Posts tagged ‘Pacific Northwest’

When You Relax Accountability, Bad Things Happen

For years I have been critical of US Forest Service (USFS) fire suppression operations.  For those who are not familiar, because they own so much land in the very dry west, the US Forest Service is -- by far -- the largest firefighting agency in the country.  It spends billions of dollars a year on firefighting and employs tens of thousands for workers in doing so -- some specifically hired for fire, many others detailed from regular jobs to specific fires.  Basically, in the late summer, Forest Service offices are practically cleared out as everyone is off on fire detail, and those who are still around have no money to spend because it all has been swept into fire.

It is hard to publicly criticize firefighting operations for many of the same reasons that it is hard to criticize the police -- people will say that they are so brave and perform an indispensible service.   Granted.  But the USFS process for managing and funding firefighting is totally broken.  This is not solely the agency's fault -- Congress shares a lot of the blame.  But whatever the cause, firefighting has become (in my observation of the agency) a financial accountability-free zone.  There are no budgets for fire.  No competitive bidding for services and products.   All the rules are lifted, and the agency simply spends like crazy.  People have made small fortunes inventing things fire crews might need (e.g. portable shower buildings) and selling or renting them to the USFS for huge sums of money.  And USFS employees don't care because they understand it to be an environment where the normal rules do not apply.

And the USFS employees love it.  The structure and schedules and requirements of their day jobs are lifted, with little danger except for a very few in the front line crews.  I have always described what I have seen as a cross between a summer camp and a fraternity outing.

And perhaps I was more correct than I knew.  Apparently, once the tone is set for a low-accountability environment -- even if the relaxed rules were really only supposed to apply narrowly to financial issues -- it can spread to other behaviors.

Michaela Myers said she was first groped by her supervisor after a crew pizza party last summer, shortly after starting a new job as a firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service. She was 22 and excited about the job. She had worked out diligently to prepare for the season, running and hiking with a heavy pack. She is from the Pacific Northwest, and had always loved the outdoors and a challenge.

She remembers her supervisor, Drew DeLozier, a Forest Service veteran, offering her beers at a crew member’s house after dinner. He told her he was glad she was on the crew because she was “sexy” and had “a nice ass,” she said. According to her account, he led her to a couch, rubbed her butt as she sat down, and slid his hand between her legs. Myers was shocked and upset, but didn’t stop him. She had heard from other crew members that DeLozier could fly off the handle, and didn’t want to make a scene.

“You don’t feel like you can say ‘no’ loudly to your supervisor,” she said. “I keep looking back on it and wishing I could have just punched him or something.”

According to Myers, the harassment and groping continued for the rest of the summer. When she confided in a fellow crew member, he told her this was an unfortunate reality for a female firefighter. She had a choice, she recalls him saying: report it and face retaliation, or do nothing and stay in fire.


Don't Believe Anything The EPA Says Unless It is Under Oath

That is the only conclusion I can reach based on this story on the Center for Biological Diversity challenging the EPA over ocean acidification.

In all of the EPA's public relations and political documents, its position is that man-made CO2 is causing ocean acidification  (higher levels of atmospheric CO2 causes more CO2 to get dissolved in ocean water which lowers the PH).  One can find thousands of examples but here is just one, from their web site.  This is a public briefing paper by the EPA on the general topic of ocean acidity.  Here is a screenshot of the top of the first page:

click to enlarge

Lets read that first bullet point in the purple section labelled "key points".  It says

  • Measurements made over the last few decades have demonstrated that ocean carbon dioxide levels have risen in response to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, leading to an increase in acidity (that is, a decrease in pH) (see Figure 1)

This is a typical man-is-screwing-up-the-climate EPA statement made to affect government opinion.  It sounds official.  If I were to publicly challenge it, they would likely label me as anti-science.

The enlightening part of our story occurs when the Center for Biological Diversity took the EPA at their fear-mongering word and said, "well, then you should have an endangerment finding on the Pacific Ocean."

The Lawsuit, launched by the Center for Biological Diversity, seeks to impose enhanced clean water act protection upon the Pacific Coast. The suit argues that protection is necessary because, according to the EPA’s own climate narrative, ocean acidification is severely damaging the marine ecosystem.

According to the CBD;

“The CBD points out that the EPA has acknowledged that ocean acidification has killed billions of oyster larvae in the Pacific Northwest but still would not classify the waters as imperilled.”

The EPA had dozens of references to acidification in its endangerment findings, such as this example: (p. 137)

According to the IPCC, climate change (very high confidence) and ocean acidification (see Box 14.1) due to the direct effects of elevated CO2 concentrations (medium confidence) will impair a wide range of planktonic and other marine organisms that use aragonite to make their shells or skeletons (Fischlin et al., 2007).

So now the EPA is in court and supposedly subject to perjury charges.  And wham, their story changes in a flash:

The EPA’s response is that there is insufficient evidence to support an endangerment finding – an apparent contradiction of their own previous climate narrative.

“There were no in situ field studies documenting adverse effects on the health of aquatic life populations in either state,” the EPA’s motion says. “Nor was there any other information documenting effects on indigenous populations of aquatic life in state waters indicating stressors attributable to ocean acidification. The only information available regarding aquatic life in ambient waters under natural conditions was inconclusive.”

The EPA's position is that there is no evidence, but it is a huge problem we should have every confidence exists.  If you don't believe me, look at this passage from an EPA 2010 memorandum on the issue.  Ignore the gobbledygook in the middle, just read it with the parts I have bolded.

This Memorandum recognizes the seriousness of aquatic life impacts associated with OA [ocean acidification] and describes how States can move forward, where OA information exists, to address OA during the 303(d) 2012 listing cycle using the current 303(d) Integrated Reporting (IR) framework. At the same time, this Memorandum also acknowledges and recognizes that in the case of OA, information is largely absent or limited at this point in time to support the listing of waters for OA in many States.

We are really really sure it is a problem although the science is largely absent.

PS- By the way, no one thinks the ocean will turn to acid.  "Acidification" is one of those scare words that work better as PR than science.  The ocean is alkaline and will alkaline even under the most catastrophic forecasts.  The issue is with its becoming less alkaline.

Bizarre Payback Analysis Being Used for Alternate Energy

Check out this payback analysis that is being trumpeted for wind power:

US researchers have carried out an environmental lifecycle assessment of 2-megawatt wind turbines mooted for a large wind farm in the US Pacific Northwest. Writing in the International Journal of Sustainable Manufacturing, they conclude that in terms of cumulative energy payback, or the time to produce the amount of energy required of production and installation, a wind turbine with a working life of 20 years will offer a net benefit within five to eight months of being brought online.

So of all the scarce resources that go into producing wind power, if you look at only one of these (energy), then the project pays itself back in less than a year.  This is stupid.  Yes, I understand that there are some "green" energy sources (*cough* corn ethanol *cough*) that cannot even produce more energy than they consume, so I suppose this finding is a step forward from that.  But what about all the other scarce resources used in producing wind power-- steel, labor, engineering talent, concrete, etc?  This is roughly like justifying the purchase of an 18-wheeler truck by saying it will pay off all the vanadium used in its production in less than a year.

Environmentalists seem to all feel that capitalism is the enemy of sustainability, but in fact capitalism is the greatest system to promote sustainability that has ever been devised.  Every single resource has a price that reflects its relative scarcity as compared to demand.  Scarcer resources have higher prices that automatically promote conservation and seeking of substitutes.  So an analysis of an investment's ability to return its cost is in effect a sustainability analysis.  What environmentalists don't like is that wind does not cover the cost of its resources, in other words it does not produce enough power to justify the scarce resources it uses.  Screwing around with that to only look at some of the resources is just dishonest.

The one reasonable argument is that the price of fuels does not adequately reflect the externalities of Co2 production.  I don't think these are high but obviously there are those who disagree.  The right way to do this analysis is to say that wind power provides a return only if electricity prices are X (X likely being well above current market rates) which in turn reflects a Co2 cost of Y $/ton.  My gut feel is that it would take a Y -- a cost per ton of CO2 -- way higher than any of the figures that are typically bandied about even by environmentalists to make wind work.

Postscript:  I did not critique the analysis of energy payback per se, but if I were to dig into it, I would want to look at two common fallacies with many wind analyses.  1) They typically miss the cost of standby power needed to cover wind's unpredictability, which has a substantial energy cost.  In Germany, during their big wind push, they had to have 80-90% of wind power backed up with hot fossil fuel backup.  2)  They typically look at nameplate capacity and not real capacities in the field.  In fact, real capacities should further be discounted for when wind power produces electricity that the grid cannot take (ie when there is negative pricing in the wholesale market, which actually occurs).

Patent Trolling: It's Not Just For Software

Via Walter Olson:

“Hundreds of home builders in the Pacific Northwest have been put on notice that if they use a dehumidifier to dry rain-damaged projects, they are infringing on a patent recently issued to a father and son who claim they invented the process.”

I wonder if I can patent "the reduction in grass height using a sharpened, spinning blade" and drive all of my competitors out of business?

Hitting the Irony Meter Hard

Recent study on spotted owls, the protection of which was the ostensible reason for shutting down the northwest timber industry:

Whatever short-term drawbacks there may be from logging, thinning, or other fuel reduction activities in areas with high fire risk would be more than offset by improved forest health and fire-resistance characteristics, the scientists said, which allow more spotted owl habitat to survive in later decades.

Decades of fire suppression and a "hands-off" approach to management on many public lands have created overcrowded forests that bear little resemblance to their historic condition – at the expense of some species such as the northern spotted owl, researchers said.

The findings were published in Forest Ecology and Management, a professional journal, by researchers from Oregon State University and Michigan State University.

"For many years now, for species protection as well as other reasons, we've avoided almost all management on many public forest lands," said John Bailey, an associate professor in the Department of Forest Engineering, Resources and Management at Oregon State University.

"The problem is that fire doesn't respect the boundaries we create for wildlife protection," Bailey said. "Given the current condition of Pacific Northwest forests, the single biggest threat facing spotted owls and other species is probably stand-replacement wildfire."

Next, we will find out that spray cans are needed to save the ozone.  hat tip

Update on the EPA's Electric Vehicle Mileage Fraud

I have written several articles (here and here) outlining why the EPA's method of giving electric cars an equivalent or eMPG is outright fraudulent.  I calculated for the average driver, for example, that the Nissan Leaf's 99 eMPG was actually closer to 36.  Why?  Well, in the EPA's methodology, the science-based Obama administration pretends the 2nd law of thermodynamics does not exist.  Specifically, they assume perfect conversion of the chemical potential energy in fossil fuels to electricity.  They also assume zero transmission losses.  To rework the calculation, I actually used a Clinton-era Department of Energy methodology called well to wheels.

So here is something I thought I would never write:  It turns out the Union of Concerned Scientists agrees with me.  Apparently they have used a similar methodology to rework electric vehicle MPGs based on the fuel mix of the power in different cities, rather than an average national fuel mix as I did it.  I am not sure how they did the analysis - did they use average fuel mix or the marginal fuel, and if the marginal fuel did they assume the marginal fuel at night or during the day?   For example, certain California cities look good with solar use but that does not do anything for typical night time car charging.

Anyway, the problem is hard and I could quibble with how they did it.  But the results are telling - everywhere they looked, even in the hydro-powered Pacific Northwest, the eMPG they got was lower than that of the EPA's.  And in many cases much lower.

If corporations were using the EPA's eMPG methodology, they would be busted by the FTC for false advertising.  It's time to fix this calculation so Fisker Karma drivers can't continue to fool themselves into thinking they are doing something positive for the environment.

Are Private Entities Solely To Blame For Making Money Off Structural Problems Created by the Government?

Paul Krugman had this sideswipe comment the other day:

This isn't the only case where news organizations consistently report as truth something that didn't happen, while failing to report what did. Another one that comes to mind is the California electricity crisis of 2001-2002. As some readers may recall, that crisis was caused by market manipulation -- and that's not a hypothesis, Enron traders were caught on tape telling plants to shut down to create artificial shortages. Yet "news analyses" published after the whole thing was revealed would often tell readers that excessive environmental regulation and Nimbyism caused the crisis, with nary a mention of the deliberate creation of shortages.

And as you'll notice, in both cases the imaginary history just happened to be one more comfortable to status quo interests.

I find it hilarious that Krugman is talking about imaginary history, since he plays the same game so often.  In fact, the disconnect between many of Krugman's current political writings and his historical economic work are often jaw-dropping.  Even the differences in Krugman's opinion on the same topic when a Republican vs. a Democrat is in the White House can be amazing.

But I wanted to address the California utility issue.  Certainly Krugman is right, as far as he goes, in that Enron made a lot of money in the California electricity crisis creating some short-term artificial shortages.  But what he leaves out of his brief comment were the structural rules the government had put in place that made Enron's actions possible.  Enron's profits in the California electricity crisis could never have been made in a free market.

I am not an expert on the whole regulatory environment in which these events occurred, but there were three key regulatory facts that need to be understood:

1.  California, due to the NIMBY and environmental concerns Krugman mentions in passing, want lots of electricity but do not want the electricity production near them.  So they have exported the production to other states, and, more importantly, California utilities did not control the production of the electricity they needed.  Thus a lot of California power, and all of its marginal demand, is satisfied by local utilities buying out of state power.  As we will see next, Krugman is really putting up a straw man here, as this is simply background, the least important of the three government factors that drove the problem.

2.  California deregulated wholesale utility prices, but not retail prices.  The point of price deregulation is that suppliers and consumers can make better decisions because the information they get via prices is not distorted by government mandates.   But price deregulation only makes sense if the ultimate consumers have prices that float with the market.  But California consumers still had fixed prices.  There were no changes to pricing signals to consumers that might cause them to conserve more when electricity was particularly short.

So, only wholesale customers saw their prices paid increase when electricity supplies ran short.  This mainly applied to large California utilities that bought power they needed from out of state.   Theoretically, when prices spiked, they could cut back their demand.  This is more awkward for them than consumers, but could be done either with pre-determined shut down priorities or rolling brown-outs.  At some point, one would assume the cost of power would be higher than the cost of service disruptions, but...

3.  California utilities were effectively required by regulation to try to serve all demand.  Right or wrong, they felt they were in a position that if power were available, they had to buy it no matter what the cost.

So step in Enron.  Seeing this mess, they found they could corner the market at a few peak demand times and sell Calfornia power for a gazillion dollars a Kw.   I would not personally have been proud to make money that way, but Enron jumped right in.

I have no problem giving Enron grief for the way they make money, but one has to ask themselves, why the hell were California utilities buying power no matter what the price, and why was it that when electricity was so dear, it was illegal to communicate this to end users via prices (as we do with any other product or commodity).  The story here is a lot more complicated than Enron.

Update: Finem Respice took a more sophisticated look at this same issue a while back in a broader post about trying to close an open system.

On the retail side, just as California was patting itself on the back for "deregulating" in 1996 (via a bill that Pete Wilson created with complexities and exceptions for e.g., San Diego that make the special interest game in Washington look tame by comparison), it froze, just after reducing, retail electricity rates for five years. Add to this the fact that California had long depended on supplies from, e.g., the Northwest, which, for years, enjoyed a hydroelectric power generation surplus. As the surplus vanished with droughts and increased demand in the Pacific Northwest, so did the supply buffer California was so used to, and that it leaned on most heavily over the years to avoid building new generating capacity (new capacity being the bane of the progressively green environmental utopian-paradise that was (is) California energy politics). All this conspired to spike rates. Who is surprised?

It is somewhat unfortunate that Enron's shrewd manipulation of California's badly flawed and outright schizophrenic market scheme was so flagrant, and that unrelated accounting scandals at the company permitted the story to become one of deregulation evils and free market greed rather than the core issue: the political spinelessness exhibited by California officials and their ongoing attempt to insulate voters from anything resembling market prices for electricity