Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Effects of Road Salt on the Environment

Road Salt has long been the most effective and widely used de-icing method after snow storms. New Hampshire was the first state to implement the usage of road salt as a means to expedite melting and increasing state wide productivity during the winter months.  After New Hampshire’s successful use of road salt as a preventative measure during the winter months, the use of road salt doubled every five years in the United States. This increase in road salt usage began to noticeably affect vegetation and wildlife in states that used salt continuously.  Road salt contains approximately “40 percent sodium ions and 60 percent chloride ions.” These chloride ions are completely soluble and pose a toxic threat to vegetation and wildlife after they dissolve.  Chloride that dissolves into groundwater remains there, as there are no natural removal methods; the only way to reduce chloride concentrations is dilution.  Water contaminated with chloride poses a significant effect on animals that depend on it, stifling reproduction, growth and even causing kill-off.  Road salt not only impacts aquatic life, but wildlife as well. “Birds, the most sensitive wildlife species to salt, often mistake road salt crystals for seeds or grit. Consumption of very small amount of salt can result in toxicosis and death within the bird population.” Consumption of road salt by birds can cause a significant drop in population if the winter months are long, if enough birds die this can also cause a disruption in the local food chain.  Road salt certainly has a huge effect on wildlife but its effect on the environment is quite significant as well.  Vegetation and soil are the most visibly affected parts of the environment. “Salt can lead to plant death and can also cause a colonization of salt tolerant species, such as cattails, thereby reducing species diversity.” All of these adverse effects on plants and soil cost farmers millions of dollars each year, in many cases forcing them to abandon plots of land due to infertility of the soil.
I was quite surprised at the scale of impact that road salt has on the environment. Road salt affects everything from soil to birds, causing massive disruptions to the environment. Personally, I feel that more should be done to combat overuse of road salt. It has become increasingly obvious that the overuse of road salt is causing an increased amount of harm to the environment, but the necessity of road salt is undeniable. The local governments that use road salt should focus on having strict salting schedules and regulations that seek to slow the effect that road salt has on the environment.  There are also economic effects of road salt such as, buildings becoming more brittle and soil degradation which affect everyday people. These effects are hard to ignore and I feel that governments should look for alternatives that seek to lower the amount of road salt used during winter months.
--Nedim Ljubuncic

Fresno Farmers Feud over Fish

   While the levels of water in streams and reservoirs around the state decline, anxiety grows in California farmers about whether or not they will be able to continue operations. According to the Wall Street Journal, hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland lie fallow at a cost of millions of dollars in lost product.
   A proposed solution has come up in the House of Representatives which would, if passed, temporarily suspend protections to the endangered Delta Smelt, a tiny fish which places big demands on the California water supply. Currently the Endangered Species Act protects the habitat of the delta smelt by preventing pumping water out of reservoirs at a level which would prevent the fish from spawning. One farmer, according to National Public Radio, estimates that “twenty to thirty percent” of the water in California is reserved for the fish.

   What the press and, seemingly, Congress is not discussing, however, is why the semi-arid Central and Southern California are being used for agriculture in the first place. An agricultural industry has been built on the back of government-subsidized water and irrigation projects masking the comparative disadvantage of agriculture in the region. Many have discussed how we need to prioritize water for impoverished California farmers; however, they fail to notice that the very same practice has a tendency to artificially lower prices, contributing to the poverty of Central and South American farmers. 
--Clark Miller

Solar Desalination helping California Drought

   A San Francisco startup company called Water FX has installed a 377 ft. solar desalination array in California’s agricultural nucleus, in an area where billions of gallons of contaminated runoff water lie just below the surface. The Panoche Water District funds the $1 million project in hopes to provide water for agriculture. This new solar-powered technique apparently allows farmers to tap into toxic runoff at half the cost of traditional desalination and provide freshwater irrigation independent of annual rainfall or snowpack in other parts of the state. Water FX’s promising pilot program uses free energy to remove harmful substances from toxic runoff to provide clean water.
   Water FX utilizes two abundant resources found in the area to desalinate water: sunlight and uncultivated land. Using massive parabolic reflectors, focused sunlight energy heats mineral oil that is then used to produce steam in evaporators. The process is continuous storing excess heat in molten salts allowing it to continue at night. Thermal desalination promises to ease two major issues in the area: chronic water shortage, and salt contamination of arable land. The latter has already made over 100,000 acres in the Central Valley unusable.
   Standard desalination plants use a process known as “reverse osmosis” an energy intensive process that forces water through membranes that must be periodically changed.  According to Michael Hanemann, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Berkeley [and your professor's teacher, back in the day!] these are often considered a backup water resource, operating infrequently. Nearby a traditional desalination plant is being constructed, using over $30 million in federal funding.
   The Water FX pilot has generated 14,000 gallons of clean water per day, and the commercial installation is said to create over 2,200 acre feet of water per year, only using 31 acres of land. This water is clean and abundant enough for incorporation into municipal markets where prices are substantially higher. Hanemann called desalinization a hedge against future shortages and the rising price of water. “It’s a form of insurance,” he said suggesting that the economic viability of the new technology depends on how much water farmers would have to buy on expensive spot markets because of drought and climate change.
   Farmers in the Panoche district have been receiving less and less water for irrigation as the drought continues, and this year they will receive no water. The Central Valley Project has established long term contracts promising farmers irrigated water from northern California at a fraction of the actual price, about $280 per acre-foot.  Water FX currently produces an acre-foot of water at $450. The drought that has plagued California prevents the Central Valley Project to meet the requirements of farmers, and as consequence irrigation prices are expected to double or triple for farmers. Food prices are going to go up, absolutely,” said Dennis Falaschi, manager of the Panoche Water District.
--James Etienne

Monday, February 24, 2014

Graphics on the California drought

Pretty intense graph from Mother Jones showing the potential impact of the California drought. I didn't realize that things were so bad in the Monterey Bay area. I visited a bunch of farms there a number of years ago, and it's tough to think that this tremendously productive and scenic area, blessed with sun and fog perfect for a number of crops, is most likely going to produce nothing this year.

The other article I saw today doesn't have the same kind of graphic, but it's pretty graphic in a different way. Almond farmers in California are actually destroying parts of their orchards, killing some trees before the drought does so that the trees don't become hosts to bugs which can damage other trees. Culling the orchard is necessary over time, but it's happening at an accelerated rate. Pretty sad!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Farm census

A summary of the 2012 agricultural census in the SF Chronicle reports that there are over 2 million farms in the US, a number slightly down from the peak in 2007. While 3/4 are small, producing less than $50,000 in sales, the rest are making a total of about $320 billion. I guess that's an average of just about $610,000 per farm, though, and it sounds like it's revenue, not profit. I thought maybe that the real action is in farming the government, but I found a summary of the report, and just $8 billion came to farmers in 2012.

Monday, February 17, 2014

US Coal Exports

    The United States coal industry has always been a big business. In my primary article the implications of exporting this resource are discussed. When the effects of acid rain were recognized a few decades ago, low-sulfur coal became a prime commodity, and federal lands containing it were leased to coal companies at a low price. Now, with alternative energy on the rise coal is not being used as much in America. Instead, it is being shipped overseas, notably to Asian countries. While there is a lot of talk about the effects this will have on the environment, the writer also points out that despite the talk of new jobs, the coal companies are the ones making bank in this particular case. The prices that were lowered due to the need for low-sulfur coal were never raised again, so the coal is mined outrageously cheaply and then sold for high prices overseas. According to one study $1 billion in taxes alone has been lost over the past three decades. The article also brings up the topic of some Asian countries’ less than stellar environmental laws, and the effect it can have on the planet. The problem is that the Federal Government doesn’t seem very concerned with any of this.
    My second article is a report on Washington State’s investigation into the environmental impact of coal exports. Since it is such a lucrative business, more export facilities are being built; the author states that three of the planned buildings together would allow annual exports matching the total coal exported in 2011 (107 million tons.) The plan is for the Washington Department of Ecology to investigate greenhouse emissions from Asia that are a direct result from burning U.S. coal. This is interesting considering it is in contrast with the federal government’s stance on the situation. It shows that there is concern, and the research being conducted may be a sign of change to come.
    The coal industry in America has always held too much power in my opinion. They make enormous amounts of money while doing tremendous amounts of damage to the land, and there have never been enough regulations in place to hold them accountable. By exporting to Asia they just continue to profit when we have started looking for cleaner energy solutions. We should definitely update the leasing policies in place, and investigate the taxes these companies should be paying. While there is little we can do about Asia’s pollution policies, I do think that the research into Asia’s emissions will give important data about how the resources we put on the market can potentially affect the world as a whole. If it does have a significant impact, then it could help form another argument for cleaner energy resources.
--Samantha Adrian

North American Oil Companies v. OPEC Nations

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, is one of the world’s leaders in the production in oil, supplying about 40% of the world’s oil (DiLallo, 2014). According to Exxon Mobil Corporation, who is the largest energy company in regards to market value, stated that oil production in North America from shale fields should out-produce each member of OPEC by 2015.  The surge in U.S. oil production came from developed techniques in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing originally used to extract natural gas from shale in north Texas. (Carroll, 2013)  From this shale boom America’s oil production is expected to increase to 9.6 million barrels of oil per day by 2016. [Editor's note: US annual consumption is about 7 billion barrels per year.] Companies such as ConocoPhillips and Marathon Oil are focusing more and more efforts to drill in America, both increasing large percentages of their spending in America.  Marathon Oil should yield more than 25% more annual production growth by 2017 (DiLallo, 2014).
OPEC to me should begin to fear or at least worry about oil drilling in the shale fields in North America. While producing 40% of the world’s oil, they have a great influence as to how the market should react to changes in price for oil.  However, companies spending large quantities in America could lead to not only increased GDP for the country through oil exports but also increase jobs through drilling and fracturing sites in Texas as well as Oklahoma (DiLallo, 2014). This would also go to lower oil prices in the market and lower gas prices around the country.
--Nicholas Bonomolo

$2.6 billion investment to clean DC water

Story in the WaPo this weekend about a huge project to redirect sewage flows so that they don't end up in the rivers. For those of you who feel like we don't take enough care of our environment, a couple billion must at least be seen as a good start, no?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Cotton as an export?

I can't remember who brought this up in class, but it looks like cotton is NOT a big part of the agricultural commodities exported by the US.

NYT debate on Keystone

There is a multi-part piece on Keystone XL today, asking whether it's the best way to target environmentalists' energy. (The question itself implies that the NY Times is skeptical of the fight, no?) It is led off by well-known advocate Bill McKibben, who argues: 1) Approval of Keystone is the equivalent of putting six million more cars on the road; 2) It hasn't been the only issue target by environmentalists; 3) It got a lot of people active; and 4) It would be groundbreaking to reject a project on the grounds that the project hurts the climate. He links to this presentation on the harms of Keystone, which makes a few good points, like that the pipeline is estimated to "increase tar sands production by 36%." That's bad because tar sands are dirtier than regular oil. Author Tony Horwitz argues that the fight is probably ultimately futile, but that by fighting it environmentalists have won key victories, like improving the proposed route and slowing it down. Physicist Burton Richter is worried about climate change, but he doesn't like higher oil prices. At the same time, he says a carbon tax is a better way to get there. (I'm a little confused: does he think a carbon tax won't raise oil prices? 'Cause, um, that's the point!) Advocate Jane Kleeb links to this video on behalf of Nebraskans fighting the pipeline, and accuses TransCanada of bullying landowners to try to get their way. I don't doubt it- there's a lot of money on the line! There are a few more: two of them, one by the Friends of the Earth and another by the American Petroleum Institute, basically say nothing at all. One more, highly condescending entry says that environmentalism is dead and the answer is either nuclear or maybe just not worrying about it? I'm not sure what they're saying, but they're saying it rudely. (Their website shows how cities are a great habitat for birds... ok, whatever!)

This round goes to the environmentalists, though I did leave out a few references to how the pipeline will help the US source our crucial energy from a friendly country, improving our national security, which is an important argument. I myself remain on the fence: energy and climate change are important, but as Horwitz says, we have to expect that somehow that resource will get exploited. In the end I wish people would push for real change like a carbon tax (even though, yes, that will mean higher prices) rather than fighting hard on these side issues. As we're about to see, that's an effective way to solve a problem of externalities like climate change.

No school but a big news day

Lots of snow outside and no school, but four big topics in the news today. One ended up being so big I gave it its own post! Here are the other three:

1) Europe is considering authorizing more GMOs. Europeans are very skeptical about GMOs, fearing (as yet unproven) environmental and health harms, and meanwhile constraining farmers to using less productive varieties.

2) I learned something new about oil today: did you know it's illegal to export crude oil from the US? Oil is cheaper in this country than it is worldwide because of an export restriction. That is nice for us because it keeps our prices lower, but it also decreases our incentives to conserve. If we can export the world prices might go down a little while ours go up a little more. If you're pro-environment, you're pro-high gas prices, so removing this restriction might be a good thing.

3) Progress on nuclear fusion: scientists not far from where I went to grad school are getting close to making nuclear fusion feasible. I don't know a lot about it, but from the writeup it sounds like it's kind of a dream energy because it's virtually limitless and it doesn't make nasty waste like fission does. Interesting!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Blast from the past

A student from last semester's class sent along this item, which is relevant to the Keystone XL pipeline discussion we had at the start of class. It turns out that a pipeline owned by TransCanada, the company that wants to build the pipeline, suffered a massive loss of integrity in 2011 that basically left the area looking like a bomb site. They haven't done a good job of keeping up with inspections, and this part of the forest (though fortunately no people) suffered significant damage because of it. I'd hope that environmental regulations for the XL are more stringent, especially since it seems like they can't be trusted to do a good job of policing themselves.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Buffering the Sun

    The article I read (and the backup) are about sunshade geoengineering and the costs and benefits associated with it. It started off by giving some background on the implementation of sunshade geoengineering, which is basically flying a fleet of planes at very high altitudes and having them spray out aerosol sulfates that reflect roughly 1% of incoming solar radiation.  Next, the article laid out a few statistics about immediate and future problems of CO2 output. These included increasing output of CO2 because of countries like China and India developing, and the fact that even if carbon emissions were halted today it would take hundreds of years for temperatures to go back to normal. After laying the foundation, the article compared two types of geoengineering: carbon capturing and sunshading. Carbon capturing is seen as being relatively slow and expensive compared to sunshading which could be done very quickly and is relatively inexpensive. It then went on to talk about the possible effects of sunshade geoengineering from an economic and environmental standpoint. One benefit is the possibility of lowering the Earth’s temperature by 1 degree Fahrenheit for a relatively low price. One cost is the possibility of the aerosols depleting the ozone further which would cause even more global warming if we stopped sunshading the Earth.
    In my opinion, I think sunshade geoengineering is a terrible idea, and should only be used in an extreme situation. The negatives far outweigh the positives, and we really have no idea what the actual effects will be because there hasn’t really been any testing done. Some possible side effects are droughts in Asia and Africa, depleting ozone further, less solar power, continued acidification of oceans, and lots of possible issues we may never know. It is relatively inexpensive compared to the cost of cutting carbon emissions if you look at dollar value, but if you look at the possible effects it could be way more costly. It would be much wiser to just start reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, because if we can become independent of fossil fuels then we never have to go back. This would be a very short term fix that could lead to even more long term problems. So, in my opinion, unless the world is going to end and the only way to save it is sunshade geoengineering, then we should avoid using it at all costs.
--Eric Skelly

Texas Drought and Well Drilling

   The articles I found were about the drought in Texas the past several months and what the residents in Austin, Texas are doing to adapt to the situation. 
   The point of the first article is about how the drought is the worst one that Austin has had in over 50 years and it is taking its toll on the two lakes that primarily supply Austin with its water.  The lakes are down to 30% full and if the drought continues, they will be dry in a matter of a few years (Toohey, 2013).  This leads into the second article.This article points out that residents of Austin are drilling wells into the property to reach water that runs below their land.  Since the water under each person's land is considered their property, the state can't prevent it and the owners can use as much as they want.  The idea for the wells was to bypass the water restriction laws that have already cost residents 10's of thousands of dollars in fines.  With the wells, they can use as much water as they want without getting fined all while keeping their lawns green (Satija & Root, 2013).
   While drilling wells is extremely useful and rational in its own way, drilling them in the middle of the worst drought in Texas in 50+ years just to keep a lawn green without paying fines is a waste.  Not everyone can afford the wells and it is just going to keep diminishing the already scarce resource.  The water that the wells are bringing up is water that runs to a nearby aquifer which is monitored and isn't over used.  However, if people start using too much well water, the aquifer will start to be used up and eventually all water sources near Austin will be useless for everyone.  Someone in class brought up a good point when I was presenting my findings and said that drilling the wells was being used as a status marker.  I don't doubt this.  Many of the people who have drilled are affluent people that have enough money and just want to keep their lawns green.  I don't agree with the well drilling as water in Austin is currently a very scarce resource and people don't seem to notice that fact.
--Craig Hammond

Immigration and food prices

While it probably isn't the first thing you think about, it's not too hard to understand the logic here. A study commissioned by the American Farm Bureau reports that if immigration enforcement is stepped up, food prices will rise by 5-6% and the agricultural industry will lose about $60 billion. I guess it's really tough when you have to pay people the actual minimum wage! That seems like a big loss, though: surely the higher food prices aren't a total loss for the industry.

I was reading about how to fix the US food system the other day, and the first constructive thought I had was about the importance of prices. If there are no incentives for farmers to worry about fertilizers running off of their land and into the Bay (or the Gulf of Mexico, for that matter), they won't do it. If farmers don't pay the full cost of the damage that concentrated animal feeding operations do the environment and the people living nearby, they will certainly continue to do it, just like we continue to abuse parking that is underpriced. And when farmers are paid to produce corn for fuel instead of food, can you blame them when that's what they do?

While higher priced food is a bad thing for consumers, I think we need to accept that the current prices are too low for a number of reasons, including the poor conditions of life for many farm workers. (I'm not saying that the enforcement of immigration is key!) People deserve a decent wage for farm work, and right now they don't get it. It's pretty shocking to hear farmers complain about how farmers clog up the local emergency rooms, when it's their fault the workers lack insurance.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

2014 Farm Bill

Past student Amanda Wayman wrote me an email saying, "A couple of days ago and again this morning I read that they've finally passed the new farm bill. I was just wondering if you've seen it and what you think about it? You should add your opinion of this to your blog!"

Go past the jump for my take on it....

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Keystone XL supported

It's been a lot more common for people to rally against the pipeline than for it, but today we saw the latter. A bipartisan group of US Senators and others held a press conference supporting the pipeline, giving the same rationales we talked about in class.

Dominion Cove Point

   There are new plans to turn Dominion Cove Point, a liquefied natural gas import facility in southern Maryland that has not been in use since 2011, into an exporting facility.  In the Washington Post article An Energy Dilemma at Md.’s Cove Point, writer, Peter Galuszka, outlines both the costs and benefits of transforming this facility and using it as a natural gas export facility, including the 4,000 jobs it would create and the billions of dollars it would bring into the area.  In his opinion, the benefits outweigh the costs and he believes that converting Dominion Cove Point is a good idea (Galuszka, 2013).
   I, on the other hand, disagree with Galuszka.  Galuszka points out that Maryland recently spent $1.7 billion on offshore wind development (Galuszka, 2013, ph. 10).  This investment will bring the state closer to its goal, which the Baltimore Sun reports is to increase the amount of energy provided to the state from renewable sources to 25% by 2020 (Browner, 2013, p. 5). Converting the plant and promoting the use of natural gas would push Maryland in the opposite direction than it wishes to go, turning the almost $2 billion investment into a pointless waste of money.  Although the facility could bring in an estimated $59 million to the state government (Galuszka, 2013, ph.8), natural gas is a nonrenewable resource.  With the entire country tending towards renewable energy sources, the plant could once again become useless in a matter of decades, if not years, proving this to be another waste of investments.  I believe that if Maryland does wish to make its goal of running 25% of electricity off of renewable resources and promote a more sustainable future, it should not allow Cove Point to be converted into an export facility.
--Courtney Schallhorn

Go Go... GMO?

We don't see many people advocating for GMO's other than Monsanto shareholders, but a piece in the New York Times makes the case for more research into GMO wheat. The author notes that for corn and soybean growers, GMOs have reduced use of insecticides and helped them shift to less toxic herbicides. They have also been making more money than before, and we all want farmers to make a decent living! Finally the author argues that GMOs are safe, and that GMO technology may also protect the wheat crop against drought, disease, pests, and frost. I'll add that the more we can get from existing cropland, the less pressure there will be to convert wild lands. Is it time to consider supporting the technology?

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Water in the West

Major, major resource issue: the droughts in California. While for many of you that seems so far away that it might as well be another country, that's my home. Why you should care: the price of food is about to go up because of it. As the California Department of Food & Ag puts it, "California’s agricultural abundance includes more than 400 commodities. The state produces nearly half of US-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables. Across the nation, US consumers regularly purchase several crops produced solely in California."

Most water in California comes from the snow that accumulates in the mountains on the California-Nevada border. This year the snowpack is around 12% of normal. That is bad. Think about all that means: crops won't get planted, livestock will be slaughtered early or shipped out (expensively) to places where they can be fed. Hopefully there is enough water to at least keep alive the trees and vines that produce 90% of the country's grapes, 80% of the world's almonds and 40% of the world's pistachios, even if they don't produce any fruit this year. 

Last quote: "California accounted for all or nearly all the national production of almonds, dates, figs, kiwifruit, olives, Clingstone peaches, pistachios, dried plums, raisins, and walnuts." So even if you aren't worried about whether the 38 million Californians are able to take showers, wash their cars, or water their lawns, hopefully you can see that this is a big deal!

Keystone update

We opened the class by talking about the Keystone XL pipeline, and a milestone was reached in the government's examination of that proposed project on Friday when the State department issued a report. Contrary to what I said in class, the report concludes that the pipeline will not affect how much oil is extracted from tar sands in Alberta.

If that's the case, then I personally don't see any reason to stop it. As you read in the article I handed out on the first day, the fight against the Keystone has been a boon to the environmental movement as people join up against the pipeline, for reasons logical or illogical. As an economist it seems to me that there are better ways people could use their energy to improve the environment (such as fighting for appropriate taxes and/ or cap and trade on industry emissions). Obviously I'm not a politician!