Sierra Daily: April 2011

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16 posts from April 2011

Apr 29, 2011

Gas Prices: Worse Than You Think

I was late for work today because I had to drive way out of the way to find the gas station where if you pay cash you can get a gallon of regular for $4.17. Like many others in a similar position, I am very happy to blame it on rapacious oil companies. Now, it turns out, we are not even allowed that simple pleasure. Derek Thompson over at The Atlantic interviewed a lot of energy experts and put together what he calls an "editorial pie chart"--a chart not based on hard data about why the price of oil has increased 30% in five months (because the data doesn't exist), but on the experts' opinion of the importance of each factor: Gas graph                                                                                                                                                  As you can see, speculation is part of the mix, but a pretty small part. Today Washington Post smart guy Ezra Klein follows up with an account that makes you wish it was just speculation. Here he quotes one James Hamilton, an energy economist at UC San Diego: “Speculation is a convenient scapegoat for people who can’t be bothered to look seriously at the numbers.”

Here's the bad news, according to Hamilton. Saudi Arabia is slashing oil production, while Chinese demand is growing rapidly. Despite the $4.17/gallon I paid this morning, demand is not easing up.

“The key question you should be asking is the following,” says Hamilton. “Is the current price too high in the sense that the physical quantity being produced is greater than the physical quantity being consumed? If yes, then where is the difference going, and what mechanism accounts for that?” Left unsaid is the “if no.” But if no, then who is supposed to start using less oil in the coming years, and if the answer is no one, then how, absent recurrent recessions, are we supposed to make what oil we have go around at a price the global economy can handle?

The other day I presented evidence that improving fuel-efficiency of automobiles would lower gas prices more than offshore drilling would. But until we get beyond oil, our wallets and our economy will remain hostage to rising demand for an increasingly rare product.

--Paul Rauber

Apr 28, 2011

Catastrophic Midwest Flooding: The New Normal

Once again thawing snows and extremely heavy rains are pummelling the Midwest, as seen in this satellite image from NASA Earth Observatory. Climate Progress reports that the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois, is expected to crest at 60.5 feet on Sunday, exceeding the 100-year flood stage and in fact all previous records. Flash floods have killed 10 in Arkansas, and a horrific mile-wide tornado killed at least 160 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Here's the flood outlook from NOAA:

Obviously this is a major tragedy to thousands of people, and it's immaterial to them what, if anything beyond the unpredictable wrath of nature, might have led to it. The rest of us, though, need to ask ourselves: Do we share responsibility? Here's an extract from a paper published in February in the Journal Nature, “Human contribution to more-intense precipitation extremes”:

Here we show that human-induced increases in greenhouse gases have contributed to the observed intensification of heavy precipitation events found over approximately two-thirds of data-covered parts of Northern Hemisphere land areas. . . . Changes in extreme precipitation projected by models, and thus the impacts of future changes in extreme precipitation, may be underestimated because models seem to underestimate the observed increase in heavy precipitation with warming.

--Paul Rauber


Apr 27, 2011

How Green Is My Country?


Scientists at the Woods Hole Research Center recently released a nifty map of forest cover in the coterminous United States, i.e., the Lower 48. Based on NASA satellite images from 2000-2001 and ground-level surveys by the USGS and USDA Forest Service, the National Biomass and Carbon Dataset will serve as a baseline for monitoring changes in forest cover and the carbon cycle. For a high-resolution, clickable-to-the-hectare version, go here.

--Reed McManus

Offshore Drilling Won't Lower Gas Prices

If you think that dramatically expanding oil drilling in U.S. offshore waters is going to reduce the pain you feel when filling up at the pump, you might want to contemplate the graph below, courtesy of Ben Jervey at GOOD. Using data from yesterday's "Annual Energy Outlook" from the Energy Information Agency, Jervey graphed the EIA's projection for gas prices over time under various scenarios, showing that fuel-efficiency yields lower prices than massive drilling.

Here's how to read the graph. Light Blue = no new offshore drilling. Dark Blue = a massive expansion of offshore drilling. Green = a 6% increase in fuel economy in cars every year from 2017 to 2025. Purple = a less ambitious 3% annual increase in fuel efficiency over that period. (Click on graph for larger display.)

First thing to note: Massive expansion of offshore drilling makes virtually no difference in gas prices until about 2024, and by 2030 yields a difference in only 5 cents a gallon. Even if your only concern was in reducing gas prices, you'd be much better off increasing automotive fuel efficiency: Under the 6% per year scenario, by 2030 you'd have gas that was 20 cents cheaper than if you did nothing, and 15 cents cheaper than if you despoiled the nation's offshore waters.

In short: increasing the gas mileage of American cars is a far better way to cut gas prices than drilling.

If you think about it, this all makes some intuitive sense. The U.S. consumes roughly one-quarter of the world's oil, but holds only 2 percent of the world's oil reserves. So, a far more effective way to reduce gas prices is to address domestic demand than supply. In other words: make vehicles more fuel efficient, and increase energy efficiency incentives.

So it's been a good day: President Obama took care of the birthers, and GOOD took care of the "drill here, drill now" crowd. Next issue, please!  

--Paul Rauber

Apr 26, 2011

High-Water Mark

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is preparing to breach a levee at Birds Point on the Mississippi River in order to protect the downstream city of Cairo, Illinois, from flooding. Some 130,000 acres of farmland coulld be inundated, and Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has sued to stop the effort. A law enacted in the 1920 requires the Corps to blow up the levee if the gauge at Cairo reaches a certain water level, according to Reuters. Cairo, population 2800, sits at the confluence of the Ohio and Missisppi rivers, both of which are flooding.

Treated like a plumbing system rather than a river, the funneled-and-strangled Mississippi will continue to force authorities to choose between cities and farms when the water starts rising, unless floodplains are restored.

--Reed McManus

Ending Oil Subsidies--the Kumbaya Moment


Who says Washington is broken! Last night on ABC News, House Speaker John Boehner came out and admitted that Congress should consider cutting Big Oil's multi-billion dollar subsidies.

"It's certainly something we should be looking at," Boehner said. "We're in a time when the federal government's short on revenues. They ought to be paying their fair share."

President Obama, who has estimated that getting rid of oil subsidies could save $45 billion over ten years, happily seized on the Speaker's concession today in a letter to Congressional leaders:

I am writing to urge you to take immediate action to eliminate unwarranted tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, and to use those dollars to invest in clean energy to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. . . .

I was heartened that Speaker Boehner yesterday expressed openness to eliminating these tax subsidies for the oil and gas industry. Our political system has for too long avoided and ignored this important step, and I hope we can come together in a bipartisan manner to get it done. 

Alas, you know how these stories end, don't you? Boehner's spokesperson Michael Steel soon jumped in to put the kibosh on the whole deal: "The speaker made clear in the interview that raising taxes was a nonstarter, and he's told the president that. He simply wasn't going to take the bait and fall into the trap of defending 'Big Oil' companies."

He won't defend 'em, but he'll still vote for their subsidies! To see how Dirty Energy's subsidies line up against cleaner alternatives, see "You Get What You Pay For" in the new issue of Sierra.


Apr 21, 2011

Bach in the Forest

  Never mind that it's an ad; I like the idea of a wooden phone anyway. Happy Earth Day to all.

--Paul Rauber


Fakes and Liars

Here are three stories from the past week. See if you can guess what they have in common:

1. GE issues a "press release" saying that "the company will be gifting its entire 2010 tax refund, worth $3.2 Billion, to the US Treasury on April 18, Tax Day, and will furthermore adopt a host of new policies that secure its position as a leader in corporate social responsibility."

2. Mother Jones magazine posts a picture of the world's scariest jellyfish on Tumblr:


3. Some guy tweets the following:

Paul Rauber @paulrauber Japan ends its "scientific" whaling program: http://sc.org/fQcvFo

What's the unifying principle here? They're all fake.
1. The GE press release was a hoax by a group called the Yes Men. The Associated Press reported it as news, and then had to issue a retraction.
2. The jellyfish picture is a product of Photoshop. Scroll down to see the original image here.
3. The press release was also a hoax--a more careful reporter might have noted that the name of the service was "Completely BS Breaking News."
Moral: A single source is good for nothing anymore.
--Paul Rauber

Newt Gingrich Says the Darnedest Things!

It seems like it was only 2008 when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was sitting down on a couch with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, agreeing that "our country must take action to address climate change."


But how times change! Via Think Progress, here's Newt speaking at a fundraiser last night in New Hampshire:

“I think we honestly don’t know,” he said. “I think the evidence is not nearly as complete as the computerized models, and I think that the understanding of climatology is a lot more incomplete than the global warming advocates would have you believe.”

Gingrich said he could see taking “prudent” and cost-effective steps to address climate change but would not support any form of a cap-and-trade program.

“I would not adopt massively expensive plans over a theory,” he said.

So what happened between 2008 and 2011? The very smart Ezra Klein pegs it not to anything intrinsic to the cap-and-trade system itself, but to the incredible polarization of U.S. politics:

This “you’re for it so we’re against it” phenomenon is increasingly common in politics, and not limited to any one issue. Cap-and-trade is, for now, a casualty of the way party polarization has become policy polarization. And no one one has yet developed a reliable strategy for interrupting that process.    

For more on the near-ubiquity of flip-flopping climate change, see "It Was a Mistake" in the current issue of Sierra.

--Paul Rauber

Apr 19, 2011

Can Sea Otters Save the Planet?

GR_02 OK, seems unlikely (although it worked for whales in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home). But according to Chris Wilmers at the University of California at Santa Cruz, otters perform an exceptionally valuable service by maintaining a healthy kelp ecosystem: The otters eat kelp-devouring sea urchins, allowing kelp forests to act as carbon sinks, locking up 0.18 kg of carbon for every square meter of coast otters inhabit. Wilmers and his colleagues estimate that were sea otters restored to healthy populations in North America, "they could collectively lock up a mammoth 1010 kg of carbon – currently worth more than $700 million on the European carbon-trading market."

Problem is that sea otter populations are anything but healthy--as reported in Sierra last November. Populations in British Columbia are thriving, but California numbers are declining, apparently as a result of shark attacks and Toxoplasma gondii, a protazoal disease stemming from cat feces. Brad Plumer in The New Republic points out that a reasonable carbon-trading system could help remedy the situation:

If Wilmers is right and a healthy sea otter population could sequester ten million tons of carbon, that'd be worth $200 million. So polluters might decide that it's cheaper to fund sea otter preservation programs than cut power use (at least in the short term), and new offset projects could get approved. Voila: There's suddenly money to try this sea otter strategy.

Unfortunately, we do not have such a system, nor much of a prospect for getting one anytime soon. Just another reason, though, to keep your cat indoors.

(Coincidental etymological bonus: Last night my eight-year old daughter wanted to know how the "urchin" in sea urchin was connected to Dickensian beggars, so we dragged out the O.E.D. Turns out "urchin" is an old name for hedgehog, hence its application to the spiny sea creature. In the Middle Ages it came to be a name for an elf or a goblin, based on a belief that such creatures sometimes appeared as hedgehogs. From goblin, it seems, came the later sense of a mischievous child.)

--Paul Rauber

Photo by Sebastian Kennerknecht/Minden Pictures.

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