Archive for the ‘Energy follies’ category

Texas is missing (one of its) Idiots: OMG That Man’s A Congressman Dept.

April 22, 2009


Watch it and weep.  I mean really.  There are many reasons the GOP deserves to lose every election:  Joe Barton (R – Magic Beans) is one of them. This man shouldn’t be allowed to operate power tools, much less have 1/435 votes on matters of national and international import. Until that sporadically loyal opposition decides that minimal competence is a virtue, it will continue to earn is deserved losses.

And for his part, Steven Chu deserves a medal for not blowing coke through his nose on hearing that question.

We Are Ruled By Idiots: Susan Collins/Ben Nelson division

February 5, 2009

Update: TPM points out in one of their updates to this story that (a) the list of proposed cuts keeps changing and (b) that this is in fact an effort to secure the votes for passage of the bill.  So on the theory that some bill is better than none, this may be worth the effort.  But the choices still matter, and cutting science and technology and public health when the bill still retains less-efficient tax cuts is folly.  If the 100 billion that the group seeks to cut slashed tax side money at least as much (and much better much more) than shovel-ready spending, then it would be more palatable.  But given the sausage injunction, I’ve toned down the language of disdain below.

From TPM comes this word:  that Senator Collins (R(know nothing)-ME and Senator Nelson (D(who won that last election?)-NE) have come up the almost 80 billion dollars worth of cuts to the stimulus that will somehow speed our transition back into a simulacrum of economic health.

TPM highlighted the 1.4 billion cut in stimulus funding for the NSF — 100% of the total proposed in the Democratic majority bill.  But in fact the proposals are actually much worse than the topline message at TPM indicates.  One thing that becomes clear from reading the details of the Nelson/Collins “compromise” is that these folks just don’t get science. Which means, in essence that they do not get how to stimulate an economy:  you want to spend the money on stuff that not only gets cash into circulation fast (as buying equipment, hiring students and researchers, renting space, paying for telephony and all the rest actually do), but on stuff that will produce more money-making (and spending) activity in the future.

That is to say, science and its applications leads to figuring stuff out that makes a difference in people’s lives.   Tax cuts, by contrast, do so only indirectly, if at all, and at a fraction of the efficiency that comes from actually just hiring people to go out get to work.

What we are seeing here, thus, is an example of the operative definition of neurosis — the repetition of an action over and over again, whilst expecting a different outcome this time — our distinguished representatives, especially almost every Republican (Ben!  What are you doing in such company?) serving  in Congress right now — are effectively residents of Bedlam

So: what is it that that Collins and Nelson et al. can’t quite see themselves voting for:

Starting from the top, at the Department of Agriculture:  Whack $100 million off food research — 100 % of the total proposed.

Next:  $750 million gone from NASA’s exploration budget, half of the proposed total, along all of the 1.4 billion NSF money, as mentioned above.

Next: NOAA gets a haircut to the tune of $422 million, a 35% trim — suck on that Florida and the rest of the hurricane belt, just for starters — while the National Institute of Standards and Technology, one of the most important unknown agencies in the government, loses $750 million, or half of its proposed stimulus funding.

And the hits keep coming!  One billion, 38% of the total, off of the DOE’s energy efficiency/renewable energy research budget — now there’s some forward looking policy!  4.5 billion — big numbers, folks — or 47% of proposed funds for DOE’s EISA energy technology loan guarantee program. That’s money that goes to folks in private industry (get that free market zealots — companies out in the world) to support commercial-potential energy research.  There is a bunch of political-economy debate you can have about how best to do this, but basically this is money spent to reduce our dependence on energy sources that have been the focus of conflict for a long, long time.  Dumb, dumb, dumb!

The beat goes on.  I’m not sure if you’d call this research, but the enriched uranium processing funds get removed altogether, to the tune of 390 mil.  And the DOE Office of Science — which, for those that want to see a nuclear energy future is a major source of research funds — also loses all the proposed stimulus it would otherwise receive, $100 million.

On the next page of the good senators’ proposal, Department of Homeland Security loses all of the 14 million bucks proposed for cybersecurity research.  Damn — why don’t we just tell Bin Laden to get his cryptographers rolling? And this is surely not scientific research, but these deep thinkers want to cut all 20 million from the Interior Dept’s dream of creating a department wide modern computer and financial management system.  Heaven forfend that the goverment might actually be given the tools to run more effectively!

Let’s see.  What atrocities lurk on this page?  How about a 100 percent cut — 610 million — for Department of Eductation disability research.  5.185 billion, 90% of the total sought, hacked off the HHS’s desire to spend money on disease prevention.  It’s somehow better for the economy to let HIV infected folks go untested and, perhaps, remain disease vectors, than it is to spend money, right now, on work that could save people’s lives.

Other people will, I’m sure, comment on the foolishness of many of the other choices — one of my favorites at a time when (a) US physical infrastructure is in pieces, lagging well behind the quality of basic transport in many of our competitors, and (b) when projects that get US citizens out on the roads and bridges building stuff would be a damn good idea (wait for the new jobless claims tomorrow, if you haven’t figured that one out), these Solons seem to think hauling 5.5 billion in discretionary DOT project funds makes sense.

I mean really?  Just to talk for a moment to my neighbors up the highway:  Maine, you need roads and bridges just like the rest of us,  and you could surely use an extension of the rail line up to Brunswick at least (if you make your money off tourism, figuring out how to get tourists past the bottlenecks in the road system might be a good idea.  Just sayin…), and so on and on,=.  With all that, what were  you thinking when you sent your pinnacle of legislative competence back to Washington last Nov?

But I digress.  Add up all the science/medicine/technology spending Nelson and Collins want to eliminate and it adds up to over 14 billion dollars.  That’s a lot of science, technological development and public health, that won’t get done if these two have their way.  And all this is spending that is, to use the mantra targeted, timely, and as temporary as anything else in government.

In the end what I see here is legislative frivolousness.  This isn’t a list that suggests anyone thought about what they were doing or why.  It’s just a bit of Washington “bipartisanship.”  If you want cuts, get rid of the tax breaks that everyone who actually studies the record of such things agree are the least effective way of adding life to our stricken economy, and spend the money on people and things right now.  And if you can do it buying work that will continue to pay off in the future — that might even be good governance.  Perish the thought.

Image:  William Hogarth “The Interior of Bedlam” from A Rake’s Progress, 1763.

Why You Shouldn’t Listen to Stupid People

December 10, 2008

Outsourced entirely to Roy Edoroso.

Image: Lucien Lefèvre, “Electricine,” 1897.

Obama and McCain on Climate Change: Who to Trust? Andy Revkin Tells You Who.

October 19, 2008

This post got kind of overshadowed mid- writing by the Powell news today — but on the off chance that issue analysis still matters, Andrew Revkin has an important  piece up at the NYT comparing Obama and McCain on climate change policy and expectations come next January.

Revkin keeps his poker face pretty well intact, but his straight reporting conveys a pretty clear impression:

Obama, though (a) imperfect given the urgency of the situation or (b) politically realistic/pragmatic, depending on where you sit, is likely to offer real and significant policy change for the better.

His opponent, for all that there are some vestiges left of the early 2000s McCain who did seem to take climate change seriously, is much less likely to do so — and he leads a party that remains much more opposed to real initiative in this area than the Democrats.

Revkin conveys this impression as a good reporter should:  by presenting what each candidate says, and then applying at least a first-order reality check to each claim.

Here’s the score card:

1.  As Revkin leads his piece, both candidates agree that climate change is real, human induced, and that the Bush adminstration has dropped the ball on the problem.

2.  Both candidates claim support for a cap and trade bill that would control carbon emissions by setting permitted emissions totals and creating a market for permits to pollute within those limits.

Most if not all economists view cap and trade as a much more dubious means of employing market mechanisms to control emissions than the preferred expedient of setting a carbon tax, thus building the external cost of pollution into the price of polluting goods and services.*

But even within the context of cap and trade, the difference between the two candidates policies are striking.  The key distinction is that Obama would auction permits to pollute (in a manner roughly equivalent to other government auctions of common resources, like the electromagnetic spectrum or resource extraction licenses on public lands), while McCain would not.

Unsurprisingly (at least to this observer), McCain’s position amounts to an enormous give-away to the polluting industries at the expense of the American taxpayer.  Obama captures the wealth that the “resource” of carbon permits would command, enabling him to pay for his promised investment in non-polluting energy research and development and to offset the extra cost of goods and services that must now account for the carbon price with a tax and or deficit reduction.

This all might be moot.  Between the economic crisis and the fact that the American  legislative process leaves a lot of room for folks like Sen. Inhofe to make mischief, a carbon market may still be a long way off.

But the difference between the two policies is a telltale:  McCain’s rhetoric seems environmentally friendly, but his approach is “dirty green” to use a phrase that Revkin quotes.

McCain’s underlying policy thrust sees support of existing industry players as its primary driver.  Obama is not completely innocent of such interest-group politics, but his approach is much cleaner – in the legislative sense as well as the green meaning of the term.

3.  Revkin goes on to note other weaknesses in McCain’s policy.   Revkin writes that  on the stump he’s been weakening his already palsied commitment to emissions targets, that he has a terrible record of voting to support renewable energy, and that one of his major “initiatives” — adding 45 nuclear power plants by 2030 is almost certainly a nonstarter:

Energy specialists say that is a difficult goal because of the high cost — one estimate is that each plant would cost $10 billion — and unresolved questions about where to store nuclear waste. Another issue is the lack of American expertise in building such plants after decades of opposition.

Obama has offered what Revkin calls “muted” support for nukes, as well as for the McCain cure-all, expanded offshore drilling.  But the essence of his approach is technological, running on two tracks:  towards increased energy efficiency, and towards carbon-free technologies for producing energy.

Most important, Obama has repeated stated recently that continuing to spend in these areas is essential in spite of — or really, good Keynsian that he is — because of the current financial crisis/recession.  McCain, for all his lip service to the same ambitions has (a) the above-noted dismal legislative record here and (b) is committed to his hatchet — the spending freeze that will block any major new government initiatives for the forseeable future.

Finally, no post about McCain and a research-centric area of policy would be complete without noting (a) that the broad anti-science theme of GOP-play-to-the-base politics makes it very unlikely that his administration will have the will of the individuals inside it to advance energy research outside the narrow confines of an oil/coal centric approach, and (b) that for all McCain’s stated commitment to increase science funding over his notional terms, the rest of his budget approach leaves no plausible way to do so and meet other commitments that are clearly higher priority for him:  tax cuts targeted at the wealthiest and increased military spending.

Remember the key number:  the size of the deficits he is pledged to eliminate is roughly equal to the sum total of non-defense discretionary spending.  For FY 2007, (the last year for which final figures are in) non-defense discretionary spending totalled $493 billion. The total deficit including both on and off-budget (think Iraq war supplemental appropriations…and look forward to bailout costs) has topped $500 billion each year since 2003.

In that fiscal context, anyone who believes the McCain vague promise to increase federal support for science should take a look at this bridge in Brooklyn I have on offer.  Same for any promises to take on an environmental problem that might actually cost money.

Image:  The Phillips and the Woodford Oil Wells in Pennsylvania, 1862.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Quick thoughts on energy before tonight’s debate.

October 15, 2008

Thanks to Wilco 278 and his invaluable Northern Crude blog.

Wilco caught something I missed, posting last month on the American Physical Society report on energy efficiency.

Here’s a key quote from the report’s executive summary (pdf):

Whether you want the United States to achieve greater energy security by weaning itself off foreign oil, to sustain strong economic growth in the face of worldwide competition or to reduce global warming by decreasing carbon emissions, energy efficiency is where you need to start.

Go here for the press release, detailing the basic prescription contained within the report; here for the accompanying fact sheet.  Get the complete report (pdf) here.

The report focuses on transportation and buildings.  Selections from the recommendations on transport include:

The federal government should establish policies to ensure that new light-duty vehicles average 50 miles per gallon or more by 2030. The specific policies are beyond the scope of this study but could include more aggressive Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, financial incentives such as “feebates” (fees for not meeting the standard and rebates for surpassing it) and carbon taxes.

Vehicle weight can be significantly reduced without compromising safety, resultling in fuel economy savings while reducing traffic injuries and fatalities.

Technologies are available to move beyond the 35 mpg CAFE standard mandated in law by the year 2020. They include further improvements in internal combustion engines; vehicle weight reductions while maintaining vehicle dimensions; and a reasonable mix of vehicles powered by efficient internal combustion engines, diesel engines and improved hybrid technology. The weight of vehicles can be significantly reduced without compromising safety through design and new materials.

Building recommendations include:

Federal and state governments should adopt policies to address the wide range of market barriers and market failures that discourage investment in energy-efficient technologies, especially in the highly fragmented buildings sector, where barriers are especially prevalent. A number of policies have proven effective on a large scale in promoting or requiring investment in energy efficiency in buildings, among them

    1. For whole buildings: building energy codes, labeling, audit programs and financial incentives for purchase of efficient technology;
    2. For appliances, heating and cooling equipment and lighting:  (a) Mandatory efficiency standards in the case of appliances.  (b) Voluntary standards, such as industry consensus guidelines in the case of lighting usage and federally promoted labels (Energy Star, for example) to highlight exceptional efficiency performance in the case of appliances.

Note the key phrase above:  the need for federal action to address market barriers and market failures.  In other words, politely, the truth that dare not speak its name peeks out through a crack in the Washington-reportese:  the ideological commitments that have landed us in the midst of the worst financial crisis in a generation have some ‘splainin to do when it comes to energy (and hence national security) as well.

The report does emphasize that it is delivering good news:  its goals are achievable, resting on the deployment of existing technology, the pursuit of new technology that is within a plausible time-horizon…

But here’s the rub — it will take political will and a shift in the philosophy of governance held by those at the top  to make it all happen.

When watching tonight, and thinking over your ballot-box decision, it might be useful to consider whether the “Drill, baby drill” team is likely to lead such an effort.

Image:  Buckminster Fuller Dymaxion House, installed at the Henry Ford Museum.  Photo licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

And on the other hand (Easterbrook edition)

September 9, 2008

Update: See Shiv’s comment below for an alternate view of the wisdom, or lack thereof, in Easterbrook’s argument.  I think he has a point — though the notion that simply good design could do a lot to reduce oil consumption even absent significant technological change seems to me to be valid.

Below, I excoriate sportswriter and sometime pundit Gregg Easterbrooks’ willed no-nothing stance on the LCH startup.

Here, I acknowledge his wisdom, further down in the same column that earned my ire.  Talking about fuel economy, US policy and the amazing foolishness of the current horsepower race on the American roads, he concludes

Federal legislation to regulate the horsepower of passenger vehicles, perhaps by establishing a power-to-weight standard, would reduce petroleum consumption, cut greenhouse gas emissions, lower U.S. oil imports, strengthen the dollar, and take some of the road-rage stress out of driving. So what are we waiting for?

He’s right, and the rest of his analysis is on the mark. So skip the physics nonesense, ignore the football stuff, (nothing much happened last weekend anyway), and scroll down to just past the half way mark if you want to get the whole of the argument.

Image:  Start of the 1915 Indianapolis 500, published in the New York Times, June 13, 1915.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

More on McCain’s innumeracy…energy policy edition

August 10, 2008

Outsourced almost entirely to Rob Perks, posting at the NRDC’s Switchboard blog. (h/t Natasha Chert’s very useful blog round up over at

Perks’ basic point is the simple, brutal arithmetic of the gap between US oil consumption and US domestic supply. We consume 24 percent of the world’s total, he tells us, and produce 2 percent. PerkD writes:

Do the math: drilling is not a credible answer to the price pinch we’re all feeling. Despite what President Bush claims, opening up our remaining offshore protected areas is a crude gimmick – pure and simple.

Of course, it’s not really Bush we have to concern ourselves anymore. John McCain is the man who matters now when it comes to the oil-first approach to energy. He still claims, on his website, that drilling offshore is a meaningful response to US dependence on foreign oil, our balance of trade deficit — and by implication our vulnerability to price spikes like the one we’ve experienced this year. Go read the statement on McCain’s issues page. It is a model of incoherence, rhetorically and politically.

But most of all, what McCain says he wants he can’t have — and it doesn’t take the proprietary models of the energy gurus to figure out why. Perks is in fact more right than he writes above. It isn’t just that we cannot drill our way into a position to move global oil prices significantly. It’s that even if drilling could produce results tomorrow — instead of the seven to ten year horizon actual oil people tell us it will take to see significant flows from new fields — US oil, what’s left of it, is relatively high-cost. The reason that there are a bunch of leases already let that remain undrilled is because the cost of oil production in places like Alaska’s North Slope and the outer continental shelf is high.

What that means, of course, is that lower cost producers — say Saudi Arabia — can manipulate production to maximize their revenue and margins, and we still won’t be able to do anything about it. Put it another way: absent an Iraq-sized pool of oil waiting somewhere nearby to be discovered, extractable at something a lot less than it takes to grab extreme oil, and neither US dependence on foreign supplies nor our vulnerability to world market supply-and-demand pricing is going to change.

McCain may or may not be able to count well enough to grasp this. He certainly seems to hope the rest of us can’t.