Fossil fuel subsidies

The Scientific Alliance

In addition to the efforts of governments to increase the penetration of renewable energy sources via generous public subsidies, we are reminded from time to time that coal, oil and gas are also subsidised, which works against the policy of emissions reduction. Most recently, the Guardian has carried the story under the headline Fossil fuels subsidised by $10m a minute, says IMF. According to this, the £5.3trillion subsidy is more than all the world’s governments spend on healthcare. That’s a pretty eye-catching statement, and deserves some digging.

The story is based on the IMF working paper How large are global energy subsidies? To quote from the abstract, this study “…focuses on the broad notion of post-tax energy subsidies, which arise when consumer prices are below supply costs plus a tax to reflect environmental damage and an additional tax applied to all consumption goods to raise government revenues.”

The argument is not so much that fossil fuels are being sold below cost because there is a direct handout from the public purse, but that a great deal of potential revenue is being foresworn. This potential revenue, according to this line of thought, would be justified on the basis of payment for environmental damage.

There are certainly cases of direct public subsidies, generally of fuels in oil-producing countries such as Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela (Money to burn: OPEC’s wasteful energy subsidies). More than half of the total subsidies are paid in OPEC countries: “Subsidies account for 82 percent of the cost of electricity and fuel in Venezuela, 80 percent in Libya, 79 percent in Saudi Arabia, 74 percent in Iran, and 56 percent in Iraq and Algeria.” In total, these subsidies cost emerging economies more than $500bn each year.

To make matters worse, although lowering the cost of fuel is supposed to benefit the poorest in society, it is the more prosperous households who consume more and benefit most. Nor do subsidies boost economic growth, as intended, and they can provide a further drain by encouraging fraud and smuggling of cheap fuels to neighbouring countries. There is a strong case for abandoning such measures.

On the other hand, there is an enormous difference between the half a trillion dollars paid currently and the $5.3tr in subsidies estimated by the IMF. The IMF study breaks down the ‘real’ cost of fuels into three components: the cost of supply (ie, cost of production or purchase on international markets), external (environmental) costs and consumption tax. The externalities are outdoor air pollution from fine particulates (PM10 and PM2.5), CO2 emissions (on the basis of their impact on climate) and a broad category of the further impact of vehicle use (including congestion and accidents).

The report breaks down subsidies into pre-tax and post-tax categorie. Pre-tax subsidies are those already mentioned, the direct support of consumer fuel prices by governments, worth 0,7% of global GDP (that’s the half a trillion dollars) and set to fall by about a third with current reforms. Post-tax subsidies – payment for externalities and consumption taxes – on the other hand are estimated as eight times higher than 2011 pre-tax subsidies and a massive 16 times higher than the projected level of a third of a trillion dollars this year.

These figures are considerably higher than previous estimates, mainly because of changes to assumptions about air pollution levels and their impact on mortality. This, of course, is a critical point; the results depend on what assumptions are made, and would perhaps be better reported as a range based on likely maximum and minimum input figures. The figures reported should be seen as a worst case scenario.

Not that everyone would agree. Lord Stern, has made the case for things on the climate front being even worse than we thought ever since the publication of his eponymous report in 2006. He is quoted in the Guardian article: “A more complete estimate of the costs due to climate change would show the implicit subsidies for fossil fuels are much bigger even than this report suggests.”

The fact is that little is likely to happen in practice following the IMF report. There is already a move towards cutting the egregious direct price support in many developing countries, and there are few who would question that this is good news. But, despite the arguments of campaigners that imposing additional costs on fossil fuels would have a range of benefits to health and climate, there is little sign of any change.

The worst outdoor air pollution is generally in major cities in emerging economies. Bejing is notorious, and Delhi is equally bad. However, already China is cutting down on coal use in the capital in a bid to make the air cleaner. This, plus the use of modern pollution control measures as used in Europe, can make a really big difference. But this would not reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and India (whose growth might well outpace China’s in coming years) has made it clear that it will not compromise its development by cutting coal use: Not correct to expect India to shift from coal, India tells UN.

The other increasingly important contributor to urban air pollution is the growing number of cars. Indeed, in the developed world, vehicle emissions are the main controllable contributor of particulates and nitrogen oxides. But the air in most European towns is much cleaner than it was a few decades ago, and standards are continually improving. Bejing and Delhi will doubtless follow the same trend, albeit some years behind at present. The Chinese and Indian governments will certainly not want to limit the ambitions of their citizens to run their own cars.

We also need to put the air pollution issue into context. About half the deaths from dirty air are actually caused by smoky indoor cooking fires in poor countries, which is an issue which can be very effectively tackled in the short term.

There remains the issue of climate change. The figures used by the IMF to estimate the external costs of fossil fuels are notional, based on assumptions which are not necessarily valid (temperature sensitivity, in particular, looks to be below the lower end of IPCC estimates). And even if governments worldwide were to load coal and oil with additional taxes, the basic demand for energy would not be likely to be reduced very much. Since higher energy costs are almost certain to slow economic growth, it looks like very little would be achieved and the cost would be very significant. The moral of this is: don’t read too much into headlines.

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Wind energy myths spun by lobbyists and salesmen

Industrial wind is a net loser: economically, environmentally, technologically and civilly

Mary Kay Barton

A recent letter in my local paper by American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) representative Tom Vinson is typical of wind industry sales propaganda. It deserves correction.

This is the reality:  Industrial wind energy is NET LOSER – economically, environmentally, technically and civilly. Let’s examine how.

Economically. New York State (NYS) has some of the highest electricity rates in the United States – a whopping 53% above the national average. This is due in large part to throwing hundreds of billions of our taxpayer and ratepayer dollars into the wind. High electricity costs drive people and businesses out of the state, and ultimately hurt poor families the most.

A NYS resident using 6,500 kWh of electricity annually will pay about $400 per year more for their electricity than if our electricity prices were at the national average. That’s over $3.2 BILLION dollars annually that will not be spent in the rest of the state economy.

Why destroy entire towns, when just one single 450-MW gas-fired combined-cycle generating unit located near New York City (NYC) – where the power is needed – operating at only 60% of its capacity, would provide more electricity than all of NYS’s wind factories combined.

Furthermore, that one 450 MW gas-fired unit would only require about one-fourth of the capital costs – and would not bring all the negative civil, economic, environmental, human health and property value impacts that are caused by the sprawling industrial wind factories. Nor would it require all the additional transmission lines to NYC.

The Institute for Energy Research tallied the numbers and found that each wind job costs $11.45 million and costs more than four jobs that are lost elsewhere in the economy, because of all the subsidies and the resulting “skyrocketing” cost of electricity. In fact, on a unit of production basis, wind is subsidized over 52 times more than conventional fossil fuels.

In the United Kingdom, David Cameron has finally awakened to the folly of wasting billions on the failed technology of wind. He recently declared, “We will scrap fundsfor wind farms.”

Environmentally. According to the AWEA, the USA has some 45,100 Industrial Wind Turbines (IWTs). Remotely sited IWTs are located far from urban centers where the power is needed. This requires a spider web of new transmission lines (at ratepayers’ expense), which exponentially adds to the needless bird and bat deaths caused by IWTs themselves.

Additionally, sprawling industrial wind factories cause massive habitat fragmentation, which is cited as one of the main reasons for species decline worldwide.

Studies show MILLIONS of birds and bats are being slaughtered annually by these giant “Cuisinarts of the sky,” as a Sierra official dubbed IWTs in a rare moment of candor.

Governor Cuomo’s environmental hypocrisy is also worth noting. Cuomo is supporting “dimming the lights” in New York City to help stop migrating birds from becoming disoriented and crashing into buildings. Yet simultaneously, Cuomo is pushing for many more giant bird-chopping wind turbines – with 600-foot-high blinking red lights, along the shores of Lake Ontario (a major migratory bird flyway), and across rural New York State.

Technically. Because wind provides NO capacity value, or firm capacity (specified amounts of power on demand), wind requires constant “shadow capacity” from our reliable, dispatchable baseload generators to cover for wind’s inherent volatile, skittering flux on the grid.  Therefore, wind cannot replace those conventional generation sources.  Instead, wind locks us into dependence on fossil fuels – and represents a redundancy (two duplicate sources of electricity), which Big Wind CEO Patrick Jenevein admitted “turns ratepayers and taxpayers into double-payers for the same product.”

The list of accidents, blade failures (throwing debris over a half mile), fires (ten times more than the wind industry previously admitted) and other problems is updated quarterly at a website in the UK. This lengthy and growing list is evidence of why giant, moving machines do NOT belong anywhere near where people live.

Even the AWEA admits that the life of a typical wind turbine is only 10 to13 years (January 2006: North American Wind Power). This is substantiated by studies on these short-lived lemons.

Adding insult to injury, the actual output of all of New York State’s wind factories combined has been averaging a pathetic 23 percent.  If IWTs were cars, they would have been correctly dubbed ‘lemons’ and relegated to the junkyard a long time ago.

Civilly. The only thing that has ever been reliably generated by industrial wind is complete and utter civil discord. Neighbor is pitted against neighbor, and even family member against family member. Sprawling industrial wind factories have totally divided communities, which is already apparent in towns across NYS and the country.  It is the job of good government to foresee and prevent this kind of civil discord – not to promote it.

Regarding human health, NYS officials admitted at a 2009 NYSERDA meeting on wind that they knew “infrasound” from wind turbines was a problem worldwide. Thegrowing list of problems globally highlights that these problems are only getting worse.

At the NYSERDA meeting, a former noise control engineer for the New York State Public Service Commission, Dr. Dan Driscoll, testified that ‘infrasound’ (sounds below 20 Hz) are sounds you can’t hear, but the body can feel.

Dr. Driscoll said that ‘infrasound’ is NOT blocked by walls, and it can very negatively affect the human body – especially after prolonged, continuous exposure.  He said symptoms include headache, nausea, sleeplessness, dizziness, ringing in the ears and other maladies.

NYS Department of Health official Dr. Jan Storm testified that, despite knowing the global nature of the “infrasound” problem, NYS still had not done any health studies (despite having federal money available to do so). Here we are six years later, and indefensibly, NYS officials still have not called for any independent studies to assure the protection of New York State citizens.

“The Golden Rule,” as espoused by Rotary International’s excellent ‘Four-Way Test’ of the things we think, say and do, should be the moral and ethical standard our public servants aspire to uphold.  The test asks:

  1. Is it the truth?
  2. Is it fair to all concerned?
  3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
  4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

When applied to the industrial wind issue, the answers are a resounding, “NO!”

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Mary Kay Barton is a retired health educator, Cornell-certified Master Gardener, and is a tireless advocate for scientifically sound, affordable, and reliable electricity for all Americans. She has served over the past decade in local Water Quality organizations and enjoys gardening and birding in her National Wildlife Federation “Backyard Wildlife Habitat.”

Is federal funding biasing climate research?

By Judith Curry

Does biased funding skew research in a preferred direction, one that supports an agency mission, policy or paradigm?

There is much angst in the scientific and policy communities over Congressional Republicans’ efforts to cut NASA’s Earth Science Budget, and also the NSF Geosciences budget.  Marshall Shepherd has a WaPo editorial defending theNASA Earth Science Budget.

Congressional Republicans are being decried as ‘anti-science’.  However, since they are targeting Earth Science budgets and reallocating the funds to other areas of science, anti-science does not seem to be an apt description.  I suspect that an element contributing to these cuts is Congressional concern about political bias being interjected in the the NASA and NSF geosciences and social science research programs, notably related to climate change.

There is much discussion and angst over industrial funding of climate research (see my post on the Grijalva inquisition), but there seems to have been little investigation of the potential for federal research funding to bias climate research – a source of funding that is many orders of magnitude larger than industrial funding of climate research.

 New report from CATO

CATO has published a very  interesting analysis by David Wojick and Pat Michaels entitled Is the Government Buying Science or Support? A Framework Analysis of Federal Funding-induced Biases.   This report is a framework for future research on funding-induced bias, so the reports make no  specific allegations. The report includes a taxonomy of 15 kinds of bias,
with a focus on federal funding and examples from climate change science.

From the Executive Summary:

 Science is a complex social system and funding is a major driver. In order to facilitate research into Federal funding and bias it is necessary to isolate specific kinds of bias. Thus the framework presented here is a taxonomy of funding-induced bias.

Whatever the reason for the present bias research focus on commercial funding, the fact remains that the Federal Government funds a lot of research, most of it directly related to agency missions, programs and paradigms. In some areas, especially regulatory science, Federal funding is by far the dominant source.

Clearly the potential for funding-induced bias exists in these cases. It should be noted that we make no specific allegations of Federal funding induced bias. We do, however, point to allegations made by others, in order to provide examples. Our goal here is simply to provide a conceptual framework for future research into scientific biases that may be induced by Federal funding.

Here is an example of how [cascading amplification of funding bias]   might work.

  1. An agency receives biased funding for research from Congress.
  2.  They issue multiple biased Requests for Proposals (RFPs), and
  3. Multiple biased projects are selected for each RFP.
  4. Many projects produce multiple biased articles, press releases, etc,
  5. Many of these articles and releases generate multiple biased news stories, and
  6. The resulting amplified bias is communicated to the public on a large scale.

In the climate change debate there have been allegations of bias at each of the stages described above. Taken together this suggests the possibility that just such a large scale amplifying cascade has occurred or is occurring. Systematic research is needed to determine if this is actually the case.

The notion of cascading systemic bias, induced by government funding, does not appear to have been studied much. This may be a big gap in research on science. Moreover, if this sort of bias is indeed widespread then there are serious implications for new policies, both at the Federal level and within the scientific community itself.

Potential Practices of Funding-Induced Bias

1. Funding agency programs that have a biased focus. In some cases Congress funds research programs that may be biased in their very structure. For example, by ignoring certain scientific questions that are claimed to be important, or by supporting specific hypotheses, especially those favorable to the agency’s mission or policies.

2. Agency Strategic Plans, RFPs, etc., with an agenda, not asking the right questions.  Research proposals may be shaped by agency Strategic Plans and Requests for Proposals (RFP’s), also called Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOA’s). These documents often specify those scientific questions that the agency deems important, hence worthy of funding. Thus the resulting research proposals may be biased, speaking to what the agency claims is important rather than what the researcher thinks.

3. Biased peer review of research proposals. This bias may involve rejecting ideas that appear to conflict with the established paradigm, funding agency mission, or other funding interest. See also Bias #6: Biased peer review of journal articles and conference presentations.

4. Biased selection of research proposals by the agency program. The selection of proposals is ultimately up to the agency program officers. As with the selection of peer reviewers, there is some concern that some funding agencies may be selecting research proposals specifically to further the agency’s policy agenda.

5. Preference for modeling using biased assumptions.  The use of computer modeling is now widespread in all of the sciences. There is a concern that some funding agencies may be funding the development of models that are biased in favor of outcomes that further the agency’s policy agenda.

6. Biased peer review of journal articles and conference presentations. This issue is analogous to the potential bias in peer review of proposals, as discussed above. As in that case, this bias may involve rejecting ideas that conflict with the established paradigm, agency mission, or other funding interests.

7. Biased meta-analysis of the scientific literature. Meta-analysis refers to studies that purport to summarize a number of research studies that are all related to the same research question. For example, meta-analysis is quite common in medical research, such as where the results of a number of clinical trials for the same drug are examined.

8. Failure to report negative results. This topic has become the subject of considerable public debate, especially within the scientific community. Failure to report negative results can bias science by supporting researcher that perpetuates questionable hypotheses.

9. Manipulation of data to bias results.  Raw data often undergoes considerable adjustment before it is presented as the result of research. There is a concern that these adjustments may bias the results in ways that favor the researcher or the agency funding the research.

10. Refusing to share data with potential critics.  A researcher or their funding agency may balk at sharing data with known critics or skeptics.

11. Asserting conjectures as facts. It can be in a researcher’s, as well as their funding agency’s, interest to exaggerate their results, especially when these results support an agency policy or paradigm. One way of doing this is to assert as an established fact what is actually merely a conjecture.

12. False confidence in tentative findings.  Another way for researchers, as well as their funding agencies to exaggerate results is top claim that they have answered an important question when the results merely suggest a possible answer. This often means giving false confidence to tentative findings.

13. Exaggeration of the importance of findings by researchers and agencies.  Researcher and agency press releases sometimes claim that results are very important when they merely suggest an important possibility, which may actually turn out to be a dead end. Such claims may tend to bias the science in question, including future funding decisions.

14. Amplification of exaggeration by the press.  The bias due to exaggeration in press releases and related documents described above is sometimes, perhaps often, amplified by overly enthusiastic press reports and headlines.

15. More funding with an agenda, building on the above, so the cycle repeats and builds. The biased practices listed above all tend to promote more incorrect science, with the result that research continues in the same misguided direction. Errors become systemic by virtue of a biased positive feedback process. The bias is systematically driven by what sells, and critical portions of the scientific method may be lost in the gold rush.

For each of these 15, the report includes:

  • Concept analysis
  • Literature snapshot
  • Research directions and prospects for quantification
  • Climate debate examples

Based on my own experience and analysis, I find the following of these to be potentially most important:  1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 10, 13, 15

Turning the tables

Christopher Monckton has sent a letter to Harvard, details at WUWT.  Excerpt:

Two of the co-authors of the commentary, Buonocore and Schwartz, are researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Your press release quotes Buonocore thus: “If EPA sets strong carbon standards, we can expect large public health benefits from cleaner air almost immediately after the standards are implemented.” Indeed, the commentary and the press release constitute little more than thinly-disguised partisan political advocacy for costly proposed EPA regulations supported by the “Democrat” administration but opposed by the Republicans. Harvard has apparently elected to adopt a narrowly partisan, anti-scientific stance.

The commentary concludes with the words “Competing financial interests: The authors declare no competing financial interests”. Yet its co-authors have received these grants from the EPA: Driscoll $3,654,609; Levy $9,514,391; Burtraw $1,991,346; and Schwartz (Harvard) $31,176,575. The total is not far shy of $50 million.

Would the School please explain why its press release described the commentary in Nature Climate Change by co-authors including these lavishly-funded four as “the first independent, peer-reviewed paper of its kind”?

Would the School please explain why Mr Schwartz, a participant in projects grant-funded by the EPA in excess of $31 million, failed to disclose this material financial conflict of interest in the commentary?

Would the School please explain the double standard by which Harvard institutions have joined a chorus of public condemnation of Dr Soon, a climate skeptic, for having failed to disclose a conflict of interest that he did not in fact possess, while not only indulging Mr Schwartz, a climate-extremist, when he fails to declare a direct and substantial conflict of interest but also stating that the commentary he co-authored was “independent”?

Well this is an interesting case, is it hard to understand why Schwartz has received a lot of EPA funding?. Can you imagine EPA funding Willie Soon to do any kind of research?  Or me, for that matter?  (Apart from the issue that I have no interest in replying to EPA’s requests for proposals).  Seems like a pretty clear example of conflict of interest, that fits in very well with the Wojick/Michaels analysis.  And the $50M from EPA makes the $1.2M that Soon received over a decade seem like pocket change.  And finally, while Schwartz has made public statements in support of EPA policies, I don’t recall Soon making public statements supporting Southern Company’s policies?

JC reflections

In my recent essay Conflicts of interest in climate science, I completely missed this issue related to federal funding, but now this seems so obvious and resonates very much with my own experiences and observations.  Wojick and Michaels have opened up what I hope will be a very fruitful and illuminating line of inquiry.

The challenge for the federal funding agencies is this – how to fund mission relevant  ‘use inspired research’ (e.g. Pasteur’s quadrant) without biasing the research outcomes.

Here is how $$ motivates what is going on.  ‘Success’ to individual researchers, particularly at the large state universities, pretty much equates to research dollars – big lab spaces, high salaries, institutional prestige, and career advancement (note, this is not so true at the most prestigious universities, where peer recognition is the biggest deal).  At the Program Manager level within a funding agency, ‘success’ is reflected in growing the size of your program (e.g. more $$) and having some high profile results (e.g. press releases).  At the agency level, ‘success’ is reflected in growing, or at least preserving, your budget.  Aligning yourself, your program, your agency with the political imperatives du jour is a key to ‘success’.

Perhaps the Republican distrust of the geosciences and social sciences can be repaired if the agencies, programs and scientists work to demonstrate that they are NOT biased, by funding a broader spectrum of research that challenges the politically preferred outcomes.