Entries Tagged as 'environment'

Washington’s Gas Price Blame Game

April 26th, 2011 at 6:43 am 20 Comments

Here we go again: Gasoline prices are dancing at or above $4 per gallon, patient and politicians on both sides of the aisle are dusting off tried-and-true gimmicks for politicizing the issue, buy cialis pointing fingers, and doing their utmost to avoid squarely facing up to the root cause of the problem – oil dependence is risky and getting more so.

This is not what good government folks mean when they call for bipartisanship.

The Democrats, self-proclaimed champions of the little guy, are going after greedy speculators, conniving hedge fund operators, and other financial sharks determined to rob said little guy blind, so we’re told. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) has called for empaneling a federal grand jury to hurl subpoenas at the suits on Wall Street. Unfortunately, Blumenthal is treating a symptom and sending the patient home to die.

The Republicans, self-proclaimed champions of the little guy, are no better, with their strident pushing of drill-till-we-drop legislation that would do nothing to bring down gasoline prices in the short term and do a great deal to perpetuate America’s dangerous oil dependence in the long term. While Republicans like House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA) give lip service to diversifying America’s energy menu away from oil, their hearts are not in it, which suits the House of Saud to a tee.

A narrative that the drill-everywhere crowd is pushing is that if the federal government would just send the oil companies a “come on down” invitation to drill all oil fields under federal ownership, happy cheap gas days would be here again. Recently, Senator David Vitter (R-LA) went so far as to claim that 95 percent of U.S. fossil fuel resources are locked up from development.

An outlandish claim, to be sure, but here’s the salient issue that Vitter and the rest of the drill-everywheres do not dwell on – the faster we and the rest of the world deplete cheap-and-easy oil, the more quickly we will be forced to tap expensive-and-hard oil in ultra-deepwater and polar regions, and the low-grade stuff like kerogen, a wannabe oil colloquially called “oil shale” that is not economical today because of high capital and production costs.

High-cost fields require high prices to go into production. Sure, there might be 800 billion barrels of kerogen in the Rockies. If getting the goop out of the ground and turning it into usable fuels requires sticker-shock fuel prices, would there be enough demand to make production pay?

These are the long-term issues that get buried when politicians like Blumenthal and Hastings tout hand-waving gimmicks to grab headlines and score transient political points. Rational strategies that will help us navigate our way to a less risky energy future get lost in the shouting.

Don’t Force Trial Courts To Do EPA’s Job

April 22nd, 2011 at 8:51 am 7 Comments

Things aren’t looking good for states and environmental organizations hoping to persuade the Supreme Court to uphold a lower court ruling that green-lighted a public nuisance claim against five utilities over their greenhouse gas emissions.

At oral arguments April 15, justices weighed a nuisance claim filed in 2004 by eight states – now six, since Wisconsin and New Jersey bailed – New York City, and three environmental organizations against five utilities with big coal appetites – American Electric Power, Duke Energy, the Southern Company, Xcel Energy, and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The liberal justices said EPA should deal with greenhouse gas emissions. In rather purple language, Elena Kagan declared that the emissions reduction remedy that the nuisance claim seeks is “the paradigmatic work of agencies.”

The conservative justices said opening courthouse doors to climate change nuisance claims would result in unmanageable cases. Samuel Alito wondered how a judge could balance the tradeoffs involved with limiting emissions and what standards judges would apply in the attempt. Antonin Scalia mused about suing every farmer who owns a flatulent cow.

Are greenhouse gas emissions a public nuisance? When they get to a point at which they’re altering the global climate system, you might say so. Carbon dioxide traps heat, a fact established in the 19th century. When you emit a heat trapping gas into the atmosphere, it will trap heat. When such gases are emitted faster than natural processes can scrub them out, the gases accumulate, like water rising in a bathtub with a faucet on full and a slow drain, resulting in an energy imbalance that can perturb the global climate system.

All manner of risky consequences follow – heat stress on crops, dwindling snow and ice fields that supply drinking water, rising sea levels that erode coastlines – that if left unaddressed, would alter the warp and woof of ecological processes that underpin global civilization.

The question, however, is whether nuisance litigation is the right way to fix the problem. Typically, nuisance claims involve conflicts that are discrete and local in scale.

It goes like this: a dirty mill makes the lives of nearby townsfolk miserable by wafting an evil stench out its exhaust stack. The town fathers allege a public nuisance and file a claim. The court considers a tort that has a clearly identifiable perpetrator, a distinct group of victims suffering injury, and a clear remedy. The jury finds that the mill’s stink is a public nuisance, and the court orders the mill to clean up its act. The mill complies, the stench goes away, and the case is closed.

Not so straightforward with climate change. Here, you have a tort in which both perpetrators and victims number in the millions. Perpetrators are also victims and vice versa; e.g. a coastal dweller whose home is threatened by rising seas also uses electricity and consumes fossil fuels. The consequences of the tort are global, and the remedy is nothing less than rethinking and redesigning the energy economy that makes modern life possible.

In their brief asking the high court to take their appeal, the sued utilities said that jurists adjudicating such claims would be “asked to design, enforce and (over time) modify a set of piecemeal regulatory decrees of great intricacy and enormous consequence for the nation’s energy supply and economic security (and for the international climate change negotiations in which the United States is presently engaged).”

As Chief Justice John Roberts observed, that’s a hell of a job to give a trial judge.

It’s an appropriate job for Congress, which could craft legislation that balances competing interests through a mix of emissions standards, cost mitigation provisions, compliance schedules, economic incentives, and technology R&D. Many in Congress, however, don’t like that idea, so there is little prospect of a climate bill for at least the next two years, and likely longer.

So, EPA is doing the imperfect next best thing of regulating emissions via its authority under the Clean Air Act. Many in Congress don’t like that either, and have proposed legislation that would decree scientific findings about climate change dangers to be null and void.

If Congress sniffs in withering disapproval at climate legislation and regulation, what’s left at the federal level is the impractical, unmanageable remedy of seeking abatement of greenhouse gas emissions through common law nuisance claims.

The direction of justices’ comments during oral arguments indicates that the Supreme Court will likely close that door.

The court will send the ball back to Congress and the EPA, which is where it belongs.

The Spill Washington Forgot

April 21st, 2011 at 11:23 pm 10 Comments

After the 1969 Santa Barbara well blowout that smeared 100, no rx 000 barrels of oil along California’s picturesque central coast, order the resulting public outrage helped launch the modern movement that secured, with bipartisan support, environmental protection laws.

After the Exxon Valdez barreled into Bligh Reef and spilled more than 11 million gallons of crude into the pristine, wildlife-rich, waters and shorelines of Alaska’s Prince William Sound, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 requiring use of double hulled tankers and setting liability limits. The spill also led to Congressional and Presidential moratoriums on drilling offshore along most of the nation’s Outer Continental Shelf.

After the worst oil spill in U.S. history, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout that spewed 260 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and made the two earlier disasters seem like mere dribbles in comparison, virtually nothing has changed.

President Obama did a few things. He split up and renamed the Minerals Management Service, instituted a temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling, and established a bipartisan commission that spotlighted what co-chairman and former EPA Administrator Bill Reilly called a “culture of complacency” at all of the key corporate players at Deepwater Horizon– BP, Transocean, and Halliburton.

However, Congress has been unable to agree on strengthening safety requirements, Republicans and oil state Democrats have been clamoring for fewer restrictions on drilling, and polling shows that the American public has pretty much shrugged off the spill over concerns about rising gas prices.

Obama appears to have bowed to political pressure by ending the temporary moratorium and stepping up the pace of issuing drilling permits. Some, if not all, of the new permits have been issued to companies whose spill prevention plans are dated 2009; the same pre-blowout plans that have been widely ridiculed for exaggerating spill response capabilities and borrowing liberally from Arctic spill response plans. Spot any walruses lounging on Mississippi beaches lately?

If that weren’t enough to curl your toes, Transocean, the incompetent owner of the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon rig, recently announced that it is awarding its top executives bonuses for achieving the “best year in safety.” The company filing about the bonuses stated: “Notwithstanding the tragic loss of life in the Gulf of Mexico, we achieved an exemplary statistical safety record.”

If an exploding rig is “exemplary,” we would be curious to know what Transocean regards as mediocre.

It seems as if the lesson learned from the worst oil spill in U.S. history is throw caution to the wind and don’t worry about the consequences.

Meanwhile, alarming numbers of dead dolphins and sea turtles are washing up along the Gulf Coast. Researchers fear that the long-term ecological damage from the spill may be far greater than previously thought.

As disturbing as all of this is, perhaps the most troubling is the strong push by the Alaska congressional delegation and numerous Western or Gulf state Republicans to rush drilling in the remote waters of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off Alaska’s northern coast—without any reliable indication whatsoever that a spill in these arctic waters could be effectively responded to.

These are among the world’s most pristine and productive ocean areas. They support vital populations of marine mammals, including seals, walruses, and whales. The Chukchi is home to roughly half of America’s polar bear population. Millions of seabirds migrate to these food-rich waters each year.

A recent memorandum produced by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), projects that a blowout in these icy waters would spill approximately 61,000 barrels a day—similar to the Gulf spill. That is where the similarities end.

The spill response assets available in the Gulf were as massive as they were inadequate.

The Chukchi and Beaufort Seas are located more than 900 miles from the nearest U.S. Coast Guard base, there are only a few small airstrips, winter response in subzero darkness would be impossible, ice cover most of the year would hinder containment and cleanup, and bad weather could ground workers for weeks any time of the year.

The report issued by the Gulf oil spill commission noted “serious concerns about Arctic oil-spill response, containment, and search and rescue,” and recommended that before the federal government issues any drilling permits, it must ensure that oil spill containment and response capabilities have been “satisfactorily demonstrated in the Arctic.” That is a pretty high bar.

The likelihood that oil spill clean-up can be successfully demonstrated in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas under all likely weather and sea conditions is highly unlikely, as is the prospect that Congress will provide the Coast Guard the necessary resources to station and maintain an appropriate amount of response equipment nearby.

But heck, who needs spill response capability when our elected leaders are willing to so completely throw caution to the wind in their insatiable quest for every last drop of domestic oil. Apparently, no cost is too great.

Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, wrote:

Prudence is not only the first in rank of the virtues political and moral, but she is the director and regulator, the standard of them all.

As we sit here a year after the nation’s worst oil spill, prudence is sadly absent from those charged with overseeing oil drilling and managing America’s marine waters, as are many other virtues—political and moral.

Gulf Residents Ready to Jump-Start Drilling

April 20th, 2011 at 11:48 pm 3 Comments

Slowly but surely, ask Louisiana is recovering from the devastating blow it was delivered when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded a year ago. Fishermen are managing to get by, businessmen are thriving – but oil workers are still hampered by the Obama administration’s decision to release only a small number of oil drilling permits.

FrumForum talked to two prominent Louisiana businessmen to get a sense of the situation in the state.

In New Orleans, the tourism has kicked up, the business climate is steady, and seafood sales are recovering well. “It’s just wonderful. Some cities have golden ages at different times, and this is certainly one of them [for us]… we still have a lot of problems, but we’re dealing with those problems. While most of the country is suffering from malaise or distress over the economy, our tourism is way, way up,” New Orleans businessman Bryan Wagner told FrumForum.

“The economy is between good and very good,” Fenn French, another New Orleans businessman, told FrumForum. “You don’t see businesses failing, our unemployment rate is below the national average.”

On the coast, in small fishing hamlets like Venice, Louisiana, the locals are still reeling from the twin disasters of Katrina and the oil spill. BP is dragging their feet on paying damages, but their contracts for cleanup work have helped.

The improving market for Gulf seafood has also helped. Shrimp, crab and fish, being mobile, were able to avoid some of the most toxic consequences of the oil spill, and demand for these are expected to rebound this season. The oyster fields are not expected to rebound so quickly.

But in the view of those working in the Gulf, the refusal to issue new permits is at least as disastrous as the oil spill itself. “Fishermen have had their share of suffering, but the ones who are continuing to suffer right now are the oil workers,” said Wagner.

Unemployment along the Gulf in Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish, which between 2006 and 2008 bounced between four and six percent, was 9% in January.

And while the Obama administration’s moratorium on drilling has been lifted, there has been little alleviation in the financial pain facing oil workers. The Obama administration has been very slow to issue permits for oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, leaving many oil workers still looking for work.

“The oil patches – they’re dead over there, because there are no permits to drill. Drastically higher employment over there [on the coast],” said French.

But French has an optimistic outlook on the outcome. “Once we get the BP money and get back to drilling, I think we [Louisiana] are going to be in really good shape,” he said.

The message is clear: for these Louisiana businessmen, the best days are ahead – with the memories of the oil spill fading, it appears the Bayou State is rebuilding for the better.

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It’s About Time Congress Takes on BP

April 20th, 2011 at 12:01 am 7 Comments

One year ago, viagra the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing eleven workers and injuring sixteen more. The devastating environmental damage that resulted from months of uncapped oil leaking from the site was accompanied by the economic catastrophe mandated by an off-shore oil drilling moratorium.

Freshman Rep. Jeff Landry (LA-03) has proposed two measures to try and address the consequences and lessons of the disaster. For one, BP has been dragging its feet on paying for damages through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process – via legal procedures, BP and other responsible parties could put off paying damages for decades.

Landry – whose district includes some of the most impacted regions of Louisiana’s Gulf Coast – teamed up with Senator David Vitter (R-LA) to propose the Natural Resources Restoration Act.

The Act mandates that the National Academies of Science put together a panel of appropriately qualified scientists, who would then assess the amount that BP should pay to repair the damage caused by the spill. BP could then pay 30% of the assessed damages upfront, or negotiate a schedule for payment over some other time period.

“I am tired of BP using every trick and turn of the court process to prolong their obligation to pay for the damages they have caused to Louisiana’s natural resources. Our bill forces BP to make a choice: pay 30 percent of what they owe right now or negotiate in good faith; delaying the payment is no longer an option,” said Landry in a statement provided to FrumForum.

Landry also proposed another piece of regulation, the Offshore Installation Emergency Evacuation Act, which would require a private standby vessel to be stationed within 12 miles of offshore drilling installations. After the Deepwater Horizon explosion, survivors were in the water for over an hour before a chopper arrived on the scene – a length of time this bill aims to dramatically lessen the next time an emergency occurs. The bill would require the vessel to have the capacity to carry 100% of the most populated deepwater facility in the area – for shallow-water operations, the bill would only require standby vessels during the most dangerous periods of operation.

This proposed bill will almost certainly be met with pushback from oil companies, who strongly opposed a similar piece of legislation in the 1980s. Other Republicans would also likely protest that the bill adds another layer of regulation on the private sector.

Rep. Landry addresses this by saying in a press statement today that “the most valuable resource in the Gulf of Mexico is not the oil and gas underneath the Gulf [but rather] the men and women who are willing to risk their lives to extract America’s energy… every man who commits his life to extracting our nation’s energy [should be] met by an equal commitment that, no matter what might happen on the rig, a vessel will be waiting to safely take him home.”

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Confessions of a Climate Change Convert

April 19th, 2011 at 11:00 am 134 Comments

I was defeated by facts.

It wasn’t all that long ago when I joined others on the right in dismissing concerns about climate change. It was my firm belief that the science was unsettled, buy viagra that any movement associated with Al Gore and Van Jones couldn’t possibly be trusted, recipe that environmentalists were simply left-wing, online anti-capitalist kooks.

It wasn’t until after I read Stanford University professor Morris Fiorina’s book Disconnect (2009) that I started to reconsider things. Fiorina noted that while environmentalism is now considered the domain of the Democratic Party, for many years it was the GOP that was identified with conservationist concerns. I was curious as to how the political climate shifted with regard to environmentalism—and whether there was something to all this talk about climate change.

I’m very fortunate to have acquaintances in the environmentalist movement, and I began discussing my concerns with them last fall. One friend recommended that I read the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, suggesting that it might resolve some of the questions I had about the science behind climate concerns.

I began reading the report with a skeptical eye, but by the time I concluded I could not find anything to justify my skepticism. The report presented an airtight case that the planet’s temperature has increased dramatically (“Eleven of the last twelve years [1995-2006] rank among the twelve warmest years in the instrumental record of global surface temperature [since 1850]”), that sea levels have undergone a dramatic and disturbing increase since the 1960s (“Global average sea level rose at an average rate of 1.8 [1.3 to 2.3]mm per year over 1961 to 2003 and at an average rate of about 3.1 [2.4 to 3.8]mm per year from 1993 to 2003”) and that climate alteration is having an unusual impact on avian and sea life (“…recent warming is strongly affecting terrestrial biological systems, including such changes as earlier timing of spring events, such as leaf-unfolding, bird migration and egg-laying…observed changes in marine and freshwater biological systems are associated with rising water temperatures, as well as related changes in ice cover, salinity, oxygen levels and circulation”).

The report highlighted the key role carbon emissions played in climate alteration, noting, “The largest growth in GHG emissions between 1970 and 2004 has come from energy supply, transport and industry, while residential and commercial buildings, forestry [including deforestation] and agriculture sectors have been growing at a lower rate” and that “[c]hanges in the atmospheric concentrations of GHGs and aerosols, land cover and solar radiation alter the energy balance of the climate system and are drivers of climate change. They affect the absorption, scattering and emission of radiation within the atmosphere and at the Earth’s surface.” I was stunned by the report’s claim that “[t]he observed widespread warming of the atmosphere and ocean, together with ice mass loss, support the conclusion that it is extremely unlikely that global climate change of the past 50 years can be explained without external forcing and very likely that it is not due to known natural causes alone.”

If carbon-fueled climate alteration continues at its current rate, the report noted, we will bear witness to unprecedented health horrors: “The health status of millions of people is projected to be affected through, for example, increases in malnutrition; increased deaths, diseases and injury due to extreme weather events…increased frequency of cardio-respiratory diseases due to higher concentrations of ground-level ozone in urban areas related to climate change; and the altered spatial distribution of some infectious diseases.” In addition, “For increases in global average temperature exceeding 1.5 to 2.5°C and in concomitant atmospheric CO2 concentrations, there are projected to be major changes in ecosystem structure and function, species’ ecological interactions and shifts in species’ geographical ranges, with predominantly negative consequences for biodiversity and ecosystem goods and services, e.g. water and food supply.”

The report did provide some hope, noting that “[s]ocieties can respond to climate change…by reducing GHG emissions [mitigation], thereby reducing the rate and magnitude of change… Policies that provide a real or implicit price of carbon could create incentives for producers and consumers to significantly invest in low-GHG products, technologies and processes.”

I came away from the report convinced that climate alteration poses a critical threat to our health and way of life, and that “policies that provide a real or implicit price of carbon” are in fact necessary, from an economic and a moral standpoint, to mitigate that threat. Such policies—most notably the much-maligned concept of cap-and-trade—should not be considered job-killers but life-savers.

There’s a part of me that understands why libertarian pundits seem to have so much scorn for those who support state action to combat carbon emissions. Modern libertarianism is suffused with skepticism of government, and supporting state regulation of carbon emissions requires, on some level, a belief in government to get things right. Is it even possible to be a libertarian and an environmentalist—or a conservative and an environmentalist, for that matter?

I’m a bit skeptical myself. I’d argue that conservatives and libertarians should strongly support regulation to reduce carbon pollution, since pollution by one entity invariably infringes upon the rights of others (including property rights), and no entity has a constitutional right to pollute. It does not put America on the road to serfdom to suggest that the federal government has a compelling interest in protecting the country from ecological damage. If anything, it puts America on the road to common sense.

Since reconsidering climate science, I’ve had a number of debates with conservative and libertarian friends, who oppose government regulation of carbon emissions in part because they believe those regulations will cost too much. Of course regulations cost; limiting ecological damage and preserving public health requires money. The issue is whether those costs are moral to impose. If no entity has a constitutional right to pollute, and if the federal government has a compelling interest in reducing carbon pollution, then how can those costs not be moral?

In the months following my acceptance of the conclusions in the IPCC report, I’ve had a change in my emotional climate. I go back and forth between disappointment and hope—sadness over seeing Republicans who once believed in the threat of climate change (such as Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty) suddenly turn into skeptics; optimism about efforts by such groups as Republicans for Environmental Protection and Citizens Climate Lobby to sound the alarm about the need to combat climate pollution. I struggle with the urge to give in to cynicism and bitterness, to write off the American right for its refusal to recognize scientific facts. Thankfully, there’s a stronger urge—an urge to keep working until the American right recognizes that a healthy planet is required to have the life and liberty that allows us to pursue happiness.

Don’t Ban Bad Bulbs, Tax Them

April 18th, 2011 at 1:13 pm 14 Comments

In a recent article, see fellow FrumForum contributor David Jenkins discusses light bulbs, mentions high flow toilets and then, talking about automobile fuel efficiency standards, asks, “Does anyone today really believe that consumer choice has been hurt by having these standards?” Yes, I do believe so.

Before 1996, consumers who had four or five children or occasionally needed to carry a bit more cargo than fits into a typical trunk did not have to choose only between minivans and SUVs, but also had a choice of different car models. For example, station wagon versions of both Chevrolet Caprice and Buick Roadmaster could seat up to 8 passengers (or alternatively carry a significant amount of cargo). Those cars were more spacious than many minivans and SUVs, but unlike minivans and SUVs, they were low (like virtually any car), did not require any climbing to get into, did not block the view of drivers behind them and had a low center of gravity. The latter meant that they were rather unlikely to roll over and extremely unlikely to go over a guardrail – something that unfortunately cannot be said about many minivan and SUV models.

Nowadays if consumers try to compensate for this safety reduction by buying some of the biggest SUVs on the market, they actually get vehicles with a lot less fuel efficiency than station wagons. Furthermore, the fuel savings from stricter CAFE standards are lower in practice than in theory. Not only do people often start driving more after switching to a more fuel efficient vehicle, but sometimes people also take two cars instead of one or make two trips instead of one when a car just is not spacious enough (this is not mere speculation – I’m speaking from experience).

On top of that, reduced consumer choice causes some people to delay buying a new car and to continue driving an older vehicle burning more fuel and emitting more pollution than a new vehicle of even the same size and weight would (again, speaking from experience – Al Gore will have to pry my aging six-seat Cadillac from my cold dead fingers).  Finally, restricting consumer choice of spacious vehicles may deter some people from having bigger families, and that’s the last thing we need when the national debt is projected to explode and the ratio of workers to retirees is projected to shrink.

I agree with Mr. Jenkins that we should not “have wasteful high flow toilets even in the arid West where water is scarce”. Or high flow showers for that matter (although, once again, the savings are exaggerated since low flow toilets are often flushed more frequently). But why should this be any business of the federal government?! Unlike, say, the national energy market, the water supply is highly fragmented, and conditions very greatly from place to place. E.g. the Upper Michigan Peninsula is scarcely populated and surrounded by fresh water. Why should the residents there suffer the same restrictions as people in Utah?

Conservatives should stand up for federalism. Besides, in terms of good management of water resources it would be better if more people lived in areas with abundant water and fewer people resided in arid areas. But the current one-size-fits-all federal standards do absolutely nothing to encourage such patterns of human settlement.

Now back to the main topic – the light bulbs. First, an important matter of principle. Why shouldn’t people actually be free to waste their own money if they so desire? As a practical matter, the energy savings from CFL bulbs may be largely illusory. Most incandescent light bulb use happens during the season when daylight is short, i.e. during the season when homes are also being heated. The energy that the incandescent light bulb consumes but fails to turn into visible light does not just disappear – it turns into heat. That’s not a waste at all if the house needs to be heated anyway! So the incandescent light bulb is essentially 100% efficient during the colder and darker half of the year when it is used most. CFL bulbs use less energy all right, but then more energy is used for heating (in case anybody is wondering, I have quite a few CFL bulbs, but I mostly use them as outdoor lighting).

Also, people often behave irrationally when small environmental risks are involved (just witness the recent reaction of many people on the West Coast to the nuclear incident in Japan, even though within the first several minutes of the earthquake – once the chain reaction stopped in all reactors – there was 100% certainty of no adverse health impact on the US). So when some carpet gets steam cleaned just because a minuscule amount of mercury from a broken CFL bulb got absorbed or when some small child gets driven to a hospital after touching some broken pieces, quite a lot of energy savings from CFL bulbs will be offset in an instant. Anyway, residential lighting consumes only a small fraction of electricity produced in the US, and the difference in efficiency between incandescent and CFL bulbs could be easily made up by just a few nuclear reactors. So there’s no good reason to single out light bulbs for the environmental consequences of power production and depletion of fossil fuel reserves.

This brings me to another important matter of principle. Just what grounds can the government possibly have for banning a product that is not harmful? If having some indirect potentially harmful effects is all it takes, then what cannot be banned?! E.g. why not ban organic food? After all, farmland is a finite and quite limited resource. While there are many fossil fuel deposits out there that have not even been discovered yet, we know we are not going to discover any new land. In the meanwhile the population of the planet is growing, and more and more food is needed. Expansion of farmland destroys rainforests from Brazil to Indonesia and encroaches on the habitat of many threatened species (such as tigers and elephants). Furthermore, while serious armed conflicts over fossil fuels are very rare, people fight over farmland every day, and rising food prices also cause a lot of political instability (which, incidentally, is one of the main reasons for the recent increase in oil prices – so it can be said that organic food pushes our energy costs up).

We need to keep increasing agricultural efficiency through all available technological means, and organic farming is a move in exactly the opposite direction. So why not effectively ban it by imposing efficiency standards on food producers?! Yes, I know that many people prefer the taste of organic food, and some people even say non-organic food makes them sick. But then many people prefer the light from incandescent bulbs, and some even say CFL bulbs make them sick. Why should the preferences of one group have more weight than those of another? In the absence of clear principles it may all come down to who has better lobbyists, or as a minimum it may come to be perceived that way. That’s not good for the health of a representative democracy.

I suggest that conservatives more or less embrace the principle of consumer choice, even if not to the same degree as libertarians. If there are compelling reasons to reduce waste of resources, increased efficiency can usually be achieved through carefully targeted taxation. As much as possible, instead of saying “You cannot have this!” the government should merely be telling consumers “How badly do you want this?” We don’t really need CAFE standards – all we need is to expand the long-existing gas guzzler tax. Instead of raising fuel efficiency standards once in a while, we could just legislate for the gas guzzler tax threshold to go up half a mile per gallon or so annually for the next 20 years (with the tax itself being highly progressive with respect to lower mileage – ranging, say, from $100 for Crown Victoria to $20,000 for Hummer).

This way consumers who really want big vehicles for whatever reason could still have them (albeit at a premium), the government would get more revenue, fuel efficiency would still be increasing and manufacturers would actually have incentives to make even minor tweaks on inefficient vehicles rather than just discontinue them or leave them as they are (e.g. increasing a car cost by $100 to make it slightly more fuel efficient would actually make perfect sense if the gas guzzler tax could thus be reduced by $200). All sorts of electric appliances could be similarly taxed if they aren’t meeting some efficiency standards. The government could also impose a relatively significant tax on residential electric bills with a certain amount of power consumption being exempt (in fact some electric companies already charge more for consumption above a certain level). And, of course, a carbon tax is vastly superior to cap-n-trade.

A transparent tax is also superior to a ban or heavy regulation as far as good governance is concerned. As much as possible, when the government imposes costs (both financial and other) on citizens, those costs should be fully acknowledged as the government’s doing, so that frustrated customers don’t blame private companies but rather know that they should take the matter up with their representatives if so inclined. And if the representatives are not willing to defend the imposition before their constituents, well, maybe they shouldn’t impose those costs in the first place.

Inhofe’s Wild Flying

April 17th, 2011 at 7:31 am 35 Comments

Ever wonder why Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) is so intractable in his insistence that global warming is a hoax?

Thanks to a revealing incident that took place in Texas last fall and whose details were made public this week, the answer could be that Inhofe is either incapable of perceiving the obvious or chooses to ignore it.

Inhofe is a licensed pilot who owns a twin-engine Cessna. Seems that the Oklahoma Republican was flying his plane into the Port Isabel-Cameron County Airport, a small, general aviation facility near the southernmost tip of Texas, last October 21. Inhofe approached a runway that had a big yellow X painted on it. Every licensed pilot knows that a big yellow X painted on a runway means “THIS RUNWAY IS CLOSED. DO NOT LAND HERE.”

Inhofe landed anyway, forcing workers doing a construction job on the runway to run for their lives and nearly barreling into a work truck whose driver apparently soiled his trousers in fright. “He just went right over a huge yellow X,” construction supervisor Sidney Boyd told the Federal Aviation Administration, according to audio of Boyd’s call to the FAA that was released by TheSmokingGun.com web site on April 13. “He was determined to land on that runway, come hell or high water, evidently.”

The airport manager, Marshall Reece, told the FAA, according to the released audio, that in his long years of flying experience, “I have never seen such a reckless disregard for human life in my life.”

According to Boyd’s call, Inhofe stormed around after his landing, insisting he should have had “unlimited airspace” – as if he were President Inhofe.

Check out audio samples here.

Oh, and according to the FAA incident report, Inhofe hadn’t bothered to check relevant Notices to Airmen indicating that the runway was off limits.

In lieu of getting a fat FAA ticket, Inhofe agreed to the aviation equivalent of traffic school – four hours of remedial classroom training, which covered basics like preflight planning, operating at uncontrolled airports, and runway signs, and three hours of flight instruction, including cockpit management.

Too bad that Inhofe hasn’t been required to get remedial training from the National Academy of Sciences after taking off on his scientifically illiterate flights of fancy about the supposed global warming hoax.

Rand’s Rant Against Green Bulbs

April 15th, 2011 at 1:47 pm 43 Comments

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources (ENR) Committee got a dose of libertarian wackiness at a recent mark-up hearing that was strikingly reminiscent of the bizarre tirades that Glenn Beck doled out daily on his now defunct television show.

The ENR Committee was voting on S. 398, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Senators Jeff Bingaman (NM) and Lisa Murkowski (AK) to strengthen energy efficiency standards for appliances and some other consumer products. This legislation, which has strong industry support and sailed through the committee last year, was thought to be non-controversial.

This year is different. Tea Party favorite Rand Paul happens to be on the committee.

Paul objected to the legislation, and speaking of the efficiency standards in the legislation he said, “I think that to be consistent with a free society, we should make them voluntary.”

Paul offered an amendment to remove the government’s authority to enforce the standards. Then, Paul escorted his colleagues into the Twilight Zone.

According to an account in Energy & Environment Daily, Paul launched into a sermon about Ayn Rand’s 1937 novel Anthem, which depicts a dark future where the concept of individuality has fallen prey to the evils of collectivism and socialism.

Paul described a scene from the novel in which the protagonist, called Equality 7-2521, discovers the incandescent light bulb. Paul recounts that Equality 7-2521 naively thinks that electricity and the brilliance of electric light would be an advantage for society. But when he takes the light bulb to the society’s elders, they crush it “beneath the boot heel of the collective.”

Paul then instructed his fellow senators that in the novel, “the collective has no place, basically, for individual choice,” and adds, “Now, I’m not suggesting that this collective is against electricity, per say, or individualism … but I am suggesting that we’re against choice.”

How long will it be before Paul is bringing blackboards into the Senate ENR hearing room and is drawing diagrams purporting to show that Senators Murkowski and Bingaman are agents of a Middle Eastern caliphate plotting to stop America from using its coal?

At least two of Paul’s fellow Republican Senators were belting down his tea. After Paul’s amendment failed, Mike Lee (UT), another tea party fave, and John Barrasso (WY) joined Paul in voting against the bill.

Assertions that efficiency standards restrict consumer choice are simply wrong. Extreme arguments that efficiency standards are the agenda of a supposed “collective” that seeks to impose totalitarian rule on America are the product of a cultish, delusional ideology that fails to connect to the real world.

Paul’s logic would seem to oppose virtually any mandatory standards. I suppose automobile manufacturers should never have been required to install seatbelts, asbestos should still be allowed for building insulation, and we should have wasteful high flow toilets even in the arid West where water is scarce.

In 1974, Governor Ronald Reagan signed into law the Warren-Alquist Act establishing the California Energy Commission and authorizing the commission to set appliance efficiency standards. Then on March 17, 1987, President Reagan established strong federal standards by signing the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act into law.

We have heard consumer choice arguments for years in rants by Rush Limbaugh and others against even the most modest increase in automobile fuel efficiency standards. Does anyone today really believe that consumer choice has been hurt by having these standards? It actually cuts the other way. Without these standards, consumers would not have available the many fuel-efficient vehicle options from which they can choose today.

Rather than restricting consumer choices, standards prompt manufacturers to invest in technology R&D that results in a range of better products. Manufacturers simply don’t behave like deer caught in the headlights, as some would have us believe. Prompted by standards, they innovate.

For example, the assertion that incandescent lighting standards will result in the Easy Bake Oven children’s toy being taken off the market is a false scare story. The toy manufacturer is coming out with a better product — an Easy Bake Oven with a built-in heating element that is more efficient than a 100-watt incandescent light bulb, which makes for a more efficient toy and one that is more convenient for parents and children (no light bulb to burn out and replace every 1,000 hours.)

What Senator Paul’s hand-wringing about the “collective” (and perhaps black helicopters) ignores is that we are not islands unto ourselves. Our energy choices have impacts on others, and on society as a whole.

Using energy wastefully increases energy demand, which in turn requires construction of power plants whose costs show up in all our energy bills. Using energy wastefully results in environmental impacts that harm public health and the environment, and using energy wastefully hastens an inevitable decline in the availability of fossils fuels.

There is nothing conservative or prudent about waste. Nor is there anything conservative or prudent about the notion that we do not need efficiency standards to help secure our energy future.

Radical libertarians, like Senator Paul, who want to champion individuality above all else, either possess utopian ignorance regarding the fallibility of man, or have taken   short-sighted, live-for-today selfishness to its liberal extreme.

Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, once wrote: “Men have no right to what is not reasonable, and to what is not for their benefit.” His American protégé, Russell Kirk instructed that “Every right is married to a duty, every freedom owes a corresponding responsibility.”

If you happen to stumble upon a blackboard while walking the halls of Congress, I suggest you erase the conspiracy diagram and replace it with these wise words, or this, also from Kirk:

To check centralization and usurping of power … we require a new laissez-faire. The old laissez-faire was founded upon a misapprehension of human nature, an exultation of individuality (in private character often a virtue) to the condition of a political dogma, which destroyed the spirit of community and reduced men to so many equipollent atoms of humanity, without sense of brotherhood or purpose.

If Congress would heed the rational conservatism of Burke and Kirk, and ignore the ranting of the radical libertarian fringe, I’m sure a lot of American individuals would breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Natural Gas: Not as Green as We Thought?

April 12th, 2011 at 6:54 pm 10 Comments

A forthcoming paper from Cornell University researchers suggests that gas is more of a bad actor in climate change than coal. The gas industry is not taking kindly to the suggestion.

It’s the latest PR challenge for the industry and one more reason why gas producers need to get ahead of the curve on environmental issues if gas is to fulfill its promise as a clean, diagnosis secure energy source.

Gas, medicine for decades the quiet little brother of oil and coal in the fossil fuel family, diagnosis has come out from beneath its siblings’ shadows with a reputation as an environmentally friendlier, domestically abundant energy source that could serve as the foundation for America’s energy economy for decades to come.

Gas is feeling its oats. Thanks to expanding discoveries in deep shale formations, the industry is boasting that a century’s worth of clean burning fuel is available securely within U.S. borders. Take that, dirty coal! Take that, scheming OPEC oil barons!

Now, along comes the Cornell study, which suggests that shale gas production has a bigger carbon footprint than coal because of fugitive methane releases from production. Molecule for molecule, methane packs a bigger heat-trapping punch than carbon dioxide.

Whoa, Nellie, says the gas industry, pushing back with castigations of what industry spokesmen call errors of fact and methodology in the study.

This, along with continuing controversy over the feared impacts of hydraulic fracturing chemicals on drinking water aquifers and the divisions among townspeople that gas drilling has spawned in production areas, is keeping the gas industry’s PR mavens working overtime.

Time for the gas industry to do more than play defense in a battle of press releases.

First, the methane issue. Leaving aside the issue of whether the Cornell study has merit, there is no reason not to minimize fugitive methane emissions, if only to maximize product in the pipeline. As EPA’s deputy administrator testified today at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, there are practical technologies available today to keep methane releases to a minimum, and many gas producers already employ them. Those that don’t ought to take a look.

Next, the water issue. The gas industry and its regulators at the state level argue that hydraulic fracturing, “fracking” for short, poses little danger to drinking water supplies. At today’s EPW hearing, Senator James Inhofe hoisted a chart showing more than a mile of solid rock separating Marcellus shale gas formations in the Northeast from aquifers that supply domestic water wells.

“The fluid migration can’t happen and it doesn’t happen,” Inhofe declared. Perhaps he’s right. Still, worries about surface spills of fracking chemicals and handling of produced water drawn from gas wells should not receive a brush-off that sounds too much like “we’re the experts, you’re not, so keep quiet and go away.” Intended or not, when such a high-horse message goes out, people worried about their drinking water are not inclined to keep quiet and go away.

The gas industry could do itself a favor by agreeing to full disclosure, well by well, of all fracking chemicals. Transparency helps build trust, and trust is a tool that is just as essential for the gas industry as drill bits and tubing tongs.