Posts tagged ‘gas’

Great Moments in Government Energy Policy Failure

So, why do we have all these "dirty" coal plants?  Market failure?  Industry greed?  Nope -- Carter-era government policy.  For you younger folks, here is a law you may have never heard of:

The Powerplant and Industrial Fuel Use Act (FUA) was passed in 1978 in response to concerns over national energy security. The 1973 oil crisis and the natural gas curtailments of the mid 1970s contributed to concerns about U.S. supplies of oil and natural gas. The FUA restricted construction of power plants using oil or natural gas as a primary fuel and encouraged the use of coal, nuclear energy and other alternative fuels. It also restricted the industrial use of oil and natural gas in large boilers.**

In other words, all new fossil fuel-powered boilers had to be coal-fired (which in a year or so, after Three Mile Island, translated to all new boilers since nuclear was essentially eliminated as an option).  Yes, this may seem odd to us in an era of so much environmental concern over coal, but something coal opponents don't tell you is that many of the exact same left-liberal-government-top-down-energy-policy types that oppose coal today lobbied hard for the above law several decades ago.  Here is a simplified timeline:

1.  Government energy policy sets price controls that create artificial shortages of oil and gas

2.  Government-created shortages of oil and gas lead to this law, with government demanding that all new fossil fuel-powered electric plants and boilers be coal powered.

3.  Government mandates on coal use create environmental concerns, which lead to proposals for taxes and bans on coal power.

4.  The need for government action against coal is obviated by a resurgence of oil and gas supply once government controls were removed.  However, in response, government beings to consider strong controls on expansion in oil and gas production (e.g. fracking limits).

 

** I got involved with this because I worked in an oil refinery in the 1980's.  We had to get special exemptions to run our new boilers on various petroleum products (basically byproducts and waste products of the refining process).  Without these, the law would have required we bring in coal to run our oil refinery furnaces.

 

Obama as Venture Capitalist

John Stossel has a great link-filled round up of failed and failing solar and green energy programs funded by the Obama Administration with our money.  Check out the extensive list.

Here, for laughs, is Ray Lane of Kleiner Perkins rhapsodizing about Obama as the greatest government venture capitalist ever, and using for his prime example ... Solyndra!

I suppose at one point Kleiner Perkins used to take private risks with private money, but it seems to have found out it can make higher returns leveraging its investments with taxpayer money, and then using political influence to mandate business for the companies in which it invests. Thus the hiring of Al Gore, among other moves, to the KP board. Lane, by the way, is Chairman of serial government trough-feeder Fisker automotive, which make admittedly very cool-looking cars that require a lot of taxpayer subsidies.

Certainly Mr. Lane knows something about marketing, including that age-old tactic the "bait and switch."  The taxpayer subsidies of Fisker were made on the theory that electric cars were somehow greener than gasoline cars because they use less energy.  But looking at the fuel at the power plant it takes to make the electricity that goes into a Fisker Karma, the car gets worse gas mileage than an SUV  (only an EPA equivalent MPG standard that breaks the second law of thermodynamics hides this fact).  Congratulations Mr. Lane, green subsidies for sub-SUV gas mileage.  All those checks KP partners wrote to Obama in the last election certainly got a good return.

Cost of Green

From Zero Hedge:

Why should we worry about 5c or 10c on a gallon of fuel down the local gas station when the US Navy (in all her glory) is willing to pay a staggering $26-a-gallon for 'green' synthetic biofuel(made we assume from the very same unicorn tears and leprechaun nipples that funded the ESM). AsReuters reports, the 'Great Green Fleet' will be the first carrier strike group powered largely by alternative fuels; as the Pentagon hopes it can prove the Navy looks just as impressive burning fuel squeezed from seeds, algae, and chicken fat (we did not make this up). The story gets better as it appears back in 2009, the Navy paid Solazyme (whose strategic advisors included TJ Gaulthier who served on Obama's White House Transition team) $8.5mm for 20,055 gallons on algae-based biofuel - a snip at just $424-a-gallon.

In its defense, the Navy Secretary said, ""Of course it costs more.  It's a new technology. If we didn't pay a little bit more for new technologies, we'd still be using typewriters instead of computers."  Of course, the switch from typewriters to computers proceeded without government mandates (or taxes, as they are called now) and in fact was led by the private sector -- the government trailed in this transition.  Further, people paid the extra money for a computer because they found real value in it (document storage, easy editing, font flexibility).  What real value is the Navy getting for the extra $22 a gallon?  How much better will this task force perform?  The answer, of course, is zero.

What is a Green Job?

Turns out the guy who gasses up a school bus has a green job.

When Bureau of Labor Statistics Acting Commissioner John Galvin balked on what qualifies as a green job under the agency definition, Issa responded, “Just answer the question.”

“Does someone who sweeps the floor at a company that makes solar panels -- is that a green job?” Issa asked.

“Yes,” replied Galvin, who also acknowledged that a bike-repair shop clerk, a hybrid-bus driver, any school bus driver and “the guy who puts gas in a school bus” are all defined as green jobs.

He also acknowledged that an oil lobbyist, if his work is related to environmental issues, would also have a green job.

It gets better.  Apparently, when I worked at the Exxon refinery in Baytown, TX, I had a green job:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics states a green job is either: a business that produces goods or provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources, or a job in which a worker's duties involve making their establishment's production processes more environmentally friendly or use fewer natural resources

I have never encountered an industrial engineering job anywhere that was not concerned with having their processes use fewer natural resources.

I would argue the greenest of jobs are held by oil and other commodity speculators and traders.  They ensure that prices at all times accurately match our current understanding of the scarcity of each resource.  Without these accurate pricing signals, all efforts to properly invest to use more or fewer of these materials would be impossible.  Just look at the "success" of investments like Solyndra that were made irregardless of these market pricing signals.

Wow, I Wonder Why Job Creation Isn't Occurring in California?

I wonder if its because companies have to beg for government permission, and then pay a hefty bribe, to get permission to hire more employees:

The city council in Menlo Park, Calif., is set to approve a deal that will let Facebook employ thousands more people at its headquarters there.

Mayor Kirsten Keith says officials are expected to green light the environmental impact report and the development agreement at a meeting Tuesday night. City staff has recommended the city approve the deal.

That means Facebook employees, currently numbering about 2,200 in Menlo Park, will soon be able to stretch out. If the deal is approved, Facebook will be able to employ about 6,600 workers in Menlo Park, up from its current limit of 3,600. That was the constraint on Sun Microsystems, which previously occupied the campus.

Facebook will pay Menlo Park an average of $850,000 a year over 10 years to compensate for the additional load on the city. It will also make a one-time payment of more than $1 million for capital improvements and set up community services such as high school internship and job training programs. Facebook is also creating a $500,000 local community fund that will dole out grants and charitable contributions to communities surrounding Facebook's campus.

Facebook is making the payments because Menlo Park can’t collect sales taxes from Facebook.

The last is a dodge - this is a protection racket, pure and simple.  Presumably Facebook pays property taxes on its corporate offices, as do its employees who live nearby.  Also, these new employees will all spend money in the local economy that will generate sales taxes.  Facebook presumably pays for water, sewer, trash and other utilities, and their employees are paying gas taxes as they drive that pay for the roads.  Facebook pays California income taxes, as do their employees.  What are these mystery costs that are not getting covered?  The community services bit is a hint that this is a stick-up, with Menlo Park demanding its cut of the recent IPO.

The truth is that cities and counties in California see business expansion plans the same way that Tony Soprano looks at the Museum of Science and Trucking -- as a way to maximize their skim.  I operate a campground in Ventura County that DOES pay sales taxes the County so far will not let me increase my live-in staff without making a big payment.  Even the remodeling of our store required 7 separate checks written to Ventura County agencies.

Update:  Minutes after I posted this, I see this at Reason about Ventura County's efforts to use zoning laws to shut down businesses.  Another Ventura story -- we tried to put a small trailer, really just a booth, in a large asphalt parking lot so my employee there could get out of the sun.  Putting a portable shed on a parking lot apparently required permits - lots of them.  At one point we were asked to get a soil sample, meaning they were asking us to cut through the paving and sample the dirt underneath.  Eventually we just gave up.

Current Oil Boom Only A Surprise to Those Who Don't Understand Markets

There is nothing surprising or unpredictable about the current oil boom, except perhaps how far it has gotten in the face of an Administration that has done virtually everything it can to stop it  (thank god there is oil and gas under private land).  Your humble scribe, neither an economist nor an expert in oil markets, wrote way back in 2005:

Everything old is new again.  Back in the late 70′s, all the talk was about the world running out of oil.  Everywhere you looked, "experts" were predicting that we would run out of oil.  Many had us running out of oil in 1985, while the most optimistic didn’t have us running out of oil until the turn of the century.  Prices at the time had spiked to about $65 a barrel (in 2004 dollars), about where they are today.  Of course, it turned out that the laws of supply and demand had not been repealed, and after Reagan removed oil price controls and goofy laws like the windfall profits tax, demand and supply came back in balance, and prices actually returned to their historical norms....

 Supply and demand work to close resource gaps.  In fact, it has never not worked.  The Cassandras of the world have predicted over the centuries that we would run out of thousands of different things.  Everything from farmland to wood to tungsten have at one time or another been close to exhaustion.  And you know what, these soothsayers of doom are 0-for-4153 in their predictions. ...

The vagaries of reserve accounting are very difficult for outsiders to understand.  I am not an expert, but one thing I have come to understand is that reserve numbers are not like measuring the water level in a tank.  There is a lot more oil in the ground than can ever be recovered, and just what percentage can be recovered depends on how much you are willing to do (and spend) to get it out.  Some oil will come out under its own pressure.  The next bit has to be pumped out.  The next bit has to be forced out with water injection.  The next bit may come out with steam or CO2 flooding.  In other words, how much oil you think will be recoverable from a field, ie the reserves, depends on how much you are willing to invest, which in turn depends on prices.  Over time, you will find that certain fields will have very different reserves numbers at $70 barrel oil than at $25....

All the oil doomsayers tend to define the problem as follows:  Oil production from current fields using current methods and technologies will peak soon.  Well, OK, but that sure defines the problem kind of narrowly.  The last time oil prices were at this level ($65 in 2004 dollars), most of the oil companies and any number of startups were gearing up to start production in a variety of new technologies.  I know that when I was working for Exxon in the early 80′s, they had a huge project in the works for recovering oil from oil shales and sands.  Once prices when back in the tank, these projects were mothballed, but there is no reason why they won’t get restarted if oil prices stay high.

Postscript:  I really need to find new topics to blog about.  The adjacent article in 2005 included this, a frequent topic on this site.  I had not idea I was writing about this so long ago:

When health care is paid for by public funds, politicians only need to argue that some behavior affects health, and therefore increases the state’s health care costs, to justify regulating the crap out of that behavior.  Already, states have essentially nationalized the cigarette industry based on this argument.

The Two Reasons Why People Buy Electric Cars

1.  They want to say something about themselves.  This is the Leonardo DiCaprio buyer, using the electric car to pronounce that he cares about his carbon footprint.  And it looks great parked next to his Gulfstream V.

2.  There is no meter on the electric line you plug into the car.  When you fill your car up with gas, you get to stand there watching the spinning money dial.  There is no parallel experience for plugging in an electric car.  The costs and fossil fuel use of an electric car are not necessarily less than the same size (e.g. subcompact) gasoline-engine car, they are just better hidden.

Owners of electric cars are not smarter about managing the energy costs of their driving, they are substantially more ignorant.  I know exactly how many dollars of gas I have put in my car this month.  How many electric car owners have the first idea how many dollars of electricity they put in theirs?

Another Reason to Love Fracking

Anything Vladimir Putin fears can't be all bad

Whilst it is exceedingly difficult to summon up much sympathy for either Russia’s state-owned natural gas monopoly Gazprom or Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin, the dynamic rise of natural gas produced by hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking,” has raised alarm bells in the highest reaches of the Kremlin.

Why?

Because Gazprom’s European customers, tired of being ripped off by Gazprom, are avidly exploring the possibilities of undertaking fracking to develop their own sources of the “blue gold,” and nowhere is interest higher than in the Russian Federation’s neighbors Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and China.

A Vivid Reminder of How The Climate Debate is Broken

My Forbes column is up this week.  I really did not want to write about climate, but when Forbes conctributor Steve Zwick wrote this, I had to respond

We know who the active denialists are – not the people who buy the lies, mind you, but the people who create the lies.  Let’s start keeping track of them now, and when the famines come, let’s make them pay.  Let’s let their houses burn.  Let’s swap their safe land for submerged islands.  Let’s force them to bear the cost of rising food prices.

They broke the climate.  Why should the rest of us have to pay for it?

The bizarre threats and ad hominem attacks have to stop.  Real debate is necessary based on an assumption that our opponents may be wrong, but are still people of good will.  And we need to debate what really freaking matters:

Instead of screwing around in the media trying to assign blame for the recent US heat wave to CO2 and threatening to burn down the houses of those who disagree with us, we should be arguing about what matters.  And the main scientific issue that really matters is understanding climate feedback.  I won't repeat all of the previous posts (see here and here), but this is worth repeating:

Direct warming from the greenhouse gas effect of CO2 does not create a catastrophe, and at most, according to the IPCC, might warm the Earth another degree over the next century.  The catastrophe comes from the assumption that there are large net positive feedbacks in the climate system that multiply a small initial warming from CO2 many times.  It is this assumption that positive feedbacks dominate over negative feedbacks that creates the catastrophe.  It is telling that when prominent supporters of the catastrophic theory argue the science is settled, they always want to talk about the greenhouse gas effect (which most of us skeptics accept), NOT the positive feedback assumption.  The assumption of net positive climate feedback is not at all settled -- in fact there is as much evidence the feedback is net negative as net positive -- which may be why catastrophic theory supporters seldom if ever mention this aspect of the science in the media.

I said I would offer a counter-proposal to Mr. Zwick's that skeptics bear the costs of climate change.  I am ready to step up to the cost of any future man-made climate change if Mr. Zwick is ready to write a check for the lost economic activity and increased poverty caused by his proposals.  We are at an exciting point in history where a billion people, or more, in Asia and Africa and Latin America are at the cusp of emerging from millenia of poverty.  To do so, they need to burn every fossil fuel they can get their hands on, not be forced to use rich people's toys like wind and solar.  I am happy to trade my home for an imaginary one that Zwick thinks will be under water.  Not only is this a great way to upgrade to some oceanfront property, but I am fully confident the crazy Al Gore sea level rise predictions are a chimera, since sea levels have been rising at a fairly constant rate since the end of the little ice age..  In return, perhaps Mr. Zwick can trade his job for one in Asia that disappears when he closes the tap on fossil fuels?

I encourage you to read it all, including an appearance by the summer of the shark.

Highway Bait And Switch

Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein both complain that Congress is letting America's highways fall apart by not raising the gasoline tax.  They complain that current gas taxes are no longer high enough to cover costs, as the Federal highway trust fund is empty.  Apparently, Congress and the President were always blithely happy to raise the gas tax to whatever it needed to be to cover costs, and now this current Congress is departing from the historic norm:

We used to have a straightforward way to fund infrastructure in this country: the federal gas tax. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower raised the tax from 1.5 cents a gallon to 3 cents to help pay for the creation of the interstate highway system. In 1959, he increased it from 3 cents to 4 cents. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan raised the gas tax to 9 cents. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush raised it to 14 cents, with half of the increase going to reduce the deficit. In 1993, President Bill Clinton raised it to 18.4 cents.

In other words, from 1956 to 1993, there was a bipartisan consensus on the federal gasoline tax: Both parties agreed that it occasionally needed to be raised in order to help pay for the nation’s infrastructure. But since 2000, there has been a bipartisan consensus against raising the federal gasoline tax.

But here is what happened since 1993:  Roughly a third of highway taxes are diverted to local mass transit and other oddball non-highway projects.  Simply devoting all the highway trust fund to, you know, highways would add an effective 6-7 cents to the gas tax money without actually raising the tax.

Here is what is going on:  The Left loves mass transit projects, particularly urban rail.  Of all government transportation projects, these have by far the highest cost per passenger mile of anything we do, so diverting money to these projects reduces the bang for the buck but the Left loves these projects for social engineering reasons I will discuss in a post soon.

The Left knows that these transit projects will not stand up well in the appropriations process.  Kansas taxpayers are not going to be happy about paying for another couple miles of the LA subway system.  They will ask, rightly, why local urbanites can't pay for their own damn transit projects if these projects are so great.  But taxpayers generally support tax hikes for highways. So what does a politician on a transit mission do?  He sells the gas tax to the public on it being dedicated to highways.  Then he switches the money away from highways to transit.  This leaves highways falling apart.  So he can again go to taxpayers asking for money, ostensibly for highways, but of which a good portion will eventually be siphoned off to transit (and squirrel bridges and whatever).  Repeat.

In effect, calls for raising the gas tax are NOT to repair highways.  This is a bait and switch.  Gas taxes are sufficiently high enough to fully fund highway work if it was all applied to highway work.  Proposed increased in gas taxes are needed to pay for the continuing diversion of highway funds to egregiously expensive transit projects.  Congress is right to stop this shell game.

Food Miles Silliness and the Virtue of Prices

I have written a number of times on the silliness of food miles and the locavore movement (here and here and here).  For some reason the energy and resource intensity of foods is being judged merely on one component - transportation of the end product - which actually is only a tiny competent of food costs (and thus their resource use).  Is it really more environmentally sensitive for us Phoenicians to grow our corn in the Arizona desert, where soils are unproductive and water must be imported from hundreds of miles away, rather than have it grown in the fertile soils of Iowa and trucked in?

Someone in the media, at least in Australia, finally notices:

TWO brands of olive oil, one from Australia, the other shipped 16,000 kilometres from Italy, sit on a supermarket shelf.

Most eco-friendly shoppers would reach for the Australian oil. But despite burning less fossil fuel to get here, it may not be better for the planet.

Contrary to popular belief, ''food miles'', or the distance food has travelled before we buy it, is a poor indicator of our food's total greenhouse gas emissions, or ''carbon footprint''.

More important is the way our food is farmed and produced, and how far we drive to buy it....

It turns out that stuff like economies of scale really matter

''Local food can often have a higher carbon footprint than food from afar,'' says principal researcher Brad Ridoutt.

He says even home-grown vegetables, with ''zero food miles'', do not necessarily have a smaller carbon footprint than those bought in the supermarket.

''With my veggies, I drive to Bunnings to buy fertiliser, and I go away for the weekend and forget to water them, and in the end I only harvest a few things that I can actually eat.

''By contrast, big producers, who can invest in the latest energy-efficient, water-efficient technology, and make use of all the parts of food, can be much more efficient,'' he says.

Of course, transporting food from producer to retailer still burns fossil fuels that release greenhouse gas emissions, in turn accelerating global warming. But freight emissions are only a fraction of those released during production, meaning even imported food, sustainably produced, can have a smaller carbon footprint than local alternatives.

Even the most rudimentary reading of economics should have given greenies a clue.  In commodity products like most foods, prices tend to be driven down to a point that they reflect resources (and their relative scarcity) that went into the product.  The cheapest foods tend to be those that use the least, and least scarce, resources in production.  So buying locally grown food, which often tends to carry a price premium, should have been a flashing red light that maybe this was not the least-resource-intensive choice.

Another One Bites the Dust

Another solar company which received $2.1 billion in loan guarantees from the Obama Administration has gone bankrupt.  The good news is that it has not spent much of that taxpayer money, and its bankruptcy is probably due more to the bankruptcy of its German parent, which in turn is likely related to the huge cuts Germany has made in its feed-in tariff subsidies.

The big asset possessed by Solar Trust is the Blythe solar project, a planned 1000MW facility that apparently has all of its permitting in place.  The Blythe facility was originally going to be a solar-thermal facility, with adjustable mirrors focusing the sun on a central boiler that would in turn power turbines.   This plan was scrapped last year in favor of a more traditional PV technology, and I know local company First Solar has been hoping to save itself by getting the panel deal (First Solar also has been hammered by the loss of German subsidies).

If we take the cost of this planned 1000MW facility as the stated $2.8 billion (of which 2.1 billion would be guaranteed by US taxpayers), we see the basic problem with solar.   A new 1000MW  natural gas powered electric plant costs no more than about $1 billion.  It produces electricity 24 hours a day.  This solar plant, to be the largest in the world, would produce 1000 MW for only a few hours of the day.  That area of desert gets about 7 peak sun hours per day (the best in the country) so that on a 24 hour basis it only produces 292 MW average.  This gives it a total capital cost per 1000 MW of $9.6 billion, making it approximately 10 times costlier than the natural gas plant to build.  Of course, the solar plant has no fuel costs over time, but solar is never able to close the gap over time, particularly with current very low natural gas prices.

Update:  Apparently the $2.8 billion was just for the initial 484 MW so you can double all the solar costs in the analysis above, making the plant about 20x costlier than a natural gas plant.

When Bad Things Happen to Well-Intentioned Legislation

My Forbes article is up for this week, and discusses 10 reasons why legislation frequently fails.  A buffet of Austrian economics, Bastiat, and public choice theory that I wrote for the high school economics class I teach each year.

Here is an example:

3.  Overriding Price Signals

The importance of prices is frequently underestimated.  Prices are the primary means by which literally billions of people (most of whom will never meet or even know of each others' existence) coordinate their actions, without any top-down planning.  With rising oil prices, for example, consumers around the world are telling oil companies:  "Go find more!"

For a business person, prices (of raw materials, labor, their products, and competitive products) are his or her primary navigation system, like the compass of an explorer or the GPS of a ship.  And just as disaster could well result from corrupting the readings of the explorer's compass while he is trekking across the Amazon, so too economic damage can result from government overriding price signals in the market.   Messing with the pricing mechanisms of markets turns the economy into a hall of mirrors that is almost impossible to navigate.  For example:

  • In the best case, corrupting market prices tends to result in gluts or shortages of individual products.  For example, price floors on labor (minimum wages) have created a huge glut of young and unskilled workers unable to find work.  On the other side, in the 1970s, caps on oil prices resulted in huge shortages in the US and those famous lines at gas stations.  These shortages and gas lines were repeated several times in the 1970's, but never have returned since the price caps were phased out.
  • In the worst case, overriding market price mechanisms can create enormous problems for the entire economy.   For example, it is quite likely that the artificially low interest rates promoted by the Federal Reserve over the last decade and higher housing prices driven by a myriad of US laws, organizations, and tax subsidies helped to drive the recent housing and financial bubble and subsequent crash.  Many will counter that it was the exuberance of private bankers that drove the bubble, but many bankers were like ship captains who drove their ships onto the rocks because their GPS signal had been altered

Fritz Vahrenholt Climate Book

A lot of folks have asked me if I am going to comment on this

One of the fathers of Germany’s modern green movement, Professor Dr. Fritz Vahrenholt, a social democrat and green activist, decided to author a climate science skeptical book together with geologist/paleontologist Dr. Sebastian Lüning. Vahrenholt’s skepticism started when he was asked to review an IPCC report on renewable energy. He found hundreds of errors. When he pointed them out, IPCC officials simply brushed them aside. Stunned, he asked himself, “Is this the way they approached the climate assessment reports?”

I have not seen the book nor the Der Spiegel feature, but I can say that, contrary to the various memes running around, many science-based skeptics became such by exactly this process -- looking at the so-called settled science and realizing a lot of it was really garbage.  Not because we were paid off in oil money or mesmerized by Rush Limbaugh, but because the actual detail behind many of the IPCC conclusions is really a joke.

For tomorrow, I am working on an article I have been trying to write literally for years.  One of the confusing parts of the climate debate is that there are really portions of the science that are pretty solid.  When skeptics point to other parts of the science that is not well-done, defenders tend to run back to the solid parts and point to those.  That is why Michael Mann frequently answers his critics by saying that skeptics are dumb because they don't accept greenhouse gas theory, but most skeptics do indeed accept greenhouse gas theory, what they don't accept is the separate theory that the climate is dominated by positive feedbacks that amplify small warming from CO2 into a catastrophe.

This is an enormous source of confusion in the debate, facilitated by a scientifically illiterate press and alarmists who explicitly attempt to make this bate and switch so they can avoid arguing the tough points.  Even the author linked above is confused on this

Skeptic readers should not think that the book will fortify their existing skepticism of CO2 causing warming. The authors agree it does. but have major qualms about the assumed positive CO2-related feed-backs and believe the sun plays a far greater role in the whole scheme of things.

This is in fact exactly the same position that most skeptics, at least the science-based non-talkshow-host ones have.  Look for my Forbes piece tomorrow.

State of the Union: Apparently, Hugh Hefner is Responsible for Abstinence

My column for this week is up at Forbes, and inevitably, deals with the State of the Union address last night.

But the portion that really floored me was Obama’s taking credit for the increase in US oil and gas production over the last several years.  It is certainly true that, against all predictions of peak oil, new technologies have helped drive a surge in US hydrocarbon production.  Combined with a recession-driven drop in demand, America’s oil imports as a percentage of its total use has dropped to 45.6%, the lowest level in over 15 years.

This surge in energy production is a fabulous reminder of how markets work.  For years I have written that the peak oil folks were missing something fundamental by performing an overly static analysis.  They looked at current “proven” reserves of oil and gas and projected forward how many years it would take for these to run out.  But oil and gas reserve numbers only make sense in the context of a particular set of technologies and pricing levels.  As hydrocarbons run short, rising prices tend to spur both innovation and new, more expensive exploration activity.  Oil and gas companies are once again proving Julian Simon’s addage that the only true scarcity is human brain power, and they should be given a lot of credit for the recent production boom.

The one person who deserves no credit for this boom is Barack Obama....

Read it all.

Do You Want to Be A Farmer?

I have zero desire to be  a farmer.  But that would seem to be the logical end result if we take Obama's recent statement to its logical conclusion.  He said in his Kansas "OK, I really am a socialist after all" speech:

Factories where people thought they would retire suddenly picked up and went overseas, where workers were cheaper. Steel mills that needed 100—or 1,000 employees are now able to do the same work with 100 employees, so layoffs too often became permanent, not just a temporary part of the business cycle. And these changes didn’t just affect blue-collar workers. If you were a bank teller or a phone operator or a travel agent, you saw many in your profession replaced by ATMs and the Internet.

As has been pointed out by economists everywhere since the speech, Obama is fighting against the very roots of wealth creation and growth and our economy.  Productivity improvement has always been the main engine of a better life for Americans, but here Obama is decrying it.

This reduction in employment in major industries due to productivity is not new.  It began with the agriculture.  Check this out from the always awesome Mark Perry

This is exactly what Obama is criticizing.  Without productivity improvements of the type Obama seems to hate, nine out of ten of you would be laboring in a field rather than reading this on the Internet.   Are you poorer because you don't have to grow your own food?  Of course not.   Every time we increase productivity in a major industry, we fee up labor for the next big thing.  We couldn't have had the steel or auto or oil industries if agricultural productivity improvements had not feed up labor for them.  The computer revolution would be impossible if we all were working in steel mills.

PS- of course this does not work if the next big thing, say domestic gas productions through fracking, is blocked by the government and private investment capital is diverted by the government to cronies with a solar panel factory.

The Missing Heat

It is possible for the theory that the climate has a high sensitivity to CO2 (ie that a doubling of CO2 concentrations will lead to global temperature increases of 2.5C or higher) to be correct while still having ten years of flat to declining surface temperatures.  That is because Earth's great surface heat reservoir is the oceans, not the atmosphere, and so the extra heat from the greenhouse effect could be going into the oceans rather than into near-surface air.

However, it is NOT possible, as least as we (and by "we" I mean everyone, skeptics and alarmists alike) understand the climate, for CO2 to be holding a lot of extra heat and it not show up either in surface temperatures or ocean heat content.  The greenhouse effect does not turn off -- its effects may be masked in the chaotic weather systems, perhaps for years, but if the climate sensitivity to CO2 is really as high as the IPCC says, there has to be new heat going somewhere.

That is why a number of folks, including Roger Pielke, have argued for years that the best way to monitor whether we are truly seeing an additional forcing or heat input to the climate is to look at ocean heat content.  Understand, changes in ocean heat content would not tell us where the heat is coming from (e.g. anthropogenic CO2 vs. solar activity).  But it is pretty much impossible for us to imagine a new heat input to the Earth's surface, like greenhouse gas forcing from anthropogenic CO2, without observing its effect in ocean heat content.

I will turn over the story to Jo Nova, who has a good post on the new tools we have to measure ocean heat content since 2003.  In short, though, we have seen no rise in measured ocean heat content since we started measuring with technology dedicated to the task.  This means, if those who believe the climate has a high sensitivity to CO2 are right, something like 50,000 quintillion joules of energy have gone missing since 2003.  This is the "missing heat", and though climate scientists sometimes discuss it in private, they almost never do so in public.  Ocean heat is the dinosaur bone fossil that the creationists simply don't want to acknowledge.

Read the whole thing.  It is very simple and well-written and written.

PS- note in the chart above, the y-axis is mis-labelled a bit, it is not absolute heat content but changes in heat content from some base period.  Scientists call this the "anomaly."  This is typical of many climate charts.

Least Surprising Statistic

via here, which has a lot of good data on California job losses.

If you have a service business, I can understand the desire to get access to the large and wealthy populations in these areas.  I even started a service operation in the LA area about 4 years ago, though I regret it intensely (other operations we have in rural CA are difficult but much easier than in LA).  But even so, why would anyone ever, ever start a manufacturing or any other business in these locations if it could be located anywhere else?

I was at a cocktail party the other night lamenting to a number of business owners (more successful folks than I) about problems I am having in CA.  Usually I get sympathy, but there was none to be had.  They looked at me like I was a moron, like I was the guy who went $30,000 in debt for a puppetry degree.  They said they had gotten out of CA years ago, would never go back, and (essentially) if I was stupid enough to be there, it was my own damn fault.

Unfortunately, a lot of the recreation is there, and for better or for worse, we have found that we are better and more efficient at dealing with a lot of the CA-induced mess than other companies.  But I often wonder if I am crazy to be there.

PS- as an example, it took us 4-1/2 years to get a permit for a 1000 gallon double wall gas tank at a marina in Ventura County.  We just got it approved last month, so at last we can stop hauling truckloads of 5-gallon fuel tanks from the gas station.  We are in the third year of trying to get permitting approval to replace (in kind, same size and features) a bathroom building in a campground.

Update:  All the job gains are in industries, like health care and construction, where the jobs have to be near the population served.  Compare that to manufacturing and tech.

I Don't Think Live TV is My Milieu

I started blogging because I was always frustrated in live arguments that I would remember the killer comment 5 minutes too late, so it is no surprise that I find live TV frustrating.  Here is how I had hoped the interview would go this morning on Fox.  In actual execution, I decided not to play the "2nd law of thermodynamics" card on the morning show just after the in-studio visit by a bunch of bijon frise's.

I'm confused, why are we we even talking about miles per gallon in an electric car?
  • We measure how well traditional cars use fossil fuels with the miles they drive per gallon of gas, or mpg
  • Of course, we can't measure efficiency the same way in an electric car since they don't use gas directly, though the electricity we use to charge them is mostly produced from fossil fuels.
  • So the EPA came up with a methodology to show an equivalent MPG for electric cars so their fossil fuel use (way back in the power plant) could be compared to traditional cars
And you think there is a problem with those numbers?
  • It turns out the EPA uses a flawed methodology that overstates the electric car equivalent MPG, in part because they assume the potential energy in fossil fuels can be converted to electricity in the power plant with perfect efficiency, which doesn't happen in real life and actually violate the second law of thermodynamics
How should they have done it?
  • During the Clinton administration, the Department of Energy came up with a better methodology which uses real world power plant efficiencies and fuel mixes to determine how much fuel went into charging an electric car.
  • Using this methodology, the Fisker Karma, even in all-electric mode, gets about 19 mpg equivilent, not 52.  This means that it uses about the same amount of fossil fuels to drive a mile as does a Ford Explorer SUV -- the only difference is that the fossil fuel use is better hidden.
Via my mom, here is the video.


Update on Fisker Karma

I had some fun yesterday, dashing off a quick note about the Fisker Karma electric car and just how bad the electric mileage is if you use the DOE methodology rather than the flawed EPA methodology to calculate an mpg-equivalent.

It was the quickest and shortest column I have ever written on Forbes, so of course it has turned out to be the most read.  It has been sitting on top of the Forbes popularity list since about an hour after I wrote it, and currently has 82,000 reads (I am not a Twitter guy but 26,000 tweets seems good).

I wanted to add this clarification to the article:

Most other publications have focused on the 20 mpg the EPA gives the Karma on its backup gasoline engine (example), but my focus is on just how bad the car is even in all electric mode.    The calculation in the above article only applies to the car running on electric, and the reduction in MPGe I discuss is from applying the more comprehensive DOE methodology for getting an MPG equivilent, not from some sort of averaging with gasoline mode.  Again, see this article if you don’t understand the issue with the EPA methodology.

Press responses from Fisker Automotive highlight the problem here:  electric vehicle makers want to pretend that the electricity to charge the car comes from magic sparkle ponies sprinkling pixie dust rather than burning fossil fuels.  Take this quote, for example:

a Karma driver with a 40-mile commute who starts each day with a full battery charge will only need to visit the gas station about every 1,000 miles and would use just 9 gallons of gasoline per month.

This is true as far as it goes, but glosses over the fact that someone is still pouring fossil fuels into a tank somewhere to make that electricity.  This seems more a car to hide the fact that fossil fuels are being burned than one designed to actually reduce fossil fuel use.  Given the marketing pitch here that relies on the unseen vs. the seen, maybe we should rename it the Fisker Bastiat.

Green Cronyism

I am willing to believe that the initial push into alternative energy subsidies was undertaken with good, honest (though misguided) intentions to change the US energy mix.  But once such a program is begun, it inevitably gets turned into cronyism.

The best example is probably corn ethanol.  A combination of subsidies and mandates have pushed an enormous proportion of our food supply into gas tanks, for little or even negative environmental effect.   Environmentalists and the Left turned against it, but for a few large corporations like ADM, the subsidies have become life and death, and they do anything they have to to get Congress to maintain them.

The best evidence that corn ethanol shifted from a green program to pure cronyism was the imposition of large import tariffs.  The only possible purpose of these tariffs was to enrich farmers and a few manufacturers.  After all, if one really cared any more about getting more ethanol in the fuel supply, one would welcome low cost imports.

Well, the Solyndra debacle has started to make clear that cronyism has taken over solar subsidies as well.  Every day we find yet another high-ranking Obama supporter with his thumb on the scales tilting the DOE funding decision toward Solyndra.

Now we will see the ultimate test:

A group of U.S. solar-panel makers Wednesday called on the federal government to punish Chinese rivals with extra duties for allegedly dumping their products on the U.S. market…

The U.S. makers are asking the Department of Commerce and the International Trade Commission to impose a duty on panels imported from China, a market that totaled $1.6 billion in the first eight months of 2011. SolarWorld accused Chinese manufacturers of selling solar panels at less than half of what the production costs would be in a comparable free-market economy, and is asking for tariffs to make up the difference.

One could argue that this is in direct response to the Solyndra failure.  Solyndra's failure has been blamed on low cost panel manufacturing in China.   Again, if we care just about energy, we should be thrilled about low-cost Chinese solar panels.  If the Chinese government wants to somehow subsidize our consumption of solar panels, great!

Watch this proposal.  Any politician that jumps on this solar tariff bandwagon will be saying "My statements about wanting to see more solar usage is just a bluff, I only really care about subsidizing a few selected businesses."

I Don't Think This is Settled

For those who have read my climate work or seen the video, the key question in climate science revolves around the feedback effects in the climate system to Co2 warming.

Skeptics, like alarmists, generally agree that a doubling of Co2 concentrations might warm the Earth about a degree Celsius, absent any other effects.  But we can imagine all sorts of feedback effects, the most important of which are in water vapor and cloud formation.  Warming that forms more clouds might have negative feedback, as clouds offset some of the warming.  Warming that increases humidity could lead to more warming, as water vapor is a strong greenhouse gas.

The difference, then, between minor warming and catastrophe is in the feedbacks, and most importantly in clouds and water vapor.  All the research the government is funding on whether warming will cause sterility in tree frogs is tangential to this key question.

And this question is far from decided.  I won't get into all the arguments here, but to the extent there is any consensus, it is that man' CO2 is probably causing some warming.  Whether this is a catastrophe or a nuisance depends on feedbacks which are not well understood.

This week there has been a lot of interesting back and forth over a paper by Roy Spencer several months ago arguing that cloud feedback was negative and would serve to limit the total amount of man-made warming.  Just how central this issue is can be seen in the fuss this paper has caused, including editors forced to resign for even daring to publish such heresy, and the speed with which a counter-paper flew through peer review.

I won't get into the depths of this, except to show two charts.  The first is from Dessler in the alarmist camp, the second is the same chart but using a different data series.  I won't explain the axes,  just trust the relationship between these two variables is key to diagnosing the size and direction of feedback.

So we get opposite results (the slope of the regression) simply by using temperature and radiative flux data from to different agencies.  And note how thin the fit is in both -- basically drawing a line through a cloud.  Neither of these likely has an R-squared higher than about .05.

So there you have it, the most important question in climate - really, the only important question associated with anthropogenic global warming.  Settled science, indeed.

One-Program Proof Technocratic Government Does Not Work

Ethanol continues to be one of the dumbest, most costly programs ever engaged in by the Federal government

"Today, about 40 percent of all U.S. corn -- that's 15 percent of global corn production or 5 percent of all global grain -- is diverted into the corn ethanol scam in order to produce the energy equivalent of about 0.6 percent of global oil needs.
Corn prices, now close to $7 per bushel, have more than doubled over the past two years (see chart above). And recent harsh weather, including floods in the Midwest and drought in the South, will likely mean a subpar U.S. corn harvest. That, in turn, will mean yet higher prices for corn, which will translate into higher prices for meat, milk, eggs, cheese and other commodities.
Environmental damage:  check
Fails to meets its goals (of reducing fossil fuel use): check
Raises food prices:  check
Raises gas prices: check
Highly regressive costs that hurt the poor most:  check
Benefits accrue to very a small group of the politically connected:  check

WTF? This is What They Mean by Oil and Gas Subsidies?

When the Left has talked about oil and gas subsidies, I have generally nodded my head and agreed that any such things should be eliminated, just as they should be eliminated for all industries.   They have in the past thrown out huge numbers for such subsidies that seemed high, but I have not really questioned them.  But then I see this chart at Kevin Drum's site

Seriously, nearly half the "subsidy" number is the ability of a company to use LIFO accounting on inventory for their taxes?  Since the proposition is to eliminate these only for oil and gas, what is the logic that somehow LIFO accounting is wrong in Oil and Gas but OK in every other industry?   In fact, at least the first two largest items are both accounting rules that apply to all manufacturing industry.  So, rather than advocating for the elimination of special status for oil and gas, as I thought the argument was, they are in fact arguing that oil and gas going forward be treated in a unique and special way by the tax code, separate from every other manufacturing industry.

In fact, many of these are merely changes to the amortization and depreciation rate for up-front investments.  Typically, politicians of both parties have advocated for the current rules to encourage investment.  Now I suppose we are fine-tuning the rules, so that we encourage investment in the tax code in everything but oil and gas.  I will say this does seem to be consistent with Obama Administration jobs policy, which has been to try to stimulate businesses that are going nowhere and hold back the one business (oil and gas drilling) that is actually trying to grow.  I am fine with stopping the use of the tax code to try to channel private investment in politician-preferred directions.  But changing the decision rule from "using the tax code to encourage all manufacturing investment" to "using the tax code to encourage investment only in the industries we are personally sympathetic to" is just making the interventionism worse.

This is really weak.  Not to mention flawed.  Unless I am missing something, a change from LIFO to FIFO or some other inventory valuation rules will create a one-time change in income (and thus taxes) when the change is made.  LIFO only creates sustained reductions in taxable income, and thus taxes, if your raw materials prices are consistently rising (it actually increases taxes vs. FIFO if input prices are falling).  Given that oil and gas prices are volatile, its hard to see how this does much except extract a one-time tax payment from oil companies at the changeover.

By the way, I am pretty sure I would be all for ending government spending on "ultra-deepwater and unconventional natural gas and other petroleum research," though ironically this is exactly the kind of basic research the Left loves the government to perform.

Obama Administration Wants Jobs Without Employers

At least that is the only conclusion I can draw.   All the talk in this administration about job creation, yet they stand staunchly athwart the only only major industry that is really trying to grow, hire, and invest right now.  Just letting off the brakes the Administration has set on oil and gas drilling would lead to the creation of a ton of jobs, and better jobs than we will get with a new WPA paying workers to dig holes and fill them back in again.