FirstEnergy: The Grinch Who Stole from Ratepayers

firstenergy grinch

Image courtesy of @darth, who is a freaking national treasure.

In this season of giving, FirstEnergy seems intent to give its customers the finger.

Based on Ohio law – SB221, which was passed nearly unanimously in 2008, to be exact – the state’s investor-owned utilities must provide a portion of their electricity from advanced energy sources. By 2025, when the state’s renewable portfolio standard is set to expire, the utilities are required to source at least one-quarter of their electricity from such sources; of this amount, at least half of this total must come from renewable energy sources, like solar and wind.

But recognizing the constraints of quickly ramping up green energy production in a state where it was largely nonexistent before 2009 – along with a wise desire to take advantage of economies of scale – SB221 allowed utilities to buy renewable energy from other providers or to purchase renewable energy credits (RECs) from those providers when sufficient energy is not available. These RECs are an essential component of any renewable energy program.

Unfortunately, FirstEnergy, which rejects the value of energy efficiency/renewable energy and continues to fight aggressively against the mandates, has consistently failed to meet its obligations under the law. Environment Ohio, which grades each of the state’s four major utilities based on how well they abide by the mandates, gave FirstEnergy an F in year 1 and a D- in year 2. FE has come into compliance with the mandates since this point.

But as FE continued to fight the law with one hand and tread water with the other, it decided to purchase a number of RECs to meet its renewable energy mandates. In doing so, however, it drastically manipulated the REC market, allowing it to extract millions of dollars in excessive charges from ratepayers. As Plain Dealer energy reporter John Funk writes:

In a kind of reverse Robin Hood maneuver, FirstEnergy managed to pay the highest known rates for the credits when it bought them in those early years, including some from its affiliate, FirstEnergy Solutions…

[A] management audit by Exeter Associates of Columbia, Md.,found that FES paid up to 15 times more for credits than the Illuminating Co., Ohio Edison and Toledo Edison would have spent had they just paid the fines for not buying the credits.

In fact, the cost of those renewable energy credits was higher than RECs bought anywhere in the country, before or since, the audit noted.

A consultant to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) calculated that FE’s actions allowed it overcharge customers by at least $100 million. NRDC looked at the numbers and came up with $130 million in overcharges. In August, the PUCO called out FE’s malfeasance and required it to return $43.4 million to ratepayers for its manipulation of the REC market.

But rather than acknowledge its wrong doing, FE has decided it won’t go down without a fight. Instead of returning the money back to its customers, the company has filed an appeal of the PUCO’s ruling to the Ohio Supreme Court. It apparently thinks that, as long as you have the money, two wrongs make a right.

So as we approach Christmas, let’s hear it for FirstEnergy, Ohio’s largest private utility and The Grinch Who Stole $100 Million from Ratepayers.

Please pardon my awful parody of Dr. Seuss:

While all Ohioans seemed to like renewable energy a lot, FirstEnergy, who lives above downtown Akron, does not.

The company hated green energy, everything in the sector. It had no good reasons, just some straw men and specters. It could be that it was concerned about costs. It could be, perhaps, that it feared about jobs being lost. But I think that the most like reason for its tantrums and fits may have been that the policy didn’t fit its ideological interests.

Happy holidays.

The resource curse is coming to town

The discovery of oil deposits has, in many ways, been a curse for Nigeria's Ogoniland province, which has been plagued by environmental degradation and civil conflict (courtesy of Reuters).

The discovery of oil deposits has, in many ways, been a curse for Nigeria’s Ogoniland region, which has been plagued by environmental degradation and civil conflict (courtesy of Reuters).

Oil and natural gas from shale will be a “game changer” for Ohio, one that “has given fresh life to energy development,” according to Jack Gerard, the president & CEO of the American Petroleum Institute. The Plain Dealer has matter-of-factly stated that the boom in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in states like Ohio is “expected to create thousands of jobs and add billions to the state’s economy.”

That expanded oil and gas production will generate myriad economic benefits is largely taken for granted in most circles. For the most part, opponents of fracking for oil and gas have focused almost exclusively on the potential environmental consequences, such as water and air pollution, radioactivity, and an increased risk of earthquakes.

But a new study from Headwaters Economics has thrown some cold water on this conventional wisdom. What if, instead of bringing socioeconomic development to energy-rich areas, oil and gas production could actually make these communities worse off?

The natural resource curse

This concept, the so-called “natural resource curse,” has long been studied in international relations and environmental circles. Several studies have demonstrated a strong connection between natural resource abundance and stymied economic growth on an international level, particularly in the developing world. In a 1995 paper, Sachs & Warner concluded that reliance on natural resource dependence can decrease economic growth by around 1% per year.

natural resource dependence and growth rates

This figure, from Sachs & Warner (2001), charts the relationship between natural resource dependence and economic growth rates from 1970-1989. As it suggests, those countries whose economies depend heavily on natural resource exports had lower real growth rates during this period, and vice versa.

There are several reasons (PDF) why natural resource wealth and dependence could harm socioeconomic development. I will outline three below.

First, a boom in natural resource extraction can increase price levels throughout the economy (PDF), raising a country’s exchange rate. As a result, resource wealthy states tend to have higher costs for export goods, reducing their competitiveness on global markets.

Secondly, higher real wages can create an incentive for individuals to forgo employment in other areas to pursue opportunities in the extractives industries. This reliance upon extractives can crowd out investment in manufacturing, limiting the ability of the industry to become more efficient over time. These outcomes can harm innovation and entrepreneurship (PDF), which may create long-lasting ramifications for the economy.

Thirdly, resource-dependent countries are highly susceptible to rent-seeking behavior and the pathologies that can come along with it, such as political violence, up to and including civil conflict. As de Soysa and Binningsbø (paywall) put it:

Resource rents apparently create factional political states, where rent capture allows politicians to survive by dispensing rents, rather than making hard choices about reform. Political survival dictates profligacy and waste, rather than providing public goods.

Rather than investing in important public goods, leaders of resource-rich states can simply make direct payments to important elites or buy off potential challengers. Resource revenues also tend to accrue to state, rather than staying in source communities. As a result, while some actors will benefit from extraction, the communities on the ground tend to suffer the effects without reaping the rewards.

The lure or resource rents can also drive groups to try to capture control of the state. As a result, a plethora of studies have shown that states dependent on natural resources experience higher rates of internal political violence (paywall) and a greater risk of experiencing civil war.

six western states oil and gas income levels

The study explores the effects of oil and gas development on socioeconomic development in six states from 1980-2011 (courtesy of Headwaters Economics).

The resource curse comes to the United States

But while the negative consequences of resource dependence are well-known for the developing world, the same cannot be said for the Untied States. In order to investigate the long-term impacts of using oil & gas extraction as an economic development policy, Headwaters analyzed the effects of an early 1980s oil boom in six Western states: Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. The study explored the long-term impacts of the boom on social and economic development from 1980-2011, analyzing data from 207 counties in the states.

While many observers consider the oil and gas boom to be a positive development in the West – the curren oil boom in the Bakken shale has helped lower North Dakota’s unemployment rate to just over 3% – Headwaters’ findings challenge this perception. Rather than contributed to sustained, positive outcomes, these counties actually experienced many of the same consequences of the resource curse that I outlined earlier.

First, the authors found that the counties most dependent on oil and gas extraction actually had lower levels of per capita income during this period. These counties saw per capita income levels decrease by $7,000, on average. One reason for this outcome may be that boom towns typically see the cost of living skyrocket in the short-term, which can raise prices and offset income gains. In Fort McMurray, the heart of Alberta’s tar sands industry, for instance, the population has tripled in recent decades. The formerly rural area, which is now bursting at the seams, has the highest housing prices in Alberta, and is deficient in 70 of 72 quality-of-life indicators.

Secondly, the study suggests that the resource sector can have a crowding out effect. The lure of the extractives industries, which have lower education requirements, tends to lower the percentage of adults with a college education. Those counties that were most heavily invested in oil and gas had, on average, 2.5% fewer college-educated adults than the rest of the sample counties. And the environmental consequences of resource extraction are well known.

Thirdly, the authors note that “the longer a county has been specialized on oil and gas, the higher the county’s crime rate.” This outcome would seem to reflect the fact that natural resource dependence leads to rent-seeking behavior and increased levels of violence. Most oil and gas boom towns are chock full of young men. The flood of young men into the Bakken shale (where they outnumber women by nearly 2-1 in some areas) has driven up crime rates by as much as one-third in Montana and North Dakota. Many women have reported being sexual harassed and feeling increasingly threatened due to the changing demographics.

The study fails to examine the environmental and public health impacts of resource dependence. However, other studies have shown that coal-mining communities in Appalachia have significantly higher adult and child mortality rates (PDF) than other communities in the region.

While the authors of the Headwaters study are careful to point out its limitations – causality cannot be proven and the results are unique to the sample areas – it does provide a cautionary tale to officials who are hoping to cash in on their region’s natural resource endowments.

Oil and gas extraction can be a way to jump start a stagnant economy in the short-term, as the study suggests. But states need to ensure that they are taxing resource extraction appropriately and investing these tax revenues in public goods for the communities on the front lines. Though bending over backwards for the oil and gas industries – as Ohio’s Republican lawmakers appear all too eager to do – may benefit some well-connected individuals, many more in these communities will suffer in both the short- and long-term.

Oil and gas deposits can be important endowments, but they don’t constitute a real development strategy. States need to think twice before putting all their eggs in one basket.

Free parking is terrible public policy

warehouse district surface parking

I don’t normally make a point to reply to letters to the editor in the Plain Dealer. To do so would be to write myself a one-way ticket down a slippery slope into the Valley of Derp. That said, this letter from Nancy Kosmin was so wrong-headed that it called for a response.

shoppers at cleveland flea

Shoppers explore two of the dozens of vendors at the September Cleveland Flea (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

In the letter, Ms. Kosmin lamented about how difficult it was for her and others to find parking on the streets around Sterle’s Country House. Sterle’s is home to the Cleveland Flea, a new monthly flea market that features food, drinks, clothing, and wares from a variety of Northeast Ohio vendors. Ms. Kosmin could not believe that there was limited parking on the narrow side streets around Sterle’s or that Cleveland Police had the audacity to ticket people parking on East 55th Street – despite the fact that it is illegal to park on East 55th.

I’ve written in the past about Cleveland’s car culture, but I’ve only touched briefly on the issue of parking here. If you thought people were obsessed with driving here, you’ve never spoken to them about parking. From epic battles over charging for parking at the famed West Side Market to entire articles published on which suburban mall parking lot is safest for your car, Clevelanders seem to think that free parking is a God-given right.

Of course, this love of free parking ignores the various externalities associated with the practice. Donald Shoup, an expert on the economics of parking and the author of The High Cost of Free Parking, has documented these impacts at length over the decades. Although 99% of all car trips include free parking and 95% of all automobile commuters park for free in the US, there is no such thing as “free” parking. As Shoup has written (PDF):

When we shop in a store, eat in a restaurant, or see a movie, we pay for parking indirectly because its cost is included in the prices of merchandise, meals, and theater tickets. We unknowingly support our cars with almost every commercial transaction we make because a small share of the money changing hands pays for parking…Even people who don’t own a car have to pay for “free” parking.

All this “free” parking carries serious costs. First, parking represents a classic Tragedy of the Commons. Free parking is a common-pool resource, and everyone has an incentive to exploit it. However, as with all commons, when every user consumes too much of it, it quickly becomes depleted. Because the free parking commons are typically exhausted, drivers often cruise around cities, searching for open spots.

Sixteen different studies from 1927-2001 have shown that drivers cruise for 8.1 minutes (PDF), on average, when looking for a parking spot; as a result, up to 30% of all traffic in downtown areas can be attributed to drivers searching for parking. In just a 15-block area in Los Angeles, this search for free curb parking led to 950,000 additional vehicles miles traveled, equivalent to four trips to the moon, 47,000 wasted gallons of gas, and 730 tons of greenhouse gas emissions (more than the cumulative GHG emissions of 49 countries in 2010).

Secondly, free parking constitutes a massive subsidy for drivers, promoting both excessive driving and sprawl-based development. In 2002, off-street parking received roughly $135-386 billion in subsidies; that same year, the US Government spent $231 billion on Medicare.

In 1997, Shoup estimated (PDF) that if a parking space that cost $124 per month was provided for free, the parking subsidy provided per mile driven was $0.27 per mile. In contrast, AAA estimated that the total cost of operating a car per mile was just $0.092 per mile. Accordingly, the subsidy provided by free parking is roughly 2.9 times greater than the cost of driving to work. This driving subsidy is greatest for shorter trips, helping to skew transportation choices away from walking, biking, and public transportation. Accordingly, “parking requirements are a fertility drug for cars.”

warehouse district surface parking

The massive surface parking lot once known as Cleveland’s Warehouse District, as seen from the Terminal Tower Observation Deck.

Thirdly, free parking and parking requirements drive up the cost of living and stymie redevelopment of blighted neighborhoods. As Professor Michael Manville has noted (PDF), forcing developers to include the cost of parking when building new housing units drives up the cost of development and becomes a barrier to investment. This crowding out effect should be greatest in areas where the cost of parking is high, where there is a large stock of older buildings, and where there is a large number of vacant buildings – in other words, the inner city.

Research from Brian Bertha in 1964 (PDF) showed that, when Oakland instituted parking requirements in 1961, construction costs increased by 18%, housing unit density fell 30%, and land values dropped by one-third. As a result, developers built larger, more expensive housing units, which negatively affected low-income residents. Manville’s work in LA supports these findings. He noted that condos without parking spaces cost $31,000 less than those with parking spaces.

Sterle’s is located in the 44103 zip code, an impoverished area. From 2007-2011, 44103 had a poverty rate of 34.5%, nearly one-quarter higher than for Cleveland as a whole. Moreover, while 26.7% all households in Cleveland lacked access to a vehicle, this number was 36.9% for households in 44103. Increasing the availability of free parking in this neighborhood may help a few visitors to the Cleveland Flea, but it would come at a high cost for residents of this neighborhood, who would face higher housing prices and even less development.

Furthermore, parking requirements have a sordid and racialized history in Northeast Ohio. In United States v. City of Parma (1980), the US District Court found that the City of Parma’s parking requirements had “the purpose and effect of severely restricting low-income housing opportunities in the City,” which “have been taken with the purpose and the effect of perpetuating a segregated community.” Bending over backwards for people driving into the city once a month would further play into these dynamics.

Call me crazy, but I had a completely different takeaway from this letter than Ms. Kosmin. Rather than seeing this episode as evidence of the plight of the poor suburban driver simply trying to exercise his/her God-given right to free parking, I see the Cleveland Flea as emblematic of the complete opposite. The event shows how parking lots can be more than just a cheap motel for your car. If utilized properly, they can actually serve as worthwhile public space that provides social, cultural, and economic value.

The next time the Plain Dealer writes about climate change, maybe it should interview an actual scientist

On July 23, Plain Dealer reporter and editor Cliff Pinckard published an article titled “A ‘pause’ in global warming keeps the climate-change debate in play.” As you can probably guess from the title, the post – which purported to report on recent research regarding the so-called “warming plateau” – ended up turning into a flawed, irresponsible piece that misrepresented climate science and gave climate deniers disproportionate footing and credibility.

The piece begins with a brief discussion of a recent series of three reports released by the Met Office Hadley Centre on the recent “pause” in global warming during the last 15 years. It is accurate to say that global surface temperatures have not increased at as rapid a rate since 1998 as they did in the previous 30 years. As the first of the three Met Office reports (PDF) notes, “Global mean surface temperatures rose rapidly from the 1970s, but have been relatively flat over the most recent 15 years to 2013.”

Climate deniers routinely use 1998 as the year to begin making their patently absurd claim that the Earth has been cooling over the past 15 years. This decision is strategic, as an abnormally active El Niño event that year led to a massive transfer of heat from the Pacific Ocean to the atmosphere. Since this point, the Pacific Ocean has largely remained in a neutral state, though a moderate La Niña period in the past few years has contributed to a moderate cooling trend in the region. Additionally, 1998 is no longer the warmest year on record. According to the World Meteorological Organization (PDF), 9 of the years from 2000-2010 were among the 10 warmest in recorded history, with 2010 and 2005 ranking first and second, respectively.

Decadal global average surface air temperatures for each 10-year period since 1891. As the chart illustrates, the period from 2000-2010 was the warmest decade on record, with a temperature anomaly of 0.84°C above the mean (courtesy of the WMO).

Decadal global average surface air temperatures for each 10-year period since 1891. As the chart illustrates, the period from 2000-2010 was the warmest decade on record, with a temperature anomaly of 0.84°C above the mean (courtesy of the WMO).

It is important to note, as Mr. Pinckard does briefly, that the Met Office and other climate scientists have attributed this purported “pause” in warming to a variety of potential causes, particularly the trapping of heat in the deep oceans. The first report continues:

Careful processing of the available deep ocean records shows that the heat content of the upper 2,000m increased by 24 x 1022J over the 1955–2010 period (Levitus, 2012), equivalent to 0.09°C warming of this layer. To put this into context, if the same energy had warmed the lower 10km of the atmosphere, it would have warmed by 36°C! While this will not happen, it does illustrate the importance of the ocean as a heat store.

The vast majority of global warming is stored in the oceans, particularly below 700 meters, due to sheer size of the oceans, compared to land area, and the ability of water to trap and store heat (courtesy of Skeptical Science).

The vast majority of global warming is stored in the oceans, particularly below 700 meters, due to sheer size of the oceans, compared to land area, and the ability of water to trap and store heat (courtesy of Skeptical Science).

Had Mr. Pinckard stopped there, his article would have been relatively accurate and innocuous. But instead, he ventured into false equivalence land, feeling the irrepressible need to provide “balance” by quoting climate deniers. James Fallows, who has spent far too much of his outstanding career at The Atlantic reporting on the media’s penchant for false equivalence, has settled on its definition:

False equivalence, the definition (courtesy of James Fallows & @natpkguy).

False equivalence, the definition (courtesy of James Fallows & @natpkguy).

Mr. Pinckard devotes the next 329 words of his article – 36.4% of the whole piece! – to quoting at length from professional climate denier/right wing columnist Rupert Darwall (who has no background in climate science) and someone named Nirav Kothari writing on a random Indian financial site. I’m not sure how these two gentlemen warrant mentioning or quoting at length, but actual climate scientists are shut out of the piece. Perhaps Mr. Picknard can elaborate.

Even more disturbingly, Mr. Pinckard grants equal footing to the claims of these deniers. He argues in both the piece’s headline and the caption under its sole picture that the Met Office’s work means the “the climate-change debate is in play” and that “some people [are] wondering if man-made emissions really have an impact on the environment.”

Mr. Pinckard’s decision to use a complex debate within the climate science community as a reason to launch these patently false and absurd claims is highly irresponsible, if not journalistic malpractice.

There is no debate within the scientific community as whether or not anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions “have an impact on the environment.” Svante Arrenhius first discovered that greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, could alter the heat budget of the atmosphere and lead to global warming in 1895.

We know for a fact that  greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are increasing the heat-trapping potential of the atmosphere. Based on evidence from tree rings and ice cores, we know that the average concentrate of CO2 in the atmosphere during the Holocene, the mild and fair geological age in which human civilization has developed, stood at a fairly stead 280ppm. This changed with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, and C02 concentrations have spiked by more than 40%, reaching 400ppm in May for the first time in at least 3,000,000 years.

Historical concentrations of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere, as measured over the last 800,000 years. As the chart suggests, the historical measure stayed at or below 280ppm throughout this period, but the number spiked rapidly after 1850 (courtesy of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography).

Historical concentrations of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, as measured over the last 800,000 years. As the chart suggests, the historical measure stayed at or below 280ppm throughout this period, but the number spiked rapidly within the last 200 years (courtesy of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography).

During this period, the atmosphere has begun trapping an additional 1.6 watts per square meter of heat every second, equivalent to the amount of energy stored in four Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs.

We know that the warming has primarily been caused by increasing concentrations of CO2 and, to a lesser extent, other heat-trapping gases like methane and nitrous oxide. Scientists are able to determine this by measuring the wavelengths of long-wave infrared radiation as it reaches the ground and as it leaves the Earth. Sure enough, the mass spectrometers show spikes in radiation levels grouped around CO2 and other known greenhouse gases.

Spectrum measurements of the various wavelengths of greenhouse gas radiation at the surface of the Earth, drawn from Evans (2006). As the chart shows, the overwhelming majority of radiation falls within the spectrum of CO2, with significant contributions from CH4 (methane), O3 (ozone), and N2O (nitrous oxide), all of which are known greenhouse gases (courtesy of Skeptical Science).

Spectrum measurements of the various wavelengths of greenhouse gas radiation at the surface of the Earth. The overwhelming majority of radiation falls within the spectrum of CO2, with significant contributions from methane, ozone, and nitrous oxide, all of which are known greenhouse gases (courtesy of Skeptical Science).

Moreover, had Mr. Pinckard bothered to actually read the reports from the Met Office, he might have discovered that a decade or two of relatively flat temperatures has been predicted by climate models.

[T]he results show that a pause of 10 years’ duration is likely to occur due to internal fluctuations about twice every century.

The third Met Office report (PDF) also notes that the recent pause will not continue for long and will have almost no impact on the long-term trends in warming. The authors conclude first that “the physical basis of climate models and the projections they produce have not been invalidated by the recent pause.” Additionally, they argue “the recent pause in global surface temperature rise does not materially alter the risks of dangerous climate change.”

Mr. Pinckard fails to provide this important context to his readers or offer the additional evidence, besides average land surface temperatures, that global warming has continued apace. It is called global warming, not land warming, for a reason.

The next time that The Plain Dealer wants to cover an issue involving our global climate, which is easily one of the most complex and misunderstood topics in the world, I would suggest their reporter(s) do the following:

    • Go to Google and type the following: site:skepticalscience.com climate-related search term.
    • Watch the following video from NASA for further proof that, yes, the planet is warming

PD editorial on Obama’s climate plan is lazy, wrong & shortsighted

President Obama wipes his brow while delivering his climate speech at Georgetown University on June 25 (courtesy of The Atlantic Wire).

President Obama wipes his brow while delivering his climate speech at Georgetown University on June 25 (courtesy of The Atlantic Wire).

Last Sunday (June 30), the editorial board of The Plain Dealer published an editorial titled “Don’t bypass Congress on climate-change policy,” which criticized President Obama’s climate policy speech at Georgetown on June 25. In the piece, the board argued that the President is acting inappropriately by taking executive action to tackle the US’s greenhouse gas emissions through the Environmental Protection Agency. They note that the proposed regulations on GHG emissions from existing coal-fired power plants would “drive many of them out of business.” They continued:

Such plant closures would disproportionately hurt coal-dependent states such as Ohio. It is unfair to expect one region or small group of states to shoulder the chief economic impacts of a radical policy shift without subsidies or offsets.

An extreme U.S. policy aimed at divesting the nation from coal-fired energy should not be decided by the White House alone.

Unfortunately for the PD editorial board (and the public in Northeast Ohio it’s supposed to inform), this argument is a house of cards that one can easily dissect. So allow me to do so.

First, the board refers to the proposal as one of the “mandates that need no congressional approval” of which Americans must be “wary.” Nowhere in the piece does the board mention the fact that in Massachusetts et al. v. EPA (2007, PDF) the US Supreme Court ordered the EPA to determine if carbon dioxide constitutes a danger to public health in the country, the so-called “endangerment finding”. Justice Stevens, writing for the majority, noted that:

Because greenhouse gases fit well within the [Clean Air] Act’s capacious definition of “air pollutant,” EPA has statutory authority to regulate emission of such gases…

On December 7, 2009, the EPA issued the results of its endangerment finding, noting that

the current and projected concentrations of the six key well-mixed greenhouse gases…in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.

Yet, despite this judicial ruling that EPA regulate GHGs, the editorial board makes no reference to the jurisprudence or the endangerment finding. It treats the President’s actions as if they were capricious and unexpected, rather than mandated by the highest court of the land.

Bipartisanship & consensus are to the PD editorial board as the ring was to Gollum (courtesy of Wikicommons).

Bipartisanship & consensus are to the PD editorial board as the ring was to Gollum (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Secondly, the editorial board criticized the President for not working towards the consensus it reveres so highly. “Consensus” and “bipartisanship” are the buzzwords of the day for the Very Serious Persons who sit on editorial boards around the country. Yes, if only President Obama could reach out to Congressional Republicans and bring them to the table on climate action.

Of course, this belief completely belies reality. The modern Republican Party is the only opposition party in the world that steadfastly denies climate science. Moreover, the party remains completely obsequious to the fossil fuel industry. According to a recent study from the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, 411 elected officials around the country have signed a pledge to the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity promising to avoid taking action on climate change.

Furthermore, while VSPs at the PD and The Washington Post continue to write ballads about their fantasy carbon tax, recent evidence suggests that the EPA route may be the better alternative. A report from Resources for the Future suggests that, depending on the details, EPA regulation would likely be more effective at reducing GHG emissions than a carbon tax. This is particularly true, given the carbon tax that would likely come out of the current Congress – none.

Thirdly, the PD editorial board asserts, without providing any evidence, that the President’s climate plan will necessitate “sweeping economic sacrifice” and will change the “lifestyles and energy sources” of Ohioans.  Once again, the board refused to let fact get in the way of a [not so] good argument.

For decades, industry shills and their supporters have cried out against EPA regulations, claiming they would destroy the American economy. Yet, in case after case, the benefits of these regulations have far exceeded estimates, while the costs have been vastly lower than projected. The Edison Electric Institute claimed (PDF) that the 1990 Clean Air Act (CAA) amendments would carry $4-5 billion in annual compliance costs. The actual annual cost? $836 million. They were only off by 81.4%. According to a 2010 study, the benefits of the CAA and the 1990 amendments outweighed the costs by a ratio of 32.1 to 1 ($23.42 trillion in benefits to $730 billion in costs).

The monetized costs and benefits of the Clean Air Act and its 1990 amendments. As the table shows, the benefits of the CAA have vastly outweighed its costs (courtesy of Small Business Majority).

The monetized costs and benefits of the Clean Air Act and its 1990 amendments. As the table shows, the benefits of the CAA have vastly outweighed its costs (courtesy of Small Business Majority).

A recent study from the Natural Resources Defense Council suggest that EPA regulations on GHG emissions will once again provide a significant net benefit. In December, NRDC put together a proposed set of regulations for EPA to implement. This plan would set state-by-state emissions reductions standards, allowing coal-dependent states like Ohio to make a more gradual shift to more renewable energy sources. According to their assessment, the plan would reduce GHG emissions by 26% by 2020; its benefits would be roughly 6 to 15 times greater (PDF) than its associated costs.

NRDC recently had a respected firm run an economic assessment of this plan (PDF). The firm, Synapse Energy Economics, found that, contrary to the warnings of the naysayers at the PD, this plan would create 210,000 jobs and reduce electric bills by $0.90 per month through 2020.

Graph from Synapse Energy Economic's report on the NRDC policy proposal. As the graph shows, Ohio is projected to gain the second most jobs from EPA action (courtesy of Synapse Energy Economics).

Graph from Synapse Energy Economic’s report on the NRDC policy proposal. As the graph shows, Ohio is projected to gain the second most jobs from EPA action (courtesy of Synapse Energy Economics).

Ohio, one of the 14 states included in the analysis, would particularly benefit. The state would gain an additional 12,000 jobs – second only to Florida – and households would pay $1.03 less per month for electricity. Moreover, these regulations would simply speed up the transition away from coal that the state is already making. Under SB 221, Ohio is already obligated (PDF) to improve its energy efficiency by 22.2% and get 12.5% of its energy from renewable energy sources. Rather than increasing prices or killing jobs, a study from Ohio State has concluded that the policy saved ratepayers $170 million on their electric bills from 2008-2012 and created 3,200 jobs in the state.

Lastly – and unsurprisingly, given Ohio’s fealty to the coal industry – the editorial fails to mention any of the serious consequences of the state’s dependence on coal. A myriad of studies shows that coal carries significant costs for public health and well-being. According to a 2011 research article (PDF),

the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are
costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually.

If we were to internalize these externalities, the authors estimate that the price of coal-fired electricity would double or triple, making it noncompetitive with renewables. The Clean Air Task Force has concluded (PDF) that coal plants are responsible for 13,200 premature deaths, 20,400 heart attacks, and 217,600 asthma attacks annually in the US. Given Ohio’s dependence on this filthy fuel, the state ranked 2nd in 2010 for in coal-related mortality risk, hospital admissions, and heart attacks. The Cleveland metro area ranked 8th for mortality. All in all, evidence suggests that, for every $1 in economic benefits from coal, it carries $2 in costs to the public.

Mortality per 100,000 people from coal-fired power plants. As the map illustrates, coal-dependent states and their neighbors, including Ohio, suffer substantially from its effects (courtesy of the Clean Air Task Force).

Mortality per 100,000 people from coal-fired power plants. As the map illustrates, coal-dependent states and their neighbors, including Ohio, suffer substantially from its effects (courtesy of the Clean Air Task Force).

The Plain Dealer‘s editorial is just the latest in a series of inaccurate claims that EPA regulations will doom the American economy. They have proven wrong, time and again, and the PD will almost certainly be wrong here. The editorial is inaccurate, shortsighted, and – to be frank – an extremely lazy argument. As President Obama said in his climate speech,

[T]he problem with all these tired excuses for inaction is that it suggests a fundamental lack of faith in American business and American ingenuity. These critics seem to think that when we ask our businesses to innovate and reduce pollution and lead, they can’t or they won’t do it. They’ll just kind of give up and quit. But in America, we know that’s not true.

The next time the PD wants to write about climate policy, I suggest the editorial board actually does its homework, rather than relying on a tired set of easily disproved talking points.

If we could avoid coating Lake Erie in a permanent layer of toxic algae, that would be great

So I wanted to discuss this issue in my post on lake levels in the Great Lakes, but length became a factor. Fortunately, two recent articles touched on the topic, so it gave me an opportunity to circle back to it.

First, two officials from the Cuyahoga Water and Soil Conservation District published an op-ed in The Plain Dealer on Sunday that discussed the disturbing rise in algal blooms on Lake Erie during recent years. As the author’s noted, Lake Erie and other inland lakes in Northern Ohio, including Grand Lake St. Mary’s, have become enveloped in large blue-green algal blooms. The issue became particularly acute in 2011 and 2012, largely due to extremely high temperatures during the latter and heavy precipitation in the former.

A satellite photo showing Lake Erie taken by NOAA on June 14. If you look at the bottom left portion of the image (Northwest Ohio), you can clearly see blue-green algal blooms growing already on the lake surface (courtesy of NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory).

A satellite photo showing Lake Erie taken by NOAA on June 14. If you look at the bottom left portion of the image (Northwest Ohio), you can clearly see blue-green algal blooms growing already on the lake surface (courtesy of NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory).

The most obvious cause for these algal blooms is the excessive application of chemical fertilizers on farms and, to a lesser extent, residential lawns in Northern Ohio. Farmers in Northwest Ohio, in particular, have switched to no-till practices in order to reduce soil erosion. Unfortunately, no-till farming typically requires even larger chemical inputs, as the soil is not turned over. No-till soil is also more susceptible to chemical runoff during precipitation events. It appears likely that commercial agriculture is the main culprit, as the Great Lakes are phosphorus-constrained environments, and agricultural fertilizers are rich in chemical phosphates. The algal blooms that have resulted threaten a $10 billion tourism industry in the region, pose a threat to public health, harm commercial fishing, and increase the costs of water treatment.

In related news, Scientific American published a piece today on a recent study examining the effects of climate change and rising water temperatures on nine large lakes in Austria. These lakes are vital for tourism, industry, and the ecology of the region. The region has warmed at a rate 3.5 times higher than the global average since 1980, and the study argues that surface water temperature (SWT) in these lakes will rise by at least 2°C through 2050. This rise in poses a major challenge to the ecology of the lakes. From the SciAm piece:

“The predicted changes in surface water temperatures will affect the thermal characteristics of the lakes,” said Dokulil. “Warmer water temperatures could lead to enhanced nutrient loads and affect water quality by promoting algal blooms and impairing the biological functions of aquatic organisms.

Interestingly (though, perhaps, not surprisingly), the CWSCD officials largely sidestepped the role of climate change in the algal blooms on Lake Erie. That said, the Austrian study makes it clear that, while it may not be the predominant issue to worry about at the moment (and it’s not one that local conservation officials can actively address), climate change does compound the anthropogenic impacts and will only get worse in the future.

Research suggests that SWT have increased at a significantly faster rate that air temperatures in the Great Lakes region. According to a 2007 study (PDF) from Jay A. Austin & Stephen M. Colman in Geophysical Research Letters, SWT on Lake Superior rose by 2.5°C from 1979-2006, a rate that was “significantly in excess of regional atmospheric warming.” The authors argue that this outcome largely stems from an increased albedo effect due to declining lake ice cover during this period. To make matters worse, they conclude by noting that, at the current rate of decline, Lake Superior will be completely ice free during the winter within the next three decades.

The number of days with extreme precipitation has increased through the country in recent years. The Midwest saw a substantial rise of 27% during this period (courtesy of the U.S. Global Change Research Program).

The number extreme precipitation days has increased through the country in recent years. The Midwest saw a 27% increase from 1958-2007 (courtesy of the U.S. Global Change Research Program).

This study accords with other research on these issues within the Great Lakes region. According to an excellent 2003 review (PDF) from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Confronting Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region, ice cover will continue to decrease dramatically on Lakes Erie and Superior in the coming decades. By 2030, up to 61% of winters could be ice free on Lake Erie; by 2090, this number could reach a staggering 96%.

Moreover, while there hasn’t been a large amount of research done in the past few years, a handful of studies from the 1990s and early 2000s suggest that SWTs in the Great Lakes may jump by another 1-7°C. Combine these higher SWTs with more extreme precipitation events, and we have a recipe for even more massive algal outbreaks.

We already know that extreme precipitation has increased by roughly 20% in the Central US over the last century. This trend is projected to continue into the future, particularly during the winter and spring months; runoff produced during these seasons largely controls the extent of algal growth during the summer months.

Considerable evidence exists to suggest that Cleveland will be well positioned to withstand the most severe effects of climate change, and the city may even see an influx of migrants from other, harder hit areas of the country. However, as I have argued ad nauseum, the city needs to be proactive to ensure that it will be prepared for the challenges that await it. The draft Climate Action Plan is a start, but it needs to put more focus on adapting to climate changes, lest we squander our best natural asset – Lake Erie.

Algae blooming on Lake Erie during the massive bloom that developed in 2011 (courtesy of The Plain Dealer).

Algae blooming on Lake Erie during the massive bloom that developed in 2011 (courtesy of The Plain Dealer).

Dropping cause it’s hot: On climate change & Great Lakes levels

Falling Great Lakes levels have garnered a considerable amount of media coverage in the past few days. First, the New York Times featured a full-length piece on the issue on Monday, and The Plain Dealer followed up yesterday with a piece focused primarily on Lake Erie.

As the Times piece notes, the average monthly mean for the five lakes during this past winter reached its lowest level since officials began taking measurements in 1918. For Lake Erie, 2012 was the first year on record that water levels fell during every month.  According to the 2009 National Climate Assessment, the maximum ice coverage in the Great Lakes decreased by roughly 30% from 1973-2008. The prolonged winter and extremely wet spring this year is beginning to counter the effects of last year’s record drought, but these changes are clearly part of a long-term trend, which one season or  one year worth of precipitation cannot change.

Current lake levels, compared to long-term averages, for (left to right) Lakes Michigan & Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Superior (courtesy of NOAA GLERL).

Current lake levels, compared to long-term averages, for (left to right) Lakes Michigan & Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Superior (courtesy of NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory).

Both pieces noted the causes and likely effects of these changes for the Great Lakes region. By and large, however, they focused on the role of dredging. From the Times piece:

A measure of the drop in water levels can also be attributed to the engineering that makes Great Lakes shipping possible. The 1962 dredging of the St. Clair River may have lowered the water in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan by five inches, said John Nevin…Other dredging projects may have emptied 16 inches in all from the lakes, Mr. Nevin said.

In the comments section on his piece, Robert Smith, the PD reporter who covered the story, explicitly noted that he was focusing on dredging. Clearly dredging matters, and it will continue to into the future. It is a complicated issue, however, as it costs a considerable amount of money and is controlled by action from the Army Corps of Engineers and the US Congress, who appear to be engaged in a fight over who bears the burden for the issue.

The effects of the drop in lake levels will continue to take a significant toll on the Great Lakes. According to the US Department of Transportation (PDF), every 1″ drop in lake levels reduces the cargo capacity of a 1,000-foot bulk carrier by 270 tons. Given that the Great Lakes maritime trade industry is worth $34 billion annually, any long-term reductions in lake level will significantly hamper the regional economy.

Unfortunately, that’s precisely what climate models project. While neither piece directly addressed the issue (though the Times article does mention it in passing), climate change is likely to add to any natural and direct anthropogenic impacts on lake levels. As the Union of Concerned Scientists has noted (PDF), higher air temperatures contribute to the reduction of lake levels in two main ways. First, they will continue to reduce the extent of lake ice cover during the winter months, which provides a crucial buffer against surface evaporation on the open water. Secondly, higher surface temperatures themselves lead to greater rates of surface evaporation.

Projected changes in lake levels on the Great Lakes according to the Canadian global climate model (courtesy of the Second National Climate Assessment).

Projected changes in lake levels on the Great Lakes according to the Canadian global climate model (courtesy of the Second National Climate Assessment).

According to the First National Climate Assessment, mean annual temperatures in the Midwest are expected to increase by 3-6°C (5-10°F) by the end of the century. These changes will lead to wholesale climatic shifts in the region. According to the World Bank (PDF), in a 4°C warmer world (which, as I’ve noted, is becoming increasingly likely), the coolest months in the Central US by 2070 will be significantly warmer than the warmest months today. Even as early as 2030, summers in Illinois are projected to resemble current summers in Oklahoma.

As such, the effects of rising temperatures will likely outweigh projected increases in regional precipitation, contributing to the long-term decline of lake levels. The First National Climate Assessment projected a 5-6 foot drop in lake levels for all five of the lakes, while the Second Assessment (2009) revised these down to 1-2 feet, depending on the climate model used. Regardless of the projection, these declining lake levels will significantly increase the cost of shipping (PDF) on the Great Lakes by as much as 30%.

While we should be careful to neither attribute all ecological changes to climate change nor to blame direct anthropogenic environmental changes on the effects of climate change, it’s not wise to treat them as completely distinct phenomena. Climate change is currently adjusting the baseline for all weather-related phenomena; we have already forced global atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to their highest levels in human history and increased global average temperatures by roughly 0.8-1°C. Anthropogenic environmental changes and climate change will interact with one another and almost certainly create multiplicative effects over the next several decades. We need to recognize as such.