Thursday, December 30, 2010

Expensive new EPA plan pushes for clean Chesapeake

A Washington Post article today describes a new EPA initiative designed to clean up the Chesapeake. While Marylanders stand to benefit if the Bay gets cleaned up, this article points out that most of the costs, which look to be well upward of $2 billion, lie with the headwater states.

Political ramifications: Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley predictably released a supportive statement, but I'm a little more surprised to see Virginia's Gov. McDonnell doing the same thing. I guess it's easier to play nice up front than to come out against the plan when it has been clear for awhile that this is where things were going.

Technical concerns: I'll have to read the report to get more details, but apparently cuts of 20-25% are called for each of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment. I'm not sure how they're going to monitor that, but at least the plan identifies some very specific areas such as sewage treatment in West Virginia and in Virginia as well as agricultural pollution in Maryland.

Bringing together all the stakeholders and achieving the lowest cost reductions is a huge challenge when each faces different incentives. This looks like another huge test of the command and control model of pollution control: hopefully it can succeed in spite of the high costs.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Adjusting the demand curve

New data on the amount of emissions has pushed the Air Resources Board in Los Angeles to lower emissions standards. Usually shifts in this direction come from the business community asking for help, but this time seems different (though the cries for help are also there, which is no surprise given the economy). Environmentalists oppose the move, saying that externalities are still larger than is being acknowledged. It's always tough to find an equilibrium when the market's not there to help.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Externalities are irrelevant

William Baumol has a cute comment in a recent review of his life's work:

I remember once asking Hayek whether, in the real world, externalities could justify some government intervention in the marketplace. He replied that this was true in theory but so rare and insignificant in practice that it hardly merited attention.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Another basic principle of resources in the same newspaper today: clean energy suppliers should be worried, apparently, because some of the raw materials they use in making products such as compact fluorescent light bulbs come mostly from China. In other news, we can mine them here, but it's not worth it, apparently even with China slapping a hefty tax on exports.

If it's cheaper to do it over there, the market says to do it over there. Yes, economic models will be off by the way they assume away the costs of getting back into the mining game, but is that so huge? Seems to me that if and when it's worthwhile, we'll do it, but apparently it's not worth it even for CFL manufacturers to get into the business. If they aren't worried about it enough to secure their own supplies, should the rest of us be?

When one resource gets depleted it gets more expensive, and when it's more expensive people look for alternate sources. The alternate source is called a "backstop." In this case it looks like US rare earths are a backstop for Chinese rare earths.

Economics: making tough choices

I'm finally done with giving grades and it's time for me to turn my attention to preparing for next semester, when I'll be teaching Resource Economics. That class starts off by looking at tough choices, and there's a great example of that in today's NYT. Water in California is scarce and most likely getting scarcer. So how can they balance the needs of their population for water for household use, with the needs of an endangered species of fish, with the demands of one of the country's most productive agricultural regions? The job of an economist is to sort these things out based on the estimated benefits of all of these uses: where will the marginal impact of lost water be felt the least? Of course, in this case and many others economists really aren't called upon: the stakes are high enough that no one wants a (relatively!) objective analysis. That's when politics takes over, for better or for worse.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Should society pay millions per life to save lives?

It's not often that the tradeoffs are made so clear in the mainstream media. Today's NYT:

The delayed smog rule would lower the allowable concentration of airborne ozone to 60 to 70 parts per billion from the current level of 75 parts per billion, putting several hundred cities in violation of air pollution standards. The agency says that the new rule would save thousands of lives per year but cost businesses and municipalities as much as $90 billion annually.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Tunnelling Luminescence in Feldspar

What's wrong with this picture?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Buildings

A couple of interesting tidbits in the news today: global standards for building emissions appear to be in the works. We don't think a lot about emissions coming from buildings, but as much as 30% - 48% of greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings while 71% of electricity is consumed there. Factoring in energy savings, improvements tend to pay for themselves, but since there are up front costs many improvements are never undertaken. That's too bad because costs are low: this estimate says that it costs as little as $9 per ton of CO2 abated here in the US, and demand reduction measures could halve growth in energy use and cut current use by 29% at no net cost (see page 5 of linked pdf). It's tough to do that when incentives are different from home builders and home buyers: prices go up when homes are made energy efficient, though the owners make the money back over time through energy savings. Simple awareness is a big issue: although buildings can be built according to "sustainable" standards at a cost premium of just 5% here in the US, builders and developers mistakenly believe costs to be about three times as high. Hopefully these and other relevant misconceptions will be somewhat reduced by the new set of guidelines for evaluating the carbon emissions of buildings currently under development by the UNFCCC.

On the other side of the world, building standards are hugely important right now as China is building the equivalent of Japan's existing building area every 3 years. If energy use in those buildings can be kept low, Japanese-style, energy use may be kept to half of what it would be if those buildings follow US practices. The practices aren't listed in this document, but a few I am aware of include hot water heating and home heating habits. Many of the Japanese homes I've visited and lived in had on-demand hot water heating that used little gas. For baths or large scale use, the inconvenience was limited to pushing a button on a thermostat a few minutes before bathing, and for small scale use it usually meant pushing a button immediately before turning on the hot water. Home and school heating patterns are centered on warming individual rooms: the schools I worked at didn't heat corridors or even bathrooms. You may not find the prospect of squatting over "Image the john very enticing, but when the whole room is at about 40 degrees it's a lot nicer than putting your behind on a cold toilet seat!

No one is expecting the US to start heating houses room by room rather than using central heating any time soon, but there is much that can be done here particularly in the building development sector. Overseas, as the epic numbers of homes and business buildings continue to rise in places like China, they can choose the type of culture they develop. Hopefully they'll build in some energy efficiency and actually employ more of the solar and wind power generation capability they're producing.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Cutting government

While newly elected Republicans and Tea Party representatives struggle to name some government programs they would cut, I have an idea that will at least get the ball rolling: how about we identify government programs that effectively work against each other, and choose the one we want the government to work for? Today's NYT focuses on Dairy Management, an advocacy group funded by the dairy industry that is part of the USDA. While the marketing arm is out pushing increased consumption of dairy products, the Department's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion is pushing decreased consumption. The money quote in the piece is this:

“If you want to look at why people are fat today, it’s pretty hard to identify a contributor more significant than this meteoric rise in cheese consumption,” Dr. Neal D. Barnard, president of the physicians’ group, said in an interview.

Generally choices about consumption are made by the individual, and we give advertisers free reign to push people to consume most any product. Does that change as soon as the government gets involved as advertisers? Should the government be required to do all it can to promote healthy consumers? If so, it would be unethical for a government program to advocate for increased cheese consumption, but then dairy farmers would be abandoned by their government.

I think that a lot of this would be solved if government marketing boards were made private. Right now a number of crops including beef, blueberries, cotton, eggs, avocados, honey, lamb, mangos, mushrooms, peanuts, popcorn, pork, potatoes, sorghum, and soy all do some of their marketing through boards set up by the government. While I don't think anyone objects to the the marketing of most fruits and vegetables, many of these products should not be a large part of a healthy diet. (Especially cotton- I really don't recommend eating much cotton at all.) Historically, the government has been part of the process, but I'm not sure why they need to continue to be. That said, these marketing orders are fully funded by the industry- it's not an issue of taxpayer dollars being used against taxpayers. If we are looking to save money and make the government speak with one voice, the only way to do that is to cut nutrition programs. I personally support research and the spread of information about how to live a healthy life, so I guess that's why I'm not a Tea Partier!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Nothing sweeter

Quote of the day, from the Thomas Jefferson memorial in DC:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Poverty & the Environment

A UN organization produced a new report out today authored by an apparently huge group of environmentalists economists including some of my heroes like Ed Barbier and Karl-Goran Maler who do environmental work in developing countries. I haven't read the whole thing yet, but it's being touted here as putting some large numbers on previously somewhat ignored places, including identifying what environmental services mean to the poor. If policymakers can be convinced of the value of their natural resources, whether they be the economic contributions of coral reefs (tourism & fishing) or of forests helping to pollinate nearby orchards, maybe they will act to protect them more. Governments of geographically large countries such as India and Brazil are signing on, while unsurprisingly the US is not. I'll be pretty surprised if this really changes policymaker behavior- how many million reports have come out in the past year?- but I like having an increased ability to build an economic case for protecting the environment.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Limiting Runoff: Another Way to Save the Bay

Today's Washington Post describes new regulations proposed for Prince George's County which are designed to force developers to set up better buffers on the edges of their projects. Environmental scientists talk about the share of land in a watershed that is "impervious," i.e. blacktop, concrete, etc., since water running off impervious land collects filth as well as picking up speed and mass en route to plunging into local waterways. Full, fast streams keep water plants from doing their filtering job, and the Chesapeake gets hit with more junk.

Everyone would like the Chesapeake to be cleaner, but the question is how best to accomplish that. Developers say that the new regulations are excessive.

The recession has led to businesses downsizing and an abundance of unoccupied office space, so developers are already struggling, though it's less bad in the DC area than elsewhere. Less development is needed now, but life is already tougher than usual for developers. No question higher costs will hurt a struggling industry, but there are clear benefits as well. I wonder if there has been any detailed cost-benefit analysis....

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Corn shortage? Let's use more!

A day or two after an unexpectedly low harvest of US corn hit the headlines, the EPA announces that more corn will be dedicated to ethanol production. In upping the share of ethanol that can be added to gasoline, they're laying the groundwork for increased dependence on corn-based fuels. MSNBC describes the list of those opposed to the move as including, "the auto industry, environmentalists, cattle ranchers, food companies, and a broad coalition of other groups." Not very often that all these folks agree! This seems to be a pure sop to the corn belt, since no one else wants this policy, and it's not hard to understand why. Using more corn in our fuel raises prices on all types of meat, which in our society is mostly fed on corn. Also, E-15 (fuel that's 15% ethanol) is apparently harder on engines built for gasoline, whether they be vehicle engines or chainsaws. All this for a dubious to non-existent environmental benefit. At least Google seems to have more foresight than the Feds as far as energy policy!

Google Energy

I should've posted on this sooner: Google is joining some other investors in a $5 billion power transmission line off the coast of the Eastern US. With that infrastructure in place, it should be easier to set up offshore wind platforms. At least one other wind project has more or less died due to a lack of transmission capability, so this is a real "windfall" for the proposed offshore projects....

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Hungarian Sludge

The environmental disaster in Hungary is sounding worse again, with another reservoir wall about to collapse. Any kind of mudslide is devastating enough, as we saw in southern Mexico last month, but these seem particularly scary, carrying toxics and heavy metals that are likely to cause lasting damage. The tributary "Marcal river is dead," according to one piece, and the effects on the Danube are still unclear.

Of course our first thoughts are with the victims, both those lost in the first release and those affected by the devastation to the environment. Our second thoughts, echoed by the Hungarian prime minister, are about how this could have come about. Eastern Europe under the Soviet Union was notorious for pollution; pictures like this one of Copsa Mica, Romania came out after the collapse of the USSR showing how industrial development had not been followed by environmental protection. The situation in general has been better under capitalism, but only when regulation has been effective. You don't have to remember back too far to the Tennessee Coal Ash flood around Christmas of 2008 or of course the Gulf oil spill a few months ago, which reemphasized how ineffective our government can be.

One popular idea from environmental economics is the Environmental Kuznets Curve. It's basically the idea that as countries get richer they first get dirtier, as they industrialize, and then get cleaner, as people are able to turn their attention to the state of the environment and complain about it. My former professor Michael Hanemann is skeptical of the EKC, and with good reason: while it's been found occasionally, it seems a stretch to assume that things will get cleaner on their own as people get richer. It seems more likely that governance is the key: we need a government that is both responsive to problems and effective as it engages them. These days our public discourse seems to focus on failures of government, and that's appropriate, but the solution is not to gut it completely, or we'll end up with more of these disasters.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Turning Over the new Leaf

This article in today's NYT talks about the heavy subsidies associated with purchasing Nissan's Leaf, the new all-electric, plug-in car. It's great to see this thing roll out and it seems appropriate that purchasers receive subsidies given the positive externalities it generates (such as less air and presumably sound pollution in the immediate area and less dependence on foreign sources of energy). The car's sticker price is apparently $32,780 and the car looks to be a compact or sub-compact, so making that cost comparable to other cars in the vehicle's size class is a job that takes some doing. I'm not sure whether that cost includes the vehicle's charger, which itself is subsidized to the tune of $2000 for those who weren't lucky enough to be in the group of 5700 that got theirs for free.

As great as it is to see this first step forward in terms of bringing electric cars to the rest of us, there are clearly some kinks to work out in addition to the likely $35000+ price tag. First and foremost for me is the 100 miles it can travel on one charge. While that will make the car a fine vehicle for a daily commute, many car owners won't be able to make do with just this one vehicle in their garages. Some places are installing charging stations along the highway, but getting a charge built up apparently takes about 8 hours, so unless you want to spend your day at a way station, I can't see that getting the job done.**(See below) Second is the cleanliness (or lack thereof) of the power sources that will actually be moving the car, which in today's society turn out to be mostly coal. It's nice that the power will mostly be domestic, since we can a) regulate it better to keep it cleaner, and b) avoid subsidizing regimes we would rather not support, but until we have more projects like the newly approved Cape Wind facility up and operating, we're just trading one source of pollution for another.

I have lots of questions! I wonder- how does it drive? A friend with a Prius claims that the car has poor acceleration: does this electric number do better? How much noise does it make? (Did they attach some kind of a noisemaker to it so people will notice it coming?) And more importantly, how long until the price comes down? I was shopping for a car in 2000 when the Prius was first due out, and there was an "early buyer's premium" of $5000 extra the car cost at that time. I wonder if the $33K + charger includes something like that, or if they're already pricing it as low as possible. Overall, though, I'm interested and a little excited. Something to watch!

Update, 10/11/10: Apparently the vehicle can recharge its batteries via... gasoline! While this is making some uncomfortable, it definitely makes the car more useful.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Wind farms going up

In spite of the best efforts of the people whose views will soon be permanently altered, the Feds have given their approval to the $1 billion Cape Wind wind farm. The lease pitted sometime environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. defending his home turf against an array of forces including advocates of green energy and apparent capitalists looking to profit from the windmills. Kennedy argued that the plant wasn't economic: that the costs per kilowatt hour were much higher than safe alternatives. Looks like we'll soon find out!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Good News on Walmart

Two articles caught my eye in a 24 hour span about, of all things, Walmart taking steps to be green. Greenwashing? Maybe. Probably. Still, I have to say it looks good. Tell me what you think in the comments.

The first is an article on the NRDC's website (and in their magazine) about Walmart being part of a group trying to set up a "sustainability index" on the products they sell. A quote: "In July 2009 Walmart invited 1,000 suppliers, associates, and sustainability experts to a ‘Milestone Meeting’ at which the company introduced its vision of a sustainability index and, as a matter of course, announced plans to eliminate 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from the products it sells worldwide by 2015. ‘Sales used to be the metric,’ declared John Fleming, Walmart's chief merchandising officer. But going forward, the bottom line would be linked to a concept Fleming called ‘product life-cycle management’ -- which means following a food product from farm to fork, tabulating every input that went into its production and every emission generated along the way."

The second is an article noting that Walmart is installing solar panels on the roofs of up to 30 stores in California and Arizona in hopes of generating 20-30% of the power they use from the sun. No word on how cost effective the solar arrays are- probably not very! All the more reason to see this as a legitimate investment in the environment. Great to have the big players on board!

Update 10/7/10: Lest you think Walmart might actually be turning over a new leaf, here's an article in today's Sun about pressure exerted by the retail giant against living wage legislation. Life is no fun when you have to actually pay your workers a decent wage, I guess!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Good News on Crabs

Shortly before DNR's Jim Uphoff came to present to our Resources class this past spring, the results of the crab population survey came out showing a big increase in the past year. Restrictions on harvesting females and eliminating winter harvesting were successful in helping the crabs bounce back from some dangerously low levels, including a record low in 2007.

Now it turns out that the high population estimate has produced a high harvest. Hooray! An abundance of crabs. Here is a picture of my niece, who with her family visited Maryland from my hometown Reno, Nevada this past August. You can see her contribution to this year's impressive harvest.

Drying up Las Vegas

Contrary to the claims of economist and blogger Alex Tabarrok, water scarcity is more than "a local problem." Increasing population pressure and unchanged agricultural pressure have effectively tapped out the Colorado River, which serves large portions of 7 states and several major metropolitan areas including LA, San Diego, Phoenix, and Las Vegas.

Part of the problem is that the demand curve is really well hidden- it's hard to suss out the marginal cost of consuming a given amount of water because the water system is so full of subsidies. Water users basically don't pay for dams, reservoirs, or for upkeep of water systems- taxpayers do. Thus, people don't feel the need to restrict their usage. That's a concern not just for people maintaining yards, but even more for industries that use large amounts of water, such as agriculture and mining. Heavy subsidies make water so cheap as to not really be part of the cost equation in many parts of the country, though to their credit that's not so for farmers in much of California's central valley.

It's great to live in a country where this type of resource scarcity won't be handled by people resorting to weapons, as is feared in parts of central Asia as water supplies dwindle. I'm sure the struggle won't be easy, but the issue is at least being addressed.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

China & Green Energy

One of my libertarian friends is up in arms about this morning's piece in the NYT by Thomas Friedman. Friedman is disappointed that more money in this country isn't being invested in producing electric cars. He notes that Europe has implemented much higher taxes on gasoline than we have here, and argues that higher taxes here would spur that industry as well.

My friend says that China's protectionism amounts to their "trying to predict the future," and he's right: by subsidizing one industry, they're in effect penalizing others. That strategy gets lucky from time to time, but letting the market make choices almost always works better. However, the market needs correct information to function properly, and if the US is in effect "subsidizing" gasoline by failing to charge users for the full set of costs they impose on society, then the market can't be expected to provide the right outcome.

A few weeks ago, the NYT published a sort of exposé on the Chinese green energy sector, claiming that the government is in effect subsidizing exports, a no-no under World Trade Organization rules. Although in the short term it will lead to cheap solar panels for everyone, which sounds pretty good to me, ultimately it too should lead to inefficiency, as potential competitors are driven out of the industry by the cheap prices. Driving those folks out means fewer jobs here in the US, among other places, which is why the US Steelworkers challenged China at the WTO just a couple of days after the article.

Interesting tradeoffs: cheaper green energy now, subsidized by Chinese taxpayers, at the cost of fewer jobs for us now and potentially higher costs on down the road. "Made in China" sure isn't just for cheap plastic toys anymore!

Friday, September 24, 2010

EPA Engagement with Chesapeake Finally Starting

A short piece in the Baltimore Sun talks about states' plans to reduce nutrient and sediment emissions that are a step toward protecting the Chesapeake. Not long ago the EPA became more active in its role overseeing the interstate pollution problem that manifests most strikingly here in Maryland, and all the states in the Chesapeake watershed have been called upon to "clean up their acts," if you will. Many states responded with a collective shrug, particularly Pennsylvania, Virginia, Delaware, New York, and West Virginia. Out of state, out of mind, apparently!

This time, the EPA appears to be prepared to back up its request with some force. Either states can set up plans to reduce emissions or they can have emissions forced upon them in the form of higher Federal standards for sewage treatment plants and/ or storm drains.

If states can afford to investigate the variety of options at their disposal, surely they will find cheaper means of coming into compliance. There's still time for states to update their plans, but it looks like many states might pass up the opportunity to save money. Higher costs for all through poor governance! Less overt than this recent event, but potentially much more costly....

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Overfishing Heavily Subsidized

Quote of the day: "Taxpayer money is directly contributing to the decline of worldwide fish stocks." Probably not a huge surprise, particularly to the libertarians out there, but $27 billion goes every year to promote fishing, and according to research described here, 60% of that goes to fishing done with unsustainable practices.

In many developing countries, food and income associated with fishing are important to the poor. When fishing is subsidized, those people suffer the most. Who benefits? Well, of course people doing the fishing benefit, but also people who consume a lot of fish benefit in the short run from lower prices (though we pay the difference as taxes). However, those people can expect to pay higher prices later as fish become scarce more quickly.

It's cases like agricultural and fishing subsidies that put environmentalists and libertarians in the same camp, which is relatively rare. Too bad their combined energies are not enough to persuade politicians to cut back on the subsidies!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Prince goes solar

Prince Charles' application to put solar panels on Clarence House, his home in London, has been approved after it was made clear that the panels would not be visible from the ground.

While solar panels are not that efficient in terms of cost per kilowatt hour, they should pay themselves off eventually if the technology continues to operate without major repairs. I've wondered why government and other buildings in which tenants are expected to stay for many years aren't covered with them. It would be strange if the entry cost is limiting government's buying panels for its own buildings, for example, if they pay for themselves over the long haul....

Monday, August 30, 2010

News Flash: Climate Change a big deal after all!

Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish economist who has made a name for himself by pooh-poohing environmental concerns for the past few decades, has apparently decided that there's more money in considering how to cope with climate change than there is in calling attention to himself by scoffing at the problem. A new book coming out soon will detail how he and a team of economists suggest approaching the issue, which would all be irrelevant if his earlier claims were true.

To defend himself, he argues that he has never denied the reality of climate change; he has just always contended that the cost of trying to cope with the problem outweighs the possible benefits. As new ideas have surfaced for how to cope, he has reconsidered, and apparently some solutions now meet his cost/ benefit criteria.

For me, the frustrating thing about Lomborg has always been that he assumes that the world has some set amount of money that it will devote to solving a few large scale problems, and therefore the choice for society is which problems deserve attention. This is of course foolish: the world can choose to address all or none of these macro-problems, while spending its collective time and energy on any of a variety of other pursuits. Why is the question, "Should we help people in Africa improve their access to drinking water or fight terrorism?" rather than, "Should we do both rather than investing in pills that make our poop glitter?"

I do like the fact that his latest book seems to be focused on, "How shall we best strive to cope with a problem?" rather than how to dismiss serious issues because others are allegedly more serious. Keep on this track, Bjorn, and I won't be embarrassed to bring up your work in class!

Hat tip to Marginal Revolution for noticing the Guardian piece.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Marginal cost pricing cuts garbage

When I lived in Nagasaki, the sanitation folks wouldn't take any trash unless it was in a special individual trash bags that cost something like $2-3 per bag. This was their way of making sure that those who filled the garbage trucks were paying for those garbage trucks. Ithaca, NY has a similar policy involving tagging trash bags. One recent convert to this approach is in Sanford, Maine, where charging for trash collection by the amount collected has led to a massive drop in trash collected.

While a drop in collected trash is a good thing in an era of strapped governmental budgets, I'm wondering what has happened to the trash that was once at the curb. Sanford is a town of about 20,000 that "features many lakes in wooded areas which attract campers." That makes it sound likely that a lot of the formerly collected trash is going up in smoke, which can create a variety of toxic gases as well as contribute particulate matter to the atmosphere. I can think of other possible explanations for the decrease in collected trash, but hopefully the good people of Sanford are looking into the discrepancy and making decisions based on more evidence than we see in the short piece I cited above.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


In February we had a post on this blog about biochar, a material produced in this case by incinerating chicken manure and using the product as a super-fertilizer. Turns out there are a variety of sources for producing biochar, and others see tremendous potential in the material as well. Here's an update.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Does eating locally save energy?

Three years and two weeks after this piece of NYT op-ed took on the issue of food miles, another column appears in the same place making the same point. "Local food" is an idea that foodies get excited about, but the economic and energy consequences of it aren't nearly as clear as one might think. It's true that energy goes into moving food around, but as the more recent article points out, it's not a very large share of the energy that goes into the processes of food production, storage, preparation, and consumption. Why is it more virtuous, asks the author, for us to consume something produced in a nearby heated greenhouse than to consume something grown outside and trucked here? This argument is similar to the issues raised by the first writer, who notes that fewer resources are required to grow lamb in New Zealand and ship it to Britain than are needed to grow it for consumption in Britain itself.

Often, liberals are skeptical of the benefits of the market. "It must be cheaper because it was produced with underpaid labor!" we fear. But often the market just reflects reality, and work gets done in the cheapest way possible, which also means that the minimum amount of waste happens. Does that mean that the local food movement is totally wrong-headed? Not necessarily: some people do not care about the energy issues and think that local food just tastes better. I can't argue with that! Let me conclude the way the former article did: "While there will always be good reasons to encourage the growth of sustainable local food systems, we must also allow them to develop in tandem with what could be their equally sustainable global counterparts."

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Buying Chickens Room to Run

Interesting article in today's NYT: the animal rights activists are having some success in getting farmers to give more space to their animals. Great direct quote: producers estimate that egg prices will rise by 25% if chickens are raised outside of cages. That's probably a bit of an overstatement, since producers want everyone to fear the worst, but we'd have to expect some kind of increase.

What would be the dietary consequences of a price rise for eggs? I don't know enough about the American diet to know if a drop in egg consumption would be good or bad overall, but obviously there would be some of both. People who need inexpensive protein would lose out, but people with cholesterol problems (or potential cholesterol problems) might actually benefit. On balance I'd say the bad would probably outweigh the good from a dietary perspective. Do the benefits to society from improved animal rights balance that out? What do you think?

I myself am not very concerned with animal rights, but another impact may be environmental consequences. If "factory farms" fall out of favor, that would greatly change meat farming as well, limiting the damage caused by hog and chicken farming as well. Again, there would be a very literal price to pay, as meat prices would rise, but the environment would be less burdened by the concentrated animal waste that currently accumulates. That would be a more appealing tradeoff to me personally, though I'd like to know more about how much meat consumption would change. Lots of questions here!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Economics: we know it all

You probably thought that there were some things economics didn't claim to know about. Little did you know, we economists think we have a handle on any and all decisions.

From Ejrnaes, Mette, and Claus C. Pörtner. 2004. “Birth Order and the Intrahousehold Allocation of Time and Education.” Review of Economics and Statistics 86(4, November): 1008-1019.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Distributed costs in food

In the last post I mentioned how it can be problematic when a few benefit while the costs are spread among many. In that case it was investments in safety while drilling for oil, with consequences that the Gulf will be feeling for a long time. Another example is back in agriculture, where a recent New York Times editorial calls attention to the plight of a food safety bill languishing in the Senate. The toolkit the FDA has at its disposal has been limited for a long time, and it's time for an update. Without adequate policing, we get problems like the salmonella-contaminated peanut butter, because it's often easier to continue selling contaminated product than it is to clean up. Seems to me like protecting the country's food supply is a pretty basic role of government! I hope the bill gets the attention it deserves, unlike the climate change legislation that's slipped away from us this year. We'll see!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

If anything can go wrong....

Murphy's Law seems to have claimed the ill-fated Macondo well not through a single failure but through a litany of slipups, penny-pinching, and poor governance. Much investigation remains to be done, but the first reports on where and how the failures occurred are already coming out, including in this article in today's Washington Post. Government failed and the market failed, and yet another investment goes bad for which the potential rewards would have come to relatively few people while the risks are distributed among millions of us.

I haven't heard anything for weeks about the continued use of the dispersant Corexit, of which as much as 2 million gallons have been added to the spill basically to hide the oil and gas from view. As more tropical storms and hurricanes come into the Gulf this hurricane season, the cocktail will spread far and wide. I guess we'll see what happens!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The benefits of factory farming

As an undergraduate I had a really difficult time figuring out what to major in. I took classes in 13 disciplines, but I have a distinct memory of flipping through the class list and smiling as I found the one area that had absolutely zero appeal: "Agricultural Economics." Ugh! Manure maximization just really had no appeal.

Well, look at me now- got my Ph.D. in it. Wish I'd know that my undergraduate major in Sociology, minors in Math & Computer Science, and interest in environmental issues meant that maybe no area was more appropriate for me to study. As noted by an article in a recent New Scientist (h/t to Marginal Revolution), "agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than all methods of transport put together, and it contributes to a host of other problems, from nitrogen pollution to soil erosion." If you want to solve environmental problems, you'd better take a look at agriculture!

To me the interesting part of the article is when it notes that factory farms are in some ways lighter on the environment than pasture-grown livestock. Pigs and chickens who are fed a diet of grains produce more meat for less grain than cattle in grassy pastures, and they produce much less methane as well. (Methane is a problem not just because it smells bad, but because it's a potent greenhouse gas.) Obviously diverting grain from people to animals is inefficient in many ways, but livestock can still eat crop residues and milling wastes that we can't. Of course, animal rights advocates have a separate set of issues that, well, generally aren't that compelling for me.

Vegan fantasies about worlds without meat not very realistic, though encouraging people to eat less meat seems like a good idea. Just be aware of all of the related issues!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Certainty & energy markets

Friedman's column today in the NYT reminds us that energy companies are waiting for the other shoe to drop on climate change-related carbon regulation. The writing's been on the wall for awhile about the need for government to act on limiting carbon emissions, but so far nothing's been done. Republicans like Oklahoma's Senator Inhofe (who treated Towson's Invisible Children club well last year!) have called climate change a "hoax" and South Carolina's Senator DeMint saw this February's snowfall as evidence that climate change isn't happening. And while we'll miss Steven Schneider, a climatologist and leader of the Nobel-winning IPCC research team calling attention to the phenomenon of climate change, most people still agree that something needs to be done.

It surprises me when stock prices go up after an industry gets an added burden of regulation, but that's usually the response to certainty. When they know something's coming but they don't know what, markets don't like that. Better a regulation you know than one that might be anything. That quest for certainty is what Friedman's hoping will drive Congress to give the energy sector the regulations they know are coming. The US relies on some pretty dirty energy sources, and we could be cleaning those up, but people won't until they have to. Friedman thinks that knowing they have to will be a load off their minds- I wonder if they agree!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Assault on batteries

I'm stunned that technology is still so bad for storing energy. Energy production is hard enough, but to have to use it immediately makes things that much more inefficient. Wind energy, for example, can't be sure it will produce enough to satisfy people's needs at any given time, so it must be supplemented with other generators, which usually turn out to be coal or natural gas-based. If only we had good batteries!

The more immediate need, of course, is for small batteries we can fit into cars and such. Even if we can produce clean power on a large scale, we'll still be dependent on less clean portable fuels for transit unless we can harness large scale power production for use on a small scale. That's one reason for the push for investments into electrically powered cars and batteries, which the President has recently pushed as part of a $2.4 billion investment into the technology. Given the potential positive externalities it seems an arguably appropriate government investment, but in addition to the usual notes that increasing the deficit isn't a good idea, detractors note that Asian countries like China, Japan, and Korea already have a head start, and we may or may not catch up.

It's always tough to predict winning investments, and as far as I know, governments don't have a better track record than anyone else. It would be great if this turned out to be a winning bet, but who knows?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The environmental risks of fracking

While the dream of natural gas-based energy independence for the U.S. beckons from the horizon, the path there is not an easy one. Earlier this month the Wall Street Journal had this article describing the thousands of jobs and billions of dollars that may come from the industry, but they also noted that the Department of Environmental Protection in Pennsylvania is developing regulations to keep extraction as clean as possible. A new report out recently from the Worldwatch Institute reiterates the dangers and the potential benefits. Careful regulation can make the dream a reality, but as always, oversight is necessary.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Small scale power solutions?

On a day when the nation is holding its breath to see if BP's cap will stay intact, it's worth thinking about small scale power power solutions. The sight of solar panels on rooftops is a familiar one, but I didn't realize until recently that proponents of wind energy envision a similar approach. For $15,000 or so you can get a 60 foot tower with a wind turbine on it and get your house powered. For half a mil, you can apparently power a small waste treatment plant.

Do I need to point out they don't spew millions of gallons of filth into any nearby bodies of water?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Poorly treated crab pickers

One of our state's most famous resources is our blue crab. The Chesapeake is the source of half the blue crab produced in the US. From 1997-2001, crabmeat production was a $20-$30 million per year business supporting over 1000 jobs, of which 3-400 were pickers, brought in mostly from Mexico. Total employment has probably declined due to regulations limiting harvesting over the last few years, and I can't find more current information that's split out by job types. 1900 people were involved in seafood production in Maryland in 2008, but that includes non-crab people, obviously....

Anyway, the Baltimore Sun has a writeup about a report by human rights groups who investigated the the process by which the Mexican workers are brought in. The investigators say the process has been pretty nasty, with workers charged lots of fees they initially aren't told about, being forced to live in unsavory conditions, and being easily hired and fired, brought in and deported at the whim of their employers.

The reality of economics is so much less clean than the lines we draw on a chalkboard! We economists say, "Here's the cost curve- the more we produce, the more it costs to produce it." But in reality the costs are shifting all the time, and consumers and producers are doing everything they can to shift things in their favor. Hopefully the problems that are discussed in this report will be addressed, and the true, full costs of hiring are paid for. Also, hopefully Maryland crab producers will continue to be competitive even when paying a higher price for labor!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Strawberries as a crop are sensitive to a variety of pests, so most growers fumigate the soil with methyl bromide or other pesticides before they plant. Methyl bromide is fairly nasty stuff (which is why it makes an effective pesticide & fungicide) and in addition it damages the ozone layer. A number of years ago, the EPA called for a phaseout of methyl bromide use to protect the environment, and strawberry farmers were in an uproar, since their crops to some extent depend on the substance. Eventually the farmers got a "critical use exception" and were allowed to continue using the substance in spite of the problems it creates.

A new proposal is to switch from methyl bromide to methyl iodide. The latter doesn't harm the ozone, but is perhaps even nastier. This is a good thing for farmers trying to kill bugs and fungi, but a less good thing when you live or work near (or in) a field where it's been applied. Responding to the pressure to phase out methyl bromide, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation is pushing methyl iodide. It has a couple of strikes against it: first, it's expensive, so smaller farmers couldn't really afford it. Second, its toxicity is so intense that scientists don't believe it can be used safely.

How do we balance these things: ozone, worker health, and strawberries? Lots of issues!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

New rules for deep water drilling

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar came out with new regulations yesterday to restrict deep water drilling in the Gulf after the last set of regulations were overturned by the courts. They want to be sure that better safeguards are in place, and the information requirements include proof that the equipment will do the job it's designed for and evidence that increased cleanup capacity can and will be on hand when extraction happens.

After the Minerals Management Service was revealed to be literally in bed with the energy industry, we've started learning more about how (little!) this part of our economy was regulated. I hate bureaucracy and red tape as much as the next person, but when we have spills in the Gulf like this we remember why these institutions exist. Adequate regulation is crucial to maximizing social benefits- actual and potential externalities need to be counted alongside profits as part of the value of industry. Obviously profits are, and should be, protected (though in the news we usually hear references to "lost jobs" rather than "lost profits") but some balance needs to be maintained, and if this spill isn't a siren call for more attention to be put on this industry, I don't know what would be.

More opinions on the new regulations are here.

Subsidies for oil

Although the US thinks of itself as importing huge amounts of oil (which we obviously do), the Gulf spill has also refocused attention on how much we produce ourselves. Domestic production, when it is adequately regulated, is a wonderful thing. Like many domestic industries, though, it has considerable influence in Congress, and over the years it has secured itself some serious tax breaks. Yesterday's New York Times features an editorial about how once useful but now outdated tax breaks for the oil industry could save taxpayers as much as $80 billion! Hopefully my colleagues who advocate small government will join me in supporting the cutting of these subsidies....

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Miner Point

This quote from an article in today's Washington Post catches my eye:

"The story of 2010 is not that nothing happened after the BP spill, or after the coal-mine explosion that killed 29 in West Virginia on April 5. It's that much of the reaction has focused on preventing accidents -- on tighter scrutiny of rigs and mines -- rather than broader changes in the use of oil and coal."

While the major issue in the article is the failure of environmentalists to use incidents to provoke wider change, I want to talk today about the "miner" issue. I haven't even heard that much of that scrutiny is happening, particularly with respect to the coal mine incident. This US government website says that from 2001-2005 an average of 30 people died each year in coal mines, but 65 died in 2007. 41 have died so far this year in coal mines and another 11 in metal mines.

Given that we're so reliant on coal, it seems likely that the mining companies are getting decent returns on their investments. I'd like to see a little more pressure from the government on companies to turn some profits back to investments in safety! I wonder how the free market contingent feels about OSHA and MSHA. Some West Virginians, for example, often have few economic alternatives, so they can't easily turn down mining jobs- the mining companies are monopsonists (i.e. the only buyers) for people selling their labor. Those are problems with the market process that the government should correct!

Friday, July 9, 2010

South Asia & Climate Change

Bangladesh faces a huge poverty burden made worse by a lack of water for long periods each year. Adding to the difficulty, wells come up laced with arsenic when someone actually has enough money to drill one. As if that wasn't bad enough, scientists say that climate change is expected to profoundly exacerbate problems across South Asia, says this article in the Wall Street Journal. In just 20 years, the area is expected to lose what amounts to the total amount of fresh water used in the country of Nepal every year- 275 billion cubic meters. Crop yields, including wheat and rice, could drop by 30-50% in India and China. 50-70 million people could end up displaced.

Just thought you'd like to know!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Horse-powered stables

We can't find enough to do with our chicken poop here in Maryland, but across the "pond" they're working toward a good solution in one place. A military stable will soon be powered entirely by horse manure. The initial cost is significant- I wonder how long it will take to pay itself off, if ever?

Monday, July 5, 2010

China & Climate Change

A 48 percent increase in car sales? In the depressed market of 2009? It's true: in China, car sales are going through the roof. As the 1.3 billion Chinese "warm up" to the joys of consumer capitalism, the climate too is likely to do some significant warming! Tough time to come of age as a country. Sounds like they are doing what they can to improve efficiency, but it will take a lot of efficiency tweaks to bring that many people into a Western lifestyle!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Why don't they blow it up?

Articles like this one argue that BP (or the Coast Guard) should set off a bomb somewhere underground not far from the leak in hopes of collapsing the shaft through which the oil is leaking. That same article implies that they won't do it because they'll lose all the work they've done so far, which has required a significant investment. No doubt there's been a significant investment made, but I don't think it's on the order of the $20 billion they've already agreed to pay to deal with the spill. It seems more likely that the response laid out here is accurate: they don't want to blow it up because it might end up even more complicated to try to contain.

Natural gas use to double

Not really a surprise, but this article summarizing an MIT report headed by Ernest Moniz points out that natural gas is likely to double over the next few decades. That's a good thing because it leads to less than half of the carbon emissions that coal burning does. It's less good because it will mean lots of "fracking" domestically, which (as we saw in Monday's post) can be pretty bad for the environment. It's also less good because it will be associated with an increase in the price of electricity: as much as 30% by 2030. Natural gas is touted as the "bridge" to a better energy system, and it's also important to have somewhere to land once we cross that bridge.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Gulf oil spill increases pressure on Chesapeake

Omega Protein, a harvester of the menhaden that form an important link on the food chain in the Chesapeake ecosystem, is increasing harvests from the Atlantic to compensate for decreased availability in the Gulf of Mexico. Additional pressure on the already stressed population can't be good! Stripers rely on menhaden for food, so the Maryland success story involving recreational fishing could be in further danger. Virginia imposed a limit on how much the company is allowed to take (albeit a limit that was designed not to make a difference) so hopefully they will honor their legal commitment to limit their take, at least!

A Fracking Mess

I've been bullish on natural gas for awhile because it's domestic and burning it contributes less to climate change than burning coal or petroleum do. I know that it has environmental risks, but one good thing about it being in the US is that we can regulate the process and force the industry to use the best available technology to minimize the risks. A recent article in Vanity Fair, though, calls attention to the many potential negative ramifications of "fracking," which is part of the process of extracting natural gas. Near the bottom, it also says that the heavy reliance on trucking to cope with the massive amounts of liquids involved means that its carbon footprint is larger than previously imagined. Be good to see a thorough cost benefit analysis that included examination of the carbon emissions....

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Lake Tahoe

Sorry, folks: I'm not writing much this week because I'm at Lake Tahoe. Hope June is treating you well!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Early list of spill impacts

No fix in sight, and Reuters says there has already been serious damage to Louisiana's $2.4 billion seafood industry, which employs 27,000 people. 75% of the gulf fishery is apparently still open for fishing, but that part is more expensive to access and already "hundreds of thousands" of recreational and commercial fishers are affected. Wildlife is also increasingly affected, and tourism is way down. 20% of Florida's economy is tourism, and while things are ok there now, it won't take a lot of oil washing up before the million people employed in the sector start taking a serious hit.

While all of these are very serious concerns, I'm also nervous about the other environmental ramifications of the underwaters plumes of oil. The known impact of that is an expanse of hypoxia, which afflicts the Chesapeake to varying degrees every year (due in part to algae blooms from fertilizer runoff). It's bad enough on a relatively small scale- I'm not looking forward to seeing what that means on a larger one!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Interest heating up in natural gas market

Exxon Mobil bought XTO energy late last year, and now Royal Dutch Shell, another big operator, is investing more in US-based natural gas production by dropping $4.7 billion to pick up East Resources, an extractor of natural gas in the Northeast and in the Rockies. As I've said before, I like the investment in domestic production, and I'll like it more after the EPA has done a more thorough job of setting standards for "fracking," the environmentally damaging process of gas extraction. It seems to be better than the alternatives, but I'm sure that it can be made safer and more efficient with research.

Costs of Gulf oil spill hurting Marylanders already

I'm not sure how many Marylanders realize that a lot of the seafood they buy at crab shacks and restaurants comes from the south, but they're going to be learning something about where their food comes from this weekend and on into the future as prices climb for crabs, shrimp, and oysters. New scarcity makes food expensive, and even the successful growth of the Chesapeake crab industry fostered by the short-term bans isn't going to open things up wide enough to limit our losses. Somehow we tend to remember things that affect our wallets- hopefully some people will take the next step and remember the importance of markets as well as of the environment!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Chicken processors fined

A chicken processor in England was fined over $100,000 for excessive pollution. Good thing the chicken industry here is much cleaner!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Maryland oyster sanctuaries to grow

As Rand Paul brings the debate between government and private ownership back to the fore, the Maryland state government is making its own statement by calling for increased sanctuaries to be dedicated to oyster cultivation. Oysters clean the bay as well as serving as dinner, and the hope is that by allowing some private citizens to invest in aquaculture, the whole Bay will reap the benefits. Of course, private harvesters are unhappy that some land, and particularly some high quality existing oyster beds, will be put off limits by the new regulations, but the hope is that short-term pain will produce long-term gain. It worked for stripers and just this past year it seems to have worked for crabs, so here's hoping that oysters too will benefit!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Agricultural subsidies hurting the poor

It's always tough to say how agricultural subsidies will pan out with respect to the poor. After all, the poorest people are usually in rural areas, often subsistence farmers. If they're totally subsistence farmers, they don't care about the price of the goods they produce, but if they're doing any selling they need high prices. Price supports keep prices artificially high in the subsidizing country, but they can lead to gluts which are sometimes dumped on developing countries, killing their prices. Thus, subsidies may or may not help the rural poor.

On the other hand, the urban poor have to buy food. Lower prices unambiguously help them, so price supports hurt.

Weighing all the evidence, this extended blog post argues that price distortions and trade barriers on balance hurt the poor. Their simulations show that without the barriers to trade, poverty would drop by 3%. It's a complicated picture, but it makes sense!

Less offshore drilling means...

...more reliance on the Canadian oil sands, among other things. Today's NYT reports that the tar sands could be over 1/3 of US imports by 2030. Hopefully by 2030 increased reliance on domestic natural gas will cut demand for imported oil so that number won't be as high as it would be today, but we're still talking a considerable amount of fuel. While terrestrial sources don't come with the same type of risks as offshore platforms, the oil sands have plenty of negative environmental consequences as it is. Environmental groups note that mining and processing the tar into usable oil is energy and water-intensive, contributes to some serious deforestation, and produces large amounts of pretty nasty waste. Others point out that Venezuelan and Mexican oil similarly require large amounts of processing, making them not much better environmentally.

As a side note, the article also quotes Daniel Yergin, who appears on one of the homeworks for this class. Hm, how can I work him in again?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Carbon Capture: Craziness!

An editorial in today's NYT opposes carbon capture and sequestration. That's not too surprising: I've heard lots of people say that it's just a sop to the coal industry, and that's probably true. However, coal forms a huge part of our current energy infrastructure, and it'd be pretty expensive to change, so giving ourselves some time to make the shift by implementing carbon capture might be a good idea. The writer gives several interesting reasons why carbon capture isn't a good idea. First, he says that it cuts energy production at plants. Second, he says we'll need 23000 miles of taxpayer-purchased pipelines to carry the waste. Finally, we'll need a really big hole in the ground, something that can take up to "the contents of 41 oil supertankers each day, 365 days of the year." That's a lot of muck!

The pipelines don't seem like such a big deal- add a bit more to the huge amount of annual government spending and who will notice? I'd have to ask a geologist to find out about underground space available, but the first one seems interesting. While this buys time for coal-based energy production, it's going to raise the cost per kilowatt hour produced, which makes coal that much less attractive as a source. Even this stopgap measure looks to be a step down the road to a less coal-y future!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hay to clean the spill?

I'd heard that hair helps pick up oil- this NPR story about haircut trimmings in transvestites' old nylons caught my attention- but apparently hay works just as well. Here's a cool video from the guys.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Food prices dropping

One criticism of corn ethanol is that using our fields to grow fuel will drive up the cost of food. Two years ago when food prices jumped, many were quick to point a finger at the rapidly developing corn ethanol industry. Today, though, the share of the crop dedicated to ethanol continues to climb but US & global production of wheat and corn is also climbing, so the net effect on food prices should be negative. I'm not a fan of corn ethanol but this particular fear seems overblown, at least this year when production is so high.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

GMO benefits fading

Monsanto's Roundup Ready crops let farmers produce more by enhancing the effectiveness of herbicides. Crops were created that could withstand the chemicals so that spraying would efficiently kill the weeds and only the weeds. Well, just as antibiotics are running into more and more resistant bacteria, herbicides too are starting to meet their match, as "superweeds" show up that can tolerate being sprayed. An example given in this article is pigweed, which can grow up to 3 inches a day and is strong enough to damage farm equipment.

It used to be that one reason farmers plowed in the spring was to plow under the weeds that had grown up on land over the winter and in early spring. Plowing cleared the land and made it ready for the new crop to be planted. Recently, no-till planting techniques have come into vogue, which involve not plowing to start the season but just killing all of the weeds with herbicides and then injecting seeds into the soil using special equipment. This cuts erosion and saves the energy required for plowing. (Some also say that it fights climate change by storing carbon, but some of my research shows those benefits are minimal.) If herbicides don't work as well, it's back to the plow. That is more expensive for farmers, and food prices might rise. It also might increase soil erosion. More fuel use, but less herbicide application: guess that's the short-term outlook, at least!

Monday, May 3, 2010

The future of ethanol

A bit of good news to counter the gloom and doom that the expanding oil slick down South is spreading across the land (and water): an article in today's Baltimore Sun reminds us that the the future is an exciting one for biofuels. University of Maryland researchers are working on improving the technique used to create cellulosic ethanol from sources such as poplar trees. This should be much more efficient than corn ethanol, and it shouldn't compete with food crops. In as little as 10 years, researchers hope we'll be getting an appreciable share of our auto fuel from plants. I have to think that the Louisiana shrimp and oysters would approve.

***This article marks the end of the material on the blog quiz.***

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Oil slick "worst in decades"

Wow, now they're saying it's "the nation's worst environmental disaster in decades," even surpassing the Exxon Valdez!

Oil spill bigger than previously thought

It always sounded too good to be true that the whole rig could go down in the Gulf and there not be much of a negative impact on the environment, so I guess I shouldn't be too surprised that a "previously unknown" new leak is discovered as soon as someone besides BP is on the scene, raising the estimates of oil in the Gulf by a factor of 5. Anyway, watch out Louisiana!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

New York Trash options

Couple of nice articles in the NYT today on New York City's waste disposal system and on producing power from sewage. The authors of the first, former high-level workers in the city's sanitation department, suggest investments in waste-to-energy plants, which can reduce costs as well as energy consumption. They also suggest a tax on (non-recyclable) waste, which I used to pay back in Japan. The garbage-men would only haul off trash set outside in special bags, and the bags cost something like $2 each for a standard large trash-bag size. The second article is on using human waste to produce energy, a process that rarely happens now but could potentially provide hundreds of thousands of homes with power. Is it just our short-term budgeting cycle (and electoral cycle) that keeps us from investing in projects that pay off a few years down the road?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Hazards of Offshore Drilling

This probably isn't news to most of you, but the wreck of the offshore drilling platform that was destroyed by an oil or gas surge in the Gulf of Mexico a few days ago is now exuding thousands of gallons of oil into the Gulf every day. Efforts are being made to contain the damage, but it sounds like a near-term solution is unlikely.

In 2008, the US was the world's third largest oil producer, generating almost half of what we used. I see lots of energy development happening, changing our nation's energy portfolio over the next few decades, but for now we really need this stuff. This episode should remind us again of the costs of our addiction, and hopefully spur increased investment in alternative sources. We can't get to the right place without recognizing the full set of costs associated with our behavior! Too bad we have to learn this way.

Monday, April 26, 2010

California worms in Panama

In Panama, the industry leader in coffee production, Rogers Family Company, has found a new technique for removing waste produced by their coffee plants. Coffee pulp is a byproduct of the coffee plants, and is extremely bad for the environment. It is well known that coffee plants use many pesticides to aid the growing of their plants. This is then turned into the pulp, which rots over time. Once it rains it gets washed away into local waterways. Rogers Family Company has found out that worms from California actually convert this pulp into an organic fertilizer which puts nutrients back into the depleted soil. In a test at a local model farm in Panama, they saw that these worms eliminated over 5000 tons of rotted coffee pulp, and prevented it from polluting the Caldera River, a local waterway. In my opinion this is a very economically feasible idea, because these worms are converting essentially pollution into organic fertilizer. This seems like a great way to get rid of waste without spending too much money.
--Sid Ganesan

Cleaning the Harbor

I saw this article a few weeks ago when it came out and the contrast between the excited tone at the start and the realities described at the end were so stark that I decided not to post it, but other people are referring to it now as well so I guess it should be up regardless. A Baltimore group called the "Waterfront Partnership" is leading a movement to clean up the Inner Harbor, first investing $50,000 to produce some artificial islands containing wetland plants that will hopefully improve water quality. However, other estimates say that reaching the "swimmable and fishable" goals of the Partnership will be extremely expensive since it would involve dealing with the toxic materials that line the harbor, the algae that feeds on the nutrients that enter the harbor via runoff, the other pollutants that run off the streets when it rains, some leaking sewage problems.... Maybe I'm just being Mr. Negative, but it sounds like spitting in the wind to me. Still, I suppose that a little bit cleaner is a step in the right direction, whether it's a meaningful step or not!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

South Carolina considers offshore drilling

Last month, President Obama proposed a bill opening up a large portion of the East Coast and other protected areas in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska to offshore drilling. The Senate also passed a resolution last month allowing South Carolina to receive a percentage of government revenues from natural gas drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf equal to that of the current percentage of revenue that four Gulf Coast states receive for drilling for oil and gas off their coastlines. As environmentalists are beginning to panic for the health and safety of our local waters, the worst has yet to come. Last Wednesday, a bill allowing South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control to speedily review offshore drilling applications and award permits for offshore exploration, drilling or oil and gas production after federal restrictions are removed was advanced by a South Carolina Senate panel to seek approval from the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. The chairman of the Senate panel, Senator Paul Campbell, led a study last year that finds that it is highly unlikely that a viable amount of oil exists off the coast of South Carolina, but it is very likely that natural gas deposits are located at a reasonable distance from the shore.The first lease sale for drilling and area 50 miles off of the coast of Virginia could happen as early as 2012. Republican Senator Jake Knotts opposed the proposal of speeding up the review and approval of applications for drilling permits because of the threat to US coastal waters.
I agree with Senator Knotts and the environmentalists who worry about the safety of our American coastal waters, beaches, and marine life. Though the permits would stimulate the economies of coastal states involved in offshore drilling, the risk of damages crippling our coastal shores is very high. I think that rather than drilling for natural nonrenewable resources, we should instead be investing in renewable technologies such as offshore wind energy.
--Maggie Chan

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Reduced runoff from DC buildings? New EPA rules

One way that urban areas affect the environment is by having lots of "impervious areas" which send storm water rushing into drains and out into bodies of water carrying whatever chemicals or trash are in their path. This is one reason the harbor area in Baltimore is so dirty, and high speed flows hitting tributaries of the Chesapeake disrupt local ecosystems. The EPA is proposing to require green roofs in the District, which will slow the water and see much of it captured in barrels for use watering plants later. This could be pretty expensive, but it will definitely leave us with cleaner rivers and hopefully a cleaner Bay. Hopefully it's worth it!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Whaling: Help or Hurt Iceland?

In the article "Whaling Profitable but Bad for Iceland's Image", Greenpeace exposed illegal trading of fin whale meet from Iceland to Japan. In recent weeks, Greenpeace has managed to stop the illegal transport of 140 kilograms of whale meat from Iceland. In an attempt to advocate for the protection of whales and save this endangered species, Greenpeace has been taking extensive efforts to intercede the trading of whale meat. The article, however, discusses the advantages and disadvantages of whaling for Iceland's economy. Those in favor of legalizing whaling claim that the hunting and processing of whale meat could provide 80-90 jobs in Iceland. In an opposing argument, whaling would take away from tourists attractions such as whale tours that currently provide 120 jobs already. Another argument in favor of whaling legalization is the overwhelming supply of fish that would result from depleting the number of whales in the water. The depletion of whales would result in larger quantities of cod, capelin, and haddock for Iceland's fisherman. But this argument has also been disputed by scientists who claim that this debate is simply bias towards the legalization.
After reviewing the Greenpeace website and learning their stance on the subject of whaling, I am in accordance that the ban on international trading of whale meat should remain. Despite the economic profits of trading whale meat, the fact still stands that whales are becoming an endangered species; over hunting of them could affect the balance in the food chain. Aside from this, it seems that every argument made for the legalization of international whale meat trading has been disputable. Although arguments claim commercial whaling could provide jobs and more revenue, it seems there is not enough evidence to back these statements. Whales are a key component to marine life in the Netherlands and their existence should be protected.
--Samantha Easter

Monday, April 19, 2010

Potential Chesapeake Effects of Offshore Drilling in VA

This article discusses the problems with off shore drilling. The offshore drilling would take place off the shores of Maryland and Virginia. This could be a potential problem because it could harm the Bay. The article says that the Bay is an “economic engine” and any spill could significantly impact the economy. It would have a negative effect on the fisherman’s lives, recreational fishing, and tourism. A single spill could ruin an entire year of crabs. Once the article has made its point about the harm this could do to the Bay it offers alternatives such as off shore wind energy. The off shore wind energy would be more sustainable and more environmentally sensitive.
I agree and I think that alternate clean energies should be explored. The Bay is already suffering and people are already trying to restore it. If we are trying to restore the Bay wouldn’t doing something else that could potentially harm the Bay seem contradictory? With the Bay already suffering I think it is stupid to put the Bay at even more risk. Off shore wind energy could be a plausible substitute. There is no reason to say that these alternate clean energies should not be explored; so why not explore them and not put out Bay in even more trouble than it is already in.
--Ashlea Carl

Trade in Endangered Species

This article is about the illegal trading of endangered species and their parts across the internet. The products are the actual animal or a product associated with the animal. Examples of these two products are live baby lions and wine made from tiger bones. Some of the other endangered species caught up in this mess are: Kaiser's spotted newt, capuchin monkeys, lion cubs, polar bears and leopards. There is a convention, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species or CITES for short, held every year to discuss the problems with the endangered species. 175 nations gather at the meeting to come up with new and different regulations to help stop the illegal actions. One of the species that is disappearing quickly is the Kaiser spotted newt. This animal is being sold as a pet at a rate of 200 per year. There are only 1,000 of them in the mountains of Iran. The total population has decreased 80%. The CITES committee has put a ban on the trade of this newt and enforcement groups are helping to implement this ban.
I believe that these bans are a great idea and they need to be enforced harder. The problem is that the third world countries have little to none enforcement groups to regulate what comes in and out of the country. Also, people are trying to keep transactions off the internet so that neither party can be tract easily. All these endangered species need to be protected and not brought out of their wildlife habitat. These poor animals are being treated like drugs; both are being traded illegally and under the radar. I’m not a crazy animal lover but if we, the United States, have the resources to stop drug trafficking, then we can certainly try to stop this trading.
--Nick Kurtz

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Chesapeake crabs on the rise

Great news reported today: the population of Chesapeake crabs is doing really well, thanks to restrictions on crabbing imposed over the past few years. Limitations on the take of female crabs over the past two years has led to increases in the viable population this year. Be nice if the population were sustaining itself without these restrictions, and maybe that will come soon, but not yet. Anyway, I'll take this news as it stands! Good news for the Bay.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Incinerators are the devil"- but they produce energy

In Europe, 400 plants turn non-recyclable waste into energy, but the US has few and has hardly built any such plants in the past 15 years. Problems include NIMBY-ism and environmental groups pushing for zero waste, but the lack of incinerators means that trash ends up in landfills. This NYT article sure makes it sound like we're overlooking an environmental source of power.

A legacy of Katrina: Green Homes

This USA Today article gives much optimism talking about nonprofit groups and personal contributions donating money to help rebuild some of the less poorer areas of New Orleans with green homes. Over 500 homes have been and are being build, mostly in the lower 9th Ward and Pontchartrain Park areas of New Orleans – both of which have lower income families. These homes are those with the average value of $120,000-$160,000, but have been given the additions of eco-friendly materials, these mostly include installation, rain barrels, and solar panels. This effort is the first major effort to help build single family homes. Seattle, Washington and Boston, Massachusetts, have both built apartment buildings for poorer individuals and families with green materials and technologies. Building the homes is all thanks to contributions from nonprofit groups, Global Green USA, based in California, Make it Right, a nonprofit started by Brad Pitt, Riggio Foundation, a New York based nonprofit which has given $20 million, and personal contributions from Wendell Pierce, a New Orleans native and on the HBO show The Wire. The finished houses have shown decreases of 75% on energy bills, and one family, with 5 children, has claimed decreases of $300 on their monthly energy bills.
To me this is a great idea not only to help rebuild New Orleans and help those who didn’t have insurance and can’t easily afford a new house themselves. But, it is also rebuilds the city sustainably as well as giving the families decreased monthly bills, increased wealth in their home, and hopefully some increased pride in their homes. One concern I had was over the upkeep of solar panels and if it would be expensive for the poorer families, but other than needing to be rinsed with a hose if there is no rain and they become dirty, there is very little, if any upkeep needed over long periods of time. So, it gives a great gift to those families, neighborhoods, and the city of New Orleans, as well as it will hopefully be an example for cities which will rebuild poorer areas in the future.
--Jason Mathias