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.

Next up is one of the few really good pieces on the Louisiana floods (aside from those generated by our last YOTHAL, e.g., at the Daily Caller and Washington Times).

Louisiana State University’s Craig Colton explains how “suburban sprawl” and poor preparation played a large role in worsening the damage of the recent flooding disaster in the state. He notes that the region has a long history of flooding (pointing to historical accounts back to the 18th century) and provides several examples of very high rainfall amounts there in recent decades (and we’ll add that there are many more examples going back decades further such as a tropical depression in 1962 that put down 23 inches in the vicinity and 1979’s Tropical Strom Claudette which dropped more than 42 inches in nearby eastern Texas). 

Coastal Louisiana is perhaps the most climatologically primed (non-mountainous) spot for heavy rainfall events in the lower 48. As such, urban/suburban development there should proceed accordingly—which apparently isn’t what is happening, according to Colton. While some steps to develop flood plans and reduce risk were drawn up after flooding in 1983, Colton reports that:

However, these efforts have not been sustained. Suburban sprawl has spilled onto floodplains and placed residents at risk.

For example, the relatively new incorporated community of Central in East Baton Rouge Parish reports that 75 percent of its territory is in the 100-year floodplain. According to initial news reports, up to 90 percent of the town’s houses sustained damage in this month’s floods.

Check out Colton’s entire informative article to find out more about why the region’s flooding disaster is rooted in (poor) local decisionmaking and why you don’t need to invoke climate change to understand that this was a disaster in the making. It’s not that a warming climate shouldn’t be expected to generally increase rainfall totals, but laying the blame for the specific heavy rains and the resultant flooding in Louisiana (or anywhere else for that matter) on human-caused climate change is neither instructive nor scientifically defensible.

And finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t have a little fun with the flip-flop Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson pulled last week on his support of a carbon tax.

Last Sunday (August 21), in an interview with the Juneau Empire, Johnson indicated that he was in favor of a carbon “fee” to address climate change. And on Monday, followed that up with what seemed to be support for a full-blown carbon tax, telling CNBC’s John Harwood:

“I do think that climate change is occurring, that it is man-caused. One of the proposals that I think is a very libertarian proposal, and I’m just open to this, is taxing carbon emission that may have the result of being self-regulating.”

We immediately suggested to Gov. Johnson (via Twitter), that even in theory, a carbon tax wasn’t such a good idea, and pointed to our Cato Working Paper (soon to be Policy Analysis) on the topic:

By last Thursday, Johnson had apparently reconsidered, telling a campaign rally in Concord, New Hampshire (as reported over at Reason.com):

If any of you heard me say I support a carbon tax…Look, I haven’t raised a penny of taxes in my politicial career and neither has Bill [Weld]. We were looking at—I was looking at—what I heard was a carbon fee which from a free-market standpoint would actually address the issue and cost less. I have determined that, you know what, it’s a great theory but I don’t think it can work, and I’ve worked my way through that.

We’re glad that Gov. Johnson has seen the data on the ground and come to see the light—let’s hope he sticks to it.