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Friday, March 29, 2013

The President's Science Advisors, the IMF, and climate challenges

As reported here, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has authored an important letter outlining six key recommendations for mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change.  They are:

  1. focus on national preparedness for climate change;
  2. continue efforts to decarbonize the economy, especially the electricity sector; this includes continuing to expand environmentally responsible shale gas production and accelerating effort to deploy carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.
  3. level the playing field for clean-energy and energy-efficiency technologies by removing regulatory obstacles, addressing market failures, adjusting tax policies, and providing appropriate "time-limited" subsidies for clean energy;
  4. sustain research on next-generation clean-energy technologies and remove obstacles for their eventual deployment;
  5. take additional steps to establish U.S. leadership on climate change internationally; and
  6. conduct an initial Quadrennial Energy Review (QER)

This is an ambitious - but essential - agenda.  To say that each of the items will require leadership, hard political work, and investment is a gross understatement. Take, for example, the recommendation to address market failures and adjusting tax policies. 

The magnitude of the political and economic challenge of reforming our badly - fatally? - flawed energy-related policies was revealed this week in a study released by the International Monetary Fund. The IMF study found that between directly lowered prices, tax breaks, and the failure to properly price carbon, the world subsidized fossil fuel use by over $1.9 trillion in 2011 — or eight percent of global government revenues.  And the biggest offender was by far the United States, subsidizing fossil fuels to the tune of $502 billion in that year alone.

The challenges are immense.  So are the devastating consequences of failing to meet them. What will we do?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Waterless fracking slowly rolling in Texas

Here is an interesting Texas Tribune article on waterless fracking technology that's beginning to get a toehold in the water-challenged Lone Star State.  The article describes a company I've written about before - GasFrac, a Canadian service company that uses propane gel for fracturing.  The article mentions other waterless techniques, including ones using CO2 or nitrogen.  

The eyes of Texas may slowly be turning to waterless fracking alternatives. With water challenges looming if enormous shale gas resources are to be developed in other states like California and in dry countries like China, Australia, and South Africa, the eyes of the world may be on Texas, and on the business case for waterless fracking

Bake sales next for state parks?

State parks systems across the nation are struggling with slashed budgets, and are as a result imposing entrance fees, leaning more and more on volunteers, and pushing to drill for oil and gas beneath park lands to supplement depleted operating budgets.  Can bake sales be far behind? 

What is to be done? This article by Margaret Walls, Research Director and Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future, writing in Parks & Recreation Magazine, presents a variety of funding sources - sales taxes, lotteries, and revenues from resource extraction - that can be used to create dedicated funds to offset the decline in support of parks from general tax revenues.

The article is based on an excellent Resources for the Future (RFF) report that goes on to mention additional potential sources of financing state parks - user fees, privatization, contracting, and even reliance on philanthropy.

But hold on.  

The RFF report begins with this observation:

The 14 million acres of state park lands in the United States provide enormous value.  Approximately 720 million people visit them each year, and a recent study estimated the social benefits of the recreation they provide at more than $14 billion per year. This figure is far in excess of the $2.3 billion it costs to operate them.

Indeed.  And there is far more to the value proposition of parks - of public land - than that impressive figure.  Public lands generate jobs - at least six million of them, in fact, and upwards of $100 billion annually in tax receipts.  In Pennsylvania - home to the best-managed park system in the nation - outdoor recreation is responsible for about one sixth of Pennsylvania’s $33 billion tourism economy – the state’s second largest industry. The Keystone State's parks system is an economic engine, returning almost $10 to local economies for every dollar invested by the state, generating more than $1 billion in economic activity in nearby communities, and supporting almost 13,000 related jobs.

But they do so much more. In many ways, our parks define us. Pennsylvania's state park system - the brainchild 0f Maurice Goddard – does not charge entrance fees. It's a system to which the richest person in Pennsylvania and the poorest have equal access – and in which they have equal standing. Access to our commonly-held natural riches should not be based on ability to pay (though certainly some additional services and programming are). It is a right, guaranteed by Article 1, Section 27 of Pennsylvania’s Constitution: 

The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.

Which brings me back to RFF's report.  I have great respect and admiration for RFF's work.  In this case - the sorry state of public support for state parks - they are dealing with what is, and offering constructive ideas.  But what is really needed here - when fundamental public rights are being eroded through cruel economics and a crueler lack of political courage - is not workarounds, but a healthy dose of outrage.

Public park systems are not businesses. They are public services. They have visitors, not customers. They are part of the bargain of citizenship. At least, they used to be.

States are starting down the slippery slope of taking the public out of the public lands. We are erecting barriers – financial and otherwise – to citizens’ use and enjoyment of their own commonly-held property. Opening them to resource exploitation that, in the long term, is unsustainable. Allowing “pay to play” to become the emerging reality on lands that have always been freely available to all. And making fundamental public services reliant on charity. 

Public budgets represent choices, and certainly choices have been hard for governors and legislators nationwide as a result of the Great Recession. But choosing to de-fund the public lands and to incrementally exclude the public from public property is a slow motion disaster and a signature erosion of basic governmental functions like the now-trite concept of providing for the general welfare. 

Across the nation, the concept of the commons – of natural resources that are held in trust and in common for the benefit of all people, and that are shared, used, and enjoyed by all – is at grave risk. This is a fundamental deterioration of our democracy, and calls into question what kind of society we are becoming. 

Do we really want to run our parks with bake sales, charity, and gimmicks? Are we willing to pay (shudder) taxes for public services, or not? And when are public lands no longer public? The answers to these questions are something that every citizen should think about.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

U.S. EPA names 31 to Hydraulic Fracturing Reseach Advisory Panel

The U.S. EPA's Science Advisory Board (SAB) has announced the formation of its Hydraulic Fracturing Research Advisory Panel. This panel of 31 experts (two from Penn State University) will provide scientific feedback on EPA’s research and will peer review EPA’s forthcoming (in 2014) draft report of results from its national study on the potential health and environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources

On May 7 and 8, 2013, the Panel will convene to provide individual feedback from panel members regarding EPA’s 2012 progress report on the study. EPA says that the public will also have the opportunity to provide comments for the Panel’s consideration.  

EPA's commitment to transparency in every step of this study is impressive, and essential.