Friday, April 19, 2019

Ending California’s Wildfire Nightmare

Given the severity of last year’s deadly wildfires, let’s hope California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, takes a more productive approach to the problem than his predecessor, Jerry Brown, who largely deflected blame to global warming.

While Mr. Brown did acknowledge that forest management is “one element” of controlling wildfires, the real culprit, he hastened to add, was climate change. “Managing all the forests everywhere we can does not stop climate change—and those that deny that are definitely contributing to the tragedy.”

Wildfire policy is incredibly complex and many factors contribute to the frequency and severity of fires. But global warming—human-caused or otherwise—is among the least of them.

In a December 2017 blog post, University of Washington atmospheric sciences professor Clifford Mass, who is no climate-change skeptic, used a detailed data analysis and literature review to debunk claims that California wildfires are related to global warming.

Because of California’s naturally dry summers, Mr. Mass noted, “grasses, shrubs and other fuels will be dry by the end of summer and during fall, no matter what. And even if the fuels weren’t dry, they would dry within hours of the initiation of strong, offshore winds—which accompany virtually every major fire event. So even if the summer/fall temperatures rose and the conditions dried further under global warming, IT WOULD NOT MATTER. Without any additional warming, the fuels in late summer and fall are dry enough to burn over coastal California and always have been [emphasis in original].”

There is “no credible evidence that global warming is causing an increase currently, or will increase in the future, the number or intensity of wildfires over coastal California from San Diego to the San Francisco Bay region,” Mr. Mass added, citing numerous studies. “Those that are claiming the global warming is having an impact are doing so either out of ignorance or their wish to use coastal wildfires for their own purposes.”

While human activity is not culpable for increasing the severity of fires by changing the climate, there is plenty we can do to mitigate the effects of fires. This includes conducting more prescribed, or controlled, burns; creating fuel breaks; and forest thinning and logging. These measures have been stifled, however, by stringent environmental policies, resulting in the buildup of flammable undergrowth and overgrown forests with weakened, less fire-resistant trees more susceptible to drought and bark beetle infestations.

As a 2018 report from California’s Little Hoover Commission—an independent state oversight agency—stated, California must shift from primarily reacting to large wildfires through emergency firefighting to more proactive forest management. “A century of fire suppression remains firmly entrenched within federal and state firefighting agencies and has left forest floors deep in flammable groundcover,” the commission said. Prescribed burns are often hampered by regional air-quality regulations, the report noted, because “while wildfires do not count against air quality standards, prescribed fires do”—a policy that should be changed immediately.

In addition to the mismanagement of forests and open spaces, the state and local governments have exacerbated the problem through policies that restrict the supply of housing and otherwise significantly hike housing prices, encouraging people to move farther from city centers and suburbs to more affordable—and more fire-prone—exurbs and rural areas. California has compounded this predicament by preventing insurers from charging the full risk-based cost of insuring homes in more dangerous fire-hazard zones.

There are some things beyond our control, such as California’s steep mountain slopes and the occasional strong Santa Ana and Diablo winds that spread fires quickly.

But there are many things political leaders could do, such as amending the environmental regulations, restrictive housing policies, market-distorting insurance regulations and forest-management practices that have exacerbated the personal and financial costs of the fires. In all these cases, government intervention has aggravated the problem while greater private property protections and free markets would help ameliorate it. More care also must be taken to prevent accidental fires, such as those triggered by sparks from utility equipment, which apparently started several of last year’s fires.

Scapegoating the nebulous notion of climate change, particularly when the scientific evidence appears to refute that it has any relation to the frequency or severity of the wildfires, will only ensure more destruction this year and in future years. The saddest part is that much of this destruction is preventable.


One way to save the planet: Build more nuclear plants

About 30 miles north of Manhattan, the Indian Point Energy Center looms over the banks of the Hudson. It produces 11 percent of the electricity consumed in New York state and a quarter of the power used in the New York City area. And that power is completely free of the carbon-dioxide emissions associated with fossil fuels.

But by early 2021, Indian Point will fall silent, the victim of environmental opposition, shaky economics and a governor who said closing the plant was his personal mission. Supporters of the shutdown said that the plant’s power could easily be replaced by conservation and renewable sources such as wind and solar.

That was wishful thinking. In reality, Indian Point’s power will be replaced mostly by electricity made from natural gas. Which means that, despite Gov. Cuomo’s ambitious plans to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, our region’s emissions are about to go up.

The scenario facing New York — nuclear plants closing as officials make rosy promises about renewable energy — has been playing out around the US, and around the world, in recent years.

Half a dozen US nuclear plants have shut since 2013, and at least a dozen more are on the chopping block. In Europe, Germany has closed about half its nuclear fleet. When these plants shut down, their power is almost always replaced by fossil fuels.

For example, Germany, which touts itself as a green energy leader, is actually Europe’s worst greenhouse-gas emitter.

Fortunately, there is a new wave of environmentalists who are speaking out in favor of nuclear. These include former NASA climate scientist James Hansen and onetime Whole Earth Catalog publisher Stewart Brand. If we’re serious about bringing down carbon emissions, they say, we need to save the nuclear plants now operating — and start building new ones.

These “pro-nuclear greens” need to overcome a mountain of disinformation. For example, on safety: Despite its scary reputation, nuclear power is actually the safest way to produce electricity. No one has ever died from radiation exposure involving a US nuclear plant. (In fact, more people have died falling off roofs installing solar panels.) Only one death has been attributed (somewhat dubiously) to radiation from Japan’s Fukushima accident. Even the 1986 Chernobyl disaster didn’t produce the predicted health catastrophe.

Compared with that of strip mines, oil wells, and pipelines… nuclear power’s total environmental footprint is almost dainty.
Meanwhile, people die when coal mines collapse, gas pipelines explode and oil trains derail. And millions of people have been killed by air pollution from coal-burning power plants. When nuclear replaces those energy sources, it actually saves lives.

Nuclear power is also the cleanest way to produce electricity. Unlike fossil fuels, nuclear plants don’t release toxic or smog-forming emissions. And nuclear plants take up very little land. Compared with that of strip mines, oil wells, and pipelines — or, for that matter, vast arrays of solar panels and wind turbines — nuclear power’s total environmental footprint is almost dainty.

Some renewable energy advocates say we don’t need nuclear because wind and solar power can quickly take its place. That’s wrong. Renewable energy can play a valuable role, but, since wind and solar only produce power part of the time, they always need a backup. A recent study from MIT showed that the best way to reduce emissions would be a mix of renewables and “carbon-free resources,” including nuclear power.

Wind and solar are heavily subsidized by both federal and state governments today. Meanwhile, natural-gas prices are near historic lows. That combination puts many nuclear plants in an economic bind. What’s the answer? Nuclear advocates say nuclear should be included in the same subsidy programs that favor renewables.

And, in fact, New York state has done that with three upstate plants even as it moves to shutter Indian Point.

A better plan for taxpayers and ratepayers would be to reduce the subsidies going to wind and solar and use that sum of money to help keep nuclear plants functioning. In the long run, we’ll have a greener, more reliable and more affordable electricity grid if we keep nuclear in the mix.


"Wetland" abuses

Timothy Dayton

The North American Wetlands Conservation Act has resulted in a huge land grab by the federal government and the erosion of the rights of the property owner.

In most cases where the government decides it needs the rights to a property, or wants to restrict the use of a property for public good, the landowner is bought out or paid for the use. They go through a process of eminent domain.

In the case of wetlands, however, since the areas grabbed were huge, the government failed to compensate the owners for the loss of rights to the property.

My father bought farmland that backed up to a harbor off Lake Erie well before it was declared to be wetland. Then the government decided that area should be wetland, and thus my father could not develop the property unless he were to donate another property to be wetland in this piece’s stead. Really?

So those with financial backing bought up all kinds of swamp away from development and donated that, then built their housing developments and marinas along the shores of Lake Erie where the property values were truly high.

I am not blaming the developers, but was that really fair? And if you could trade for pieces of land in the next county, then, really, how vital were all these “wetlands” that the Environmental Protection Agency declared?

To add insult to injury, my father’s land was taxed as waterfront and lake accessible even though he could not launch a boat from it. He got no break on any score and no compensation, and he was not grandfathered even though he owned the land before the government grabbed his rights.

The government decided, the government took away his rights. If the government is all about needing wetlands, then buy the property and pay for it at market rates. Let’s share the cost of this wonderful program with everyone who might benefit.

That’s what they are supposed to do and what they do when they build a new road or put a new building: They buy the land


Green New Deal has a dirty secret

The dirty little secret of the Green New Deal is not that it is an unserious proposal that has nothing to do with the environment and everything to do with the sense of entitlement of elite progressives. That is not a secret at all. It is common knowledge. The secret of the Green New Deal is that this valentine to socialism from Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is already obsolete.

For the American people have already passed their Green New Deal, through the miracle of free market innovation — not in the House and Senate but in the Permian Basin, at the Bakken Formation and the Marcellus Shale. The left will not admit it, but the fact is Americans are living in a golden age of clean energy, right now.

The natural gas revolution, made possible by both the discoveries of new reserves and the development of technologies to extract it from previously inaccessible deposits, has helped the United States cut pollutant emissions by 70 percent over the last three decades. Despite adding almost 100 million people to our population since 1990, an increase of 30 percent, even total carbon emissions have increased by only 2 percent. Greenhouse gas emissions are not just rising slowly. They are actually falling in recent years.

The left has long said we need to treat climate change and environmental protection as the moral equivalent of war. If that is true, where are the celebrations now that it is a battle we are finally winning? Why? Because when the facts do not fit with the liberal political narrative, they often print the narrative as fake news. Progressives said we need to find new, clean sources of energy to get us away from coal and oil. Well, we have. Natural gas is clean.

According to the climate group Carbon Brief, natural gas use has cut 50 percent more emissions than wind and solar power combined. Gas also has negligible local pollutants, 50 percent less carbon emissions than coal and 30 percent less than oil. What is not clean is the record on the left of opposing the development of natural gas-rich regions and the infrastructure such as pipelines that needed to further lower the costs of energy to consumers and the environment.

It often seems like the liberal environmentalism is not scientific at all. They know as well as everyone else that if fully renewable energy sources such as wind and solar will ever become competitive and cost-effective, that day is decades away. They know that in the meantime natural gas is answering the demands of our growing economy and the societal call to develop cleaner sources of fuel. But they do not care. They simply know in their hearts that all fossil fuels are bad, period, and renewables are good, period. But that is not science. It is a religion and a not very good one at that.

Countries such as Germany that have allowed their energy policy to be determined by feelings instead of facts are moving in the wrong direction. Despite spending massive amounts of money on clean energy “reforms,” Germany remains the largest consumer of coal in Europe. The German government now admits it will not achieve its goals to reduce emissions, yet the German people are still paying the highest energy prices on the continent. Hundreds of billions of dollars in government spending and artificially higher prices all in exchange for not much reduction in emissions. Unfortunately, that remains the approach the left wants to impose on the country with preposterous schemes such as the Green New Deal.

Rather that adopting an approach that has not worked, the United States should double down on what is already working. Happily, that is what President Trump and his administration are already doing. His administration has increased permitting for pipeline infrastructure and extraction leases. He has opened federal lands to more drilling and allowed the consumers, engineers and entrepreneurs of the energy industry to drive progress toward a smaller global carbon footprint. With our domestic surplus, we can export American natural gas around the world and replace coal and oil now being burned internationally.

A future of natural gas-powered vehicles and ideally more extraction of natural gas from Europe, Asia and Africa could accomplish more in a decade than what the “no fossil fuel” zealots have done in five years. There is enough natural gas in the earth now to meet our energy needs for years and years to come. The scientific, economic and political fact is that the American people and the world do not need a Green New Deal. We already have one.


Australian Left's carbon costs to hit $25bn

All in pursuit of a chimera

Australian businesses could be forced to spend more than $25 billion on international carbon credits to meet Labor’s 45 per cent emissions reduction targets by 2030, jeopardising one of Bill Shorten’s fundamental election pillars, which he declared would have no cost to the economy.

Threatening a repeat of their 2010 scuttling of Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme, the Greens yesterday warned they could block Labor’s use of international carbon permits in the Senate over concerns that the policy was overly reliant on international permits to meet the 1.3 billion tonnes of carbon abatement needed in the next 10 years.

The Labor leader yesterday came under fire after being unable to explain what the cost of the ­policy would be, given carbon permits are set to play a key role in meeting the target.

Experts believe the price of international carbon offsets could hit $62 a tonne over the decade but, allowing for an average of $50 a tonne, the hit on businesses would be about $25bn to meet Labor’s target.

This is based on an assumption that more than 500 million tonnes of abatement would have to come through either the purchase of international carbon credits or further land-clearing controls and reforestation, which would prove politically explosive in the bush.

A day after refusing to answer questions on the cost to the economy of Labor’s climate policy, Mr Shorten yesterday declared a 2015 report by economist Warwick McKibbin showed “our 45 per cent reduction, including international offsets, has the same economic ­impact as the Liberals’ 26 per cent”.

Mr Shorten seized on the McKibbin report’s forecast that economic growth would continue at more than 2 per cent under ­either scenario through the 2020s to dismiss suggestions Labor’s policy would be a hit to the economy.

“I don’t accept the characterisation that it is a cost,” the Opposition Leader said. “We’re going to grow. And we’re going to grow ­because we are going to move to a lower carbon pollution economy.”

The McKibbin study, conducted for the Abbott government, showed that a 45 per cent carbon emissions cut on 2005 levels — the same as proposed by Labor — would strip about 1 per cent of GDP by 2030, compared with 0.6 per cent under the Coalition’s 26 per cent cut.

By offsetting nearly half the necessary cuts with international carbon offsets, which Labor has committed to doing, the McKibbin study found the GDP hit from a 45 per cent emissions reduction could be slashed to 0.6 per cent — the same cost as under the ­Coalition.

The study did not factor in the government’s use of carried-over credits from over-achievement in the Kyoto climate agreement, which Labor had elected not to use — a move that will further push up the cost of its policy.

Professor McKibbin cautioned that the modelling assumed a carbon price mandated by the government at the time of $US5 a tonne in 2020, rising to $US10 in 2030. “If the price of offsets in the world is higher than we assume, that effect is gone,” he told The Australian yesterday. “We don’t know what the price of offsets will be in 2030. These numbers are not precise in any sense.”

The price of carbon permits on the EU market has more than tripled in the past year due to reforms to curb oversupply. Permits for delivery in December traded at €26.86 ($42.22) per metric ton on Tuesday. Modelling by former government scientist Brian Fisher, an author on the Inter­governmental Panel on Climate Change and now head of BAEconomics, has estimated the international carbon price will be $62 a tonne by 2030.

A Labor campaign spokeswoman said yesterday the party was yet to determine how much of its 45 per cent in emissions cuts would be delivered through purchasing international permits.

Greens climate change spokesman Adam Bandt said the minority party would resist the use of international permits in any Labor scheme, threatening a Senate showdown with a future Shorten government.

“International offsets are like paying someone to go on a diet for you while you stay at home eating burgers and pizzas,” Mr Bandt said.

“I’m confident climate laws can pass the new Senate, but Labor is going to have to give up on international offsets and accept a plan to quit coal. Greens and Labor worked together and compromised in 2011 to get real climate ­action and we can do so again.”

The Greens under Bob Brown sank Mr Rudd’s carbon pollution reduction scheme, arguing it wasn’t ambitious enough. The party backed Julia Gillard’s carbon tax the following year.

Energy Minister Angus Taylor said yesterday Labor needed to tell voters and the business community how much would have to be paid to international carbon offset brokers under its policy. “Australians need to be informed about the amount of money that is going to be paid to other countries as part of this scheme,” Mr Taylor said. “If international credits average $50 over the decade, if they have to achieve 500 million tonnes, that’s $25bn going offshore.”

He said Labor was also yet to explain what emissions target ­industry would face, how fast would emissions be brought down, how its emissions trading scheme would work, and how it would treat emissions from the heavy transport fleet.

Under its policy, the Coalition has to cut 328 million tonnes of carbon emissions to meet its 26 per cent reduction under the Paris target by 2030. Labor has to cut about 1.3 billion tonnes. Government analysis of Labor’s policy suggests it will deliver just 815 million tonnes of abatement by 2030 without significant controls on land clearing and the purchase of international carbon credits. The 45 per cent reductions in the energy sector would lead to a reduction of 247 million tonnes, while emissions controls on cars would ­deliver a reduction of 59 million tonnes, according to the former Climate Change Authority.

Agriculture is exempt from Labor’s policy. The expansion of the safeguard mechanism on the business sector, which will cap carbon emissions for companies that produce more than 25,000 tonnes of carbon a year, is estimated to lead to a reduction of 509 million tonnes. This leaves 511 million tonnes still to be taken out of the economy that would have to be largely met through the purchase of international carbon permits.

The debate yesterday came amid new evidence of a surge in employment in the renewable energy industry, with new ABS figures showing 17,740 renewables jobs in 2017-18, up by 28 per cent on the previous year.



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