Topic: Energy and Environment

Goodbye, Secretary LaHood

Just 12 hours ago I expressed disappointment that Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood had expressed his intent of “sticking around for a while” as a cabinet member in President Obama’s second term. Now – I suppose it’s just coincidence – LaHood says he’s departing after all. Promoted as the Republican in the Obama cabinet (at least the one left after the departure of Defense Secretary Robert Gates), the former Illinois Congressman has been a veritable fount of anti-libertarian proposals and regrettable policy decisions over the past four years: 

  • LaHood’s best-known crusade, against “distracted driving,” enthusiastically built on earlier Washington initiatives muscling into traffic laws formerly decided at the state and local level. While he did back off earlier press reports that had him favoring a national ban on cellphone use in cars, even handsfree, he promoted such wacky ideas as having cops peer down into cars from overpasses to see whether drivers are paying enough attention to the road, and mandating technologies that would automatically disconnect phones in moving cars (what could go wrong?).
  • Known while in Congress as friendly toward pork-barrel projects, LaHood provided a bipartisan gloss for his free-spending department: the Post recounts his efforts “helping implement billions of dollars in transportation projects from the 2009 economic stimulus bill and promoting the plan to wary Republicans.” Combining his two enthusiasms, LaHood pushed a program of local “nanny grants” that drew resistance from House Republicans.
  • After trial lawyers and feckless reporters ginned up an “unintended acceleration” scare against Toyota, LaHood wasn’t in a position to reverse the engineering judgment of the career technical staff at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), who concluded the scare (like earlier ones against Audi and other makes) was bogus. But he seems to have done what he could to make life hard for the foreign-owned automaker, levying heavy fines over disclosure issues and delaying the release of the technical findings exculpating the company. Some felt that as a high officer of a government that had taken over and was running competitors GM and Chrysler, LaHood was in a bit of a conflicted position as judge-and-sentencer of Detroit’s envied Japanese rival.
  • Early speculation on a replacement includes the name of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. He’d probably leave me nostalgic for LaHood.

Crowdfunding Science

File this under “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

While it seems hard to believe (as attested to by the growing budget for National Science Foundation) federal and state budget decisions are apparently putting the squeeze on some forms of government-funded science, and so some scientists are seeking alternative ways of raising funds for their projects of interest. One such “novel” method is a direct appeal to the masses for support.

Witness this announcement from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS):

Crowdfunding Science: Appealing to the online community for research money

Event Date: January 29, 2013 12 p.m. Eastern, 9 a.m. Pacific, 5 p.m. GMT, 6 p.m. CEST

With federal and state funding for science on the downward trend, many young scientists are bypassing the grant writing process and appealing directly to the public via the Internet for money to support their research. Crowdfunding, as it is known, holds huge potential for scientists who can effectively capture the imagination of the public and get them to open their wallets in support of science.

In AAAS MemberCentral’s webinar “Appealing to the online community for research money”, we’ll look at #SciFund Challange, a website that helps researchers get their projects funded by the public, and we’ll also hear from two scientists who successfully funded their projects via the crowd. We’ll find out what they learned along the way, share tips on how to reach your funding goal and give you an opportunity to ask the panelists questions.

This seems a step in the right direction towards producing better-justified science projects that will be done for a lot less money with a lot more transparency.

How this fits in to a University setting should be interesting. Almost certainly it will bring the often exorbitant overhead rates for science funding into focus.  Most schools tack on an additional 50% or so which goes from the producer departments (science and engineering) to those that can’t carry their own weight.  Will the “crowd” accept being dunned for work they don’t support?  If this caught on, maybe our schools would better serve the market rather than centrally planning their own.

It’ll be interesting to see how this method of fundraising develops, but from the surface, it seems a positive development.

Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

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.”

As economic heavyweights assembled for their annual summit held by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, they were greeted by a call for $700 billion/yr of increased spending out to the year 2030 to “to close the green investment gap worldwide, leading to sustainable economic growth that attains global climate change goals.” They were told that this goal can be reached through an additional $36 billion/yr investment from the world’s governments (on top of the $96 billion/yr currently spent) that will “spur up to US$ 570 billion in private capital needed to avoid devastating climate impacts on economy.”

This call was made by the WEF’s own Green Growth Action Alliance as it released its first Green Investment Report at the outset of the Davos conference.

The Green Growth Action Alliance justified the call for the extra spending this way:

Such investments are urgently needed to avoid the potentially devastating impacts of climate change and extreme weather events as witnessed in many parts of the world in 2012. Scientists agree that extreme weather has become the “new norm” and comes at a huge, and rising, cost to the global economic system. Without further action, the world could see a rise in average global temperatures by 4ºC by the end of the century. According to scientists, this could lead to further devastating impacts, including extreme heat waves, more intense tropical storms, declining global food stocks and a sea-level rise affecting hundreds of millions of people.

Using a poor excuse to call for a bad idea doesn’t seem much like progress.

The science of global warming re extreme events is hardly compelling.  The data noise, generated from both natural processes and from other human influences, largely overwhelms any anthropogenic greenhouse effect signal in most cases.

However, compelling evidence is emerging that the magnitude of the climate sensitivity—that is, how much warming we should expect from a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration—has been overestimated. Even if there was good scientific evidence that higher temperatures lead to a more “extreme” climate (there’s just about as much evidence for the opposite), an overestimate of the sensitivity would lead to an overestimate of extremes.

And these overestimates are being used by the Green Growth Action Alliance to oversell the need to do something about climate change.

In fact, there are much more pressing needs.

Will Vehicle-Mile Fees Be a User Fee or a Tax?

Earl Blumenauer, Oregon’s bow-tie wearing, bicycle-riding member of Congress, has endorsed the idea of replacing gas taxes with vehicle-mile fees. Last week, he introduced a bill directing the Department of Transportation to start vehicle-mile fee pilot programs in every state and authorizing $150 million to fund the pilots. Since privacy is a major concern for many people, Blumenauer wisely makes protection of personal privacy a top priority of the legislation.

Blumenauer’s support for vehicle-mile fees is refreshing considering that, during the last Congress, the House passed a bill forbidding the Department of Transportation from even studying the possibility of such fees. (The otherwise-fiscally conservative member of Congress who introduced that bill ended up being a one-term congressman.) But Blumenauer’s stance also has some questioning his motives as he is one of Congress’ leading advocates of funding rail transit and other non-highway programs out of gas taxes.

It’s true that Blumenauer supports building streetcar lines more than new roads. In introducing the bill, the congressman focused on the fact that, over the past four years, Congress has had to transfer $48 billion in general funds to the Highway Trust Fund, and is currently spending $15 billion a year more on surface transportation than is coming in from gas taxes and other highway user fees. The Oregon representative obviously hopes vehicle-mile fees will help close the gap, allowing him and his colleagues to continue funneling billions of dollars into rail transit and other forms of travel that are actually pretty obsolete.

Getting Highway Numbers Right: The Tax Foundation’s Response

On Thursday, January 17, the Tax Foundation (TF) issued a paper arguing that only 32 percent of state and local highway costs were paid out of user fees, while the remaining costs came from “general funds.” In a post here, I pointed out that, actually, user fees for highways cover 76 percent of the costs of roads and most of the remaining 24 percent come from interest on user fees before they are spend and bond sales that will be repaid out of user fees.

TF replied, saying “O’Toole conflates taxes and fees.” In fact, TF specifically said that state gas taxes are user fees, but somehow defined federal gas taxes as “general funds.” I simply argued that, to be consistent, TF should count federal gas taxes as user fees as well.

TF went on to say, “O’Toole suggests we include federal gasoline tax collections in state-local revenue.” Again, TF said that federal gas tax collections are “general funds” and I disagreed with that statement. If state gas tax collections are user fees, then federal gas tax collections are too. They are certainly not general funds, any more than state gas taxes are general funds, since federal law dedicates them to transportation projects and mostly to highways.

TF said, “O’Toole suggests that we include motor vehicle registration taxes and fees, but not the associated expenses” such as highway patrols. In fact, I said nothing about the associated expenses because, for the most part, those expenses are already included in the reported $155 billion cost of highways.

TF said, “O’Toole suggests that we include state and local bond sales for road construction, which would double-count revenue.” But nothing I said would double-counting revenues. What I said was that bond sales for highways are not, in any sense, “general funds” if they will be repaid out of user fees.

TF said, “O’Toole suggests that we include $13 billion in “investment income” on state-local gasoline tax and user fee revenue, but that is not a net interest figure.” What TF means is that some of that interest might come from investments of non-user fees, which is true. But since user fees cover the vast majority of state and local road costs, interest on those user fees makes up the vast majority of interest. Yet TF counted all interest as “general funds.”

TF said, “O’Toole suggests that we use Federal Highway Administration data rather than U.S. Census Bureau data. We have no evidence that the U.S. Census Bureau is unreliable in this area.” I suggest that the fact that the Census Bureau, which uses secondary data, differs from the Federal Highway Administration, which uses primary data, is itself evidence that the Census Bureau data are unreliable.

In sum, by TF’s own definition of user fees as being gas taxes and tolls, something like 55 percent of the cost of roads is collected in user fees. Adding vehicle registration fees brings this to 76 percent, and most of the rest is covered by bonds that will be repaid by user fees and interest on those user fees. TF’s reply failed to address my main point, which is that none of these revenues can be considered “general funds.”

Battling over Keystone XL

The Washington Post has an article today on the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline.  There is a sense of urgency on both sides as the decision on the project is expected to be fast approaching.

The Post features arguments from pipeline proponents that the project will provide an economic boost to the state of Nebraska, and from pipeline opponents that the oil carried though it will lead to more carbon dioxide emissions than previously thought, thus upping the impact on global warming and climate change.

But the numbers being tossed about don’t tell the whole story.

First, a look at the new economic claims. An analysis from the Consumer Energy Alliance concludes that during the two year construction phase of the pipeline, the economic activity in Nebraska will increase by a bit more than $400 million per year—generating directly or indirectly, about 5,500 new jobs. Sounds impressive, but this boost is short-lived. After that, for the next 15 years, the economic input drops down to about $67 million/yr, supporting about 300 jobs.  A net positive, but not as much as many proponents claim.

The climate claims are even less significant. In its new report, Oil Change International asserts that the current estimates of the well-to-wheel (WTW) carbon dioxide emissions from oil extracted from the Alberta tar sands have been underestimated. They claim that the State Department failed to fully include carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of the petroleum coke that is produced as a side product of producing oil from the tar sands. This “petcoke” can be burned like coal, and in fact, is cheaper and more energy dense than coal, so it is often preferable.  According to Oil Change International, including the petcoke in the calculation would increase the WTW carbon dioxide emissions by about 13 percent.

There are several things wrong with the Oil Change International analysis. First is that the State Department actually did include a considerable discussion of the influence of the treatment of petcoke in its assessment.  It concluded, just like Oil Change International, that if the petcoke is burned, it increases the total wells-to-wheels carbon dioxide emissions of Canadian tar sands oil by the same 13 percent.  But what the State Department points out, and which Oil Change International plays down, is that the burning of petcoke to produce energy by and large displaces the use of coal for the same purpose.  So instead of the total emissions, what is important is the incremental carbon dioxide emissions produced from using petcoke instead of coal. And when that number is used, the WTW emissions increase by less than 1 percent—which is why the State Department concluded that the fate of the petcoke really wasn’t all that significant in the overall WTW emissions calculation.

But whether consideration of petcoke increases the WTW carbon dioxide emissions of the tar sands oil by 1%, 13%, or any number in between, really doesn’t matter anyway in terms of its impact of global warming.  For as I have shown previously, the global warming potential of the Keystone XL pipeline oil is only about 0.00001°C/yr.  Increase that by 13% and you basically get the same environmentally insignificant number.  In fact, you’d have to increase it by several orders of magnitude before it is even worth paying attention to.

The war over the pipeline will probably rage on until (and even after) a decision is reached in a couple of months. Hopefully, emotion will play a role secondary to facts.

New Government Climate Change Report Yet More “Show 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.”

You can get anything you want

At Alice’s Restaurant

-Arlo Guthrie, 1967

Late last week, the U.S. Global Climate Change Research Program (USGCRP) released a draft version of its latest assessment report on the impacts of climate change in the United States. Updated reports are required by Congressional decree every 4 years or so.  The 2013 report, as it now stands, tips the scales at over 1,000 pages, consequently, we haven’t made our way through it yet, but if the Executive Summary is any indication, this report seems even worse than the one the USGCRP released in 2009.

This is yet another example of our imperial government’s predilection towards “show science” in order to justify taking people’s stuff.  By analogy, think of the “show trials” in some of history’s more freedom-loving regimes. 

As of this writing, it’s not clear if they intend to produce another “summary” document, such as the 200-pager they put out in 2009. That one was so bad as to require us to produce an Addendum that represents what the USGCRP report coudda, shoudda, woudda looked like had the author team made a more complete and fair assessment of the scientific literature.

Admittedly, our Addendum report, which was finalized and released last fall, did include citations from the scientific literature that were published subsequent to the publication of the 2009 USGCRP report, which obviously the USGCRP report authors couldn’t have known about.  But, as our Addendum demonstrates, when these new research results are included, the potential impacts of climate change in the U.S. are substantially tempered.  This leads us to think that the 2013 version from the USGCRP—which seems to hype the impacts of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions even more so than the 2009 report did—didn’t do a grand job  in synthesizing the literature.

Nor does it appear they did a good job with the statistics of climate and climate change in the U.S.