 4,200 miles in intercity auto travel. As a result, Amtrak carries only about 0.36 percent of intercity passenger travel in the U.S. That’s up from 1997, when it was 0.32 percent, but down from 1991, when it was 0.45 percent. Fluctuating between a third and a half percent does not make Amtrak a “major travel mode.”

A Case Study of How the Media Influences Popular Perception of Science

Global Science Report is a weekly 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.” 

Today’s  global media are ablaze with coverage of newly reported scientific findings purporting to show that anthropogenic global warming is leading to more extreme weather events such as heat waves, forest fires, and floods.

The findings are being made available in the early releases section of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and represent the work of a group of researchers from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK)—an institute which can be routinely counted on to produce rather alarming climate change studies. The new analysis, led by Vladimir Petoukhov, is no exception. 

The researchers examined the trends in the daily patterns of air flow in the lower atmosphere and found that some patterns had become more persistent with time—a characteristic that leads to a slowdown in the forward motion of weather systems. Or as the researchers put it in their press release, “What we found is that during several recent extreme weather events these planetary waves almost freeze in their tracks for weeks.” To make sure you understand the implications, they added “Since many ecosystems and cities are not adapted to this, prolonged hot periods can result in a high death toll, forest fires, and dramatic harvest losses.”

While climate alarm plays well in the media, what doesn’t play so well is climate-as-normal.

Case and point: there are zero media stories about a similarly timed study purporting to show that any anthropogenic global warming influence on extreme weather events is too small to be reliably detected.

This study, available in the early-release section of the journal Geophysical Research Letters, was performed by the research team of James Screen and Ian Simmonds of the University of Melbourne. Screen and Simmons examined the trends in the daily patterns of air flow in the lower atmosphere and found little significant change. They note that “the changes in meridional amplitude over recent decades are relatively small compared to the year-to-year variability” and “that possible connections between [anthropogenic global warming] and planetary waves, and the implications of these, are sensitive to how waves are conceptualized.” They cautiously conclude that “[t]he contrasting meridional and zonal amplitude trends have different and complex possible implications for midlatitude weather, and we encourage further work to better understand these.”

[Layman’s translation: There are few significant changes in north-to-south extent of jet stream troughs or their forward speed. The data are so noisy that results are highly dependent upon what analytical method is chosen. The contrasting north-south and east-west changes in jet stream troughs have multiple influences that we haven’t sorted out yet, but it would be foolish to tie them to global warming at this time.]

Quote Without Comment

Okay, maybe not “without” comment, but with very little comment.

Dr. Peter Stott of the U.K.’s Hadley Center was a contributing author to Chapter 10 “Global Climate Projections” of the 2007 U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report.

He is also the lead author of a new paper just published in the scientific journal Environmental Research Letters.

For those of you who have been following much that we have been writing about climate change, the following will only be surprising in its candor.

So, without further ado (we promise this time) here is the title of Stott and colleagues new paper:

“The upper end of climate model temperature projections is inconsistent with past warming”

Details are available here (sorry, couldn’t help ourselves).

U.S. Greenhouse Gas Follies

Global Science Report is a weekly 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.”

Carbon dioxide regulations promulgated by the EPA are based upon the assumption that they will actually do something about climate change in the U.S., and that the rest of the world, which had been needling the U.S. for decades of inaction, will now follow our virtuous lead. 

Neither is going to happen.

This Report is based upon just-released data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration showing that the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from the U.S in the last year was the about the same as was emitted in 1994—nearly two decades years ago.  During that time, emissions grew steadily for 14 years, peaking in 2007, and then fell dramatically (Figure 1). The emissions in 2012 were 12% less than those of 2007.

Figure 1. U.S. annual carbon dioxide emissions, 1994-2012 (data source: U.S. Energy Information Administration).
Given this non-trivial decline in carbon dioxide emissions, let’s see how the government’s assumptions are holding up.

Permitting Oil and Gas Exports Is a No-Brainer

Following today’s deadline for interested party comments, the U.S. Department of Energy will begin to consider sixteen pending applications to export natural gas to countries like Japan with whom the United States does not have a free trade agreement.  The issue is a contentious one: energy producers, many other U.S. companies and a large, bipartisan swath of Congress have urged DOE to approve all export license applications, but opposition has materialized among certain domestic consuming industries and environmental groups.  As a result, the Obama administration has delayed consideration of all but one application, and is expected to eventually permit a portion of the remaining exports in an attempt to placate both sides of the debate.

As I explain in a new Cato Institute paper, however, such a Solomonic decision might achieve the administration’s political objectives but will do nothing to fix the fundamental problems raised by U.S. export regulations for natural gas or similar rules for crude oil.  These exports continue to be governed by licensing systems adopted when the United States was a net energy importer and dependent on fossil fuels for energy production – a picture far different from the production, price, and trade realities that exist today due to revolutionary fossil fuel extraction technologies like hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and horizontal drilling.  In fact, domestic production of crude oil and natural gas has skyrocketed in recent years, driving down prices, boosting downstream industries, creating ample export opportunities and potentially reversing the United States’ historic position as a net energy importer.  However, our gas and oil export licensing systems – respectively governed by the Natural Gas Act of 1937 and the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 – continue to treat fossil fuel exports as a rarity and subject them to a long, opaque approval process under which the federal government retains ample discretion to approve or deny most export license applications.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these outdated systems, and the restrictions they impose on U.S. exports, create a host of problems:

  • First, by depressing domestic prices and subjecting export approval to the whims of government bureaucrats, the U.S. licensing systems retard domestic energy production, discourage investment in the oil and gas sectors, and destabilize the domestic energy market. Artificially low prices prevent producers from achieving a sustainable rate of return on the massive up-front costs required to drill and extract oil and gas, and investors lack any assurances under the discretionary licensing systems that domestic prices will not collapse when output increases.  Such concerns have led the IEA to recently warn that U.S. export restrictions put the “American oil boom” at risk.  And contrary to certain politicians’ claims, independent reports show that the exportation of oil and gas would not cause a traumatic spike in prices, thus enabling consumers to continue to benefit from hypercompetitive U.S. fuel and feedstock supplies.
  • Second, restricting U.S. gas and oil exports could hurt the U.S. economy. Recent studies indicate that these exports - even in unlimited quantities - would not only benefit U.S. energy producers, but also increase real household income.
  • Third, both export licensing systems raise serious concerns under global trade rules.  The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) prohibits WTO Members from imposing export restrictions implemented via slow or discretionary licensing systems like those at issue here.  Moreover, several nations, including the United States, impose anti-subsidy measures (called “countervailing duties” or “CVDs”) on downstream exports (e.g., steel) due to export restrictions on their upstream inputs (e.g., iron). Thus, the crude oil and natural gas licensing systems could lead to anti-subsidy duties on energy-intensive U.S. exports that negate the very price advantages created by the licensing systems – a heightened risk, given that American exporters are increasingly targeted by foreign CVD actions.
  • Fourth, current policy contradicts several other Obama administration priorities.  Most obviously, restricting oil and gas exports undermines the president’s National Export Initiative and stands in stark contrast to his full-throated advocacy of other energy exports, particularly renewables like biofuels and solar panels. Moreover, the use of export restrictions to benefit downstream industries contradicts longstanding U.S. policy of using countervailing duties to discourage foreign imports that unfairly benefit from export restrictions on upstream inputs.  Finally, the U.S. government has long opposed restrictive and opaque export licensing systems in WTO negotiations and dispute settlement.  The current U.S. export licensing regulations for oil and gas contradict these positions and undermine multilateral efforts to rein in such restrictions.

If President Obama really wants to develop America’s vast energy resources, grow the U.S. economy, restore some coherence to U.S. trade and energy policy, and avoid potentially embarrassing trade conflicts, he should order DOE to immediately approve all, not just some, of the pending license applications for natural gas and crude oil.  He then should pursue, with Congress, an overhaul of our archaic licensing systems so that they reflect the new American energy landscape and the United States’ position as a global export power.  Such reforms would bolster investment, production, and employment in the oil and gas sector, stabilize the U.S. energy market and benefit the overall economy, avoid the myriad policy and legal problems raised by the current system, and produce a rare moment of bipartisan comity in Washington.  It’s a no-brainer.


Current Wisdom: New Findings on Black Carbon Spell Trouble for Climate Models

The Current Wisdom is a series of monthly articles in which Patrick J. Michaels, director of the Center for the Study of Science, 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.

Have climate models, which are claimed by our friends like Ben Santer, to accurately represent the climate of the 20th century gotten things right for the wrong reasons?  New research on the role of carbon aerosols suggests that this may be the case. If it is, it does not bode well for the accuracy of forward projections made by the same climate models.

This would represent a classic case of “overfitting”— building a model with bells and whistles added and tuned so as to match the data at hand, but which then breaks down when trying to predict out-of-sample observations. This occurs because the overfitted model has been polished up to give the appearance of capturing the underlying behaviors driving the system—an appearance that is often good enough to fool even the model builders—but, in fact, the appearance is only skin deep, and the mechanisms driving things in the real world differ from those from which the model was built.

A recent paper by Dr. Tami Bond and colleagues finds that carbon aerosols—particulates released into that atmosphere from a variety of human activities including diesel engines, open cook stoves, poorly filtered coal burning, and open burning, etc.—have played a much larger role in impacting the climate than has been previously recognized (and included in climate models).

For instance, Bond et al. report that black carbon aerosol, or soot, is second only to carbon dioxide as the substance emitted by human activity that has the greatest warming influence on the climate—contributing a quarter (or perhaps even a bit more) to the current overall anthropogenic warming effect. Bond et al. find that the total warming impact from black carbon emissions is about 70% as large as that from carbon dioxide emissions.

These finding are similar to those reported a few years ago by Ramanathan and Carmichael but grossly dissimilar to those from the U.N.’s  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which says that black carbon is responsible for only about 10% of the total anthropogenic warming influence. 

Apparently, climate models incorporate even less of an influence from black carbon.  According to Bond et al. “global atmospheric absorption attributable to black carbon is too low in many models, and should be increased by a factor of almost three.”

There are several interesting implications.