May 2014

Post image for The West Antarctic Ice Sheet Is Doomed — but don’t sell the beach house!

Three recent studies on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) are making waves in the media, re-stoking fears of catastrophic sea-level rise, and putting a spring in the step of many a carbon-taxer.

Thomas Sumner summarizes two of the studies in a Science magazine commentary titled “No Stopping the Collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.” The studies, he writes, conclude that:

Thwaites Glacier, a keystone holding the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet together, is starting to collapse. In the long run, they say, the entire ice sheet is doomed. Its meltwater would raise sea levels by more than 3 meters.

Specifically, Joughin et al., writing in Science, find that “in as few as 2 centuries Thwaites Glacier’s edge will recede past an underwater ridge now stalling its retreat. Their models suggest that the glacier will then cascade into rapid collapse.” Rignot et al., writing in Geophysical Research Letters (GRL), “describes recent radar mapping of West Antarctica’s glaciers and confirms that the 600-meter-deep ridge is the final obstacle before the bedrock underlying the glacier dips into a deep basin.”

In addition, McMillan et al., also writing in GRL, report that Antarctica as a whole is losing about 159 billion tons of ice per year. That’s an amount larger than previous estimates and translates to an overall sea-level rise contribution of 0.45 mm/year (1.7 inches per century).

The first two studies expressly conclude that the Thwaites and neighboring outlet glaciers have retreated to a point of no return and that, once gone, nothing can prevent the rest of the WAIS from flowing into the sea.

My initial reaction was: What’s really new here?

Conway et al. (1999), a study of the relentless retreat of the WAIS grounding line since the early-to-mid Holocene (i.e. 9,000 years ago or more), and Bindschadler (2006), a study of the inexorable melting of submarine glaciers in contact with warm ocean currents, both concluded that the WAIS is doomed.*

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Details are leaking out about EPA’s impending* climate plan for existing power plants pursuant to section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act. In the past, EPA has interpreted Clean Air Act section 111(d) such that it applied only on a source-by-source basis. However, Bloomberg and Reuters recently reported that EPA’s climate plan would require “beyond the fence” or “mass emissions” approach—i.e., states would be required to regulate beyond a power plant’s smokestack. EPA’s plan thus represents a radical change from past practice.

Pursuant to section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, EPA is authorized to promulgate “guidelines,” whose function is to aid states in the formulation of plans to achieve the “best” system of emission control system for a “designated” pollutant (greenhouse gases) from a “designated” source (power plants). States are then required to submit these plans to EPA for review. If EPA rejects a State plan, then the agency is empowered to impose a federal plan in its stead.

In this brief post, I address the following question: What sort of federal plan could EPA impose? Alas, the answer is frighteningly broad, and includes policies such as a carbon tax or even a cap-and-trade energy rationing scheme.

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[Editor’s Note: “Primary Document Dump Fridays” is a new weekly feature at Every Friday, we’ll post all the primary documents relevant to a major EPA regulation]

Want to learn more about EPA’s impending carbon standards for existing power plants? Below, find the following primary documents, listed in order of their posting. In subsequent posts, these documents will figure prominently in analyses of what the agency is trying to get away with.

  • Proposed Procedures for Implementation of 111(d) [39 FR 36102, Monday October 7, 1974]
  • Final Procedures for Implementation of 111(d) [40 FR 53340, Monday November 17, 1975]
  • Proposed Procedures for Public Notice & Comment of EPA Review of State 111(d) Plans [43 FR 29585, Monday July 10, 1978]
  • Final Procedures for Public Notice & Comment of EPA Review of State 111(d) Plans [43 FR 51393, Friday November 3, 1978]
  • EPA Guidelines for Control of Fluoride Emissions from Existing Phosphate Fertilizer Plants (March 1979)
  • EPA Guidelines for Control of Sulfuric Acid Mist Emissions from Existing Sulfuric Acid Production Units (September 1979)
  • EPA Guidelines for Control of TRS Emissions from Existing Kraft Pulping Mills (March 1979)
  • EPA Guidelines for Control of Methane & Organic Compound Emissions from Existing Solid Waste Landfills (March 1996)
  • EPA Guidelines for  Control of Fluoride Emissions from Existing Primary Aluminum Plants (February 1979)

Proposed Procedures for Implementation of 111(d) [39 FR 36102, Monday October 7, 1974]


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Post image for Sure, the President’s Climate Pivot Is Cynical. But Is It Also Terrible Politics?

Whether the impetus is legacy-building or fund-raising, the White House is embracing climate change policy. This month, the administration released a report claiming that global warming is responsible for every bad weather event in recent memory; next month, President Obama reportedly will put a “personal touch” on the EPA’s climate plan, which would take over energy oversight from the States.

The President’s political pivot to environmentalism represents a marked change from the ideas he espoused when trying to get elected. Indeed, he campaigned to the right of Mitt Romney on energy policy in 2012. In addition to being ultra-cynical, I suspect that President Obama’s green turn is also bad politics.

After all, public opinion polls are consistent: Americans give low priority to climate change. Anecdotal evidence also suggests as much. For example, consider the “dismal” popularity of “Years of Living Dangerously,” a big budget global warming docudrama by James Cameron and starring a bunch of Hollywood stars. Consider as well the delicious quote below from CNN’s Jeff Zucker (by way of National Journal Overnight Energy):

CNN BOSS: ‘LACK OF INTEREST’ ON CLIMATE. Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN Worldwide, said that while climate change “is one of those stories that deserves more attention,” the network hasn’t gotten viewer involvement. “When we do do those stories, there does tend to be a tremendous amount of lack of interest on the audience’s part,” Zucker said at the Deadline Club’s awards dinner. 

Job growth is underwhelming; accordingly, “it’s the economy, stupid.” And with midterm elections fast approaching, I wonder how American voters will react to the de facto leader of the DNC elevating climate change–“a rich man’s issue” about which the public generally doesn’t care–to the fore. Poorly, I think.  [click to continue…]

James O’Keefe today released a twenty-minute video at the Cannes Film Festival that shows Hollywood environmental activists Ed Begley, Jr., and Mariel Hemingway and environmental propaganda documentary producers Josh and Rebecca Tickell talking about getting $9 million in funding from a phony Middle Eastern oil sheikh to produce an anti-fracking documentary.

The Hollywood Reporter ran an exclusive on O’Keefe’s sting last night, and the video has been posted on YouTube.

The Tickells appear eager to accept the offer of $9 million, but both stress that the source of the funding from Middle Eastern oil interests must be kept secret.  “Money to us, it’s money.  We have no moral issue,” says Josh Tickell on the video.

Rebecca Tickell comments, “But if people think the film is funded by Middle Eastern oil it will, it will not have that credibility.”

As we’ve noted before, Americans rank climate change low on their list of policy priorities. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that Years of Living Dangerously, the 9-part Showtime docu-drama on the need to “do something” about global warming, ranks embarrassingly low on Americans’ TV viewing preferences.

"Years” joins ranks of all-time terrible television ideas

Years” joins ranks of all-time terrible television ideas

After debuting on April 13th, the show suffered “dismal” viewing metrics. Episodes 2, 3, and 4 averaged an anemic .04 Nielsen rating. Consequently, on May 12th, the show was demoted from Sunday night to Monday night;  presumably, its audience is now even smaller. In fact, the Sunday-to-Monday downgrade is the second ignominy endured by the show in recent weeks. The plot of episode 3, which aired April 27th, centered on Rep. Michael Grimm’s (R-NY) conversion from global warming “skeptic” to “alarmist”; the day after the show aired, Rep. Grimm was indicted by the Justice Department. Needless to say, his credibility—and, by extension, that of the show—was shattered.

Yesterday I participated on a panel at the Cato Institute that addressed FERC oversight of energy markets, in the context of the Commission’s high-profile accusations of market manipulation leveled against two investment partnerships run by twin brothers Rich and Kevin Gates. Their plight has been the subject of a number of Wall Street Journal editorials: See here and here.

Kevin Gates spoke first, and I followed. I start by discussing the inadequacies of FERC’s oversight of energy markets, the biggest of which being the Commission’s refusal to clearly define “market manipulation.” Then, I argue that energy markets are too complex, and evolving too fast, to allow for effective federal oversight. Because regulation is impossible, I propose an alternative: competitive discipline engendered by liberalized markets. Watch below. Full event description below the break.

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Post image for Federalism Red Alert: President’s Reported Climate Plan Would Subject State Energy Planning to EPA Control

President Obama reportedly is considering a climate change plan that would upend oversight of the electric industry in all 50 States– without a popular mandate from either the Congress or a single State Legislature.

The regulation of electricity provision has been the primary preserve of the States since the New Deal. With the passage of the Public Utility Holding Company Act in 1935, the Congress facilitated State oversight of electric utilities; the law was intended to inhibit speculation in electric utilities, a cause of the Great Depression, by dividing the market into 50 parts (i.e., States).  As such, all 50 States have a regulatory body, usually known as a “Public Utilities Commission,” that functions to overlord electricity production within State borders. If, for example, a utility needs to build a power plant or raise rates, it must get PUC permission. And if a State Legislature were to enact a law affecting the electricity industry, such a mandate would be implemented by the PUC. Thus, States control the electricity industry within their borders.

This state-centric model for electricity oversight would be altered radically by the climate plan President Obama reportedly is considering for release next month. Per Bloomberg:

According to two people familiar with the discussions, the administration is considering an approach that would require a cut of 25 percent in emissions in two stages. In the five years starting in 2019, only limited reductions at the plants would be mandated. Deeper cuts would required from 2024 to 2029 to reach 25 percent, one of the people said…

The rules could achieve steeper cuts at a lower cost if the targets are based on a more holistic view of an electrical system—the operating generating units, power lines, opportunities for renewable energy, and even reductions in use by customers.

Setting aside the conspicuous legal problems attendant to such a “beyond the fence” approach under the Clean Air Act,* the President’s reported proposal raises huge federalism concerns. In practice (as reported by Bloomberg), the President’s plan would bind the hands of all 50 PUCs, by requiring them to re-orient their energy planning to meet a 25% reduction in emissions. In order to achieve the President’s goal, State PUCs would be forced to adopt from among a suit of bad policies, including:

  • Soviet-style green energy production quotas;
  • silly demand-side management programs that force consumers to use less energy;
  • and  regressive ratepayer subsidies to owners of rooftop solar systems.

Because the President’s climate plan is based on the Clean Air Act, EPA would have the authority to impose a Federal Implementation Plan—i.e., a regulatory take-over—if the agency disagrees with a State on energy policy. Pursuant to this authority, EPA would have the power to impose energy Federal Implementation Plans on the States.

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Post image for Irwin Stelzer’s ‘Conservative’ Carbon Tax. What Would Reagan Do?

Irwin Stelzer has a column in the Weekly Standard titled “Let’s tax carbon: It’s the worst form of energy policy except for all the others that have been tried.” Clever but not wise.

Whether or not a carbon tax is better than other ‘green’ energy schemes, it is not better than the free-market policy President Obama and Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid won’t let us try: A broad-based strategy to “unleash” what Manhattan Institute scholar Mark Mills calls the “North American energy colossus.”

Stelzer worries the feds will run out of money and be forced to raise other taxes if they can’t tax carbon. He doesn’t explain why taxing carbon is preferable to taxing income, except for a glib remark that it’s better to have “taxes on bad stuff rather than on work and investment.” But carbon taxes are a tax on carbon-based (fossil) fuels, which supply 82% of U.S. commercial energy, and energy, like labor and capital, is a factor of production. In fact, without carbon-based energy, few of us would be employed — or even exist. A carbon tax is an indirect tax on labor and production — the good stuff.

Moreover, as Institute for Energy Research scholar Robert Murphy points out, the smaller the base on which a tax of a given size is levied, the more distortionary the effects. The base of a carbon tax — particular commodities or industries — is narrower than the base for retail sales, income, and labor taxes. Stelzer’s got it backwards. Substituting carbon taxes for income taxes — and especially adding carbon taxes on top of income taxes, as he envisions — would make the tax system less “efficient.”

Besides, there is no hope of avoiding fiscal ruin without sustained robust economic growth, and fossil energy development is one of the few bright spots in the economy. Tax a thing, and you get less of it: Econ 101.

Stelzer professes to like fracking and oil and even coal, but somehow sees nothing problematic about promoting a tax the basic premise of which is that fossil fuels are destroying the planet and should be suppressed. Especially in an election year, conservative politicians cannot adopt an agenda so deeply conflicted without dividing the movement and demoralizing its base. [click to continue…]

Platts Energy Week with Bill Loveless: White House energy & climate adviser Dan Utech parroted the President’s muddled message on energy & climate this Sunday morning on Platts Energy Week with Bill Loveless. Utech spent the first part of his interview talking up Obama’s regulatory and administrative authority to fight climate change. Then, in the final part of the interview, Utech explained that it’s a “blessing we have this booming oil supply” due to fracking, and also that expanding oil production is “consistent with the President’s ‘all of the above’ energy plan.” Of course, “booming oil” and climate change mitigation are mutually exclusive propositions, so Utech’s interview, taken as a whole, is nonsensical. Alas, Utech was only mimicking his boss: President Obama pulls the same shenanigans–i.e., tries to have it both ways–when he waxes lyrical on energy & climate, as we’ve noted here and here.

Steyer Launches Ads: During the Sunday morning political talk shows, Tom Steyer rolled out his new television spot, which draws attention to the Koch Brothers’ refusal to debate him, the Tom Steyer, on climate change. The ad, which I’ve posted below, immediately brings to mind two points: (1) Steyer is a narcissist and (2) while it’s true that few voters know who the “Koch Brothers” are, even fewer voters know who “Tom Steyer” is. As such, his ad is a waste of money, if its purpose is to have a political impact on the midterm elections. More likely, the ad is an ego stroke. [click to continue…]