WPC's Center for the Environment brings balance to the environmental debate by promoting the idea that human progress and prosperity work in a free economy to protect the environment.

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Greens vs. Economics: King County edition

May 7, 2009 in Blog

For those on Twitter, you can follow the Environmental Center @WAPolicyGreen.

We've noted the repeated failure of government to pick and choose correct "green" technologies as politicians work against economics and the wishes of people. Ecofads too often substitute for sound policy. The Seattle Weekly highlights one more example.

In "King County's 'Green Cab' Experiment Goes South," the Weekly notes that effort to get more "green" cabs in the county is now falling apart because the County ignored economic realities. In granting the green cab company special preferences, they also added some other rules:

"...the company is obliged to operate differently than other cab companies. Most cabbies are self-employed. They either own a license or lease a taxi from someone who owns one. But the county, trying to ensure that drivers could earn a living wage and benefits without being subject to the whims of license owners, mandated that the new company be run according to a traditional employer-employee relationship. Green Cab would pay drivers regular salaries and allow them the opportunity to unionize.

"But many drivers like the independence of working for themselves. And Green Cab can only afford to pay $8 or $9 an hour, Aboye says, whereas non-employee drivers in the region average $10.50 an hour (without benefits), according to a recent Seattle survey. Unable to recruit drivers under those conditions, Aboye says he and other Green Cab owners are driving the taxis themselves, rather than hiring others to take the wheel. Right now, only 18 Green Cabs are on the road, even though the county was prepared to issue 50 licenses."

Ignoring economic realities and imposing rules on people that they don't want is a recipe for failure. This is just the latest example. The result is that King County doesn't have "green" cabs and they've killed jobs.

Greens vs. Science: Lands Commissioner edition

May 7, 2009 in Blog

For those on Twitter, you can follow the Environmental Center @WAPolicyGreen.

The Olympian today features an article about cuts to state aircraft, including this quote from Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark's spokesman:

“Disposing of this asset in the face of more wildfires and climate-change-related storms is the opposite direction that the state should be headed with its emergency-response infrastructure,” agency spokesman Aaron Toso said.

Two problems. First, the plane in question isn't an air tanker. It is an executive aircraft that is not part of the "emergency-response infrastructure" in any real sense.

Second, his claim about needing the plane to address an increasing number of "climate-change-related storms" is contradicted by scientists. UW climatologist Cliff Mass addressed this issue earlier this year in the Seattle Times:

"As an environmental scientist, I am frustrated by the poor information distributed by public officials, the media and others regarding the current and predicted frequency of extreme weather events. It is time for the scientific community to set the record straight. ... How many times have you heard that severe windstorms and heavy rains will increase in the Northwest under global climate change? The truth is, there is no strong evidence for these claims and the whole matter is being actively researched. Some portions of the Northwest have had more rain and wind during the past decades, some less. And initial simulations of future Northwest climate do not suggest heavier rain events."

Those who want to use climate change to support particular policies often claim that we must "follow the science." When there is a conflict between their desired policy and the science, however, they are quick to distort the science or ignore it altogether.

Port Study Says the Price is Right

May 4, 2009 in Blog

The Port of Seattle, calling itself "The Green Gateway," touts a recent study finding that shipping from Asia to the Midwest through Seattle produces the fewest carbon emissions. Shipping through Seattle, they argue, is the choice for environmentally conscious shippers.

Their web page talks about their work they've done to make this so. They note that:

The Ports have worked hand-in-hand with the transportation industry, regulatory agencies, community organizations, labor and environmental advocates. That cooperative approach has helped us move farther, faster without adding fees for port users.

So why is it that Seattle is so green? They explain:

Seattle and Tacoma are closer to Asia than any other U.S. port, resulting in shorter ocean transit times and lower fuel consumption on the ocean leg of the journey.

Apparently all of these groups got together and decided to move Seattle closer to Asia. The report also notes that rail lines from Seattle to the Midwest use less fuel per ton of freight.

So, after working with all of these groups and commissioning this study they found something that every person working in a free market should know: prices aggregate a tremendous amount of information and send a clear and accurate signal about the efficient use of resources. Prices are the best aggregators of the many costs, including energy costs, at all stages of the production of a product. If the Port wanted to know which route was the greenest, they needed only look at the price of shipping from Asia through various ports. (This might not be true if there is a monopoly or other regulatory distortions, but that is not the case here.)

When their study was done they found that the route that burned the least fuel, costing shippers the least in fuel costs, was also the greenest. That shouldn't surprise anybody.

If we want sustainability, the market is more likely to give us a clear path than all the various interest groups, each seeking a cut of the pie, combined.

Greens v. Science: Nicholas Stern Edition

April 29, 2009 in Blog

Tonight, the Pacific Science Center will welcome Nicholas Stern, whose alarmist economic analysis is embraced by those advocating for radical and costly measures to address climate change. His work, however, is outside of both the scientific and economic consensus.

First, climate alarmists often point to the scientific consensus forged by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Stern, however, often uses science that lies outside of the IPCC's projections. For instance, he estimates the potential of a 7 meter (24 foot) sea level rise due to the melting of the Greenland ice sheet beginning at just 2 degrees C increase. Elsewhere, Stern highlights the danger of a 1 meter (39 inches) sea level rise. The median estimate for sea level rise from the IPCC, on the other hand, is about 350 mm (14 inches).

He also shades his estimates toward the catastrophic, even when admitting that his estimates are based on little evidence. For example, he says that at 2 degrees C of increase there is risk of "15 – 40% of species facing extinction (according to one estimate)." One estimate. Supporters cannot simultaneously rely on the scientific "consensus" and then violate it when convenient.

Second, his economics also lie far afield of the consensus. Stern has been widely criticized for using extremely low discount rates to estimate future costs. A discount rate is an estimate of the time value of money. Discount rates tell us whether it is better to spend or save today. An extremely low discount rate means that avoiding small future impacts is worth huge investments today. Stern's discount rates are far below what virtually every other economist would consider reasonable and this has some very strange results.

Yale professor William Nordhaus, who has studied the potential economic impacts of climate change for decades, explains how silly Stern's estimates are. In his excellent book A Question of Balance, Nordhaus writes,

The Stern Review would justify reducing per capita consumption for one year today from $6,600 to $2,900 in order to prevent a reduction of consumption from $87,000 to $86,900 starting two centuries hence and continuing at that rate forever after. This bizarre result arises because the value of the future consumption stream is so high with near-zero time discounting that we should sacrifice a large fraction of today’s income in order to increase a far-future income stream by a very tiny fraction.

That's one reason why the vast majority of economists do not take Stern's projections seriously. By way of contrast, the Copenhagen Consensus, which brought together many economists, including a number of Nobel Prize winners, ranked climate change dead last in its priority list of the top challenges facing humanity.

Those who are concerned about climate change need to decide: do they support the scientific and economic "consensus," or do they support Nicholas Stern? So far, they are choosing Stern.

A Disjointed Defense of Green Buildings and Bonds

April 24, 2009 in Blog

The normally thoughtful Sightline Institute has a silly response to my recent piece applying the lessons of green buildings to the legislative proposal for a $3 billion tax and spending package to upgrade state buildings with "green" elements. The proposal claims that a portion of the cost of the package would be paid by energy savings.

Their first critique is that our report is off base because it doesn't address the proposal directly. This is true. The proposal was unveiled on a Monday and the first hearing was Tuesday at 8 am. So, our piece is an attempt to draw lessons from Washington's experience with spending on "green" buildings. History never repeats itself exactly, but that doesn't mean we ignore it. Ironically, in one of the author's previous posts about the "green" bonds legislation, he cites data from "green" buildings studies to support the legislation. So he argues that our methodology isn't applicable after he previously used the exact same comparison to support the legislation.

Incidentally, we did, subsequently, write a short piece directly addressing the bill itself. You can read it on our blog asking "Are Green Bonds Worth It?"

They go on to say that "There is nothing in the legislation that mandates particular kinds of retrofits or LEED certification." This isn't quite right. There is a great deal of talk about "green jobs" and "green" elements. In fact, they call the spending proposal "green" bonds. To pretend that certain types of projects won't be favored ignores all the rhetoric used to justify it. Sightline's own support of the legislation is based on that very expectation.

The next critique shows how fast-and-loose some play with facts when they want something. Advocates of green buildings produced a report saying that those buildings perform better than the "standard stock" of American buildings. Our study notes that the "standard stock" of buildings averages 40-years old. Noting that a new "green" building is more efficient than a 40-year old building is a pretty attenuated claim. But green building advocates misuse the study, implying that it shows new "green" buildings are better than simply new buildings. It shows no such thing.

Sightline, however, says I make their point since the green bonds bill would update those buildings. They say "But that’s precisely the point: many of the school buildings eligible for retrofits really are 40 years old, or are built to minimum standards, or both." Really? Show me the data. Does the author know that are are they simply saying it because they want to believe it?

That leads to the more important point. The author notes the bill "doesn’t force districts to make improvements if they don’t pencil out." No, it doesn't force but it does actively encourage districts to make improvements that don't pencil out. Since schools pay none or only a small part of the cost, virtually any energy saving pencils out. Spending $10 to save $1 makes sense as long as someone else is spending the $10. That's what this does. The sponsor himself was very clear in his testimony that the purpose of this spending is to create jobs and energy saved is a positive side effect. The primary goal, however, is to spend the money.

The next section is the most muddled. The author uses the metaphor of a pitcher throwing strikes, so it seems like he added this last part because he needed a third. I quote a piece by the Superintendent of Public Instruction's office (SPI) from last December that savings are uncertain. My comments are a response to some who claim that that report shows a 24 percent energy savings. But the report says those savings are "projected," not actual. Our research shows those projections to be inaccurate.

Sightline quotes the SPI report saying that schools weren't asked to report those savings, but that some schools had reported "immediate and anticipated future cost savings." He goes on to say:

In other words, WPC uses the SPI report to criticize Dunshee’s legislation but ignores the fact that the districts weren’t asked to report about their energy savings. What’s more, some of the districts chose to report their energy savings anyway found just what you might expect: energy efficiency investments pay for themselves over time.

It is too early to tell, on the whole, whether buildings constructed following the WSSP protocol will produce enough savings to offset the up front investment. But many schools are reporting savings -- and the lessons we learn from the program’s ongoing data collection should inform investment decisions on retrofits.

In the first sentence he says savings are uncertain because they didn't offer data. The second sentence says that some schools reported savings, although he portrays them as real when they are actually only projected. The third sentence is back to uncertain. The fourth sentence is back to saying "many" schools are reporting savings. So, the data are uncertain, except where they point to his desired conclusion. That's called cherry-picking the data and it is evidence of a lack of rigor.

Ironically, he then accuses us of cherry picking. He argues:

The only other empirical evidence WPC offers to criticize the WSSP is that they claim to have found at least one non-green building that outperformed a green building in the same district. However, they don’t share the age, location, square footage or energy use at the schools being compared, so we can’t know if WPC’s comparison is fair or not.

This critique indicates that it is unlikely that the author read our piece very carefully. Not only do I give more than one example, I name some of the schools we looked at. I wrote, in the eighth paragraph of my piece, that:

In Tacoma, where supporters touted the energy savings of Giaudrone Middle School, the building has consistently used about 30 percent more energy per square foot than another Tacoma middle school built the same year but without mandated green standards. In Spokane, none of the three “green” elementary schools are as energy efficient as Browne Elementary, built in 2002, prior to passage of the “High Performance Buildings” law.

Also, he didn't look at our web page to see if I'd mentioned other schools. I should have footnoted our work, but he can look at Should the State Follow "LEED" or Get Out of the Way?, WPC's comments on Residential/Commercial/Industrial option 3 (RCI-3), Suspending Failed “Green” Building Rules Can Save Schools Millions, "Green" Building Standards Not Improving Student Learning But Are Reducing Funding for Necessary Education Programs, font> among others. We've looked at all of the districts included in the State's green building pilot project and many others highlighted by the environmental community. Some are better than others, but none of the "green" schools live up to their promises, a fact now acknowledged, begrudgingly, by both the SPI and the Department of Ecology.

As for the "green" bonds proposal itself, our research is demonstrating that the savings claimed by advocates are amorphous. The data only include projected savings and actual savings are rarely audited. Further, the total amount spent on the types of projects highlighted by advocates has been about $160 million over ten years. This proposal increases that to $200 million, of the total $3 billion spent, over two years. Given the lack of clear data, hoping that this dramatic increase in the program will produce the projected savings seems hopeful in the extreme.

One thing we can agree on is Sightline's call for a cost-benefit analysis of energy saving projects. Now if we could just get the legislature to consider that approach, we'd be getting somewhere.

Earth Day - Yesterday's Failures are Tomorrow's Promises

April 22, 2009 in Blog

Each year on Earth Day, politicians announce new efforts they promise will help the environment, often at no cost or even with the promise of "green jobs." Past promises, however, have consistently fallen short. Those failures are quickly forgotten and new promises are made.

Politicians claimed corn ethanol would be the answer for transportation fuels. That didn't pan out, so they now hope wood waste will be the savior. They argued that "green" buildings would dramatically cut energy costs. When that turned out not to be true their answer has been more green buildings. And after 20 years promoting electric and hydrogen cars failed, they turned to the technology that emerged from the marketplace -- hybrids. But who knows what auto technology will be the standard ten years from now, and picking hybrids today may look as foolish then as picking hydrogen cars looks today.

Many of these technologies may have promise. The government, however, repeatedly falls for ecofads, picking and choosing individual technologies, often to the detriment of more promising technologies and, ironically, the environment. Technology is the greatest hope to improve energy efficiency and use resources sustainably and efficiently. The best decisions are made by millions of creative entrepreneurs, engineers and others who risk their own funding and time on these ideas, not politicians who care more about political credit than actual environmental sustainability.

Here are a few of the promises made today and some of the results of similar promises made in the past.

Biofuel Promises

Gov. Chris Gregoire today signed House Bill 2165 to help the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) create energy from wood waste in our state’s forests. “It is fitting that Washington State takes this step forward to create clean, renewable energy and green jobs on Earth Day,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark. “Turning wood waste into electricity or liquid fuels will create both energy and jobs while improving the health of our forests.” - Department of Natural Resources release, April 22, 2009

"By requiring a growing percentage of our fuel supply to be renewable biofuel that meets appropriate fuel quality standards, we will reduce our dependence on imports of foreign oil, improve the health and quality of life for Washingtonians, and stimulate the creation of a new industry in Washington that benefits our farmers and rural communities." - Preamble, Washington State ESSB 6508, 2006

Biofuel Reality

"California regulators, trying to assess the true environmental cost of corn ethanol, are poised to declare that the biofuel cannot help the state reduce global warming. As they see it, corn is no better – and might be worse – than petroleum when total greenhouse gas emissions are considered." - Scientific American, April 20, 2009

"The news that biodieselmaker Imperium will be cutting 24 employees (or more than half of the staff) from its Grays Harbor plant, announced Thursday night, won’t be a big shocker to anyone who has followed the company’s yearlong downward spiral. The Seattle-based biofuel firm, which has raised more than $200 million over its lifetime, withdrew an IPO that could have raised an additional $345 million, back in January 2008, and soon after reduced staff from a high of 107 employees." - Earth2Tech, March 13, 2009

 "Green" Building Promises

"The legislature finds that public buildings can be built and renovated using high-performance methods that save money, improve school performance, and make workers more productive. High-performance public buildings are proven to increase student test scores, reduce worker absenteeism, and cut energy and utility costs." - Washington State SB 5509, Passed 2005

"Green" Building Reality

"When the “green” schools law was passed four years ago, supporters argued the standards would pay for themselves, reducing energy use by up to 50 percent. Supporters claimed one school in Tacoma was already saving more than 30 percent in energy use. The data showed something different. Giaudrone Middle School, built with the “green” elements, uses about 30 percent more energy than a middle school built in the same district in the same year, but without those “green” elements. ... Adding insult to injury, buildings cost more to build than was promised. Advocates told the Legislature that green buildings would cost an additional 2 percent. Interviews with facilities directors indicate the real number is 6 percent, which is not trivial. Each year, the state and school districts spend about $450 million on school construction. A 6 percent increase is about $27 million." - Washington Policy Center Op-Ed, Spokesman-Review, February 28, 200!

Electric Car Promises

"As a necessary and desirable step to expedite the transition to transportation technologies and infrastructure with reduced emissions, the department shall implement an electric vehicle and alternative fuel vehicle infrastructure program that accelerates planning and allocation of funding for pilot projects to demonstrate the feasibility of large scale deployment of charging and alternative fuels distribution infrastructure." - Washington State SB 5735, Passed April 14, 2009

Electric Car Reality

"California air regulators on Thursday gutted rules seeking to place tens of thousands of zero-emission vehicles on the road, instead ordering automakers to produce a fleet of cleaner-burning hybrids. The decision is expected to affect 12 other states -- including Washington -- that had adopted California's target for zero-emission vehicles, defined as those powered solely by batteries or hydrogen fuel cells. ... The rules have been modified four times since they were introduced. The biggest change came in 2003, when the Air Resources Board significantly scaled back the mandate and ruled that hydrogen cars, hybrids and cleaner-burning gasoline vehicles could meet the state's goals." - Associated Press, March 27, 2008

Today's promises build upon a shoddy record of using tax dollars to pick and choose technologies politicians touted as the environmental savior of tomorrow. Why will these promises be any different than the many made in the past.

Today It’s Global Warming; In the ‘70s It was the Coming Ice Age

April 22, 2009 in Blog

Untitled-1 On Earth Day, we commonly hear dark predictions about the looming horrors of global warming (a typical example, “What is at stake [is] our ability to live on planet Earth,” Al Gore). 

Yet not so long ago the news media issued dire warnings about global cooling and a coming Ice Age.  Consider these headlines:

• “The Earth’s Cooling Climate,” Science News, November 15, 1969.

• “Colder Winters Held Dawn of New Ice Age,” Washington Post, January 11, 1970.

• “Science:  Another Ice Age?”  Time Magazine, June 24, 1974.

• “The Ice Age Cometh!”  Science News, March 1, 1975.

• “The Cooling World,” Newsweek, April 28, 1975.

• “Scientists Ask Why World Climate is Changing; Major Cooling May Be Ahead,” New York Times, May 21, 1975.

• “In the Grip of a New Ice Age?” International Wildlife July-August, 1975.

• “A Major Cooling Widely Considered to Be Inevitable,” New York Times, September 14, 1975.

• “Variations in the Earth’s Orbit, Pacemaker of the Ice Ages,” Science magazine, December 10, 1976.

Reporters told the public about global cooling in the same confident tone used in today’s coverage about global warming, creating the strong impression that no reasonable person could disagree.  Here are some examples:

“The evidence in support of these predictions [global cooling] has now begun to accumulate so massively that meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it.” The Cooling World

“A study release last month by two NOAA scientists that the amount of sunshine reaching the ground in the continental U.S. diminished by 1.3% between 1964 and 1972.” The Cooling World

“Telltale signs are everywhere...the thickness of the pack ice...the southward migration of warmth-loving creatures like the armadillo...”  Another Ice Age?

“Since the 1940s the mean global temperature has dropped about 2.7 degrees.” Another Ice Age?

“The threat of a new ice age must now stand alongside nuclear war as a likely source of wholesale death and misery for mankind,” The Ice Age Cometh!

Critics will say there was no scientific consensus in the 1970s that the world was cooling, but that’s not how the media reported it to the public.  Similarly, today some scientists want to debate global warming and its possible causes, but the media presents global warming as a settled issue, not to be questioned.  Since the reporting today about world climate is the opposite of what it was 30 years ago, it’s ok to be skeptical about the worst predictions surrounding global warming.

Today It’s Global Warming; In the ‘70s It was the Coming Ice Age

in Press releases

Seattle - On Earth Day, we commonly hear dark predictions about the looming horrors of global warming (a typical example, “What is at stake [is] our ability to live on planet Earth,” Al Gore). 

Yet not so long ago the news media issued dire warnings about global cooling and a coming Ice Age.  Consider these headlines:

WPC’s Earth Day Movie Premiere Event: Not Evil Just Wrong: The true cost of Global Warming Hysteria

April 22, 2009 in Events
Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009
6:30 pm - 9:00 pm
Rachel Carson Elementary School
Sammamish, WA

Director Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinneyOn April 22, 2009 (Earth Day), the Washington Policy Center’s Center for the Environment hosted an audience of more than two-hundred for the debut showing of a new film “Not Evil Just Wrong: The True Cost of Global Warming Hysteria” at Rachel Carson Elementary School in Sammamish.

Ratepayers and Taxpayers Pay for Seattle's Solar Agenda

April 18, 2009 in Publications

When President Obama was elected last year, cities began looking at ways to spend the expected stimulus money on "shovel ready" projects in their community. In Seattle's requests submitted to the US Conference of Mayors, they listed two projects to add solar panels to local projects costing a total of $8.2 million. This month's Environmental Watch examines those projects and finds that not only were the projects not "shovel ready," but that in one case the cost estimates were padded and in the other the solar project paid for itself only after 40 years and millions in government subsidies. Worse, internal e-mails show that the top priority appears to be scoring political points rather than actually supporting projects that help the environment. It is a cautionary tale of what happens when government spends money without an eye to the costs and benefits of the projects they advocate.