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.