Monday, November 24, 2014

Climate change developments

A few things caught my eye over the weekend. First, and most excitingly, the price of solar and wind energy is dropping significantly, to the point that they are competitive with gas and coal. While that sounds technical, the bottom line is that cheap energy is what people want, so if solar and wind energy can be produced cheaply, we are well on our way to getting rid of carbon emitting fuels. The sticking point, the article notes, is that both are still intermittent: you don't get energy from a windmill on a calm day. So, the issue is whether someone can develop a good battery. Hopefully with Elon Musk on the job, we can overcome this technical barrier and stop relying on dirty fuels.

Second is that scientists have proposed a link between climate change and the "polar vortex" incidents that are becoming more common. Warming in the Arctic changes the jet stream flow, bringing down the polar air onto unsuspecting places like Denver, which a few weeks ago experienced a 40 degree drop in temperature in 6 hours. When I graduated from Cal in 2008, the graduation speaker said that instead of climate change people should be calling it, "Global Climate Destabilization." Fairly apocalyptic, but that name fits this jet stream movement pretty well, if in fact it is traceable to climate change.

Finally, the NYT has a series on the oil industry in North Dakota. Since deposits there recently became accessible, the economy there has boomed, but so has the industry's influence, to predictably foul effects.  Part I and Part II so far.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A new carbon sink: compost on the range

"Cover the earth with compost!" This may be the new rallying cry of environmentalists: a recent study finds that spreading compost on rangeland helps the land absorb carbon from the atmosphere at the same time as it improves soil fertility. Whoa! A double benefit!

It's sure nice to have some non-controversial good things to post on the blog from time to time!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

GMO critic changes his mind

This guy is long-winded, to put it mildly, but it's a convincing account of the views of a published GMO critic who rethinks his position. Even if you don't agree, there are some interesting thoughts here.

I think he is a little harsh in his treatment of organic agriculture: he condemns it as 40-50% less productive than conventional agriculture, and notes that less productive methods mean that more land must be used to produce the same amount. While this is true, I think he overlooks the fact that chemical-intensive practices and repeated monocropping deplete the soil. That mostly means that it's important to rotate. Also it's important to remember that some varieties of GMO actually reduce the need for chemicals. Others don't, but Bt cotton is an example of a crop that requires fewer pesticides than other crops.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Chesapeake Oysters

For the last few years I have banned "oysters" as a possible term paper topic. The first few times I offered the course I was inundated by a surge of bad oyster papers, and I tell students that they gave me indigestion. The truth is just that I didn't see much controversial about them: they clean the Bay and they are economically viable in some places. So what's not to like?

Nice little article set me straight about it: traditional harvesters (locally called "watermen") apparently don't like oyster farmers because they put part of the Bay off limits for harvesting. Also they can't like the competition, though farmed oysters, being at least somewhat more labor intensive than the naturally harvested variety, may cost more. Also, some people find the nets unsightly.

Nothing's ever that easy, is it?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Water in the West

You don't often hear people complaining that the price of something is too low, but here's someone doing just that. He's absolutely right!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

$17 billion net benefits from a clean Chesapeake

At least, according to work written up in the NYT last week. (I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I found out about this from the Twitter feed of O's fan Josh Charles, who used to be a star on the Good Wife which my wife and I enjoy watching.)

The study says that $22 billion in yearly gains would accrue from a $5-6 billion annual investment, so it's clearly a good investment. I imagine the devil's in the details, as usual. I mean, if it's going to be done right, the Feds probably need to write some farmer in upstate NY a check to compensate for their reduced productivity on their land, which stems from their reducd use of fertilizers.... It's tough to identify all the winners and losers, which makes it hard to work out an equitable agreement. Still, I'm glad the EPA seems poised to enter the fray. Without Federal leadership, I don't see much happening, unfortunately....

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Economics and the environment: the basics

The St. Louis Fed has put out a nice little primer on how economists think about the environment. It's here. Short version: we try to balance costs and benefits!

A hat tip to Ms. Shana Gass for noticing the post. Thanks!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Why does Big Food exist?

On one hand, it's easy: they exist to make money. The question is whether they do so by providing a valuable service, or if they do so by being exploitative. Surely the answer is a little bit of both, but a lot of us tend to focus on the latter more than the former.

There's a nice interview in the Washington Post with a VP for Nestle, the global mega-conglomerate that produces many products you've heard of.

Interesting quotes: "Packaging is a huge source of littering and other negative environmental impact. But can we take packaging away from food? You know what will happen, and immediately? The amount of waste will multiply by who knows how much if we take away packaging from our food system."

When asked why does Nestle exist, he says, "Because it would be impossible to feed 7 billion people, let alone billions more to come, without it. Because we need to preserve food, and safely, so consumers can eat and drink under any condition and in any season."

It's not exciting to think about, but it seems pretty clear: the work these folks do really does get all of us better nutrition. If we had to eat only what was produced locally and when it was in season, then I'd have grown up eating pine nuts and fish in the summer and probably stews made of rabbit flour in the winter (which is what I understand the Washo and Piute tribes ate in my hometown of Reno, Nevada before Europeans arrived). While that sounds cool in a way, I really like having a lot of different foods in my diet, and I'm healthier because of it.

It's easy to point a finger, but be thoughtful as you do so; remember the other side of the story too!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Conservation rentals

The Nature Conservancy and other land trusts promote conservation by buying land that provides a number of ecosystem services and/ or is habitat for species of interest. In the Nature Conservancy's most recent magazine there's an article about a new approach: land rentals for conservation. In particular, migratory birds need places to land while they're traveling. After identifying key places for bird stopovers, the Conservancy paid some rice farmers to keep their fields flooded in the off-season. I had heard of something similar before, in which California rice fields were flooded to attract ducks for hunters, but now it seems they're trying to time it right and keep an eye out to see whether the temporary habitat helps rarer birds on their way. There's a fair amount of economics behind it: it's tough to find the right level of payment to minimize Conservancy expenditures and maximize the level of quality land provided to the birds. Fortunately there are economists with more skill in this than I have who can help the Conservancy figure out how to do this best!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

More from Toledo and Tyson on GMO's

Anyone living near or otherwise caring about the Chesapeake has long known the impact that fertilizers have on it and on other bodies of water: fertilizers = plant growth = algae blooms. This is true whether the fertilizers were sprayed on crops with an intent to fertilize or if they are runoff from concentrated animal feeding operations. Now that algae limited access to drinking water in a city of over 500,000 (instead of merely limiting the production of crabs and fish as it does here in Maryland) maybe there will be more than requested voluntary controls. Then again, maybe not.

Great article sent to me today by Prof. Jane Wolfson: Neil deGrasse Tyson is getting into the issue of GMO's. He says that there are problems such as monopolies and nonperennial seed production, but that these are not problems intrinsically linked to GMO's. If you want to fight those problems, great: you should. That doesn't mean you should be opposed to all GMO's, though!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Full costs of solar and wind

In many city-building video games, power comes from windmills. Windmills have a very clean image because they don't directly produce smoke, but they do have one downfall: they don't turn when the wind doesn't blow. Wind is mostly seen as a supplemental energy source because you can't depend on it for 100% of your energy needs. A nice little one page article in the Economist sums up researcher Charles Frank's study which finds that because of these associated costs, solar and wind energy are more expensive than they seem. In fact (as of current technology) nuclear and natural gas-fired power are both cheaper, even considering the damage associated with air pollution. (Of course, nuclear emits no CO2, either....) There are a few caveats, as always, but these issues can't be ignored.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

More on prices

Two articles today in two newspapers bring up the issue of prices.

1) In the NYT, Prof. Robert Frank argues that we need to put a price on pollutants: specifically, CO2 and other chemicals that are effecting global warming. If there is a reason not to pollute, i.e. you have to pay for what you emit, people will be more careful. Right now there is no reason to care about it. Seems pretty clear to me.

2) The Washington Post has an article about Toledo, where there are problems with the water supply. People are buying huge amounts of bottled water to get by. There are two ways to distribute water: you could charge a high price for it and thereby limit how much people buy, or you can charge a low price. When you charge a low price, you won't have enough to sell to everyone who wants it, so people will have to line up, in some cases for hours. In effect, you're charging people in hours instead of dollars, and you're rewarding people with free time over people who have responsibilities. Is that better? On the other hand if you raise prices, what will be the larger effects? Say that water is selling for $1 per liter in Columbus and $2 per liter in Toledo, and you run a grocery story chain. Where do you send your water? You send it to the place with the higher price: the market responds to the increased demand, providing more water. With the time allocation system, why send more water to Toledo? Sure, you get some people saying thanks, and calling you a good citizen, but it seems to me (for some reason) that people are more likely to get water to where it's needed if prices are allowed to rise.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Getting the prices right

The Brookings Institute blog has an interesting piece today arguing that India doesn't have dependable access to electricity because the price has been too low for too long. No one benefits if energy suppliers are not allowed to make their costs back: you end up with people who either just don't have power or who rely on dirty diesel generators when the need it. Neither is a good solution!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The end of coal

Nice article in the Washington Post about the "death of coal." It seems like (and is!) a good thing to phase out coal, for many reasons. Coal is dirty, both locally (as mining is nasty, and as burning it emits particulate matter and damaging chemicals) and globally (as a major contributor to climate change). However, the story is not so simple, for many reasons. (I'm not following the article's numbering here, just FYI.)

1) Coal is cheap. Moving away from coal means that some people will be paying more for their energy. Some of these people are paying significantly more for power, and some of them are poor, so this is a real hardship.

2) Some communities depend on coal. Rural West Virginia is one example, but other places depend on the current system. It's expensive and painful when a community dies and people have to go elsewhere.

3) There might be better jobs for these people elsewhere, but it's not clear that's the case just yet. It's also hard sometimes to figure out where and what these new jobs can and should be.

It's not easy to change an economy over to a new power source, even though in the long run it's probably for the best. Hopefully the government can step in and ease the transition where appropriate.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Blog post about a blog post

One of my former professors has a great little post on his blog today and I want to be sure to link to it here too. It's about GMO's. (Skip the somewhat bizarre introduction!)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Water & sanitation in India

Pretty different from concerns about the popularity of instant coffee, but the NYT has a really nice piece today about how sanitation problems stunt the growth of children in India. Even children who get enough to eat are exposed to pathogens regularly since sanitation is so bad: many people defecate outdoors, and the rivers where people bathe and even brush their teeth are full of contaminants.

The article links to a few peer-reviewed journal articles, including this one in PLOS One. Reviewing Indian data from 1992, 1998, and 2005, they find that undernutrition has declined (i.e. nutritional status is improving) but that social disparities persist. In particular, improvements in better-off households were faster and stronger than in poorer households.

Another article in top-ranked health journal the Lancet notes that GDP growth on its own is not sufficient to improve child nutritional status.

That's an interesting review of the data, and another piece noticed something more particular: Muslims do better than Hindus in India as far as infant survival even though they are poorer. The authors hypothesize that this might have to do with rules about sanitation: where to defecate and how to keep oneself and one's household clean.

Finally, a paper that's not yet published (as far as I know) but still available as a working paper by Dean Spears is available from the World Bank. This seems to me hugely important: sanitation explains child health even better than GDP. Wow.

Somehow, though, they missed another pretty relevant of research. Last summer two  great researchers documented that Indian children are shorter for their ages than African children, meaning that their nutritional status is worse. They don't point the finger at sanitation, though, but note that their is an extraordinarily large gradient in birth order. First born children are substantially better off than subsequent children.

I wonder if there is any overlap. Are firstborns exclusively breast-fed for a longer time, protecting them somewhat from ingesting dangerous bacteria? Do firstborns stay indoors more so they aren't outside running around and playing in unsanitary conditions?

Chicken & Coffee with sugar

Reporter Roberto Ferdman has caught my eye with sevearl interesting food-related pieces in the Washington Post this week. Yesterday was this interesting post on chicken, arguing that chicken consumption is set to rise worldwide and even take over the mantle of "most popular meat" from pork. That matters for a lot of reasons: just ask the farmers on the Eastern Shore who raise broilers! Meat consumption is pretty bad for the environment, but as meat goes, chicken is among the least offensive. Consider this graph from the article showing the carbon impact of various meats:

I wouldn't have guessed that salmon was worse than chicken, but those are the numbers (originally from the Environmental Working Group).

Ferdman's second piece is about the popularity of instant coffee. Although we in the US scorn it, popularity is huge and growing worldwide. While one commentator says that it's because our tastes are more sophisticated, a longer read makes it sound like it's a pretty arbitrary decision. I mean, we drink whatever it is comes out of those Keurig machines, and people in Europe who prefer quality coffee also drink instant occasionally. For whatever reason we just don't. Curious! (I'm certainly one of them.)

Finally, I just came across this note on a battle at the FDA over a label indicating whether a food item contains added sugars, and if so, how much. Fascinating stuff, Mr. Ferdman! Thanks!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Maryland Power Plants

Nice long overview today in the Baltimore Sun on the situation in Maryland regarding power generation. Turns out our state pays the 13th highest rates in the industry, and though the article dances around the topic, it sounds to me like the bottom line is that it's a monopoly, and they're doing what monopolies do: raise the prices and produce less. In Baltimore we pay a "capacity payments" since the power we import comes along what is apparently a pretty heavily trafficked pathway. PJM Interconnection is the multistate company that manages power grids here, and fewer companies are producing power to supply to their grid. Sometimes those companies-oops! -just happen to overbid on supply contracts, meaning that even fewer producers are eligible to sign up to produce our power for a given year. Financial analysts say that this process gained about $150 million more for Exelon, the owner of BGE.

Environmental regulations are tightening the noose further: as coal plants shut down due to pollution regulation and to facing the low cost of natural gas-based power production, there are even fewer actors in the market, making Exelon's job of maximizing profit even easier.

Because emissions restrictions are part of the issue, one energy producer says that the reason we pay more is because we have "chosen a better air quality" for our citizens. Yeah, right: because pollution emitted upwind doesn't affect us, I guess? The regulations do matter, but they're also a convenient scapegoat.

The good news is that entrants appear to be on the way. Hopefully they are producing in the next few years, and the market can work its magic. Until then, keep your wallets out!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

GMO Rice

According to this article, GMO's may be the only way we can continue to feed the planet. The piece begins by talking about flood resistant rice. A field in Uttar Pradesh, India, was planted with the genetically modified crop, and even though there were floods, "Instead of drowning, Mr Pal’s rice sprang back when the water receded. In a normal year he gets a tonne or so from his 1-hectare (2.5-acre) plot; in a bad year nothing. In that terrible flooded season, he harvested 4.5 tonnes—as good a yield as on any rain-fed paddy in the world." Pretty hard for me to look that guy in the eye and tell him these cultivars are somehow bad.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Sustainable shrimp farming

Nice to see some good news in the paper from time to time! Today's article features a Massachusetts shrimp farmer who is growing his product inside large tanks in a warehouse, sort of like the IMET in downtown Baltimore where they raise European Sea Bass. The shrimp are still eating fish meal, though they're trying to wean them off of it, but it's so much more sustainable to be raising them in tanks than fishing them to extinction. Costs are still a little high, but they're borderline competitive now and hopefully people can keep innovating to get things cheaper and cheaper. I'm not much of an entrepreneur, but this sure looks like a market opportunity.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Land animals

Neat graphic on xkcd showing the animals of the earth by total weight.

Climate Change issues: Meat and China's Coal

In his book "Just Food," James McWilliams takes down the myth of the importance of local food for slowing carbon emissions. There is a nice long list of objections, but in the end he chooses to focus on one: the importance of limiting meat consumption. The Washington Post took up that theme, noting that the average meat eater in the US contributes about twice as much to global warming as vegetarians (or fishitarians). Vegans are the best in this regard, coming in 60% below the meat eaters.

China right now is the #1 contributor to climate change, but only just barely larger than the US. That's projected to change, as the US is taking steps to curb pollution while China, as it industrializes, is on an upward swing, though the leaders at least say they're working against that. According to the news article linked to just there, emissions can be thought of as something like this:

Number of people X average income per person X energy used per unit income X CO2 per unit energy

The first one is limited by the one-child policy. No one wants to limit the second one. The third and fourth are more less measures of technical sophistication, and this is where there is a real chance to improve things. Hopefully the US and other OECD countries will share at least some of their technology with China to keep those ratios as low as possible. It will be hard for China to wean itself off of coal, a very cheap and abundant  but highly polluting source of energy.

Friday, June 27, 2014

India, #1 in shrimp

The US imports about $4-5 billion worth of shrimp every year, a mix of fresh, frozen, and prepared products. Most of it comes from southeast Asia, but some is from Latin America, and in particular Ecuador and Mexico (not shown).

(source data from the USDA's Economic Research Service)

As you can see, for a long time Thailand has been the biggest exporter of shrimp: they are blessed with a lot of mangrove coastline, and farming shrimp is extremely profitable, so naturally there are a lot of people in the business. Unfortunately, the business apparently isn't very well regulated: wastewater from one farm is often the intake water for the next farm downstream, so diseases like "early mortality syndrome" can sometimes run amuck, devastating the entire country's production. That's the cause of the drop in the graph above. Making matters worse, the NYT recently had a piece about slavery on board shrimp boats. (Shrimp are both farmed and wild caught in places.) With all the chaos in the Thai government these days, I doubt that regulations will soon clean up the industry.

Notice that others such as India are stepping into the gap. In 2008 and 2009, India produced just about $150 million worth of shrimp, but in 2013 they broke the $1 billion barrier, increasing exports to the US by a factor of six over just five years. It's definitely possible to have a cleaner production system: according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Seafood Watch" guide, the best choices for shrimp are from aquaculture done in North America. It is much less damaging of the environment, and I'd think that it's less likely to involve slavery as well. If Thailand reins in the human rights abuses, their costs will probably go up, giving India and others even more of an opening. A market that works is a good thing for everyone!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Gasland & FrackNation

A couple of interesting finds by Garrett in his response to the movies: in this peer-reviewed article by Popkin et al., the researchers find that being close to a (fracked) gas well hurts property values, so the story that McAleer tells of happy landowners enjoying the "most productive cow on the lot" isn't quite true. On the other hand, he notes that some of the people Fox interviews in his movie were found to be not telling the full story. It turns out that the land in Colorado was damaged not by fracking but by a nearby coal mine.

Nice work digging up the truth! Documentaries aren't there to tell the full story, that's for sure.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Deer and water in the news

Bonnie wrote her paper on hunting the state of MD this year, and noted that some hunted deer end up as food for the homeless. There's an article in the NYT today about just that: they hunt the deer in Rock Creek Park and give the food to the homeless. The reporter sounds like she went around asking people if they no longer wanted it after knowing it was deer, and that's a strange question to ask. What's wrong with deer meat? I'd much rather it end up on someone's plate than on the side of the road after damaging someone's car. Overpopulation is bad; food for the homeless is good. Seems like a good choice.

Another article is about fracking and how it's being banned in some places to protect the water. This isn't because they're afraid fracking will poison the water a la Josh Fox, but because fracking uses up a great deal of water as part of the process. This is certainly true but it's a new tactic being used by the anti-fracking movement, and as such it too has garnered the notice of the NYT. Sure makes sense to me: I don't like the anti-fracking propaganda machine, but fracking does use up a lot water, and in places that don't have much to begin with, some attention to the issue is definitely appropriate.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Fracking bringing car crashes

Patrick wrote last week to make me aware of this article: as fracking brings jobs to places that were pretty rural, there are a lot more people traveling roads that weren't meant for so many folks to travel. One unfortunate outgrowth of this increased traffic is increased collisions. Hopefully as fracking expands, so do traffic controls.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Cobia- the other fish meat

After our discussion of aquaculture today, Claire wrote to suggest this article. She says, "From my perspective at least, this seems like to be a more effective way to practice aquaculture. Obviously not all practices are perfect, but innovation is always the key to progress, and I see this new fish in open ocean areas and a big step in the right direction. If for nothing else because it is a more humane practice, keeping the fish swimming and alive for as long as possible until its quick demise."


Thursday, May 8, 2014

Maryland Air Quality

           Although improvements in air quality have been made in Maryland as well as nationwide over the past fifteen years, summertime smog levels in Harford County and Prince George’s County are among the worst in the nation. According to the new report released by the American Lung Association about two weeks ago, one-half of Americans live in places where smog and soot pollution makes it dangerous to breathe at times. Harford County was ranked 13th worst, and Prince George’s County was ranked 21st. In addition, in 22 out of the 25 metro areas with the worst ozone pollution, which includes the Baltimore-Washington Area, there was a peak in smog from 2010-2012, compared to the previous three years. In Maryland, the abnormally hot summer of 2012 drove smog levels up to dangerous levels for 30 individual days, compared to only nine days in 2013. George Aburn, director of air management of the Maryland Department of Environment says that ozone pollution primarily comes from other states, so state officials have pressed the EPA to resolve the problem.
            After many attempts by the EPA to determine a “legally acceptable” way to regulate states contributing to pollution problems in downwind states, the Supreme Court ruled that 27 Midwestern and Appalachian states will be forced to reduce power plant pollution that blows downwind. Last Tuesday, there was a 6-2 decision that ruled that the EPA may limit emissions that create smog and soot that drifts into the air above states along the East Coast. This was adopted because the cross-border pollution prevents cities and counties from complying with health-based pollution standards by law, because they have no authority to control it. This new ruling would cost power plant operators $800 million in 2014 and annually; however, the EPA states that the investment is worth it because of the hundreds of billions of dollars in health care savings from cleaner air. Also, there would be a prevention of 30,000 premature deaths and thousands of illnesses a year with the new rule. There is much opposition coming from power-plant operators who believe that this is a way for the administration to shut them down, as well as from states who claimed they had no voice in determining their individual impact on emissions in neighboring states.

            In my opinion, there is no one formula to determine how much each state has individually contributed to the pollution in downwind states. I don’t believe it is fair to have each state take accountability for more or less than they contributed. Furthermore, it is complicated to regulate a rule like this when wind patterns are not uniform. I applaud the initiative to want to reduce emissions in order to have clean air, especially since I suffer from asthma. However, it seems as if there is miscommunication between the Clean Air Act and the EPA and they are supposed to be working cooperatively. Overall, it is nearly impossible to determine the exact amount of pollution that a state produces. As a result, it becomes expensive to implement, ineffective to regulate.
--Malshauna Hamm

***Last post you're accountable for on the reading quiz***

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Congestion tax

Congestion taxing is a system where cars are charged a fee around 5-8 dollars for operating a vehicle in a certain area during rush hour. Europe was the first country to develop this system, and it became extremely effective. For instance, in London just over a million people enter the city a day. As soon as London enforced this system, their traffic congestion decreased by 20%. The benefit of the congestion charge is that it allows cities to generate revenue in order to build alternative transportation systems. The program's revenue was used to improve public transit services, which included more buses and renovation to the subway system. Additionally, as the charge exempts vehicles using alternative fuels, it encourages users to purchase environmentally clean automobiles. The tax reduced traffic, encouraged people to purchase more efficient cars, and most importantly improved air quality. London experienced nearly a 30% decrease in greenhouse gas emission as a result of the congestion charge. Keep in mind the public health benefits that follow as well. For instance, encouraging citizens to either walk or bike if within acceptable distances can compound health benefits.

I am a firm supporter of this system due to the positive outcomes European countries have witnessed. Congestion charging can ultimately lead to improved public transportation in the U.S, meanwhile, reducing air pollution by charging people for the environmental damages. Economically this charge will also create additional jobs in the transportation sector. Additionally, commercial drivers benefit from improved work environment due to a substantial decrease in traffic.  Greenhouse gas emission will drop by an estimated 15-30% as a result of this charging strategy. I believe both businesses and citizens benefit from this charge in terms of cleaner air, and roads that are much less congested. Whether or not citizens oppose this system, I believe the benefits of the congestion charge outweigh the costs.
--Patrick Keshishian

BP Oil Spill Settlement Debate

On April 20, 2010 fire broke out on the BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico which led to 87 days of oil gushing into the gulf with no way to stop it.  The effects of this catastrophe were so large that BP has spent over 26 billion dollars in the past four years to clean up the mess and compensate for wages lost from the disaster.  Paying these wages has taken a toll on BP's budget and it is made worse by the fact that there are so many claims being filed that have no legitimate connection to the disaster. There are people using the situation to make fraudulent claims, making money even though they live hundreds of miles away from the coast, as long as they validate sales drops during that time period.  The problem with these claims, although they may be relevant, is that the businesses that were directly affected by the disaster are now being litigated in court because BP does not feel that they should pay for every claim filed. This has had a huge effect on people who rely on the water in the Gulf to make money and survive.

Personally, I think that BP should not have to pay every claim.  The company is going to court to try and change the original agreement that they would pay for everything to be fixed.  Now, they realize that people are making claims that are ridiculous and this will end up costing the company much more money. 9.2 billion dollars is the predicted amount by the end time all of the filed settlements are paid out.  I feel bad for the people who live on the coast or work on the water because those who haven't received any money are losing even more by having to take out loans.  If there weren't so many people trying to file claims to make money for no reason then the men and women who actually need the money to survive could be paid and this issue could have been avoided.
--Joe Armentrout

Crab population is down

The Bay survey is finally out, and updates to the graphs in the slides can be found here. The picture is ugly, but the spin is that it was a bad winter: it's not over-harvesting but natural fluctuations that lie behind this low population level. That doesn't mean that everything is fine and they'll come back later: they certainly could, but in an ever-changing environment like the Bay with new predators cropping up from time to time, it's impossible to tell the future.

To briefly sum up the graphs, the "young of the year" are at a low but not ridiculously low level. In fact, that's one of the areas of least concern. There are a lot of young this year because there were a lot of females last year. Unfortunately, the number of females is REALLY low this year: the lowest they've seen in about 12 years, and the estimated population is at or below the minimum threshold of 70 million that was set in 2011.

The number of harvestable crabs too is at its lowest level probably since 2002, and males are down at their lowest level since 2008. Disappointing results that mean restrictions on harvesters and higher prices for consumers.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A balanced view on fracking?

Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, and the President of the Environmental Defense Fund, have a more or less pro-fracking piece in today's NYT. They acknowledge some problems but argue that they are solvable, and that on balance natural gas is a step in the right direction. This seems a pretty common-sensical position, which in today's world probably means that no one will support it at all, alas....

Monday, April 28, 2014

Taxing Solar in Oklahoma

Last week the Governor of Oklahoma, Mary Fallin, signed SB 1456, which “sets up a mechanism for electric utilities to levy a tariff on customers with distributed generation- that is, electricity from on-site wind or solar generation” (Krehbeil).  The purpose of the bill is to make sure that customers with distributed generation aren’t subsidized by customers of the same utility that do not have solar or wind power. The utility companies will have to pay customers with distributed generation for excess power entering the grid, but the industry argues that these customers should be charged for this because it doesn’t take in account of the cost of up keeping of the grid: costs that will get passed onto the customers of that utility.  This bill will not apply to the 350 utility customers that already have alternative energy generation on site.
There is also controversy with the passing of a bill like this one.  “MSNBC and others have dubbed the possible tariff a 'sun tax' and a crude attack on alternative energy” (Krehbeil).  “Monopoly utilities want to extinguish the independent rooftop solar market in America to protect their socialist control of how we get our electricity” according to the website of Tell Utilities Solar Won’t Be Killed (Voorhees).  There are multiple claims such as the ones above that are bashing the major electricity companies for trying to stop alternative energy.
I think this bill may be a little much, but I also understand why a bill like this was passed.  With a large amount of Oklahoma's economy based on the oil and natural gas markets, as well as being mostly energy independent, there is always some fear of alternate energy markets taking money from the oil and natural gas markets.  With this bill it helps keep the money in the utility industry and helps Oklahoma to become closer to having its own power grid.  I myself have intentions of actually moving to Oklahoma after I graduate, and I really don’t view this much different than the “rain tax” we have here in Maryland; the “rain tax” wouldn’t prevent me from adding a paved driveway to my home or business.  I think the idea of putting solar panels on one’s house or business is a beneficial investment; I don’t think this tariff imposed on private wind or solar energy generation would stop me from putting solar panels on my house if I ever choose to do so.
--Eric Caswell

Friday, April 25, 2014

Good News for Migrant Workers

It's Florida, not Maryland, but hey: it's nice to have a success story to report on. For the past few years, tomato pickers in Florida have been agitating for large corporations to pay a little extra- a penny per pound of tomatoes- to ensure better conditions for the migrant workers who pick there. After getting a few large corporations to sign on, they finally landed a real whopper (more of a whopper than Burger King, which had already signed on): Walmart is in. The corporations buying the tomatoes are spending a total of about $4 million more per year, and a lot of that is going to cover costs such as providing tents where growers can get out of the sun, Spanish-speaking telephone hotlines over which workers can report sexual harassment, and wages for the time pickers spend waiting. Much of the rest is going to higher wages for the pickers.

Since I just finished reading your Hands of Harvest essays, I've got Maryland's migrant workers on the mind. One step toward getting the crab pickers more money might be to get buyers paying a premium for Maryland crabs. That's a start, not a complete solution, because then someone needs to oversee implementation of worker safety, the phone hotline, etc., but it might help!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

True Blue Maryland Crabs

Kinda seems like it should be true "red yellow black and white" or something (I still don't know what to make of the Maryland flag!) but I wanted to point you to a website that one of you referred to in responding to the Hands of Harvest movie. True Blue Maryland Seafood shows where to get real locally produced crabs.

Also, let me be sure you don't misunderstand: the idea of "local food" creates problems when it's overemphasized, but that doesn't mean I'm against eating local crabs, for instance! In fact, we should enjoy our local specialty as much as possible since our state is well-situated to produce them.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Setback for Cellulosic biofuels

  Everyone knows that corn ethanol isn't a great way to produce fuel, and the hope has long been that we could do something like take the unused parts of the corn plant (stalks, leaves, etc.) and turn that into fuel. Well, that vision suffered a setback today when an in-depth study found that the process is not as productive as hoped: in fact, it may be counter-productive, according to a professor at the University of Nebraska. That's unfortunate: it would sure be great if we could get that technology rolling!

Marijuana Decriminalization: A Recipe for Environmental Destruction?

     Marijuana, grass, reefer, pot, herb, ganja, whichever nickname you prefer, Maryland’s general assembly recently passed a bill to decriminalize (not legalize) possession of less than 10 grams of it. Governor O’ Malley signed the bill and it will take effect in the beginning of October. Although this bill does not condone marijuana growing operations in the state of Maryland, its outcome is likely to increase demand for one of America’s favorite recreational drugs (surpassed only by alcohol and tobacco).
     Approximating illegal drug consumption is quite tricky, let alone determining black market value; however, over 14 million Americans regularly consume marijuana in a market worth an estimated $2.34 billion. But before you rush out to buy the finest bag to celebrate this momentous occasion in Maryland’s history, I’d like to reveal some of the clouded side effects of marijuana.
     According to The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, prohibition of marijuana costs tax-payers $12 billion annually for eradicating crops, prosecution and incarceration, law enforcement and other anti-marijuana-related programs (http://norml.org/component/zoo/category/economics-reports ).  Meanwhile, the legalization of marijuana in Colorado brought in over $3.5 million in taxes, licenses, and fees in January alone.  Compared with last year’s revenue of a $256,856 for medicinal marijuana only, legalization obviously has the potential to generate a substantial amount of money.  Many Marylanders see decriminalization as the first step to full-on, tax-generating, marijuana legalization.
    However, in addition to public health concerns, marijuana poses significant risks to our environment and requires the same resources as any other crop.  In 2013, California authorities seized 119,000 pounds of trash, 17,000 pounds of fertilizers, 244 propane tanks, 89 illegal dams, 61 car batteries, and 40 gallons of pesticides from illegal marijuana growing operations!  In addition to pollution, outdoor operations in California alone use nearly 60 million gallons of water a day during the growing season, which is 50 percent more than the consumption of San Francisco residents. Nationally, enough electricity is used by indoor marijuana growing operations to power 1.7 million homes.  And for every pound of pot grown indoors, 4,600 pounds of CO2 are released into the atmosphere.  Furthermore, the production and distribution of marijuana emits as much carbon as 3 million cars.  Marijuana also caused over two dozen streams to stop flowing and is considered to be the number one threat to salmon in northern California.  Perhaps marijuana isn’t as green as the plant or the money it produces.
     Although growing operations pose serious risks, federal legalization would enable states to enact legislation and restrictions to prevent many of these detrimental impacts to the environment.  Not only does the current bureaucratic dichotomy prevent federal and state authorities from creating and enforcing growing regulations, it increases the demand for black market marijuana, which only serves to exacerbate environmental negligence.  The economic benefits of the marijuana industry, illustrated by Colorado, need to be removed from drug dealers and placed into the hands of local governments where they can be spent on education, prevention, and support services.  With Baltimore City schools facing a $31 million budget shortfall next year, this policy has the potential to upgrade facilities, hire teachers, and result in an overall improvement for Maryland’s education system.  Federal legalization would also create jobs and enable marijuana to be harvested locally; currently 80 percent of the estimated 22 million pounds produced annually, come from only 5 states.
    Finally, regardless of your stance on marijuana use and abuse, people are going continue to smoke, eat, vaporize, or otherwise ingest the drug.  Keeping harmful substances out of the hands of our children should be the number one concern, but the fact remains that prohibition doesn’t resolve this issue.  Channeling income into educational resources—for drug and conventional schooling—is a much better use of public money than spending it on jailing, prosecuting, and sentencing citizens for possessing such a widely used drug.  Maryland’s move to decriminalize will produce revenue in the form of fines: first offense: $100, second offense: $250, subsequent offenses: up to $500, but it’s unlikely to equal the amount generated in taxes, fees, and licenses from lawful businesses.  Therefore, legalization should be Maryland’s next course of action in order to save our schools and the environment.
--Nick Healy

Toilet to Tap?

     Residents of California are experiencing a record setting drought, the worst in 500 years, “so bad it can clearly be seen from space,” (Resnick 2014). This has caused many problems, for residents and especially farmers. The most current proposition is: toilet water. Recycled water has been used in California before, as Orange County recycles some water and puts it back into aquifers (Sangree 2014). Orange County is one of the only places in California able to use recycled wastewater. Past attempts at implementing a wastewater recycling program to make said water potable, once in 1997 and then again in 2000, have been shut down due to public outcry (Resnick 2014). People can’t get past the “yuck factor,” (Sangree 2014). The main problem people have with drinking recycled wastewater is psychological (Resnick 2014). But the benefits of using this system would far outweigh any psychological concerns.
    Over “a billion gallons of treated wastewater are pumped into the Pacific Ocean each year,” (Sangree 2014). In the midst of a severe drought, Californians should start warming to the idea of using recycled wastewater for more than irrigation, and should realize the necessity of using it as drinking water. Particularly with climate change and the risk of droughts persisting, California should seriously put more effort into treating their water to make it potable. Regardless of the “yuck factor,” it remains true that with the amount of treatment the wastewater would go through, the treated water would be “on par with distilled water,” (Sangree 2014).
     Some investments have recently been made to start getting more recycled water into the California water supply (Resnick 2014). The city of Escondido has also approved a plan of $285 million to “turn all of its sewage into irrigation water over the next 15 years,” (Resnick 2014).
--Claire Fremuth

Resource issues in West Virginia

Coal never took very good care of the people of rural West Virginia, but now that it's gone it sounds like they really have nothing. 47% of income in McDowell County is from Federal programs like Social Security, disability, and food stamps. Just 1/3 of the population is in the labor force, which, if they're using the term properly, includes people working or looking for work: the rest are unable to work or not looking for some other reason. People turn to drugs, and that's just not a good long-term solution. Grim.

Crop choice: another cause of the California drought

This chart, from the NYT, shows how farmers' crop choices have contributed to the drought. Farmers, meanwhile, blame environmental regulations such as those protecting the delta smelt. I suppose both are right, to some extent.



Thursday, April 17, 2014

ITER: How a New Star will be Born

The ITER project is collaborative endeavor to create and offer a clean and inexhaustible energy source through nuclear fusion giving humanity an endless supply of energy. Nuclear fusion is the fusion of lighter atoms into heavier ones, similar to how a star works. The process generates the tiny loss of mass that translates into a huge quantity of energy. One gram of fusion fuel generates as much power as eight tons of oil! (Arnoux)
The ITER project is hoping to achieve this through the creation of a tokamak, a Russian machine developed in the 60’s, which uses magnetic fields to generate the pressure necessary for the fusion process. ITER’s tokamak will be the first of its kind to achieve a net production of fusion power by giving back ten times the energy invested to light the fusion fire. Properly demonstrating this process will open the doors to industrial and commercial production of fusion-generated electricity. (Arnoux)
This process of energy generation is safe and has minimal environmental impacts. There are no greenhouse-effect gasses emitted and no high-level, long-lived nuclear waste to manage. This will help mitigate most if not all of the negative externalities generated through fossil fuel consumption.  Also, the fuel supply is universally available and almost inexhaustible. The two main fuel sources are tritium and deuterium. (Arnoux) Tritium needs can be met by recycling tritium from dismantled U.S. nuclear weapons while deuterium can be obtained from the hydrogen in water. ("Background on Tritium Production")
This energy production method creates an elastic supply source which is exactly what is needed for a world where there is a growing demand for electricity. Initially there will be high startup costs with developing the plants and infrastructures for this technology. However, with an abundance of fuel sources, fuel prices shouldn’t have as big of an impact on energy prices as fossil fuels do on today’s markets since fossil fuel sources are rapidly depleting. Outside of startup costs and fuel prices, the only main costs should be maintenance and regulatory costs. This is also a technology that will only improve and become more efficient as we learn more and perfect it, generating even lower costs.
The applications of this technology will have huge economic benefits throughout the world. Being able to place one of these machines in Africa will dramatically improve the quality of life in that region. Land will become more valuable since it will become more productive. The development of desalination plants will become even more feasible with lower energy costs. Land used for the development for gasoline will be reallocated for other and less harmful uses. The costs for anything that uses energy, which is just about everything, will fall and increase the welfare for everyone.
--Chris Murrow

Quenching Texas' Thirst

       As with a number of western states, Texas is in the middle of an extensive drought. In order to find where water is available, a small team has been analyzing written logs from old and abandoned oil and gas mining operations. These logs are from the University of Texas at Austin and are giving clues as to where to find water reserves that the state can tap for drinking and be used in agriculture. There are estimates totaling of hundreds of trillions of gallons of water throughout 30 of Texas’ aquifers, though much of it requires extensive desalination before it can be consumed by humans or used for agriculture. The project has shown that the Pecos Valley Aquifer holds more than 32 trillion gallons of water, only 4 trillion of which is fresh water. If the brackish water is pumped it could mix with the freshwater, necessitating desalination. Currently there are no regulations on pumping rates of brackish water in Texas meaning rapid extraction may leave them with future water security issues still.
In my opinion, it seems like this is a sticky situation; providing water for thirsty people and crops is essential, but since it has to be desalinated before use, Texans may have to pay a lot for that water. Brackish water, when compared to fresh water, requires more energy input to purify it and more desalination plants will likely have to be built (Texas currently only has 12). With the threat of extraction contaminating their fresh water aquifers, this process seems a little risky. If there are no clear extraction rate laws established, they could be left in the same situation down the road.
--Mitch Dunn

Wind and Solar energy generators being built on Maryland farmland

    A new bill in the Senate right now would allow for landowners who have sold their development rights to the state to use up to five acres of their land to generate energy via wind or solar, or via decomposing animal and crop waste.  Groups supporting the cause claim it will help bolster dwindling revenues from farms, as well as streamline prospects for clean, renewable energy, helping Maryland reach its goal of twenty percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2022.  Among the proponents are the farmers, who need the extra funds to help stabilize their business.  The turbines would take up about a half acre of land each, allowing animals and crops to graze and grow around them.  Opponents of the bills say that allowing any non agricultural activities on land that has been reserved for farming would undermine efforts to keep farmland, which only one fourth of is currently shielded from development pressures.  They say we cannot afford to lose anymore farmland when we have the rest of the state available for these energy endeavours.
     I believe this bill would have more positive externalities than it would negative. Land that is leased to companies to build turbines could turn six figure incomes for farmers, helping to greatly secure their businesses.  The turbines and solar arrays are also very mobile, and much less invasive than other forms of development.  Yes, we would lose some farmland, but limiting the area lost to five acres per farm seems reasonable, since many of these farms are comprised of hundreds of acres. From other presentations in class, it seems that people who want offshore wind power are against actually looking at the windmills; they want a clear view of the ocean.  If the turbines are off in the middle of a farm, this would not detract anyone’s view, and would produce the same energy results.  The extra income generated from the renewable energy could also allow the farmers to reinvest the money into the crops or livestock they raise, potentially increasing their yield, which would make up for the land lost to the energy projects.  I feel this is overall a beneficial project.
--Pat Gosey

No place like... in a flood zone?

      There are currently 98+ homes being planned in Britain, some valued at one million dollars.  The only odd thing about these homes is that they are being planned in high-risk flood areas. 21% of all new London homes were built in high-risk areas as well.  The government is subsidizing these buildings through surcharge fees from current homeowners with flood insurance.  These low-risk homes are paying additional money so homes can be built in high-risk areas.  This pooling of flood risks is a key factor in why the National Flooding Insurance Program is in a $24 billion debt.  It is estimated that one in ten homes receive an insurance pay out that is worth more than their home is.  This higher insurance premium being pushed to those who are in low-risk areas may cause the low-risk homeowners to leave their current insurance. If they leave, low-risk homeowners will cause less subsidizing for these new homes in high-risk flood areas, which will not help the NFIP get out of their debt.
I do not see the point in building homes in a high risk area other than an insurance scheme.  Who are planning these homes?  From these articles, it seems to me that they are being privately planned and these private planners are playing a gambling game.  If there house is flooded they will cash out on their insurance pay out and until that flooding does occur they are living life in a decent home.  I believe policies should be implemented to restrict construction on known flood areas.  The land should be protected and not used as a residential area.
--Devon Le

Energy from the ocean?

      One proposed concept to produce sustainable energy is to develop ocean current technology and use it to produce electricity on a commercial scale. Harnessing ocean currents for energy is appealing because they are “relatively constant” and carry “a great deal of energy because of the density of water” (Ocean 2014). Due to this characteristic, ocean currents are more effective in comparison to wind energy, as ocean currents moving “12 mph exert the same amount of force as a constant 110 mph wind” (Ocean 2014).
While “small numbers of prototype and demonstration units have been tested” ocean current technology is still in the early stages of development (Report to Congress 2009). Florida is a likely candidate for this technology because it is “estimated that taking just 1/1000th the available energy from the Gulf Stream would supply Florida with 35% of its electrical needs” (Sniderman 2012). Engineers studying currents in Florida have also been able to develop a method to easily identify locations for turbines that will lead to the greatest economic gains.
As good as it sounds; this technology will take time to develop due to multiple obstacles in its way. Mainly, a lot of time and funding for research and development will be required and spending this money elsewhere might be more beneficial to society, such as using nuclear power. Developing nuclear power may be more effective because the technology is already well understood, and we may be able to rapidly evolve its safety measures with proper funding. Ocean current technology could also be wrapped up in politics for years as it goes through the rigors of being analyzed by environmental impact assessment reports. Even after overcoming these obstacles, ocean current technology will need to become capable of being reliable and easily maintained before it becomes a cost effective option for producers and consumers.
--Garrett Grubb

US Government's Oceans Policy

   In "A Blue Budget Beyond Sequester: Taking care of our oceans," Alexandra Adams examines the potential impact that the new fiscal budget will have on protection of our coastal communities and marine natural resources. The new budget for Fiscal Year 2015 indicates that the U.S Government will invest in protecting our coastal economies and preserving our valuable ocean resources. (Adams 2014). One of the organizations responsible for protecting our coastal economies and oceanic resources is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). For fiscal year 2014, the “NOAA has proposed a budget of approximately $5.5 billion, an increase of 3.2% above the 2014 enacted funding” (Adams 2014).
    The NOAA proposed budget will be used for funding both effective ocean, coastal, and fisheries programs (Adams 2014). Unfortunately, some programs that are critical to protecting our ocean resources will not receive the funding they need to carry out their operations.  The Ocean Exploration and Research program is one of the vital programs that will be subject to a budget cut of approximately $7 million (Adams 2014).
    The budget cut for this program will lead to weaker protection for species and resources that are already under stress (Adams 2014). One of the areas being hurt as a result of the budget cuts is the deep canyons in the Atlantic Sea. The canyons and seamounts in the Atlantic have now become vulnerable to bottom trawling, seismic exploration, and oil and gas drilling (Cousteau 2011). Their vulnerability to such procedures is a direct result of recent development in technology. New developments in technology allow us to broaden our capability to explore the deep canyons (Cousteau 2011).
   Although the problems associates with recent exploration are destructive, it is extremely important to continue exploration of the oceans. A solution to some of the destructive contemporary exploration procedures would be to utilize technology with a less harmful effect on the ocean environment. Productive and efficient exploration is a necessary step towards maintaining our oceans health.  The question remains: what type of technology should be used to explore the undiscovered sections of the ocean? We should first invest our time and energy towards analyzing the sensitivity of these undiscovered areas of the ocean before we use potentially damaging means to explore. According to Alexandra Adams, a member of the National Resources Defense Council, "Moreover, with a national ocean economy that is larger than the entire U.S. farm sector in terms of jobs and economic output, keeping this economic powerhouse functioning matters to us all" (Adams 2014). The improvements made in the fiscal budget will provide extremely beneficial information to the U.S in the upcoming future.
--Nick DiSanti

Is Coal an Answer to the Fukushima Disaster?

In light of the terrible disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, Japan has had to find new ways to meet the energy needs of the country. On March 11, 2011, three of the nuclear plant’s reactors blew when the plant was hit by a tsunami that was triggered by the Tohoku earthquake. This nuclear disaster was the largest incident since Chernobyl and measured a level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale.
Since this disaster, Japan has been reluctant to produce much nuclear energy. According to the Wall Street Journal (class members: article posted on Blackboard under Readings), all 48 of the nuclear power plants in Japan are offline at the moment. Some regulators expect to see some of these plants activated again in the near future; Japan has also become a leader in coal imports globally (Iwata, 2014). It is currently the second largest importer of coal, right behind China and before India (Iwata, 2014). Japan currently imports about 85% of its energy requirements. Japan’s nuclear reactors were supposed to generate 40% of the country’s electricity around 2017, (an increase from the past rate of 30%.) However after the Fukushima disaster, these rates have been cut almost in half and there will be a longer process in place to gain clearance for restarting the 48 nuclear reactors in Japan.
Japan is in a tough situation in terms of where to go for energy. It is difficult to say whether Japan should reinstate the 48 reactors and begin producing nuclear energy again. If the disaster had not happened, Japan could currently be producing 40% of its energy domestically through nuclear plants. If the benefits of continuing with nuclear power outweigh the costs of another possible disaster, I would say to proceed. I personally do not believe that the road leading to coal is the best road to take, but I can understand the reluctance of Japan to jump back into nuclear energy. It seems to me that the best way for Japan to continue would be to use coal imports for short term relief while the nation decides whether or not to reinstate the nuclear reactors, and focus on more sustainable energy sources for the long term, like wind energy.
--Shelby Conrad

The Artificial Leaf

In this article, Jack Hitt discusses a new way to create energy, in a way that is similar to the process a tree would use to create energy.  This process uses light and water.  The creator of this source of energy has hopes that it will be in homes everywhere one day, helping homes become more energy efficient.  The whole idea is based off of photosynthesis, which everyone knows works to create energy/food for plants.  The process in more detail involves water that is exposed to light, a silicon strip is covered in catalysts which can break down the water so that on one side of the strip oxygen is bubbling up, and on the other hydrogen is being produced and then used as fuel.  The problem after that is what to do with the hydrogen.  A can of hydrogen won’t do anything; you need a fuel cell in order to actually utilize the hydrogen.  The problem ends up being that there isn’t enough technology available to the public that can actually use this new energy yet. There are a few auto companies that have developed hydrogen-powered vehicles but this is only the beginning.  Another concern is actually getting consumers prepared to use the new energy source. It isn’t like consumers are just buying fuel from a different company, since they have to change some patterns in their lives in order to use fuel cells.
This new energy has been under study for years already, but recently while researching ways to make it affordable and appealing to consumers, the natural gas and fracking business came into the picture. Hydrogen can also be produced from natural gas (harvested via fracking) but when it is there is also a CO2 byproduct. The artificial leaf does the same, minus the pollution factor.
Everything ultimately should come down to efficiency and whether or not it is economically feasible. Another article reviews the economics of the artificial leaf.  From a strictly environmental perspective there is a great benefit of using the leaf because it comes in just under the production of hydrogen from solar panels and electrolysis in price, $7 versus $6.50 per kilogram. However, obtaining hydrogen from fossil fuels only costs $1-2 per kilogram.  If coming from a strictly economical perspective it is a wasteful idea.  Environmentally the hydrogen from fossil fuels has harmful byproducts, so it is possible that the externalities could make it not worth the saved money. Personally I think the leaf should be taken into consideration for the future, but also I think more effort needs to be placed on finding a way to cleanly utilize fossil fuel produced hydrogen as well.  If the government or some other private organization could find a way to efficiently and cheaply use the hydrogen produced from fracking then I think there could be a benefit.  This isn’t changing the creation of harmful byproducts, but maybe the extra hydrogen being used can prevent some coal from being used.
--Jessica Krebs

Increasing Coal Production in Response to Natural Gas Price Hikes

According to the EIA, the U.S. Energy Information Agency, natural gas prices have been nearly double or triple in the last few months over their recent year's average. Since January of 2012 until January of 2014, natural gas prices have averaged between $2 and $4.50/MMBtu, but in the first three months of 2014, natural gas prices have risen drastically to between $4.50 and $8/MMBtu. The report says that due to the very cold winter that the entire U.S. experienced, the demand for natural gas heat went up, and thus the prices for natural gas rose.
This article reports on the happenings at Spring Creek Mine in Montana, which is owned by Cloud Peak Energy. The CEO of Cloud peak discusses that in recent years, production at the mine has been below the overall average from the life of the mine, but this winter, the mine was called upon to produce more coal in order to keep up with the demands of power plants in order to supply the energy for increased heating due to the polar vortex. But coal isn’t slated to lose it’s drive now that winter is coming to a close, coal prices are predicted to be around $2.36/MMBtu yearly average, while natural gas is predicted to be around $4.44/MMBtu, and people are interested in the “cleaner” low sulfur coal that is mined from the Spring Creek Mine. Foreign demand for American coal is also on the rebound now that economies around the world are starting to make a comeback from the global economic downturn, but currently, America is not prepared to export the predicted demands of coal due to lack of viable shipping ports.
I found it very interesting to see how natural gas and coal were substitute goods when demand for energy increased. It makes sense in concept, but to actually see the changes in demands graphically was useful. One of the major thoughts that I had when I finished reading the CNBC article and after comparing it to the EIA report, was the externalities of coal and natural gas, but mostly coal. While coal is predicted to trade around $2.36/MMBtu, around $2 cheaper than natural gas, will the negative externalities actually outweigh the upfront price paid? And while the demand for coal on the foreign market is gaining traction, is it worth expanding the coal shipping industry or would expanding other export industries have a lessened environmental impact on both a local and a global scale? I personally think that calling lower sulfur coal “cleaner” does a disservice to the public on a level around that which calling cigarettes “light” creates the belief that they are healthier. 
--Tom Scalley

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

CAFE: not so great?

We talked about how improving vehicle gas mileage can cause problems, including the "rebound effect" by which people will drive more when driving is cheaper. Another issue has been uncovered by researchers Mark Jacobsen and Arthur van Benthem: they find that people keep their used cars longer and drive them more when newer cars become more expensive. They conclude that 12-17% of the expected savings from CAFE standards may disappear via this means.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

California agriculture's number 1 problem

I thought the drought would be tops, but in this article farmers are saying that the lack of workers is the real problem. While I absolutely support immigration reform and a path to citizenship for people who have been more or less enslaved by these farmers for decades, what really appalls me is the attitude of these farmers. They say that they don't have enough workers, and what that means is that they aren't willing to pay a wage high enough that it's worth it for anyone to come out and do the brutal work in terrible conditions that is offered. The article says that they lose $1.4 billion to a lack of labor. My solution? If these jobs paid $50,000 or $60,000 with benefits you'd have plenty of workers. Would the farmers then lose part, or maybe even most, of that $1.4 billion to the workers? Absolutely, but if they even got 1% of it wouldn't they be better off?

The worst part is that when you visit these communities, there is such clear racism and contempt for the immigrant workers. They complain about how the workers live in poor conditions and cost taxpayers money when they come into emergency rooms needing treatment. I have no idea how they can not see that this problem is entirely one of their own creation, but apparently they don't.

End tirade! Have a nice day. :P

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Water prices

A key assumption for economics is that people make decisions "on the margin"- how much more it will cost or benefit someone to produce, sell, or consume one more item. A friend of mine came out with an article in probably the top journal in all of Economics looking at how that's not true in the context of water. (Article is posted under Reading on the course Blackboard website.) For something like this where prices change depending on how much we buy (i.e. when there's a bulk discount, or a fee for overuse) then it's harder to predict how people will respond to a change in prices. First of all, an interesting result, and secondly, I'm so excited for my friend to get into this top journal!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Dead Zones in Lake Erie

***First article on Reading Quiz II.***

     Lake Erie is facing an increase in the spread of algae, which is a serious threat. The algal blooms consume the oxygen, created dead zones, which threaten the organisms in the lake. Some of these blooms are so toxic that they have killed dogs and sickened swimmers. In 2011, heavy rains resulted in algal blooms that were three times bigger than any previous one.
The main cause of the increased algae in the lake is phosphorus pollution. Phosphorus enters the lake through runoff from phosphorus-based fertilizers. The main contributor to the runoff is farms and lawns.
A United States-Canadian agency was called to implement limits on the use of fertilizer around Lake Erie, in order to reduce the amount of phosphorus pollution. The International Joint Commission proposed a ban on most sales of phosphorus-based lawn fertilizers in Ontario, Ohio and Pennsylvania. It also urged Michigan and Ohio to invoke the Clean Water Act to limit phosphorus from farmland instead of just from factories. The commission’s report stated that the targets previously set by the United States and Canada to reduce Lake Erie’s phosphorus load by 2018 was too low. Overall, the commission’s report urges both legal and voluntary programs to reach large reactions by 2022.
      The algal blooms are also a threat to local economies. According to Captain Rick Unger, who operates a charter boat on Lake Erie, “It’s a threat to every business in northern Ohio.” Local markets, especially the fishing market are greatly affected by this. In Ohio alone, fishing is a $1.2 billion industry that could be hit hard by the decease in fish due to the increase in dead zones.
I agree with the commission that setting legal limits or bans on phosphorus-based fertilizers is a good idea. Setting a limit to the amount of fertilizer that can be used on farms that are near the lake could have a significant impact. The government can also heavily tax phosphorus-based fertilizers from the use on lawns, limiting the amount used and forcing people to buy other more eco-friendly fertilizers. I also think amending the Clean Water Act to include farms could lower their pollution output as a whole, as well as phosphorus pollution. I believe legislation needs to be put in place along with taxes in order to reduce the amount of phosphorus pollution within the near future, hopefully by 2022, as the commission proposed.
--Chris Caspar

US exporting gas?

      Last Wednesday a bill was introduced that would allow the US to export natural gas to the Ukraine, in hopes that it would lessen the hold Russia has over the country. Russia is the number one exporter of natural gas, but with the use of fracking technology the United States has become the number one producer of natural gas. About 80% of gas exports from Russia pass through the Ukraine. The country could freeze without its oil, so with more control of Gazprom (the Russian gas company) comes more control of the Ukraine. Currently, natural gas export points are still under construction in the United States and wouldn’t be useful until at least 2015.
     Carlos Pascual is a former American ambassador to Ukraine, who leads the State Department’s Bureau of Energy Resources. He has claimed that serious efforts have already been made to lessen Putin’s hold on the Ukraine. His team worked to help European countries lessen their dependence on Russian natural gas by finding reserves in Africa. They also helped countries build up a storage of natural gas in Europe, as well as exploring Poland and the Ukraine for gas reserves. Pascual claimed that the US sending gas to the Ukraine “sends a clear signal that the global gas market is changing, that there is the prospect of much greater supply coming from other parts of the world."
     Without the technology at the moment to send natural gas overseas, I believe more work should be done to lessen Ukrainian dependence on Russian gas through other means. More research into European gas reserves and possibly putting more funding into renewable energy resources could lessen the Russian hold. Chevron and Shell have already been licensed to explore for gas in the Ukraine. Since the process of approving natural gas exports is going so slowly, this might have a more immediate effect. Gas exportation may be a good long term goal, but for now the Ukraine should focus more on domestic and renewable energy sources.
--Bonnie Griesemer

***This is the last post for which you are responsible on the first blog quiz.***

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Chemical Externalities

Jane Wolfson sent me this article on some of the external damages caused by chemicals. A quote: "Economist Elise Gould has calculated that ...for the population that was six years old or younger in 2006, lead exposure will result in a total income loss of between $165 and $233 billion. The combined current levels of pesticides, mercury, and lead cause IQ losses amounting to around $120 billion annually—or about three percent of the annual budget of the U.S. government."

Ouch.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Now taking a shot at Keystone XL: Businessweek!?!

The estimates of tens of thousands of jobs always seemed to me to be odd, but is it really down to less than 4000 for construction and 50 permanent jobs after that? Wow. And fracking (of oil, not natural gas) has moved the US up in the oil production standings, though I doubt we're going to be self-sufficient any time soon. Finally, this article says that the impact will be equal to that of 46 new coal plants! Ouch. If all that's true, maybe it really is a bad idea.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Illegal Logging Practices in Mozambique

Nearly half of the land in Mozambique is forest and state owned. Of that land, 67% is used for production. Even though there has been a certain amount of land put aside for industry, the forests have been declining at an average rate of .5% annually. Due to this, the country’s primary forests no longer remain. There has been much concern over the legality of logging. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has published a report that, “…assesses timber production, consumption, and exports, finding that nearly two-thirds of logging is currently illegal.” It is also noted that, “harvesting is exceeding sustainable levels, threatening the long-term viability of the industry and putting local livelihoods at risk." Over 250 million dollars of illegal timber is cut each year and it is taking money away from the country. The money that could be gained would go directly towards law enforcement and better management.
I feel that Mozambique needs to stop these illegal logging practices as soon as possible. Since the Minister of Agriculture, Jose Pacheco, is one of the best candidates for the presidential election, his election will cause more problems. He has been identified as having connections to timber smugglers and with his power, worsen the industry and allow the illegal practices to continue. There already is weak governance and corruption that will only get worse if he gets elected. I agree with the push for “…a moratorium on new logging licenses; greater transparency from the government on forestry information; and the establishment of an independent forestry watchdog.” The forests are declining at a fast rate and they aren’t being replenished at the same speed. Eventually, if there are no restrictions, the country will face many more problems.
--Kristen Forti

Friday, March 7, 2014

No Smoking in Parks

   I'm sure everyone has seen someone smoking a cigarette in front of a building, outdoor event or even a public park, then flick it carelessly on the ground when finished.  This action, may it be a unconscious force of habit or just a blatant disregard for the environment, has cost cities across the United States millions of dollars each year. You may be thinking millions of dollars to pick up cigarette butts, how is that money accounted for? A portion of that money pays for the time spent by the people who have to pick-up the butts like employees of parks, restaurants, local governments and volunteers. In addition to the astounding economic costs, there are environmental costs like the harm to wildlife. Cigarette butts contain cellulose acetate, a form of plastic, that has been found in the intestinal tracts of fish, birds and other marine organisms (Davis).  A possible solution to this cigarette litter problem would be the banning of smoking in public areas.     Several Maryland counties have already banned smoking in front of government buildings, work places and restaurants.  Recently a bill has been introduced before the Maryland General Assembly that would ban smoking on county park land.  According to Delegate Benjamin F. Kramer of  Montgomery one of the reasons why the assembly should approve this bill, is that it would “...help reduce litter and help reduce environmental damage tobacco trash can cause...”  I agree with the ban on smoking in park lands because  it would decrease the amount of litter and the amount of butts consumed by marine life.  It may seem as though  this ban is violating smokers rights; if they would have been considerate of the environment initially, a bill would not have been necessary.
--Jillen Vest

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

EPA sets cleaner fuel & car standards

   Arguably the most common item that is owned by the masses is a car or some sort of vehicle.  And the one thing that all of these vehicles have in common is that they run on fuel.  Last Monday the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency released a new set of protocols that the car manufacturers must follow to lessen the amount of pollution that is put into the air as a result of the usage of the fuels.  The pollution caused by the usage of cars causes as many as 610 deaths a year.  These new standards that were unveiled state that “The final standards are expected to provide up to 13 dollars in health benefits for every dollar spent to meet the standards."  This is not to say that these new standards are free for the general public.  The article estimates that by 2025 the average increase in costs for the cars to meet the standards will be $72 per vehicle. 
    Undoubtedly this is a positive thing for the population and it is very difficult to see anything negative about it. Yes,  it will end up costing us more in the short run but as shown by the numbers above the long run benefits almost dwarf the costs.  Aside from the cost the only other negative in my opinion is the government oversight into private consumption. While yes this is ultimately a good choice I just think that it most of the time it is better for the population to get to that conclusion by themselves.
--Doug Burroughs

Arctic Discrepancies

   The Arctic has become an item of increasing interest for economic potential and environmental concerns. Melting of the icecaps is exposing portions of the Arctic that were previously inaccessible. This article explains that the potential for economic gain has been creating political tension among the countries that border the Arctic region, who are rushing to claim territory in the region. Russia is expanding their military presence throughout their Arctic territories. The retreating caps also are creating new shipping routes that would shorten transport time to major cities. Key exploratory drilling projects have been delayed due to failure to fully assess potential impacts and also to lack of funding. Specifically, Shell Oil Company has been consistently unsuccessful in their exploratory missions. According to this article there have been discrepancies in the legitimacy of Shells leases, failures when testing attempts at clean ups, and the DOI ruling on the environmental impact that drilling may have.
   I could laugh at the irony of drilling in the Arctic for fossil fuels that have degraded the ice caps to being with. At the moment I do not think drilling in the Arctic is cost effective for companies and there is too much negative feedback from the public for exploratory projects to proceed. However, if there are technological advances that can withstand the extreme climate and reduce probability of spills, then I think the projects will be more likely to advance. Although Russia has the most experience and capability to explore the Arctic, natural gas makes up most of the resources in their continental shelf. Russia’s increasing presence is probably due to international trade and intent to protect their assets.
--Kelly Nellenbach