Friday, April 12, 2013

Energy Idiocy

What is it about energy that send all sides of the political spectrum into spasms of babbling idiocy? Here are two items heard on my jog yesterday, courtesy of NPR, one from the right, one from the left, with the NPR interviewers mindlessly accepting idiocy in the middle.

Start with NPR's coverage of Gina McCarthy's Senate confirmation hearings. The issue is the EPAs efforts to close down coal-fired power plants to reduce carbon emissions

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: For four years, Gina McCarthy has been heading up the EPA's office in charge of air quality. She's crafted rules that are cleaning up exhausts from old coal-fired power plants. Some of those plants are opting to shut down instead of installing expensive pollution controls. Republican Senator John Barrasso from Wyoming says those rules have cost jobs.

SENATOR JOHN BARRASSO: Since you've taken office, 10 percent of coal-fired generated power in the United States has been taken offline. Do you see the EPA having any responsibility for the thousands of folks who are out of work for these plant closures?

GINA MCCARTHY: Senator, I take my job seriously when I'm developing standards for protecting public health to take a look at the economic consequences of those and do my best to provide flexibility in the rules.

SHOGREN: Senator Barrasso continues his barrage, naming coal miners he's met who are out of work for the first time in their lives.

BARRASSO: How many more times, if confirmed, will this EPA director pull the regulatory lever and allow another mining family to fall through the EPA's trapdoor to joblessness, to poverty and to poor health?
So, quick question: What is the ideal number of jobs in the electricity production industry? Answer: zero.

Really. If you want "jobs," the right answer is to shut down all the coal-fired plants, and let all those workers move to installing very inefficient windmills. No, better, hook them all up to stationary bicycles, producing 50 watts each; and then hire a bunch more people to grow food for them on locally-sourced sustainable organic farms. And, as Milton Friedman famously quipped, have them plow the fields with spoons so more people still can have jobs. (Coal mining itself has lost almost all of its "jobs" due to mechanization. Perhaps the senator would like to reverse that.)

Ms. McCarthy could easily have answered: "No, Senator. Industries will still need electricity, and that demand will move to renewables. Look at all the green jobs we will create."  Having started down the coal miner job route, the senator would surely not have had the wit to point out that the real "jobs" cost is in downstream industries that have to pay more for electricity.

Now from the left. The cost-benefit calculation prize of the year goes to NPRs next story, covering a scientific paper that predicts that climate change will cause more clear-air turbulence for flights near the jet stream over the North Atlantic.
BLOCK: Your study finds that by 2050, we might see the frequency of turbulence on flights across the Atlantic doubling and also getting stronger. This has to do with the jet stream. Can you explain why?

WILLIAMS: Well, climate change is accelerating the jet stream, making the wind speeds faster. And this is making the atmosphere more susceptible to the particular instability that causes clear air turbulence to break out. ... The conditions seem to be smooth and all of a sudden, you can hit turbulence unexpectedly ...

BLOCK: Well, do you figure that airlines will have to reconfigure their flight patterns, will have to change how they fly, where they fly?

WILLIAMS: Well, a pilot taking off from perhaps New York in the middle of this century to come across the Atlantic to somewhere in Europe will be looking at twice as much airspace containing turbulence. Now, they're going to face a choice that they could just grit their teeth and decide to fly right through those extra patches of turbulence or if the turbulence is particularly strong, they might instead decide to try to fly around it or above it or below it.

All of this, of course, means that journey times could lengthen if flight paths have to become more wiggly and less of a straight line. This is an increase in journey times, maybe more delays at airports and also, perhaps more importantly, an increase in fuel consumption. And I should mention that fuel is the number one cost to airlines. So any increase in fuel consumption will, of course, imply increased costs to the airlines.

And ultimately, of course, it could be passengers who see the ticket prices going up to pay for that.

BLOCK: Well, the irony there, too, I suppose would be that if you're increasing fuel consumption, you're also increasing the contribution to global warming which will be causing the turbulence in the first place, right?

WILLIAMS: Right. There's a sort of feedback there and it's a bit like poetic justice that maybe the atmosphere is somehow seeking its revenge on planes for causing this problem in the first place.
So much low-hanging fruit here. There have been a lot of attempts to add up the economic costs of global warming. Just how big is this effect? Should Gina McCarthy have answered Senator Barrasso with, "Yes, some miners will lose their jobs. But think how much cheaper airline tickets to Paris will be in 2050 because pilots won't have to fly longer routes to avoid clear-air turbulence?"

Savor the irony. One of the highest items on the global warming agenda is to deliberately raise ticket prices by carbon taxes.

"Feedback." About 2% of carbon emissions are from all aircraft. So how much do carbon emissions rise from slightly longer jet routes? Are we out of the fifth decimal point?

This is all so sad. I don't mind liberals who don't profess to believe in free markets getting it all wrong. But "free market" conservatives shouldn't quickly revert to Keynesian pump priming and public works arguments.  I don't mind conservative bible-thumpers who get science wrong. But bien-pensant "scientific" global warming nannies shouldn't be off by, oh, let's say 10^6 or more on cost-benefit analyses and feedback effects. Each makes their causes ludicrous. And just how incredulous should journalists be not to catch any of this?