Sunday, December 18, 2011

Wingnuts on the march

Things are a little different in Virginia, where a local plan to protect the low-lying area from intruding seawater is being hailed as an attempt by the UN to subvert local autonomy. The Tea Party has some pretty interesting beliefs: "'Environmentalists have always had an agenda to put nature above man,' said Donna Holt, leader of the Virginia Campaign for Liberty, a tea party affiliate with 7,000 members. 'If they can find an end to their means, they don’t care how it happens.'"

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Quote of the day

Final exam question: "What does a government marketing order do?"

Student answer: It encourages them to buy something that the government subsidizes. Example is, "Where's the Beef?" campaign. 

For those of you who don't get it, I think the student meant the "Beef- It's what's for dinner" campaign....

Friday, December 16, 2011

Coping with Economic Pressure on popular species

Garrett sent along this article that highlights an intelligent, market-based approach to saving a wild animal and its habitat from the pressure of the exotic pet market. Economics in action!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Here endeth the blog

For now, at least: that's all you need to look at for the exam.

Ethanol: Is It Worth It?

As gasoline becomes more and more unavailable society pushes to a new fuel. Scientists are working around the clock in order to produce this new fuel. The fuel that happens to be the next best thing is ethanol. Ethanol is made from corn (renewable resource) and then it is mixed with gasoline. The resulting mixture is called E85 for 85% Ethanol. This ethanol will help demand for gasoline go down and help bring in more money to local farms and our government. This ethanol happens to cost 10 to 30 cents less than gasoline. This sounds like a good thing. The down side is that the E85 mixture produces 72% the amount of energy that regular gasoline produces. This translates into a lower mpg for your vehicle if you use E85. If you have a 23 mpg of gasoline then using E85 you only will have 16mpg. The other draw backs are you must have a "flex fuel" vehicle in order to burn E85. The general public however is not aware that they are able to burn this new fuel even if they have a "flex fuel" vehicle. Out of the people that are aware they could burn the E85 only 10% actually do use E85.
I believe that this new fuel will be the answer. Even though it is more expensive to burn then gasoline, in the future it will be cheaper. As gasoline becomes more and more scarce the price will rise and this price will drive consumers for the cheaper E85. It is not the best thing but it is the better thing. Gasoline needs to be in the past and we must move to a new source of energy.
--Lee Single

Fracking Earthquakes

This article is brief but explains that basically there are people that suspect earthquakes in Ohio have been caused by drilling for natural gas. They have gone as far as setting up four new seismographs in the area of Youngstown, Ohio. The new seismographs have seen eight minor earthquakes already this year. The last one on November 25 was a 2.1 magnitude quake. The latest quake was also just a few blocks from the brine injection well.
This source is much longer but pretty much suggests the same conclusion, that natural gas drilling is increasing the chance of an earthquake. The first quake at the drilling site near Lancashire, England on April 1st was a 2.3 tremor. The second one was recorded on May 27th was a 1.5 magnitude quake, which is lower than the first but caused all the drilling to be suspended. The drilling companies said it was a "freak event" that only happened when the process disturbed a fault line, want to start the drilling again. They are currently going through a process of deciding whether or not drilling will start again.
My opinion on the whole thing is that we can't ignore the earthquakes any longer and we have to come to the conclusion that fracking is directly associated with these reported quakes. The drilling companies should be responsible for any damages caused by these quakes and should have to research more into where to drill and where not to. However I think like most of the time, money and profits will win out and the process of drilling for natural gas will continue in England and Ohio. Unless there is a major earthquake that causes tremendous damage there isn't enough yet to scare these companies away. Also it is a lot better for the US and England to be producing energy on their own rather than having to import it. In this video, the CEO of Chesapeake Energy claims that we have twice as much shale gas in the US than they have oil in Saudi Arabia. The England article also claimed that they have discovered 200 trillion cubic feet of gas, which 10% of it could last the UK over six years.
So we have to make a judgment call on what's better for us right now and for the future, cheaper energy with the risk of earthquakes or importing energy for a much higher cost.
Question to the Class: At what point do you think we should say enough is enough? Say you were in placed in charge of deciding when to call it quits. Would you wait until a major earthquake, or you cut them off now knowing because the risks are higher than the rewards?
--Pratik Patel

Rainforest Deforestation in Uganda

This article explained the issue of jobs lost by poor women on the Bugala Island in Lake Victoria of Uganda, to deforestation caused by new palm tree plantations which are used by the company Bidco to harvest palm oil.
Many women on the island are widows or have husbands that are fisherman who are gone for long periods at a time causing these women to find ways to make money. For some of these women, that means turning to commercial sex work or finding odd jobs like gathering and selling firewood. Deforestation of the island’s rainforests has made it very difficult for those women who gather firewood to earn enough money to feed their children. Other negative effects of the palm tree plantations are the fears of land used to grow crops being converted to palm trees, lack of wind buffers from deforestation causing dust to kick up affecting asthmatic residents, and soil erosion that could lead to the run-off of agrochemicals into Lake Victoria.
I can understand how officials can be too enthusiastic about the news jobs, activity, and revenue from the Bidco Company, to notice or care about the loss of jobs to the poor residents of the island. But they need to monitor the negative externalities of these palm tree plantations like the ones explained in the article. It seems like the palm trees could be placed in a way that minimizes the wind flow over the island, and proper buffers could be added to reduce the run-off of agrochemicals.
Though I feel bad for the woman who relied on gathering wood for a living, there are probably other ways of making a living on the island, possibly even on the plantations. They will just have to adapt to the changes brought by the palm tree plantations.
--Mike Hejduk

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Fracking officially messes up the water

After three years of study, the EPA's investigation into a watershed in Wyoming has linked fracking to filth in an aquifer. People have been making such claims for a long time (cf. the movie Gasland) but now they have the government making similar claims, so maybe industry will work a bit harder on preventing this, if that's even possible. There are a few caveats: the aquifer/ fracking link was found in a place in which fracking happened at different depths than it usually does, for example. Still, it's official.

***Class members: the first link is posted on Blackboard under Readings. I moved it up so it's the first item you see there.

Goodbye Solar Thermal energy production: we hardly knew you

This article is about Google’s closure of a solar power project. Google started the program in 2007 and invested $168 million in Brightsource’s Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS). Google abandoned the program citing that other institutions were better positioned to advance the research. The focal point of the ISEGS was a solar tower that stood in the middle of a field of heliostats. Heliostats are mirrors that are used to reflect sunlight to a specific point, in this case the top of the tower. Google’s abandonment of the heliostat technology illustrates a trend in the industry; photovoltaic (PV) cells are taking over the market. Lately the prices of PV cells have dropped, giving them an edge over heliostat technology.
Personally I see this as a last nail in the coffin for heliostat technology. Google is one of the largest and most profitable companies in the United States. If they cannot see an economic reason to continue to conduct research, then there is little hope for the technology. Overall I think it is a great idea for large companies to invest in solar power R&D. Private companies are usually better at sorting out the winners and losers when compared to the government. Hopefully investments like Google’s can lead to innovations that make solar power a more viable option in the near future.
--Alec Fields

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Dumpster Diving

Curious after hearing that a few Towson students have dumpster dived for groceries at the local Trader Joe’s, I thought this kind of activity must be pretty common in this economy and with rising food prices, so I did some research. First, I found a clever and entertaining documentary called “DIVE!” which confirmed that, yes, this is an increasingly common activity in the United States, but not just amongst college students. Jeremy Seifert, the creator of Dive!, and friends put food on the table by dumpster diving, and argue that doing so is helping to counteract the extreme amounts of food waste from grocery stores and by people who cling too tightly to expiration and sell-by dates. I also discovered through this assignment that our very own professor, James Manley, has dumpster dived for bread before.

Seifert is not the only one responding to rises in food prices that have lead to even more food waste. Pope Benedict XVI commented on food speculation in an address to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization that “poverty, underdevelopment and hunger are often the result of selfish attitudes which, coming from the heart of man, show themselves in social behavior and economic exchange.” According to The Wall Street Journal, the Pope’s views on food speculation are not aligned with the views of Ben Bernanke, who feels that increased demand in Asia is contributing more to the increase in food prices. For those who love data, corn prices have gone up by 61% in the past year. Coffee prices have risen by 46%. Investment in food has risen by 1900% in just five years (from $13 billion to $260 billion). I would argue that both the demand and heavy speculation can be attributed to rising prices; neither factor should be brushed off.

In preparation for World Food Day, 461 economists, according to National Public Radio, called for better regulation of speculation on food prices and other commodities, arguing that it has contributed to volatile price changes and global hunger. There is plenty of food out there, but the price is just too high, and the increasingly impoverished population of the United States and other nations are suffering because of the high prices. Who is benefiting? Obviously those making a profit from speculation, but some readers of NPR argued that speculation helps farmers feel more secure when producing and knowing that they will not be operating at a loss. Are the benefits to this small portion of the population worth the losses and hunger put upon the global population? Would you dumpster dive for food?
--Jade Clayton

Freeing Maryland of Nutria

This article in the Baltimore Sun talks about how the invasive species, nutria has caused the eastern shore’s wetlands serious damage. Nutria is an orange toothed, web-footed beaver-like species that was brought to the United States from South America in the 1880s. They were brought over for the fur industry because they were cheap to feed. Unfortunately the industry later collapsed and the nutria were released into the wild, devouring the marshlands and reproducing rapidly.

In the past several years thousands of nutria have been hunted and killed to protect the wetlands. Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, an area of 150,000 acres is where the nutria lived, and in the last three decades they destroyed over 5,000 acres of vegetation. Without the plant’s roots erosion occurs, which allows sediment s and pollution to flow into the Bay, as well as loss of habitat for many other species. An economic report was done, by Southwick Associates and they confirmed that Blackwater nutria cost Maryland $4 million annually and it will only keep increasing. The damage done by this animal costs more than removing it, so since 2000 Congress has provided a $1.5 million annually budget for its removal. Since 2002, almost 20,000 nutria have been killed in the Eastern shore, and so far this year Blackwater is nutria-free.

I personally hope Blackwater can stay this way, but I find it highly unlikely that they are completely gone forever. Nutria is an animal that burrows in the mud and hides extremely well like any other rodent. Also their rate of reproduction is very fast which is not good, and they will continue to destroy the marshlands and cause the Chesapeake Bay more damage than it already has.
--Kelsey Myers

CAFE standards

An article in today's NYT by Thomas Friedman pointed me to this document published a few weeks ago by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Apparently the auto industry sat down with the EPA and NHTSA and worked out a slow increase in required fuel efficiency to go into effect over the next 15 years. If all goes as planned, greenhouse gas emissions should be down significantly by 2025, reaching about 50 mpg as a fleet average for all cars and trucks on the road. That seems pretty huge to me, since the trends up until about 2008 were for more fuel consumption and not less. This more fuel efficient generation of vehicles will be more expensive, but they are expected to make up for those higher costs over time, saving the consumer an average of about $4000 (assuming gas prices stay constant over the next 10 years) by reducing the amount people are paying for gas. New standards allow for larger vehicles to still get lower mileage, so they aren't supposed to push everyone to drive a golf cart, but we'll see. The NHTSA document talks about both goals for the entire set of vehicles on US roads, but also sets goals for types of vehicles, such as 33 mpg for large pickup trucks like the Chevy Silverado.

Economists say that CAFE standards aren't the most efficient way to reduce fuel use- gas taxes are more likely to be effective partly because of the rebound effect. I also don't see much in the NHTSA document about safety: it's easy to make a highly fuel efficient vehicle if you build it out of fiberglass, for instance. You just don't want to be in a fiberglass car when you get hit by something more solid. It'll be interesting to see how manufacturers go about meeting the standards.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Inefficiency of Local Food

Nice post over on the Freakonomics blog (by a guy in the program I graduated from!) about the true costs of the locavore movement. (That post is a short version of this 4-page description of a study he did.) While no one is opposed to people growing vegetables in their home gardens, Steve Sexton argues that a large scale shift to local food would be disastrous for several reasons. Here's why.

Right now, most crops are grown where conditions fit the crop the best. For example, conditions in Idaho suit potato production, so they have specialized in growing potatoes. If people were to shift to producing them locally, they wouldn't be as productive, because the conditions aren't as well suited. So if we want to eat anything near the same amount of potatoes that we eat now, we could, but it would be more expensive from many perspectives.

1) It would require more chemicals, such as fertilizers and pesticides, to get the potatoes to grow in places that aren't so suitable.

2) It would require more land, since almost all land outside of Idaho produces a smaller amount of potatoes per acre than in other places. (Potatoes are just an example: the 4-page version of the study talks about corn, soy, oats, and milk.) More land used for farming means:

3) Cutting into wilderness

4) More spread out housing, which means

5) More gas burned as people have to drive more.

6) Finally, getting rid of "big ag" means higher prices on food.

While higher prices of corn will discourage us from producing tons of high fructose corn syrup, which may have positive effects on health in this country, higher prices on corn are potentially a nightmare for people in poor countries.

Campus recycling

Just wanted to make sure you had seen the university's "Go Green" web page, which features a recycling video (featuring one-time ResEcon student Malinda Ross) which, in turn, has (at the end) a link to this video of what goes on at a recycling plant.

Somehow, objectives of the green movement have become enshrined as goals of the administration. Instead of people camping out on campus with signs and sleeping bags, the banner has been taken up by the people in charge. That's less likely to make the news, but almost certainly more effective than the demonstrations.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Environmentally unfriendly jobs booming

This article claims that the key to job creation in the U.S. is non-renewable domestic energy in the form of natural gas and oil. The industry has grown 80% more jobs and 20% of total new net private jobs since 2003 are in the domestic oil and gas industry. The author credits the boom in non-green jobs to new technologies like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing that are renovating the harvesting processes in both oil and natural gas. Areas in the U.S. seeing the job boom are North Dakota with 200 oilrigs producing just under half a million barrels/ day and a subsequent 3.5% unemployment rate. Pennsylvania Marcellus shale formation is credited with creating 18,000 new jobs in the first half of this year. I understand where the author is coming from when he/she criticizes Obama administration and the political left for proposing a 5-year plan to ban drilling on outer shelf and delaying the Keystone pipe-laying project. However, I am hesitant to say that more jobs now is more important than a cleaner planet for future generations. All in all I do not agree. Although investing in renewable energy is not yet cost effective, I think is still an important option in terms of a healthy earth. Even though Obama’s green loan program has failed to create the 65,000 estimated jobs (only 3,500 have emerged from the $38.6 billion loan) I think it is important that the research continues hopefully resulting with a viable green energy option in our country’s future.
~Natalie Ciletti

Thursday, November 24, 2011


In our class we just completed a movie assignment with some pretty amazing results. I'm impressed by the work students put in to (in most cases) get interviews and then edit them into short, attractive, often amusing short videos. Take a look!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Fishing & regulations

Interesting article on cod fishing in Gloucester, Mass. Regulations limiting catch hurt people trying to make a living by fishing, and it's really hard to hold people to limits. It can be done, but in this case doing so provoked a political backlash. In the end it seems that catch shares (ITQ's) are the way things are going to go, but systems don't change lightly.

Since there are externalities in this "commons" situation, using catch shares or taxes are the way to get to the social optimum. It's not easy to figure out what that social optimum is, though, and spreading the pain around so that it doesn't hit anyone disproportionately is virtually impossible. Clearly effective regulations are necessary, but also humane implementation of the regulations is something to strive for. There's already enough pepper spray in the air these days!

Sprawl is good

So contends Marta Mossburg, op-ed writer for the Sun in this column blasting Gov. Martin O'Malley for his PlanMaryland scheme. She raises a few good points, and while I don't agree with her overall let me reiterate some of her points.

I don't doubt that people are moving away from Baltimore City, and I'll believe her that people are also leaving PG and Montgomery counties. Could this be because people prefer to live in rural areas? (She also says that more people have moved to rural areas, but this looks to be largely because of the growth of Aberdeen Proving Ground.)

She makes a valid point that O'Malley's shifting state money from rural to urban areas benefits him politically: Democrats tend to be concentrated in such areas, and this can be seen as an excuse to send money to his supporters. On the other hand, moving money from areas where there are few people to areas where there are more people could also be seen as simply efficient: investing in public goods that benefit the most people is generally a good idea, though some public goods such as wilderness area do not lend themselves to urban investment.

Her next contention is that high density is bad because it tends to produce highly concentrated pollution. I won't argue with that either, except to say that pollution abatement measures can alleviate some of that. For example, urban areas are more likely to impose more stringent air quality controls on vehicles. However, ultimately she's right: concentrated people produce concentrated pollution, and that is expensive to deal with. The question I'd ask is what her preferred alternative is. If everyone is commuting by car from a rural area to an urban job, the total amount of pollution is almost certainly more, though it's more distributed. And though she dismisses climate change as "subjective," I am not as sanguine about the issue.

Her dismissal of Maryland emissions and of mass transit in general don't impress me, but she is more convincing when she says that limiting growth will raise housing prices. That seems likely to me: any kind of an increase in restrictions is likely to raise prices. On the other hand, she ignores prices completely when she says that increased density means more pressure on existing systems. So, the implication is that it's cheaper to build new ones than to repair the old? That doesn't make much sense.

It's expensive to internalize externalities, no question. That doesn't mean that it isn't the right thing to do.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tax on a Christmas Icon

The Federal government is thinking of imposing a 15-cent tax on Christmas trees this year, in an attempt to improve “the image and marketing of Christmas trees.” The secretary of agriculture was going to appoint a Christmas Tree Promotion Board who was going to be in charge of researching and designing new strategies to strengthen the industry of Christmas trees in the market. The 15-cent tax was going to be levied on the sellers of fresh-cut Christmas trees, but only for sellers who met or exceeded the sale of 500 trees a year. But, the tax could be easily passed on to the consumers, who are already in a financial bind coming into the holiday season because of still high unemployment rates.

The Obama administration decided to delay their proposal for this tax the following day, as there was such a large outcry from the public. The public was upset and so was the Christmas tree industry, as many in the industry did not even want the tax. The industry has tried three prior times and after a period of time the revenue of the tax decline to the point that the programs were no longer effective to run.

This tax can be seen as another attempt by the Federal government to have a say in the market operations in the United States. The government is already extended itself further and further, while there is still an issue of a large national debt. The implementation of a tax on Christmas trees can also be seen as an infringement from the government on the ability of its citizens to choose their own religion freely. What is special about the Christmas tree to those who do not celebrate Christmas? Why should there be a tax to improve the image of the Christmas tree if not everyone cares about Christmas trees? These are the gray areas that the federal government needs to be cautious proceeding on, especially in an economically tight time where many are not happy with the government as it is.
--Meredith Springsteen


That's the headline of a Business Week article. You have to wait to the bottom of the second paragraph to find out that,"Benefits of $419 billion to $515 billion in fuel savings would offset the costs." Seems like a net benefit of around $300 billion would be a good thing, but maybe that's just me....

This article is the first for the last quiz. You don't need it or anything more recent for the 11/18 quiz #4.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

US = Spain?

An article in today's NYT looks at the large number of subsidies available for producers of solar and other alternative energy and concludes that the US will see real benefits from the major investments that have been made in these areas over the past few years. However, the glut of spending, mostly from the stimulus funds spent over the past few years, has been pretty inefficient: industry could have done more solar with less money if the incentives had been structured better. Let's just hope we're not building a house of cards like they did in Spain!

Storm-Water Fee Proposed in Arundel

Politicians are trying to solve the issue of storm-water that runs off of streets and parking lots. Nearly 1/3 of the nitrogen pollution in the Chesapeake Bay that comes from Anne Arundel County is estimated to come from storm run-off that washes fertilizer, pet waste, and other organic debris into local water sources. County council member Chris Trumbauer is proposing a fee on all property owners to finance the pollution controls needed. This $35 annual fee on homeowner’s properties will hopefully help to reduce storm-water runoff. Nonresidential properties will receive a fee based on the amount of rooftops and pavements they have. The fees would go into a fund dedicated specifically to storm-water controls, and would not be used for any other purposes. The money would go towards retrofitting storm drains, replacing pavement, and creating roof gardens. Trumbauer believes that the profit made from this bill will create local jobs and clean up the waterways in this community. The state of Maryland is being pushed to comply with the EPA’s “pollution diet” and every county will experience some sort of funding challenge.
I think that it is a good idea for homeowners to pay a fee for the storm-water runoff from their property, but I’m not sure how well the residents are going to accept it. If the nitrogen waste is caused by their own fertilizers, pet wastes, and organic debris, then it is good that the homeowners will finally become aware of the negative externalities that their wastes have on the environment. It’s important that the Chesapeake Bay becomes less polluted, and Trumbauer has come up with a smart idea for dealing with the funds that are associated with improving water quality. Do you think that residents will agree to pay this $35 fine, or will they fight it?
--Kristen Eisemann

BCA on the EPA

The House Republicans plan to cut more than $3 billion dollars from EPA funding (about one third of their budget) would have a major impact on the agency's plans to reduce carbon emissions and limit water pollution. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said that, “Big polluters would flout legal restrictions on dumping contaminants into the air, into rivers, and onto the ground, […] There would be no EPA grant money to fix or replace broken water treatment systems. And the standards that EPA is set to establish for harmful air pollutants from smokestacks and tailpipes would remain missing." Without the regulations to control pollution and money to fix these plants, people are at a greater risk to contaminated drinking water. Many Republicans feel that the EPA regulations go to far and make it very difficult for people to make a living. However, the regulations are in place to help protect people. The cost-benefit of enacting the 1990 Clean Air Act would be about $2 trillion by 2020 but it would save about 230,000 lives. So I guess the question is: Is the cut to the EPA’s budget worth it to save that money if there is a greater risk to public health? I personally do not think it is. I realize that the country is in a great deal of debt, but citizens lives should not be put in greater danger in order to save some money.
--Sara Poe

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Big Action Down Under

In addition to implementing a carbon tax, Australia is proposing a law that would force cigarettes to be packaged in plain boxes. About 75% of the new boxes would be covered with graphic warnings about the effects of smoking, leaving much less space for trademarks and such. Unsurprisingly, the tobacco industry intends to sue.

Nearly 100 years ago US law established a doctrine of "clear and present danger" to describe the situations in which the right to free speech might be abrogated. My best reading of Wikipedia tells me that in 1969 the standard was changed to ban only incitements to "imminent lawless action." Obviously Australian legal proceedings will proceed from a different background, but the question is intriguing: if tobacco consumption is legal but expensive to the state, can governments limit advertising?

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

Business Week seems to have forgotten the second half of the title of the iconic AC/DC song in this long but interesting article on the changing face of the American work force. The new heavy-handed restrictions on immigrants in Alabama have a variety of problems, but one of them is that the Alabama economy still relies to a large extent on cheap labor. They aren't the only ones- agriculture and aquaculture operations all over the US, including crab pickers on the Eastern Shore of our home state- will take advantage of the availability of Latin American workers who are able to come north to work for low wages as "guest workers" doing jobs the natives don't want.

I confess that I stopped reading the article when they started talking to a sociologist about the stigma associated with doing dirty job, and how once a job goes to immigrants it doesn't go back. No doubt I'm blinded by my training as an economist, but the issue here isn't that the job is "dirty," whether by association with dirt itself or by a despised group of people. The issue is that the jobs don't pay enough for people to put up with the physical punishment associated with doing the job. Americans do some nasty, nasty jobs, and they do them because they pay. The aquaculturist in the article complains that he "can't pay people $13 an hour" because of overseas competition.

I hate to be cold-hearted, but if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. Find a niche, dude- try raising your catfish on organic meal and then charge a premium price when you sell them. Then maybe you could afford to pay your workers a decent wage, and you wouldn't have to go try to convince people to come work for you out of the goodness of their hearts. (The employer hasn't bothered to learn the language of his workers, but that's another story.) Try switching to shrimp, which is also a product with heavy international competition, but one that still goes for a good price.

I can't say I like the means by which this end was achieved: the racially-tinged regulations make me sick to my stomach. But if it brings an end to the economy of serfdom, that would be a lotus flower: a beautiful thing rooted in muck.

Menhaden Restrictions... for real!

The headline has it as, "Menhaden harvest limit sharply cut," but is 5% really a "sharp" cut? I'd call it more of a trim, but I'm not that up on the science behind this one. Anyway, people seem pretty happy about this, so I guess I'll take it for what it's worth. Hopefully this will mean more, healthier stripers and osprey up and down the coast, and maybe even less algae clogging up the Bay, creating fewer dead zones. It could also cost some Virginians their jobs, if Omega Protein needs fewer employees. Time will tell.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Sharing the costs

In 1995 and 1996, conservationists' lawsuits to bring back wolves in the Yellowstone Park area (in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming) succeeded: wolves were reintroduced after having been poisoned and trapped almost out of existence. The species thrived, paring back excessive growth in elk and coyote populations, but also paring back growth in nearby ranchers' herds. Today, ranchers contend that, "People who want it here should share the costs" and are in some cases taking money from conservation groups to pay for measures like electric fences and mounted riders. However, such measures are often inadequate, and other times, ranchers have taken conservationists' money and put it to other uses, such as hiring helicopter-riding wolf hunters.

A complicated problem with no easy solution; at least sharing the costs seems like a good way to start.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Menhaden Restrictions Again Considered

Nice story in the Sun over the weekend on some restrictions being suggested for menhaden. Everyone who has studied the subject is in favor of restricting catches, except for basically one group: industry. Shocker, I know. Actually, Omega Protein continues to surprise me. That one firm harvests 80% of the menhaden catch, and they don't have any competitors, so you'd think that they would be interested in maximizing their long-term return by getting the population to a level that would allow them to have a large, sustained catch. Instead, they seem determined to drive themselves out of business by sucking up all the fish as quickly as possible. The only way this approach makes sense is if they're strategically competing against someone else- say, environmentalists- and they sense that their true best outcome will be achieved in a balance when they are inevitably forced to compromise. If they can pull that off, then they get the best of both worlds! I just don't know why they have to get to their optimal outcome that way- why not just accept reality (i.e. the work of these scientists) and go to that best place sooner?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fracking Water in Niagara Falls

With New York State looking into potentially allowing hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as a means of obtaining natural gas, Niagara Falls is attempting to position itself as a town on the cutting edge of this new industry. Fracking involves pushing millions of gallons of water deep into the bed rock where there is shale. This water fractures the shale, allowing the natural gas that is trapped underneath to exit via the well. The water that was used comes out extremely salty and laced with poisonous elements including barium, strontium, and radium. This water needs to meet EPA standards, which are currently being reworked, before it can be sent to municipal water treatment plants to be released back into regular water supplies. Niagara Falls has a water treatment plant, which was originally designed for the area’s chemical industry, that can handle the waste water, and clean it to where it meets EPA standards. Since the chemical industry has pulled out of Niagara Falls, the plant has been operating at a fraction of what it can handle, prompting the plant owner and local government to look into the economic possibility of using the plant as a site to clean fracking water.

Currently Niagara Falls is a city of only 50,000 residents, which has been, and is continuing to decline. Also, the current per capita income of the city is only $19,000 compared to the rest of New York's average of $30,000 income. These factors have led to a push for the use of Niagara Falls’s plant. Opponents point to the Love Canal incident of the 1970s, when the Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corp. dumped waste chemicals into the abandoned Love Canal. These chemicals were found seeping into backyards and basements throughout Niagara Falls. The situation got so bad that President Jimmy Carter declared the area a federal emergency in 1978, and the Superfund Cleanup Act was passed in 1980. This recent environmental disaster is the reason why many are uneasy about bringing in more potentially dangerous waste products.

The problem in Niagara Falls is an interesting one. On one side we have a city that was once a popular destination for honeymoons and family vacations declining at a staggering rate. And on the other side, we have the potential for another environmental disaster that could rock a town already struck by one in recent memory. Personally, I too have mixed feelings about it for the same reasons that are listed above; however, I do believe that the situation is much safer now than it was with the Hooker Corp. The EPA has already begun legislation to prevent toxic waste water from re-entering the water supply. The major downfall of this proposal that I see is the current condition of the Niagara Falls plant. It does not say how new the plant is and how much, if any, retrofitting the plant will cost. This is the major unknown. If the plant is up to code, or perhaps even above standards, I think that this would be a good idea; though, if the plant needed extensive retrofitting, or if the plant just barely met standards, I would think that the plan should be scrapped.
--Colin Alban

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Questionable Economics of Desalination

As climate change destabilizes weather patterns, many foresee shifts in the availability of water. Floods like this year's horrific deluge in Thailand may become more common, while other places like Central Asia may lose access to what little water they currently have, perhaps leading to wars over water. If all this comes to pass, water pipelines may take their place next to oil pipelines- using the same corridors, just running the other way- if the technology behind desalination becomes economic. China is investing a large amount of money here just as they have done in solar panels. Right now it's far from being worth the cost, but if technology ratchets up a few times, who knows? China could have another Next Big Thing on their hands.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Yergin on the future of oil in the West

The "Go oil!" guy has an article in the Washington Post this morning about how deep sea oil in Brazil, oil in shale formations in the US, and the Canadian oil sands are increasing in prominence as providers for US oil. While increased dependence on more stable producers is a good thing for us, the less dependable sources produced in unstable and/ or highly autocratic regimes in the Middle East are still going to have plenty of customers as Asian demand picks up.

While his cavalier attitude toward CO2 emissions seems misplaced, he's pointing to a lot of very real recent developments. The market is indeed moving this way, and effective planning needs to accept these realities.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Guess what? Taxes are going up!

O'Malley and the legislature are looking to raise fees for transportation, from a 15-cent increase in gas taxes to higher charges for bus and rail passengers. Car registration fees would also go up.

If that's the cost of maintaining and improving our infrastructure, I don't see much of an alternative: better to pay now and not when there's a bridge collapse. We used to get a good-sized chunk of money from the Federal Government, but that's drying up and we have some serious needs that even this package may not address. The "Purple Line" in the DC area is on us here in Maryland, and that looks to be a few billion dollars, which is in fact far more than this new fee would raise.

Stuff is expensive!

Externalities of aquaculture

Aquaculture has been targeted as the "next big thing" for awhile, since it lets us produce a lot of protein without pillaging the oceans for wild fish. People need protein, and cheap sources like this are rare.

Of course, everything has its costs, and another one may be just becoming apparent. A virus that became common in Atlantic salmon aquaculture may have migrated to the Pacific. That would be bad.

I'm otherwise in favor of aquaculture, though: people need protein, and particularly if fish can fed on grains (see this previous post) then it could potentially be pretty important, particularly in places like southeast Asia which rely on fishing. As always, trying to recognize the costs and maximize the net benefits, and the costs just went up a bit.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"Organic" Means Less than you Think

A blogger for Scientific American has written this amply-footnoted article debunking much of the mythology that's grown up about organics. It's an eye-opener! The author claims that the point is not to be anti-organic, but just to clear up some widespread myths.

Myth #1: Organic farmers don't use pesticides. Most do, in fact, use pesticides: they just are only allowed to use "natural" pesticides, which may be just as nasty.

Myth #2: Organics are healthier. Conventional crops have more nitrogen while organic crops have more phosphorus and acidity, but nutrient content is identical.

Myth #3: Organics are better for the environment. I personally never believed the health claims, but I thought the environment was where the benefits were. The author grants that using fewer synthetic pesticides is a good thing, for sure. However, she argues 1) that by blasting plants with Bt and other "organic" pesticides, organic producers are still dumping nasty stuff into the environment; 2) that ignoring GMO's means we end up using more pesticides and other resources in the long run, and 3) organics are 20% less productive, yielding less per acre than conventional crops, so buying organics means voting to dedicated more land to agriculture instead of leaving it wild.

Myth #4: It's all or none. She notes that both organic and conventional farmers have positives, and that open-minded environmentalists will work toward improving both.

For a (non-specific) response, I went over to nutritionists Marion Nestle's web page, where she has a FAQ that addresses the issue. She says only that her personal investigations conclude that the USDA Organic label is a good thing to look for. "When you choose organics, you are voting with your fork for a planet with fewer pesticides, richer soil, and cleaner water supplies—all better in the long run." I think the author of the first piece would agree for the most part, but more information is definitely useful.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Green Conservatism

Here's an interesting article pointed to me by a friend: it's about the overlaps between environmentalism and conservatism. I like parts of it, but other parts are curious.

  • They rightly note that the market solution to pollution isn't to try to pick winners, a process that failed with Solyndra. However, the second half of that equation is that the "right" answer according to these criteria is to impose a carbon tax, since incentives matter and the goal of decreasing pollution is more important than the means we use to get there.
  • The EPA is over-funded? Hm. No doubt some portions of that bureaucracy could be streamlined, but this article says that their worst work has benefit to cost ratios of 10:1. (h/t Environmental Economics) Sounds like these two commentators need to have a powwow. I'm sure both agree that in the end what matters most is growth in the economy- nothing's better for the environment than a recession. What matters second most is the private sector's implementation of better technology, and that's usually encouraged via... taxes and/ or subsidies. Could there be a theme here?
  • I fully support the conservatives on the costs of water and tradable fishing shares. People should face the true costs of their actions and should benefit when they do the right thing, like cutting back on fishing.
  • On air quality, this conservative site supports cap and trade. I don't know why more people don't.
It's always seemed clear to me that someone "conservative" should be for "conservation." Am I wrong?

Fat Tax on Danish

Marion Nestle calls attention to the new fat tax promulgated in Denmark, which is designed to raise money but also to discourage consumption of unhealthy foods. Her analysis is by and large pretty good, with one exception. She says, "Leaving aside the usual criticisms, such as the impact on poorer people, I have a different reason for being troubled by tax interventions. They aim to change individual behaviour, but do little to change the behaviour of corporations that make and market unhealthful products, spending vast fortunes to make them available, desirable and socially acceptable."

Taxes, by raising prices, discourage consumption, it's true, but you know what? Consumption makes a difference for producers, too: if they aren't selling anything, profits go down. That's hitting corporations where it matters most.

Solar Panel Prices

Speaking of backstops: "In Hawaii, Italy, and other places with abundant sunshine and high electricity rates, it’s already cheaper for consumers to install rooftop solar panels than to buy power from their local utility. By 2015 panels will have reached that point of so-called grid parity in much of the U.S., Europe, and Japan, Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts. Over the past two years, BNEF says, solar thermal plants have trimmed the price of their power by 3 percent, to about 27¢ per kilowatt hour, while electricity from photovoltaic installations has plunged 41 percent, to 17¢." --from Business Week

***This is the first blog entry for quiz #4. You don't need it for quiz 3.***

Friday, October 21, 2011

Electric Slide

Many utilities in the U.S. have been operating as monopolies. Aspiring electricity providers have been barred, first by federal regulations, and then by certain states. There are only 15 states in the U.S. that provide customers with any form of choice when it comes to the provider. Texas is the largest electricity generating state in the country. In addition the state ranks number one in providing a choice when it comes to electricity. Half of all customers in Texas are eligible to switch electricity providers, and nearly 4 million, or 60%, have already done so. By allowing the customer to choose their provider the state has given rise to innovation and efficiency. In 2005 Texas achieved their goal of producing 2,000 MW (megawatts) of new renewable energy, four years ahead of their scheduled date, 2009. Continuing on the path of triumph Texas has raised the goal to 10,000 MW by 2025. Deregulation encouraged companies to invest in this new beneficial energy, and thus new companies such as Green Mountain Energy have emerged. Rates in Texas have trended downward, and are today at 11.28 cents/kWh, below the national average of 11.58 cents/kWh.
So with all of these benefits and savings why are the majority of U.S. utility markets regulated and monopolized? There are a few potential draw backs to a competitive market. Other than certain companies losing their power of monopoly the biggest factor is the direction that the market would go. As renewable energy becomes more reliable and efficient the cost will decrease. In the meantime it is still a very expensive energy to invest in. New companies that are rising in the renewable energy field require a large input of private capital. Government subsidies help to enable and encourage these companies to continue. If these subsidies were lost or decreased the market for renewable energy would take a large hit and slow the growth of the sector significantly. If this happens many companies in a free market would still strive to provide the cheapest energy source, and that resource would not be renewable in the case of a loss of government subsidies. Without the subsidies many companies take gracious financial offers from other countries such as China to relocate in an effort to attract more clean energy. If the budget is revised or changed and there is a loss of funds for subsidies not only will the private companies have wasted significant amounts of money, management time, and focus, the market could also take a fall back into non-renewable energy.
With that in mind does the U.S. stand to benefit from a competitive utility market with the current economy, or would that drive the country further into a reliance on coal and oil, and distrust of renewable energies.
--Caleb DeMario

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why Congestion Pricing is Always Unpopular

Nice exposition by Felix Salmon on traffic. Since people get used to paying tolls, car licensing fees, etc., the idea is that to get people to pay attention to a fee enough to change their behavior, it has to hurt just a little more than usual. So to make "congestion fees" actually work, leaving easily jammed places comparatively free of traffic, the fee needs to be constantly shifting, not just another cost of daily driving. Since it's basically designed to annoy, it annoys people, and has a tough time becoming law. Too bad, since they do work!

Economics of Cleaning the Chesapeake

A nice little summary of the issues associated with improving water quality in the Chesapeake is posted here. Below are some quotes about the problem; the article also presents several possible solutions. (If you're in Resources class, please read the whole article.)

"Two basic issues must be addressed if water quality goals are to be achieved. First, the regional nutrient budget is out of balance: more nutrients, primarily in the form of animal feed, are being brought into the watershed than can be assimilated, in the form of manure, by the crops grown. Second, not enough farmers are using the most effective—best—nutrient management practices. The persistence of these problems is not entirely due to a lack of resources. In the Bay, as elsewhere in the United States, water quality protection in agriculture has largely been pursued through voluntary strategies, supported by government financial and technical assistance. Only recently have large animal intensive enterprises been subjected to National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit requirements..."

"For a voluntary program to be efficient, it must enroll farmers who can provide abatement at least cost. Current USDA cost-share programs are not designed to do this."

Approaching Climate Change

This article by Elinor Ostrom, the 2009 winner of the Nobel Price in Economics argues that we need to confront climate change on many different levels, all at once. I'm really not versed in behavioral or political economics, but these areas are fascinating and make important contributions to policy issues like this one.

Perspectives on Soda Taxation

An interesting issue of Choices magazine came out on the subject of soda taxes. Choices is a very user-friendly publication of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association. An introduction to the special issue is located here. The first article, written by public health professionals, is cautiously supportive of an increased tax, though they note that taxing soda may encourage shifts to other types of high calorie beverages. The next, written by some health economists, looks to the parallel with tobacco taxes for inspiration. The third article, written by a public health specialist, notes that effects on obesity are likely to be small, again in part because of substitution effects. The fourth article takes aim at the substitution effects, arguing that they are not likely to cut effectiveness of the tax, which should still generate a lot of tax revenue and cut calories consumed. A fifth (by an agricultural economist) looks at the large role advertising plays in soda consumption, and the last is written by an industry advocate, arguing that the problem is one of personal choice and responsibility, and that it's wrong to use taxes to push people one direction or another.

Dumping Solar Panels

Some solar panel manufacturers in the US are suing China through the World Trade Organization, complaining that the price of solar panels being sold in the US by Chinese exporters is below the cost of production. It's illegal to sell goods for below the cost of production because that's a practice used to drive other companies out of business, after which companies can run up prices and make a huge profit as monopolists.

The tremendous drops in solar panel prices have been a wind at the back of those who would increase solar energy's share of the energy market, but they may prove to be short-lived. If this suit goes through, prices will surely rise, helping those companies who produce solar panels in this country but hurting consumers in the short run. In the long run, prices should still drop, but not as quickly. Sorry, solar panel installers, consumers, and solar energy advocates!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Living Buildings?

One potential technological solution to CO2 accumulation: coral-like "living paint" that could transform atmospheric carbon into solid matter to "heal" cracks in buildings. It's not yet economic, but it's fun to think about!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Climate Change: The Ultimate Impact

An article over at BBC News discusses the effects of climate change, including:
  • Higher rates of malnutrition, as agriculture struggles to cope with changing conditions
  • Higher rates of disease, as new geographic areas become accessible to bacteria and viruses
  • Higher likelihood of conflict, as dwindling water and other resources force people to look to new sources and/ or take from their neighbors
  • Energy prices should jump, as resource scarcity and associated conflict makes things worse in places like the Middle East, where tensions are already high
  • Most devastating of all, Starbucks warns that climate change is expected to threaten the earth's coffee supplies in 20-30 years time.
Now THERE'S a catastrophe waiting to happen.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Banning Water Bottles?

Not quite yet, but the O’Malley administration has made a big step forward in cutting back on the bottled liquid. They have decided to no longer supply bottled water to any state facility where tap water would be available. Maryland is now the 6th state to join the movement of lessening the supply of water bottles within the government. The move has been supported by environmentalists as well as economists and especially by the group Corporate Accountability International who argue that bottled water is wasteful and undermines support for municipal drinking-water systems. So far there is no really clear understanding of just how much money this will save for Maryland but DNR representative Richard Norling has stated that Maryland paid $200,000 to Deer Park in 2010. In buildings or sites where taps or water fountains are not available to people, bottled water will still be supplied as well in emergencies. It will be up to agency heads to decide whether or not bottled water will be available in vending machines. This is definitely a positive move for the environment and hopefully an equally good move for the economy. I guess we’ll have to see what this extra money will go towards.
--Emily Beckhardt

Baltimore County leak leaves Exxon with bill for $1 billion

In 2006 a gas leak in the community of Jacksonville, Baltimore County Maryland, resulted in 26,000 gallons of fuel entering the ground underneath one of Exxon Mobil’s local stations. The gas eventually ended up in the community’s water supply resulting in significant contamination. Jacksonville does not have a source of public water and extracts all of its water from underground wells. This gas leak lasted for a total of 37 days. As a result of this leak, Exxon Mobil was sued by more than 160 homeowners. Exxon was eventually ordered to pay more than $1 billion in punitive damages and $495 million in compensatory damages. This gas leak had a very big impact on residents and small business owners of Jacksonville. For weeks they were unsure whether or not the water was contaminated or if it was safe to once again drink. Residents and business owners both had to spend a great deal of money on other sources of water during this period. This gas leak not only damaged the environment but it really disrupted the community of Jacksonville in many ways. People were forced to find alternatives and do whatever was necessary in order to obtain the water they needed for their everyday activities and businesses’. There was also a stigma from neighboring areas about Jacksonville after this and people did not trust that the water was safe for a long time. Exxon’s punitive damages payment is the 21st largest in history. This verdict will hopefully remind other companies similar to Exxon to ensure the necessary safety precautions are in place to prevent a catastrophe similar to this from happening again. This gas leak clearly affected all different types of people and hopefully it will lead as an example of what can be prevented in the future by ensuring proper safety regulations.
--David Dierking

Australian Carbon Tax

Australia is getting ready to pass a national carbon tax that would start in July 2012 with a cap and trade program starting in 2015. Right now Australia is the biggest carbon emitter per capita in the world because 80% of its electricity is produced by coal. To start, polluters would be taxed about $23 per ton of carbon emitted. However, some of the highest carbon emitters like aluminum and steel manufacturers would receive free carbon permits. Industries like coal and steel would receive government subsidies to reduce their remissions and find cleaner technologies. A fund of $10 billion would be set up to encourage investment in renewable energies. Companies would be able to buy carbon permits from the Carbon Farming Initiative, which would give carbon permits to farmers that offset carbon emissions by doing things like planting trees, cutting methane emissions in livestock, and reducing fertilizer use.

I think that is unfair that some of the highest carbon emitting industries are receiving free carbon permits or being subsidized by the government. There is therefore less incentive for them to develop cleaner technologies because they are not paying the true cost of their carbon emissions. However with Australia relying so heavily on coal for power, the government has to start somewhere. I believe that they are off to a good start and because of initiatives like the Carbon Farming Initiative the government may be able to reduce the subsidies they provide to industry in the future.
--Lauren Davidson

European Airlines Taxes

In an article found in the New York Times it was reported that an advisor for the European Court of Justice published an opinion that supported the proposed law to charge the airlines for their green house gas emissions. It was proposed that the airlines that fly in and out of Europe should be held responsible for their emissions and therefore charged for them. This would cause the true cost of air travel to be realized in that the airlines would be held responsible for the pollution that they are putting into the atmosphere which can be considered an externality. Airlines say that this would infringe on the sovereignty of the nations that they are based in and would go against the so called freedom of the high seas. However the law is not set in stone yet and would provide some room for negotiations such as only charging flights that leave Europe or not charging the airlines for the emissions that they produce outside of European Union air space. The article says that this would cause a price increase for trans-Atlantic one way airfare of only $2.70 to $16.15; however the airlines say that the price increase would be much higher than that.
I feel that this is a good way to make the airlines responsible for the emissions that they produce. However I think that a much bigger tax is going to be required before it would be advantageous for the airlines to make investments in a cleaner energy source. Such a small price increase would not deter enough people from trans-Atlantic flight for the airlines to lose enough profit and thereby force them to look into alternate forms of power. But if this system were enacted worldwide it might produce enough lost profit that the airlines would be pushed to develop a system for fueling their planes that had much less environmental impact and thus lower the external costs of operating and as a result the price of an airline ticket.
--Matt Timmons

Romney's environment/ business balance

Mitt Romney, a GOP candidate for the Presidential Election of 2012, is under fire (class only link) for his wishy-washy environmental stance. After hiring Douglas Foy, a Democratic environmental activist, Romney seems to promote good environmental choices. However, as the 2012 election draws nearer and Romney is under more pressure from rival candidates, he seems to change his tune. Mr. Foy was hired to supervise environmental initiatives under Governor Mitt Romney. "He said that Mr. Romney's environmental record fits 'the Republican tradition in Massachusetts'' of 'fiscal conservatism and good governance, doing more with less'." His opponents, however seem to disagree. During his term as governor of Massachusetts, Romney made strides against CO2 emissions by making Massachusetts the first state to set CO2 emissions limits on power plants. According to the article, "Mr. Foy said that as he was negotiating a cap-and-trade regime with other states, Mr. Romney made it clear he believed in human-caused global warming and wanted a policy response. At the time, many conservatives were open to a cap-and-trade system, seeing it as a market-driven solution to limiting emissions." It seems however, that the governor was unsure of how the carbon-trading system would impact the local economy. Instead of pushing for radical environmental regulation, Romney pushed negotiators to build business-oriented provisions -- "such as triggers to cut off trading if the price of energy rose to certain levels." It seems Romney was not happy with this still, because after instructing Mr. Foy to negotiate an agreement to promote business, "Romney ultimately backed out, saying the deal lacked a "safety valve'' to cap plant payments if they exceeded emission limits."
--Ashley Anthony

Disappearing Beaches

This article talks about how climate change is increasing water levels as well as the severity of storms. This may seem bad enough without taking the economic facet into account. Rising water levels in the Pacific Ocean are not only threatening the natural ecosystem of the Californian coastline but are also threatening the fiscal wellbeing of the coastal community. A study released by San Francisco State University warns that as stronger coastal storms and beach erosion batter the coast of California, communities of people and natural species will be displaced. As the beaches get destroyed, so does the local economy. If the Pacific Ocean rises the projected 55 inches by 2100, Venice Beach will lose around $440 million in tourism and tax revenue. This sea level rise would also cause $52 million in flood damage to Venice Beach area homes along with $39 million in habitat loss. Malibu beaches would lose $500 million in tourism, $28.5 million in damaged homes, and $102 million in habitat loss. The study estimates that sea levels will rise 4 to 5 feet and cause $100 billion in damages by 2100. My first thought when I hear that coastlines will be swallowed up by rising sea levels is for the natural environment. Coastal habitats contain great biodiversity and losing this type of environment would be very detrimental. I did not even realize the blow that the economy would take when sea levels rise. There would be fewer jobs available in California due to the fact that any job along the coast or involving the beach would be out of the picture. I would assume that many people would then become jobless and try to look for a job further inland. Right now 80% of Californians live in coastal communities and rely on beaches to support the local economy so it will be interesting to see how they can adjust to shrinking land and income.
--Annie Sekerak

Too Much Parking in New York City

In downtown Brooklyn, surrounded by mass transit, a forty two story luxury building houses 256 parking spaces, taking up two stories. This may not seem like a lot of spaces for the 40 stories worth of residents, but only half of the spaces are being used. The problem is that the building’s residents have chosen this location because it is close to mass transit. If the majority of residents do not drive a car, why did developers create so many parking spaces? The reason is zoning regulations, and very out of date regulations at that. Zoning regulations set in 1951, in Brooklyn and surrounding areas state that for every ten rental units of public housing there should be four parking spots (with some variation). Because of this rule several buildings have parking garages where half of the spaces are empty. Not many New Yorkers have cars in mass transit areas and those who do take advantage of free street parking. With so many people parking on the street they are circling looking for a spot and creating a lot of emissions. This does not see eye to eye with the Mayor’s hopes of a sustainable city.

Even developers know the demand for parking is very low in garages so they choose to build the minimum number of spaces that the rules require. The Clean Air Act set a cap on the number of spots per building; too bad this doesn’t change anything since the maximum number of spots were never built. The Mayor has tried to change these mandates before but City Hall said that “people are emotional about parking," so no changes were made. There has been recent talk about reforms. One option is to allow residential garages in Manhattan to rent spaces out to the public and another option is to reduce the number of required spots in mass transit areas. Even with these changes, it is hard to compete with free street parking.

In my opinion these zoning regulations should have been changed years ago. The number of spaces required for public housing needs to be reduced, especially in transit areas. People who have a car are going to continue to drive and continue to park on the street. This may change if spaces can be rented out, but only in areas of great interest and for a low enough cost. Even so, there needs to be a drastic change to not only zoning regulations but street parking before there is any significant move towards a sustainable city.

--Sam Bowman

New EPA regulations on powerplants

The EPA is attempting to finalize a plan designed to reduce emissions of mercury and acid gases from power plants fired by coal and oil. The plan, called "maximum achievable control technology," was set to be completed by November 16th of this year. These improved regulations and standards would cause a loss of somewhere between 30,000 and 70,000 megawatts of electricity made by coal fired power plants. Outdated and ill maintained plants could be shut down due to these new rules. Opponents of the plan say these rules will kill jobs and cost companies billions of dollars at the worst possible time. The EPA fired back saying the plan will save more in health costs and hospital visits than it will cost in utilities. Twenty five states are asking a federal court to delay this measure at least a year. This is due to both a poor economy and to the loss of jobs and energy they anticipate. The EPA also said that these regulations will create jobs for those to inspect plants and enforce these rules.
While I agree with the EPA’s attempted effort to reduce the emission of these materials into the atmosphere, I also see the state’s argument. This is a down economy and people may not be able to afford increased energy costs. I am also not sure if this plan will create as many jobs as the EPA anticipates, however, jobs could be created in both the inspection field and new energy sources. If states find a new and improved way to produce electricity, it will have to be maintained, built and inspected as well. I believe the measures taken by the EPA are a good idea, just not at this time.

--Nick Freese

Transportation Infrastructure Investment Needed

While it's not easy to envision the kind of work that needs to be done, like repairing and improving subway track and water pipes, a great deal of work is necessary for our infrastructure to keep functioning. An article in today's Post gives some figures about how much is necessary: "Last year, a report by 80 experts led by former transportation secretaries Norman Y. Mineta and Samuel K. Skinner called for an annual investment of $262 billion." That's about 5-6 times the current level of funding, and nothing close to what anyone is projecting, whether Democrats or Republicans control Congress over the next few years. Advocates note that the more we put these costs off, the more we pay in the long run. Just sayin'.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Earlier this year I had a post on the importance of Europe's grid to the viability of alternative energy sources there. Now there's an article on Ezra Klein's blog about the same subject in the U.S., and the folks over there conclude that it might not matter so much: maybe decentralized technology like solar will win out over large plants needed for technologies like wind. While I understand the temptation to write off problems like this, I don't think it's that safe to assume that solar alone will get us there. Wind power also has associated challenges, but I'm not ready to put all my eggs in the solar basket yet.

Rewarding Hybrids

If hybrids provide benefits to society, it's appropriate to reward people for choosing hybrids. In addition to some tax benefits, for a long time Californians owning hybrids also had access to the car pool lane even if they weren't carpooling. That changed recently, and hybrids were pushed out onto the rest of the road. The resulting increase in the number of cars on the (rest of the) road has slowed traffic down by about 10 mph during rush hour.

So what's the optimal policy? It turns out that having people going slow on the rest of the road also slows down the folks in the carpool lane- you don't want to be driving 65 when someone going 20 moves into your lane to avoid a suddenly stopping vehicle. These researchers argue that more people need to be let into the carpool lane for the lane to continue to be as effective as possible. Optimization- it's what economists do!

Shrimp Harvest Plummets

The vagaries of ecology make it hard to pinpoint one single cause, but after the BP oil spill last summer, this year's shrimp crop in the Gulf of Mexico has been extremely bad. Other issues, such as the drought in the US and spring flooding transported by the Mississippi River to the Gulf, make identifying the culprit tricky. And guess what? BP says that the harvest this year is "within the historical range of variability." In other words, stuff happens. It sure does!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Killer cantaloupe

In the past few weeks there have been 15 deaths (link to Google News)and 72 illnesses caused by the listeria virus that has been found in cantaloupes that are grown in the Jensen’s Farm in Colorado. The listeria virus can be spread by water or soil contamination. Animals can carry the virus unharmed with no symptoms, but when their feces are used as manure or contaminate the local groundwater it can harm the local farms’ crops. Colorado is the fifth largest producer of cantaloupe and reportedly 2010’s harvest was worth $8 million. Fortunately for the farmers at least, the outbreak has occurred at the end of their season; but it has stigmatized the “Colorado Cantaloupe.” Local farmers in Colorado are still selling some cantaloupe mostly because their local buyers know them and know what farms have the bad cantaloupe. As for the rest of Americans that love the sweet melon, well, they are less fortunate. The Jensen farm did not label their cantaloupe to separate them from the rest; instead they labeled them “Rocky Farm cantaloupe” making them even harder to distinguish the good from the bad. There is also a problem clearly identifying what states were sold tainted cantaloupe. The Jensen Farm has released a list of states that they sold directly to, but there are also distributers that have sold them to other states. Now most people will just refuse to eat them at all, fearing that they could get sick or even die.

I think that this is a huge externality of animal farming. It is a shame that we house these animals in such a way that it causes someone’s whole way of life to collapse. Plus it’s actually causing people bodily harm and killing people in some cases. Why would anyone want that to happen to them or to their family if it could be prevented. Listeria is only caused by a bacterium called monocytogene. The problem with these bacteria is that they can grow in almost any environment; but if better care was taken of these domesticated animals then no one would have had to die. I know that this is not an extremely common virus; but with the potential for them to be carriers, I would think that someone would at least try to test their livestock at some point in their life. What if the cattle that just donated manure to the Jensen’s Farm, had been sent to the butcher or if it was a sow and was milked? There could be an even bigger epidemic!

--Amanda Meade

Update: USA Today describes the results of an FDA investigation into possible causes of the outbreak, which has now claimed at least 25 lives and caused at least 125 illnesses.