Thursday, December 19, 2013

Western Secession 4 - US Partitions, Background

Proposals for partitioning the United States have a long history (including, of course, a serious attempt by a group of states to implement such a partition in 1861).  This post looks at some more contemporary suggestions that either predict a partition, or look at various cultural divisions within the US that might be considerations if someone were planning a partition.  Consider this to be background material only; my own proposal for a partition that separates 11 western states is based on different criteria.  Still, it is useful to start thinking about the premise that there are cultural differences between regions of the US, and that in a future where long-distance transportation is more constrained, those differences may matter even more than they do today.

One partition is that of Russian academic Igor Panarin, who predicted that the US would fall apart by 2010 (clearly, that hasn't happened).  Mr. Panarin's perspective was summarized by the Wall Street Journal late in 2008.  Some aspects of this partition seem peculiar to me.  He ignores obvious cultural influences: it is more likely that Arizona would align with a Mexican influence than a Chinese one.  The partition ignores some geographic considerations: Kentucky and Tennessee are on the other side of the Appalachians from the rest of Atlantic America, and the California Republican stops short of the Rocky Mountains.  Relative sizes argue against much of the whole premise.  His Central North-American Republic, which is either part of Canada or under Canadian influence, has double the current population of Canada. His Texas Republic of nine states, predicted to be either a part of Mexico or under Mexican influence, has a GDP almost triple that of Mexico [1].  Generally speaking, poor countries don't acquire or overly influence much richer ones, nor do that to territory with double their own population.

Another approach to re-partitioning the US that appears regularly is electoral maps with 50 states of approximately equal populations.  The motivation is the usual complaint that states like Vermont and Wyoming are grossly overrepresented in the US Senate.  Fundamental to such partitions is the notion that the original purposes of the House and Senate — the House represents people; the Senate represents states — is no longer relevant.  The map shown here was prepared by Neil Freeman in 2012.  Mr. Freeman is upfront that this is a work of art, not a serious proposal, but I'll criticize some aspects of it anyway.  The new state of Shiprock spans more than a thousand miles from east to west, three time zones, and multiple mountain ranges; that's a difficult situation for a state government to manage.  Another interesting case is Ogallala, which consists of the Front Range area of Colorado and a whole lot of mostly empty space.  I've written recently about how northeast Colorado would like to separate itself from the Front Range urban area; Mr. Freeman has grafted on a whole bunch of additional area that would presumably feel the same way.

A common approach is to divide the country (or continent) along perceived cultural lines.  In The Nine Nations of North America, published in 1981, Joel Garreau argued that most US state boundaries are arbitrary or based on historical accident, and that looking at the nine regions that he defines gives a better understanding of cultural and economic differences.  One of Mr. Garreau's observations is increasingly true today: for that portion of the Empty Quarter within US boundaries, water is a limiting resource.  As he put it, in most of those areas there's enough water for only one of three things: wilderness, agriculture, or industry (a synonym in my reading of the book for "cities").  He asserts that a few places could manage two of the three, but no place could support all three.  There are reasons to suspect that creating countries based on this partition would have problems.  The Breadbasket, with very large grain exports, is isolated from the Mississippi River mouth necessary for exports to the rest of the world. A number of historians have suggested that recognition of the Midwest's economic dependency on access to the Mississippi mouth was one of the motivations for Abraham Lincoln's desire to stop an independent Confederacy.

Colin Woodard criticizes some of Mr. Garreau's regions as ignoring history, and defines 11 regions of his own in American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, with some of the arguments summarized in a Tufts Magazine article.  Mr. Woodard argues that the groups of people who historically settled these regions account for the very different attitudes towards issues like violence and gun control in the US today.  More interesting is Mr. Woodard's argument that American mobility is reinforcing the divisions as people self-sort by moving to regions where the cultural attitude more closely matches their personal preferences.  That's an important idea, but one I would consider more important in the growing urban/rural divide: the differences between urban and rural areas within these regions is often greater than the differences between the regions.

[1] Consider also the Department of Defense's 2010 Joint Operating Environment document, which identifies one of the potential risks to be planned for as Mexico becoming a failed state unable to manage its own affairs.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Moving Pollution About

Some time back, the Wall Street Journal ran a Bjorn Lomborg opinion piece about electric cars.  Lomborg is an academic and activist who founded the Copenhagen Consensus, an organization dedicated to improving global welfare and the use of cost-benefit analysis to determine the most important problems to address, and the best methods to use.  Lomborg has been attacked by many climate scientists for his position that global warming is happening and is man-caused, but is not among the most critical issues the planet faces.  In the WSJ piece, Lomborg argues that because battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) may not be as low-carbon as many people believe, government subsidies for them are bad policy.

Timothy Taylor at the Conversable Economist points us to the original research piece (PDF) on which Lomborg bases his argument.  One of the big caveats in the article is that the source of electricity has a very large effect on how much carbon is emitted to power a BEV.  Electricity generated from coal is, rather obviously, among the worst sources in terms of carbon.  An electric vehicle operating in Ohio is largely coal-powered; one running in Idaho, OTOH, runs largely on low-carbon hydro power.  Tim also makes a point that had occurred to me while reading Lomborg's piece: there are considerations other than just how much carbon is emitted over a vehicle's total life cycle.

As it turns out, I agree with Lomborg in general that there are things we should be spending money on first with respect to energy use patterns.  In the transportation arena, electrified light rail in metro areas and moving long-haul freight out of diesel trucks onto much more efficient diesel trains are two of them (and electric freight trains might be even better).  These are areas where the federal government should have a significant role in undoing the enormous shift of transport to roads since World War II, just as it had a significant role in supporting that shift to roads in the first place [1].  Those are changes that should be applied broadly. There can be, however, local and regional reasons for supporting BEVs that make sense now.  They're just not necessarily reasons having to do with CO2 [2].

CO2 is a long-lived pollutant and the atmosphere does an excellent job of mixing it uniformly across the planet.  But CO2 isn't the only pollutant.  A BEV powered by coal-fired electricity still has the potential to accomplish two important local goals: space- and time-shifting of the non-CO2 pollution.  The space-shifting is pretty obvious: a gasoline-powered car being driven downtown emits its ozone precursors downtown; a BEV's emissions occur at a coal-fired plant well away from the city center.  That can have an enormous effect on the quality of the air in the crowded parts of the region.  It may also make it easier to reduce emissions of ozone precursors such as nitrous oxides, because it's easier to install and maintain pollution controls on the single power plant than on 100,000 cars.

Southern California is a good example of long-range space-shifting.  Electric cars charged in Los Angeles emit very little pollution in Los Angeles.  But they emit a lot of CO2 (and smaller amounts of other things) from the coal-fired plants in Arizona and Utah that generate a significant fraction of Los Angeles' electricity. The Intermountain Power Plant in Delta, Utah (shown here) is a 1.9 GW coal-fired generating station that is one of the largest emitters of nitrogen oxides (a serious smog precursor) in the western United States.  80% of Intermountain's output is delivered directly to the LA grid over a point-to-point high-voltage direct current transmission line.

The benefits of time-shifting might not be quite so obvious.  It seems a safe assumption that most BEV charging, at least in the near future, will occur overnight at the owner's home.  Electricity is very much an on-demand thing, so the pollution created by that charging also occurs overnight.  Stretching the pollution emission out over a longer period of time may be beneficial. Some areas may experience an additional benefit.  I live in the Denver metro area.  While the region has made enormous strides in cleaning up the infamous Brown Cloud, early-morning winter temperature inversions (coinciding with the morning rush hour) can trap pollutants close to the ground and create ozone and other problems.  Shifting the pollution creation temporally out of the rush hour offers a benefit in addition to shifting it spatially out of downtown.  

[1] Anecdotes are not data, but... I drive across parts of Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska on the Interstate Highway System at least once a year.  I-80 in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming is, in practice, an expensive and poorly run railroad with big trucks acting as inefficient single-car trains.

[2] And yes, I know that this entire post takes a very parochial view.  From a pure global cost-benefit perspective, the US (along with Japan and Western Europe) ought to spend enormous amounts of money solving problems in poorer parts of the world.  Adding clean electric generating capacity to the grid in Pakistan, for example, would produce much larger global benefits than cleaning up a power plant in the US.  But that sort of trade-off is unlikely to be made on any meaningful scale, because most of the people who live in developed countries aren't that interested in solving global problems.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Western Secession 3 - The World Gets Bigger

In my last secession post, I argued that in 25 years time, the availability of liquid hydrocarbon fuels will have decreased significantly, and it will be clear that the decline is going to continue.  This time, I want to talk about what some of the consequences of that decline are likely to be.  As I've mentioned before, I'm not one of the people who believes it means the end of civilization as we know it.  Perhaps the best summary phrase is one that I used in the title: the world gets bigger.  What I mean by that is that it will take more time, and be more expensive, to move goods and people over specified distances.  In some cases, the time factor may be as important as the expense.  This aspect of the future will have effects on multiple scales.

The largest scale is global.  Where I expect the biggest impacts to occur involve air transportation.  Moving large tonnage by ships is extremely efficient, particularly if the ships don't go too fast.  Air travel, or rapid ocean travel, will become much more expensive.  This will hit the US military's ability to project force on a global basis very hard.  The 2010 Joint Operating Environment document, published by the US Department of Defense, identifies shortages of liquid hydrocarbons as one of the significant risks to the US ability to project force, perhaps by as early as 2020.  That document builds a more indirect case, arguing that oil shortages would depress the US economy to a degree that would require large cuts in defense spending.

Significantly higher air travel costs will reduce personal contact between Americans and the rest of the world -- if the cost to fly to Paris doubles, fewer Americans will take vacations or educational trips to Paris (and fewer Parisians visit America).  Combined with a reduced global military role, America will become less engaged with the rest of the world.  There has always been an isolationist streak in America, a reluctance to become involved in military problems in Europe or Asia.  A Pew Research Center poll that came out earlier this month found that 52% of Americans now believe "the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own."  This is an historic high since Pew began asking the question in 1964.

The second scale is continental.  The United States is a very large country.  Travel between different regions will decline as air travel costs increase.  The alternative to air travel that is often put forward is high-speed rail.  Assuming that a train could average 200 MPH, the time from Los Angeles to New York is about 13.5 hours, plus time for intermediate stops: much longer than the current flight time.  A more fundamental argument against even the availability of high-speed rail is the cost of building out the infrastructure.  California's proposed HSR line from San Diego to San Francisco currently has an estimated price tag of $70 billion; no one believes that it can actually be built for that; the cost of a national HSR system for the US would run into the trillions of dollars.  More pronounced regional identities will begin to emerge as personal contact between the regions declines [1].

The third scale is local.  One of the "local" effects that will exacerbate the problem of reduced availability of gasoline and diesel for many people is the likelihood of allocation measures (rationing is such a nasty word).  Some amount of fuel will be reserved in some fashion for particular users, such as farmers and commercial fishermen.  While the United Kingdom doesn't reserve fuel for farmers, it does have a special category of fuel (red diesel) that can only be used in specific applications and is taxed at much lower rates, making it more affordable.  Rationing by price is still rationing.

The cost of personal transportation is going to increase.  The use of mass transit is going to increase [2], which typically takes a greater investment of time for any particular trip.  I don't believe that personal transportation will go away, but I do believe that 25 years out, the vehicles will be undergoing dramatic changes.  Small vehicles like the MIT electric city car shown here will not be unusual.  I believe that electricity is going to win the battle for personal transportation.  Battery technology is already good enough to give the city car a range that meets 90% of the needs of a urban/suburban drivers, a large efforts will be put into maintaining reliable sources of electricity (a subject for future pieces).  That's a pretty good summary of my position on car purchases in that time frame: drivers will buy cars that meet 90% of their needs, rather than buying cars that meet their extreme cases (eg, 500 miles to Grandma's, hauling the entire little league team to Dairy Queen).

To summarize the "world gets bigger" situation...  Less US engagement with the rest of the world.  Less engagement between multiple regions of the US.  And a greater focus on local and regional problems (and solutions) as people's view of the world changes.

[1] In later posts, I will explore a variety of distinctions that I think already exist between the West and the rest of the country.

[2] One of the western distinctions worth mentioning in this transportation-related post is that every major metropolitan area in my West (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming) is at least studying light rail.  All of them except Las Vegas are at some stage of building a light rail system.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Western Secession 2 - Liquid Hydocarbons

Liquid hydrocarbons as a means of energy storage are pretty amazing. They have high energy density — enough to make 14-hour non-stop intercontinental air flights possible. They are easy to handle — liquid at normal temperatures and pressures, easy to pump, and so forth. They're relatively safe — despite the energy content, the typical suburban garage has not only several gallons in their cars, but a gallon or two stored in a plastic container for lawn mowers and such. Combined with the ease of extracting sufficient quantities to meet global demand from naturally-occurring reservoirs over the last 100 years, it is unsurprising that liquid hydrocarbons became the transportation (and traction) fuel of choice for the last century.

I support a view of the future with declining oil availability. Granted, for almost as long as people have been pumping petroleum from the ground, there have been predictions that we will run out.  In 1883, Pennsylvania geologists were warning that Pennsylvania's oil fields were being rapidly depleted and there was "no reasonable ground" to expect large new discoveries. They were wrong about that, of course. Petroleum resources far larger than those of Pennsylvania were found in California and Texas and (much later) Alaska within the US, as well as numerous places globally such as the Middle East, Russia, and the North Sea. Nevertheless, there are reasons to believe in the declining availability of affordable petroleum in our future.

It is well established that production from individual oil fields eventually peaks and then declines. Replacing the oil output from a declining field requires finding and developing new fields. For example, US oil production peaked around 1971 when the great East Texas fields went into decline. Overall production increased somewhat when the Prudhoe Bay field in Alaska came online, but the total began to decline again once the decline in older fields exceeded the output in Alaska. The same thing is happening now with shale oil. The figure to the left is the Energy Information Agency's most recent forecast [1] for US shale oil production. The early ramp-on is fast enough to more than offset declines in older, more mature fields. But once the growth in shale oil production begins to level off in another three to five years, US total production will resume its decline.

For decades, US consumer demand for petroleum has exceeded US production. The difference has been made up by imports. An aspect of oil imports that doesn't get discussed enough is that it's a trade: the US can't import any more oil than the collective exporting countries are willing to provide. Three trends outside the US suggest that there will be much less oil available for the US to import in 25 years than there is today.  First, countries that used to be exporters have suffered through exactly the sort of decline the US has seen and been forced to start importing oil to meet their own consumer demand.  Second, countries that are still exporters don't have as much left to export because their internal demand is increasing faster than they can increase production. Third, developing countries that are oil importers are getting richer. The marginal value of an additional barrel of crude in China is higher than the marginal value of an additional barrel in the US, so China (among others) can offer higher prices for the declining oil available from the exporting countries.

Indonesia is a classic example of the first two points.  While their production remained relatively constant from 1975 to 2000, their exports declined as domestic demand increases.  By 2003, they became a net oil importer.  In 2009, they realized that they would likely never be an oil exporter again, and withdrew from OPEC.  It seems unlikely that there will be many new countries added to the list of oil exporters. The fundamental problem is that oil exploration today is occurring in areas where it is much more difficult and expensive to extract the petroleum: ultra-deep water (1,500 meters or more), tar sands, tight formations, etc. Offsetting production decline from today's mature fields requires finding the equivalent of another Saudi Arabia (exports around 7.5 million barrels per day) every few years. The world is an increasingly explored place, at least in terms of commercially-scaled oil reservoirs that are cheap and easy to produce; there simply isn't going to be an ongoing stream of new Saudi Arabias.

Finally, there are the alternatives to naturally-occurring petroleum: synthetics and such.  Processes for making gasoline and diesel from coal and natural gas have been known for a long time.  Cars can be modified to run on compressed natural gas.  Many writers give reasons that we shouldn't use synthetics: for example, that coal-to-gasoline results in much larger releases of carbon dioxide than production of gasoline from crude oil.  However, my argument is that the US can't switch to heavy use of synthetics because doing so would require enormous capital expenditures that the country is ill-prepared to make.  As a result, in 25 or so years the US will have a lot less liquid hydrocarbon fuel available to it.  In the next post, I'll discuss what I see as the probable consequences of that.

[1]  Many analysts think that the EIA's forecast is overly optimistic in the out years. The fundamental complaint leveled at the EIA is that it assumes either (a) producers don't run out of reasonably good places to continue drilling within individual formations such as the Bakken; or (b) decline rates of individual wells in such formations won't follow the pattern in the historical data we have now accumulated.  A simple example of the alternative, in which drilling stops and individual well declines follow the current experience, is shown here.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Western Secession 1 - Introduction

I didn't start out believing that secession of 11 western US states was a good thing.  I didn't start down the path that led me to that conclusion thinking about matters of secession at all.  I was thinking about  several long-term trends related to energy supplies, technology, and population.  It was only when I began thinking about those trends together that I began to see a longish-term future (25 to 50 years) where a partition of the United States looked like a sane -- and desirable from some perspectives -- thing to do.  This post identifies the major trends, which will be expanded on in later posts.  Those posts will also explain why I think the trends work together to lead to major changes.

The first trend is the decline in availability of liquid hydrocarbon fuels at affordable prices.  I am not, in the vernacular, a Peak Oil "doomer": I don't believe that decreasing availability of liquid hydrocarbons will lead to a global collapse of civilization.  OTOH, I do think that decreasing availability will lead to some dramatic changes in how the US looks at the world, and because the country is so large in a geographic sense, at itself.  The changes will make the world a bigger place, and the US role in it smaller.  Similarly, the US will also become a bigger place, with reduced linkages between different geographic parts of the country.

The second trend is the maintenance of the US electric grid.  I am an unabashed fan of modern technology and want to see large parts of it preserved.  The energy source that modern technology depends on most is electricity.  Failure to provide robust reliable electricity supplies would render much of that technology unusable (eg, it's much more common to see articles that "developing country X's modernization attempts hampered by erratic electricity supplies" than to see that they're being crippled by higher oil prices).  I believe that US electricity supplies face substantial challenges in the future, and that the responses to those challenges will have to be regional in nature.  When policy makers think about "our" solutions to the electricity supply problem, those solutions will be different.  In some ways, the policy decisions will create significant frictions between different parts of the country.

A third trend is the depopulation of the US Great Plains region.  The population of the Great Plains counties peaked in the 1930s and has been declining ever since.  In the last decade, the trend appears to have reached the point of positive feedback.  The declining population has made it more and more difficult to support modern infrastructure and services, which in turn both drives more people out and makes it harder to attract new people, which makes it harder to support services,...  An increasingly-empty 500-mile-wide buffer between the East and West portions of the US will lead to a decrease in "national" identity and increase in "regional" identity.

Another trend is global warming.  I'm not going to bother with the "climate change" weasel wording: the important consequences of the changes for my purposes are a modest steady warming and effective drying of the US climate, particularly across the southern tiers of states.  Warming (and more importantly, drying) will have multiple impacts that are worth exploring.  By making agriculture more difficult in the southern Great Plains, it accelerates the depopulation.  The problems that the already-arid Southwest will face will be different than those of the humid Southeast.  As with some of the other trends, the result will be another factor pushing two parts of the country apart in terms of the policies that they will wish to pursue.

I believe that there are, for geographic and historical reasons, fundamental differences in the parts of the US that are east of the Great Plains and those to the west.  One of the obvious geographic differences is illustrated in the map shown at the beginning of this post: the West is mountainous.  As a consequence, it lacks long navigable rivers; the places where large cities can be located are limited; corridors where transportation (of people, good, or energy) can be located are limited.  Sometimes those make things harder, but sometimes the limited population distribution makes things easier.  In the course of these posts there will a number of maps of the 48 contiguous states along with assertions of differences in East and West.

This is a book-sized topic, so even a series of blog posts can't really do it justice.  I'm working ( slowly) on the book.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Colorado Secession Vote -- With Cartograms!

On election day, eleven Colorado counties included a non-binding resolution on their ballots stating that the counties should seek to secede from Colorado and form their own new state.  I'm not one to let a secession-related event go unused, nor to pass on a chance to play with cartograms. This conventional flat map of Colorado is colored to show the eleven counties voting on the resolution in yellow, the counties usually considered part of the Front Range urban corridor in blue, and the rest in light blue. One of the original eight counties involved didn't get the item on their ballot (Morgan County, the single isolated light-blue county in the upper right quadrant) but four new counties joined up, including one in the northwest part of the state. Only five of the eleven approved the resolution, and all five of those were in the northeast group.

The next map is a cartogram with county shapes distorted to represent their population rather than their physical area. With the exception of Weld County up along the northern border, the counties that put the resolution on their ballots are dwarfed by the Front Range. Comparing the two maps, it's clear that this is an urban vs rural thing. One of the Weld County Council members, who were the people that originally proposed the secession idea back at the end of the legislative session in May, recently spoke with Talking Points Memo and pointed this out explicitly: "And in this last legislative session we had what we call the assault on rural Colorado, the war on rural Colorado, where the urban-based legislature...".  The three issues that seem to have upset the Council the most were modest gun regulations, modest renewable electricity mandates for rural coops, and some Front Range cities imposing a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing of natural gas wells within their city limits.

Let's zoom in on the ten counties in the northeast corner of the state that had the resolution on the ballot. Five of those ten approved the resolution by various margins and five defeated it. The counties are colored to show the split in the vote, with yellow votes for the secession resolution and blue votes against. I've adjusted the scale so that if 75% of the votes were in favor, the county would show up in the same bright yellow used above; if 75% of the votes were against, the county would show up in the Front Range dark blue; none of the counties voted that overwhelmingly in either direction. The five counties that approved the resolution are those that are the most isolated from the Front Range in the sense of greater distance and/or lack of interstate highway access.

Having lost the secession vote in six of eleven counties, the "rural power" proponents are moving on to other possibilities. They are now focusing their attention on various forms of what is being called the "Phillips County proposal" that would change the way districts are drawn for the Colorado legislature. The simplest of the proposals that has been put forward would give each of the 64 counties one representative in the Colorado House. Colorado counties range in population from San Juan County with 699 people to El Paso County with 644,964. All proposals of this type run smack into Reynolds v Sims, a 1964 SCOTUS decision that says each state is required to construct districts for its state legislature with as nearly equal population as practicable. The Court said explicitly that this applies to both houses of bicameral state legislatures; state senates can't enjoy the same kind of disproportionate deal the US Senate has.

Even if the resolution had passed in all ten counties, and all of the required state- and national-level approvals were eventually given, it's not clear that "North Colorado" would achieve what the secession advocates think it would. Here's the same type of population cartogram for these ten counties that was shown for the state as a whole. In this view, it's clear that the new state would be "Weld County and the nine dwarfs." I've written elsewhere that this is something the dwarfs really ought to take note of. Weld County will be able to push them around in any legislature based on proportional representation (which Reynolds v Sims guarantees). Further, the reason that Weld County is so much larger measured by population is the more heavily populated western portion of the county: the city of Greeley and assorted suburbs/exurbs of the Front Range cities. Weld County is the fastest growing of the counties in both absolute and percentage terms.  Several of the other counties in the group have shrinking populations. Suburban Weld County's hold on policy will only increase in the future.

It would be possible to carve out a Central Great Plains state from eastern Colorado, western Nebraska, and western Kansas that is entirely rural and small town in make-up. A state like the one shown here in yellow, producing four states of roughly equal physical size where there are currently only three. The area of the new state would be about 79,000 square miles, and the population would be about 432,000. As a point of reference, compare that to Mississippi: 60% more area but only 15% of the population. The three largest cities in the state would be Scottsbluff and North Platte from Nebraska and Garden City from Kansas. By most people's standards, these are towns rather than cities. The cartogram with county size representing population rather than area is interesting, with the new state crunched between the "behemoths" of Front Range Colorado and eastern Kansas/Nebraska.

One of the problems with creating such a state — ignoring the quite real political difficulties — is that the new state would be very poor. Many of the counties that would go into the new state have shrinking populations. The infrastructure would be limited. Building and maintaining a new four-year state university would be a major challenge. All of those are serious hurdles to attracting the kinds of jobs that might help solve the poverty problem. I chose the comparison to Mississippi above on purpose. Overall, the new state would probably make at least parts of Mississippi look rather urban and cosmopolitan. I'm certainly willing to bet (my usual political-bet wager, a small beer) that within 10 years, 20 at the outside, the new state would discover that the cure was much worse than the disease.

Friday, October 11, 2013

An Observation On Grocery Self-Checkout

The Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece recently that argued that self-checkout at the grocery was a failure.  I can't argue with some of the author's complaints; for example, it takes somewhat longer because I have to look up some of the fresh produce codes that the experienced checkers know by heart.  But I'm going to take strong exception to one of the advantages credited to human checkers, and that's the human checker packing the bags.  Or more likely where I live, a dedicated teenager doing that job.

I have high standards for packing bags.  One bag, usually, since I have a bloody great reusable canvas bag that I carry for the purpose.  I learned bag packing by watching a master.  When I was a graduate student in Texas, I rode my bike to campus almost every day and stopped at the little neighborhood grocery for whatever was on my list every couple of days.  The old lady that checked me out and packed my bag always got everything in a paper bag with handles that I could hold with one hand while I gripped the handlebars.  Every item, every time, one bag, nothing crushed.  On rare occasions she would take some things out and repack them, but not often.  She was amazing.  I was studying applied math at the time and was always tempted to tell her, "But don't you know that the knapsack problem is supposed to be hard?"

I'm familiar with the dimensions of my bag.  Before I start packing I look at the stuff and make a plan based on their shapes [1].  I can put a relatively large amount of stuff in it -- far more than the teenaged bag-packers ever seem able to manage.  It's sturdy and I'm still relatively fit, so I don't mind that it weighs 25 pounds some days.  The kids are even worse about the plastic film bags that they put the overflow in.  I got frustrated enough one day that I emptied the bags they had packed for me -- my canvas bag plus three plastics -- and put it all in the canvas bag.

I go through the self-check lines because I get to pack my own bag.  It's a feature, not a bug.

[1] There are a few exceptions that don't go in the bag.  If I have an eight-pack of paper towels, I carry it separately in my other hand, as it would pretty much fill the bag by itself.

Photo credit: Bloomberg News

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Colorado Oil Shale

Shell Oil made a couple of interesting announcements last week.  First, they are shutting down their oil shale research facility in Colorado; second, they're going to build a $12.5B gas-to-liquids plant in Louisiana.  The reason given for terminating the shale oil effort was remarkably similar to the reason given by Chevron when they shut down their oil shale research facility in 2012: we think there are much better places to spend our research dollars.

Oil shale should not be mistaken for the tight oil (often called shale oil) whose production from the Bakken formation in North Dakota and the Eagle Ford formation in Texas has been hailed in some quarters as putting the US on the path to becoming self-sufficient in petroleum again.  Those formations are producing actual oil; the oil shale formations in the Green River Basin in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming are rock containing substantial amounts of organic matter (kerogen) that can be turned into something like oil if you bake it for long enough at high enough temperatures.  People have been trying to find some way to produce commercial quantities of near-oil from the oil shale for over a century (unsuccessfully to date).

Most (but not all) of the current generation of proposals for baking the kerogen use large amounts of electricity.  As noted by the Denver Post's announcement of the Shell closure, such schemes would require the construction of one or more very large power plants.  IIRC, at one presentation at the Colorado School of Mines, Shell engineers suggested that a million barrel per day operation would require about the same amount of electricity as currently generated in Colorado.  That's a real problem, given the semi-arid climate and lack of population out in that corner of the state.  Nukes are politically unpopular; other thermal generating technology would require cooling water (or accept lower efficiencies); intermittent renewable resources are a problem for the technology, at least in my mind.  And there's no other customers for the electricity if the oil shale efforts don't pan out.

Hopefully the lesson that Shell and Chevron are teaching here are not lost on the group of politicians who continue to clamor for opening more federal land for developing oil shale.  This is a crappy energy source, ladies and gentlemen.  The experts are unable to produce oil-like liquids from it on a commercial basis.  As a solid fuel, it's so bad it makes lignite look good.  As both Shell and Chevron have indicated, there are better places to put your time, effort, and money.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Colorado Demographics, Again

Even though we're only midway through 2013, Colorado Republican politicians, past and present, are declaring for the races for their party's nominations for the 2014 election's big statewide offices of Governer and US Senator.  One of the remarks State Sen. Randy Baumgardner's made when he was tossing his hat in the ring for the US Senate seat -- and an impressive hat it is, oft noted upon down at the Statehouse -- struck me: "It's time you have somebody representing middle America, rural Colorado and working Colorado.... I am middle America. I ranch for a living. I'm connected to the land."  The thought struck me after I read this, how well do I represent Colorado voters relative to the so-far declared Republican candidates?

The three who have announced are former Rep. Tom Tancredo, State Sen. Greg Brophy, and State Sen. Randy Baumgardner.  Let me provide a quick demographic sketch for each.
  • Rep. Tancredo is a Colorado native, born in Denver in 1945.  He currently lives in Littleton, one of Denver's western suburbs.  Most of his adult life has been spent in politics: two terms in the Colorado House, ten years in the federal Department of Education, president of the Independence Institute (a libertarian-leaning think tank that lobbies on a variety of issues), four terms in the US House, founded the Team America PAC and the American Legacy Alliance Super PAC, ran for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2008, and ran for Governor as the candidate for the American Constitution Party in 2010, but re-registered as a Republican pretty promptly after the election.
  • Sen. Brophy was born in Holyoke, Colorado in 1966 and currently lives near Wray, Colorado.  Wray is located in Yuma County, one of the Colorado counties that was part of a short-lived secession proposal earlier this summer.  Sen. Brophy currently manages his family farm, property that his grandmother homesteaded.  His campaign announcement tour visited Parker, Pueblo, Aspen, Rifle, Palisade, Glenwood Springs, Colorado Springs, and Loveland.  I note that although he has said his purpose is to listen -- and presumably represent -- all Coloradans, the tour avoided entirely the heavily-populated core of the Front Range corridor -- Denver, its western suburbs, Aurora, Boulder, Broomfield.
  • Sen. Baumgardner was born in Bedford, Indiana in 1956.  With his wife, he owns and operates two ranches in central Colorado.  He worked for the Colorado Department of Transportation for ten years, and has served in the Colorado General Assembly since 2008.  Based on the quote up in the first paragraph, it seems clear that like Sen. Brophy, Sen. Baumgardner will push hard that his rural lifestyle is a important experience which should influence Colorado's voters favorably.
I was born in 1953; spent my childhood in a small town in Iowa, but my adult life in urban/suburban settings; I moved to Colorado 25 years ago; I have worked for large corporations, as an individual proprietor, and for the state government as a non-partisan legislative policy analyst for three years; sent two kids through Colorado's public K-12 system and assorted state universities or colleges (and taught a semester of calculus at the local community college);  I live in one of the Front Range counties (the 10 most populous counties, located along the I-25 urban corridor from Pueblo on the south to Fort Collins on the north, account for 80.8% of Colorado's population as of the 2010 census); politically I'm a pragmatist first and a strong believer that government ought to be simpler, which is not the same as smaller.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think there's a pretty simple case to be made that I'm much more representative of Colorado's voters, particularly the voters the Republicans need to win to reverse their recent problems with state-wide elections, than those three.  And that's a real problem for the Republicans.  Population growth, job growth (in absolute terms), wealth accumulation -- those are things that are being dominated by the Front Range.  The Republicans need to run candidates that can make a convincing argument that they understand and have a platform intended to deal with the problems of the Front Range.  A simple example is transportation.  A decade ago, it became apparent that adding lots more lane-miles wasn't an effective solution to all of the transportation needs of the rapidly growing population of the Front Range core around Denver.  As a result, voters in that core approved the FasTracks light rail system [1].  TTBOMK, the Republicans have never come to grips with the idea that people would chose something other than cars and roads.

A candidate for Governor or US Senate who runs on "I represent rural Colorado values," with an implied "I represent rural Colorado interests," is a losing proposition.  Colorado's population demographics have reached a tipping point, and the Republicans need to recognize it.  Until they do, they will continue to lose the big state-wide elections, and by an increasing margin.

[1] I'm a FasTracks fan.  I am so looking forward to the day when the Gold Line opens in Arvada in 2016, with a station within two miles of where I live, and trains that will reach downtown in 18 minutes in sun, rain, or snow.  The snow part in particular, since the Denver area roads are so crowded that a good snowstorm turns them into parking lots.

Friday, July 5, 2013

A Western Secession Series

Regular readers here (if there are such persons) will have noticed that, from time to time, I write about differences in East and West in the United States, particularly with respect to energy.  There is a larger purpose in that: I have convinced myself that the long-term trends in energy, population, and other items suggest an eventual split of the US into independent eastern and western parts.  A peaceful separation, most likely, with the two pieces simple "growing apart" over time and eventually reaching the conclusion that each would be better off if they didn't have to worry about the needs of the other.  It certainly won't be a near-term event.  I anticipate that it will be 25 years before the effects of various trends begin to create a serious division, but that within 50 years the idea will be mature enough to act on.

This is the introduction to a series of posts outlining my argument.  I wrote a roughly 3,000 word treatment of the subject that appeared here.  This series of posts will total substantially more words than that, but will still be an incomplete argument.  I'm in the process of (slowly) writing a book to make a more complete case.  The 11-state West that I envision consists of the states highlighted in yellow in the cartogram to the left.  The reason that this is an interesting cartogram will be the subject of one of the posts (For those unable to wait, the area of each of the states indicates the size of the federal land holdings in each state.  The federal government owns a very considerable part of the West, with a long history of being an inconsiderate and misguided neighbor.)

The series will tie together a number of threads.  Declining availability of liquid fuels and the results of that.  Security of the electricity supply (in terms of having enough available) to support a modern high-tech society.  Population changes and empty spaces.  Ways that the East and West are different.   Why those differences mean the West and the East will have to (and be able to) pursue different approaches to the consequences of the energy problems.  Ultimately leading to a situation where both East and West think, "We would be better off if we could focus on our problems, without having to consider their problems."  And eventually, a discussion of some of the standard hurdles that are proposed for why a split of the country wouldn't be possible.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Self-Driving Automobiles

I admit that I've been a skeptic about self-driving automobiles.  Until this past Sunday, that is, when I found the ideal application for them.

I was driving from my home outside to Denver to my mom's outside Omaha for my annual handyman trip (on the list for this year, in addition to the usual pruning and lifting and moving is some staining and varnishing around the new windows).  The drive is basically all interstate: I-76 northeast out of Denver and then I-80 across Nebraska.  There's never much traffic on I-76 on Sundays and this time was no exception.  I-80 was busier than it's been the last couple of years.  In addition to the standard heavy truck traffic there were quite a lot of people pulling camping trailers of various sizes.

One of my pet peeves about I-80 in western Nebraska over the years has been the driver of the big truck running on cruise control who has crept up behind another big truck on cruise control that's going a half mile-per-hour slower.  So the slightly faster truck pulls out to pass, but doesn't bother to speed up.  Ten minutes or so later they finally get by.  In the meantime, ten or fifteen cars have accumulated in the left lane, waiting to get by, all following too closely.  Some people who aren't paying attention pass the string of cars on the right, suddenly realize they're closing rapidly behind a slow moving truck, and then insist on moving into the already-crowded left lane right now.  Sometimes, it seems, without bothering to look to see if there's any space.

For all practical purposes, I-80 in western Nebraska is a badly-organized train system.  The drive would be much more pleasant if we turned it into an organized system: a faster left lane, a slower right lane, and everyone in each lane runs at precisely the same speed, so the one-truck-crawling-past-the-other situation can't occur.  Lane changes and the resulting acceleration under computer control all done in situations where there's room to merge gracefully.  Ideal for a self-driving automobile.  In fact, I'd go one step farther and mandate autonomous vehicles on those stretches of highway.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Western Fire Danger

This past week, the national news carried stories about Colorado's Black Forest fire.  Properly so, for news organizations, as two people are known to have died and almost 500 homes been destroyed.  Mostly limited to local coverage has been the Big Meadows fire, burning in Rocky Mountain National Park.  U.S. Forest Service policy these days is to let fires in remote parts of the national park system burn.  In the case of the Big Meadows fire, they opted to contain and extinguish it.  This post is about the reasons that they had to make that decision.

To the left is a picture of one edge of the fire early on.  A much larger version of this picture can be found here.  Two features of the forest shown in the picture are relevant.  First, it's crowded.  Trees are jammed in very tightly.  If one of them is on fire, the trees downwind are very likely going to burn also.  Second, most of the trees are dead.  The dead trees are those gray ones [1].  If you look at the larger version of the picture, where you can see all of the individual trunks, you can see just how many of the trees are dead.  The Mountain West is experiencing an epidemic of various bark beetles that are killing large numbers of trees.  In the area of the Big Meadows fire, an estimated 80% of the trees have been killed.  This is the reason that the Forest Service decided to attempt to put this lightning-started fire out: there's an enormous fuel load, and once strongly established, it may not be possible to limit the spread.

Why so many dead trees?  Foresters and ecologists point to two main factors.  Fire is an important part of the ecosystem in forests in the Mountain West.  Periodic ground fires clear the accumulated material (dropped pine needles and dead branches) and kill off bushes and saplings.  Groves of mature trees survive ground fires without difficulty.  In the first half of the 20th century, the Forest Service and its predecessor agencies ignored this reality and adopted a policy of total fire suppression.  With the saplings no longer being killed, overpopulation resulted.  In addition, those dead limbs and pine needles accumulated on the ground.  Overcrowded trees contribute to the beetle epidemic because the trees are weaker and less able to resist the fungus the beetles spread, and make it easier for the beetles to move from tree to tree.

The second contributor to the epidemic is the weather.  No matter what climate change deniers may say, winters in the mountains are not as cold as they used to be.  Because of their peculiar metabolism [2], a five-day stretch with temperatures below -30 °F are necessary to kill the beetle larvae.  That doesn't happen as often or over as wide an area as it used to, so more beetle larvae survive to adulthood.  Colorado now has over two million acres of forest dominated by beetle-killed trees.  Wyoming and Montana have similar amounts.  All three states are dwarfed by the problem in British Columbia and Alberta, where a total of over 40 million forest acres have been affected.

Mitigation is too difficult and expensive to be practical.  It's unlikely that the Forest Service will be able to go back to total fire-suppression as a policy; how much money do you want to spend to protect stands of dead trees?  The Mountain West is largely screwed on this.  Big fires are coming.

[1] Which means they've been dead for three or more years.  More recently dead trees are a sort of red-brown, and bushier, before they finish dropping the dead needles.

[2] Bark beetle cells include glycerol at particular points in their life cycle, which acts as an antifreeze that keeps cells intact to temperatures well below zero.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Let 'Em Go!

Last week, the Denver Post reported a story about eight counties in the northeastern part of Colorado that say they want to secede and form their own state (to be called "North Colorado").  My immediate reaction — and my reaction after further consideration, for that matter — is that this is definitely a case of "be careful what you ask for."  First, some background.

The eight counties are shown in light green in the picture to the left, tucked up under the Nebraska panhandle.  The total population of the eight counties is about 345,000.  76% of the total population lives in Weld county, the one farthest to the west.  Of that population, probably two-thirds lives in a strip 20 miles wide running down the western edge of Weld county (for reference, Weld's northern border is about 75 miles long).  Greeley, the only city of any size contained entirely within the eight counties, is certainly within that strip.

There appear to be three specific complaints these counties have about the legislative session that concluded last month: (1) the General Assembly voted to regulate oil and gas drillers' use of hydraulic fracturing; (2) the General Assembly passed modest expansions of Colorado's gun control law, principally by requiring more extensive use of background checks; and (3) the General Assembly imposed some form of a renewable electricity portfolio on rural electric cooperatives, similar to the requirements that the state's investor-owned utilities already operate under.  Personally, I suspect that this declaration by the counties represents a deeper general resentment.  Decades back, Colorado was a relatively small (in population) relatively poor state with a resource-based economy (agriculture, mining, etc).  Today, it's a medium sized relatively rich state with a tech- and service-based economy.  The large majority of the new population and wealth are located in the urban/suburban areas of the Front Range.

As regular readers know, I spent three years on the staff of the General Assembly's Joint Budget Committee.  Being a state is an expensive business these days, and I suspect that this new state would be bankrupt on day one.  To pick a few examples...
  • States are not required to participate in the state/federal unemployment insurance program.  But unless states implement a conforming program, the full federal UI tax is collected.  Broadly speaking, if Colorado were to cancel its program, most employers would face an increase in their total UI tax bill.  If the new state implements a UI program, it will have to have a software system that meets federal Dept. of Labor audit standards, and those are somewhat pricy.  If as a state you choose to participate in Medicaid, software that meets federal requirements is even more pricy.
  • The new state would include Colorado's portion of the Republican River, so would presumably be subject to the terms of the current Republican River Compact with Nebraska and Kansas.  From time to time, Colorado farmers overdraw Republican River waters and the state gets sued [1].  The new state will also be responsible for deliveries of South Platte River water to Nebraska (with a no-doubt fascinating legal battle as the new state and Colorado settle who owes how much).  Court proceedings and the penalties in water fights can get expensive — especially if you're drawing from a much smaller total budget.
  • Which leads to the final point I want to make: all of these counties' average household income is lower than the average for Colorado overall (Weld County has the highest, but is still about 8% below the state average).  As a result, because of the way certain state budget formulas work, most of them are receiving transfers for funding schools, roads, and social services from the richer counties.  A question that I would ask the seven smaller counties in particular: "Do you really believe that Weld County (whose commissioners seem to be the 'brains' behind this), which is poorer than Colorado as a whole, is going to maintain your school subsidies at the level they are today?"
Still, I'm generally of the opinion that politicians ought to be allowed to make their own mistakes.  Actually, my time with the JBC convinced me that they'll go ahead and make those mistakes any way no matter how much good advice they get.  So, go for it, Weld County and companions!  I can hardly wait to see your first state budget — I'm betting on big cuts in services and increases in taxes.  And I really want to hear how you tell your citizens, "We're smaller and poorer now, so we can't afford as many nice things."

[1] An interesting question: if your hope is that the oil and gas drillers are going to drill and fracture lots of wells, where's the water going to come from?  The North Dakota government estimates that drilling in the Bakkan Shale formations will eventually require seven billion gallons of water per year for drilling and ongoing operations.  Given all of the constraints on water supplies in northeast Colorado, it seems likely that they'll have to put a lot of farmers out of business in order to free up the water.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Oil Drum

Earlier this week I removed The Oil Drum from my blogroll.  It wasn't an easy decision to make.  I've been a member there for approaching eight years.  It was a significant part of my re-approaching energy policy issues after a long time away from them.  In those early days, TOD posted and discussed — at least IMO — pieces representing an interesting variety of ways to look at the causes and consequences of a peak in liquid fuel production.  The comment threads were valuable, in the sense that people's reasoning on the subjects was criticized or supported intelligently.  It was very much a "bring facts and numbers to support your theory" sort of place.

That mindset, over a broad set of related topics, no longer seems to exist.  David Summers (writing under the pseudonym Heading Out) still writes interesting technical pieces, but those also appear on his Bit Tooth Energy site.  Gail Tverberg writes an occasional interesting piece, although the message that the global credit-based financial system cannot survive without perpetual energy-driven growth gets old as a steady diet.  As with David's pieces, Gail's are available elsewhere (at Our Finite World).  Stuart Staniford has gone on to his own blog, Early Warning, with TOD picking up one of his essays occasionally.  Jeffrey Brown and Steven Kopits often leave comments at Jim Hamilton's Econbrowser.  Alan Drake leaves useful comments about rail transport, but infrequently.  The four-times-weekly news aggregation Drumbeat pieces are useful; the follow-on discussion in the comments, not nearly so much as they used to be.  As a consequence of the changes, I no longer feel comfortable recommending the site.

The TOD editorial staff has made one choice that I regard as a significant tactical mistake: at least in the Drumbeat aggregation and discussion, they've let global climate change in.  I'm not belittling the threat of a warming climate, nor asserting that the two issues aren't related.  I'll concede the point that drastic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would precipitate exactly the kind of cliff effect that was common in Peak Oil scenarios a decade ago — if we shut off the petroleum taps over the course of a very few years, Bad Things would definitely happen.  As in, a billion or two people would die relatively soon thereafter.  So far, those scenarios have not materialized.  The consensus now seems to be that we'll experience a "bumpy plateau" in production, followed by a decline, driven by the fact that the world economy appears able to tolerate higher crude oil prices than previously believed.

That leads me to what I believe is one of the underlying difficulties about maintaining a web site dedicated to the issue: our energy problems (and I admit that I worry more about electricity than I do liquid fuels) are long-term slow-motion problems.  I often find myself going back to The Limits to Growth.  Published in 1972, we are just now reaching the really interesting part of the forecasts.  At that kind of pace, it's hard to keep finding new things to say.  The seemingly obvious direction to take — mitigation — is hard to do because there are many possibilities.  Abandon modern technology.  Abandon things that can't be electrified and pour huge amounts of money into nuclear generators.  Localize production.  Regionalize production.  Stockpile firearms and ammunition to (a) defend what you've got or (b) take what you need when things fall apart.  And on, and on [1].  And writing here, I'm as guilty as anyone at going off-topic: really, Mike, college football conspiracy theories?

Nevertheless, the deed is done, and seems unlikely to get undone any time soon.  Now what I'd really like to find is a site that's TOD the way it used to be, but focused on electricity.

[1] Note to self: write a series of connected posts that lay out my scenario for how I think things should go.  It's a book-sized project that I'm making (very) slow progress on.  Alienate lots of people.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Technology Marches On - Plastic Guns

Last Saturday, Defense Distributed successfully test fired a plastic gun manufactured on a 3D printing machine.  The only non-plastic functional part in the weapon is a common nail used as the firing pin.  The files necessary to drive a 3D printer to produce the parts have been posted to the Web.  The gun is called the Liberator, named after the FP-45 Liberator single-shot weapon designed during WWII as an insurgency weapon to be air-dropped in large quantities behind enemy lines.  The announcement brought a considerable amount of criticism from certain parties, most notably Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY).  Criticism mostly falls into one of two categories: that anyone, including criminals, can download the files and print off a copy of the parts over the weekend, and that a plastic gun can be carried through airport metal detectors without setting them off.

Home-built single-shot improvised handguns are nothing new in the United States.  The photo to the left shows such a gun, built around a construction stapler.  Zip guns were popular with urban gangs in the 1950s and 1960s despite their rather alarming tendency to blow up in the user's hand.  Zip guns fell out of favor because it became so easy to acquire real handguns.  According to the United States Congressional Research Service, in 2009 there were approximately 114 million civilian handguns in the US.  A conservative estimate is that 3 million new handguns are sold each year, so 125 million seems like a reasonable estimate of the number "in circulation" today.  Unsurprisingly, people who want a handgun really seem to have no trouble acquiring one.

Building a zip gun requires a small degree of mechanical ability.  It's also straightforward for someone with better but still modest machining skills and access to a metal lathe and a couple of attachments (available cheaply at Harbor Freight stores) to build real guns in their garage.  The Sten submachine gun was designed to be manufactured in exactly such settings — one Danish resistance group during WWII manufactured Stens in a bicycle repair shop.  Detailed drawings and specifications for the Stens are readily available, both online and through public libraries.  Even though production of fully automatic weapons is now illegal in the US without a hard-to-get license, some hobbyists still build Stens secretly, apparently for the joy of going far out into a rural area and firing a submachine gun at least once.

Non-metal guns that can pass through a metal detector have been a goal for various secret services and intelligence organizations for decades.  There have been rumors that ceramic and plastic guns have been developed, but none of those ever seem to be verified.  If you watch the video at the links above, the plastic Liberator is quite bulky — not something that you would expect someone to sneak through on their person in a long security line.  The bulk is inherent in the use of plastic — the plastic material is structurally weak, so the components have to be large in order to withstand the pressures generated when a cartridge is fired.  The device would also show up clearly in a luggage x-ray.  Even if the gun were successfully smuggled onto a plane, it's still a single-shot device.  A terrorist gets one shot before the passengers stomp them.

So, if it's easy to get a real gun for use in a non-secured setting, and still very difficult to smuggle a single-shot and not-very-useful plastic zip gun through airport security, what's to be afraid of?  Well, the scenario that concerns me is the bright ten-year-old who downloads the files and prints off a copy of the weapon on their parents' 3D printer, loads it with a high-powered round out of the box that Dad has neglected to lock up, and the weapon blows up in their hand.  Possibly they lose the hand; there's a substantial risk of losing an eye from flying parts; and while less likely, it's still possible that they die.  Or their friends who are watching are injured or die.  I'm willing to entertain a small wager that we see the injured child long before we see an adult making improper use of a printed zip gun.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Texas' Water Woes

For the last few years, Texas has been held up by conservatives as the example for doing the right things to recover from the Great Recession: keep taxes low, eliminate regulations on businesses, make drastic government budget cuts.  They are fond of pointing out that Texas has led the 50 states in job creation over the last few years, with the corresponding population increases.  What they haven't identified is where the water to support all those jobs and people will come from.

The figure to the left summarizes the current status of the ongoing drought in Texas. 70% of the state is categorized as being in severe drought conditions, or worse.  These are not the worst conditions that have occurred in the last few years.  In October 2011, 70% of the state was in exceptional drought conditions, the most serious level in the measurement scheme.  There is a growing body of archeological evidence that, rather than being unusual, the current conditions are actually a return to normal after a century that has been wetter than the historical average.  The drought has appeared in a variety of news stories.

Wichita Falls, a city of about 100,000 people, is the largest on a list of more than 20 cities that could run out of water within the next 180 days.  The city government there describes the situation as "possible but unlikely".  Some other authorities seem less sure than that.

Farmers along the Colorado River (the Texas Colorado River, not the one that carved the Grand Canyon) downstream from Austin have had their irrigation water cut off by the Lower Colorado River Authority. The LCRA gives cities and power plants higher priority access to the reduced amounts of water available.  Lakes Travis and Buchanan, the major Colorado River reservoirs upstream from Austin, are at less than 40% of capacity entering what is typically the hottest, driest part of the year.

Two years ago, Texas filed suit in the US Supreme Court against the state of Oklahoma, demanding that Texas be allowed to purchase a portion of the water that would otherwise flow into the Red River and transport it to northern Texas (and to the rapidly-growing Fort Worth area specifically) by pipeline.  That case was argued before the US Supreme Court this week past.  Most articles described the justices as sounding dubious about the Texas claim on the water.

Earlier this year, Texas filed suit in the Supreme Court against the state of New Mexico, accusing that state of improperly impounding water that would otherwise flow down the Rio Grande to Texas.  If things proceed at their normal pace, this case will be heard in about two years.  As an aside, New Mexico is having its own internal water fights, as farmers with senior rights have made a priority call that would drastically limit the diversions that cities could make.  New Mexico and Texas operate under quite different sets of water law: in New Mexico the long-established farmers have priority, while in at least parts of Texas, farmers are near the bottom of the list.

Various Texas authorities believe that Mexico is failing to meet its obligations for water deliveries into the Rio Grande as set by the "Treaty of the Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande" signed in 1944.  Those authorities are trying to find ways to force Mexico to increase its deliveries.  The International Boundary and Water Commission, an agency of the US federal government with responsibility for negotiating and enforcing such treaties (at least enforcing the US side of things), is not certain that Mexico actually owes Texas more water at this point in time.

Farmers in the Texas Panhandle and other parts of west Texas have been draining the Ogallala Aquifer at an increasing rate.  In response, some water districts in those parts of Texas are imposing withdrawal limits for the first time in history.  Over the last couple of years, restrictions on water withdrawals for the purpose of hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells have been imposed on multiple aquifers.

ERCOT, the entity responsible for assuring the reliability of the Texas power grid, has received notice from the national reliability council that Texas does not have the necessary reserve power resources to meet reliability targets.  One of the factors limiting the ability for large new thermal generating plants to come online is the difficulty of identifying sources of water for cooling.  In 2011, multiple Texas power stations came close to having to shut down due to shortages of cooling water.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Probably Just a Coincidence

In the winter, some of us who live along the Front Range of the Rockies (roughly from Casper, Wyoming as far south as Pueblo, Colorado) keep an eye on the mountain snow pack.  That's the water that's going to caught in the reservoirs for use next summer.  A month ago, we were looking at a pretty lean snow pack.  Multiple late-season storms have eased the situation somewhat in parts of the mountains.  Some of the drainages (there's a reason Colorado is sometimes known as the "Mother of Rivers") in the northern part of the state are now above 100% of the 30-year average for the date and all of them are above 90%.  In contrast, the southern drainages, and the southwestern part of the state in particular are in much worse shape.  The Upper Rio Grande is at only 68%; we're not going to be sending much water to New Mexico and Texas this year.  Texas is already busy fighting over water with its neighbors.  The Supreme Court heard a case between Oklahoma and Texas this week.  Earlier this year, Texas filed another Supreme Court case against New Mexico.

This division of Colorado into a relatively wet north and a quite dry south reminded me of another map I had reviewed lately.  This map of North America is taken from the U.S. Global Change Research Program's draft 2013 report to Congress.  This figure shows changes in winter and spring precipitation for later this century under a continued high CO2 emissions scenario (you should be able to "View Image" or similar in your browser to see a larger image).  Blue-green colors indicate increased precipitation, brown shades decreased precipitation, with darker colors indicating greater changes.  Colorado sits roughly in the area where the changes come together -- increased precipitation in the north, decreased in the south, the same sort of pattern that we're seeing in this year's snow pack.

The similarity of the maps is probably just a coincidence.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Odds and ends

Today I'm going to try to pull several bits and pieces together.  Last week I was involved in an interesting on-line discussion about the future of electricity supplies in the US.  One of the positions I took is that areas heavily dependent on coal for generation have a problem: the stuff is steadily becoming less popular politically, where "politically" means "in voters minds."  Several of the people in the discussion made the argument that essentially unlimited cheap natural gas would take up the slack for a very long time.

The EIA recently published a brief piece stating that so far in 2013, use of gas for electricity generation is down significantly from 2012 levels.  The piece attributes the decline to the rising wholesale price for natural gas.  The choice of whether to dispatch coal-fired or gas-fired generation is very sensitive to the relative prices of the fuel.  The EIA piece includes the fuel cost chart shown to the left showing that coal and natural gas prices (measured per MWh of delivered electricity) have recently begun to overlap, mostly due to increasing gas prices.

There have been a number of articles lately (for example, here) that summarize a number of trends that suggest production of gas from tight sources is going to decline, further driving up prices.  Over the last several months, a number of companies with large tight-gas holdings have written down billions of dollars in the worth of those holdings, reflecting lower estimates of the amount of gas that can be extracted, and the price of extracting it.  The number of rigs drilling in the various shale plays has been declining slowly.  Evidence for the rapid decline in production rates from shale gas wells continues to pile up.  I interpret all of this to suggest that the producers aren't making a profit at current prices, so will reduce supplies until the prices are high enough to be profitable.  It would not be surprising if there is a bankruptcy or acquisition or two somewhere down the road.

A recently published Duke University study of the effect of new EPA clean-air standards will drive a shift from coal to natural gas, even though coal may be cheaper, due to the large capital costs of complying with the standards.  Certainly there have been a lot of complaints about the cost of complying with proposed new standards for sulfur- and nitrous-oxides and fine particulates.  One of the points that I often try to make is that such impacts may not be uniform across the US.  The EPA's Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR, currently on hold after a federal court decision) only affected states in the Eastern and Texas Interconnects; none of the Western states were affected [1].  In light of the Duke study, the threshold at which the affected generators switch from natural gas to coal may be at a higher price than considered above.

The bottom line on this is, IMO, that for some parts of the country, electricity is going to get steadily more expensive.  In particular, I look for prices in the Eastern and Texas Interconnects to rise more rapidly than prices in the Western.

[1]  There are multiple reasons for this.  One of the reasons is that western states are big on average, with (outside of California) relatively low populations.  Cross-state effects are understandably smaller.  A second reason is that some of the bigger western coal-fired plants have already improved their emission profiles.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

But Which Math...?

The League of Ordinary Gentlemen is having a symposium series of posts about higher education in the 21st century.  James K, one of the regular front page authors, put up a post on the question of "Yes, But Which Arts?" with regard to what should go into a degree in the liberal arts.  One of the other regulars expressed the opinion that stopping at College Algebra was sufficient to "conceptually understand higher mathematical concepts, even if you have no idea how to work them."  James disagreed; I disagreed much more strongly.  Stopping at algebra leaves you woefully ignorant of almost all of the powerful ways that math can be used to think about the world.

I admit to being prejudiced on the subject: I'm an applied math guy and have spent essentially all of my adult life using math as a tool to think about the world.  Not the only tool, but an important one.  Several of the other commenters display their own prejudices (in the non-derogatory sense of that word).  Some advocate learning at least one, if not two, foreign languages.  Some emphasize philosophy.  Some English Lit.  I found the number of different reasons for including English Lit to be interesting, since they covered a gamut from analysis to composition.  I'm absolutely an advocate of a composition requirement, but would prefer for it to be done absent the literature component.  My high-school composition class was enormously valuable: writing every day, with requirements to write a variety of things, and feedback on what you had written.  If pressed, I'm on the side that says no one should be allowed to graduate with a four-year undergraduate degree without taking such a class.

James' question prompted me to think about what math material should a well-rounded college education include?  To put limits on things, I assumed six semester-hours, and six topics to be covered.  I also assumed a mastery of algebra as a prerequisite, on the theory that anyone starting a four-year degree program without that much high-school math is deficient.  In no particular order, here's my first cut at a list of six topics.

  • Enough probability to understand why my favorite bar bet is a sucker bet: We'll go around this crowded bar and ask people their birthdays (month and day, ignore the year).  I'll bet that at least some two of them will have the same birthday.  Loser buys the next round.  If you take me up on it, I'll be buying less than a third of the time.  Why?
  • Enough statistics to understand that all of the questions you should be asking involve "What's the distribution?"  In the real world, descriptive statistics almost always provide an incomplete picture; you want to know about the distribution.  If there are 30 people in the bar, and one of them is Bill Gates, asking questions about wealth and income really do require you to know about Bill.
  • Enough differential calculus to understand basic optimization.  I'm not particularly concerned about whether or not you can solve the problems; can you set them up?  An individual license for Mathematica doesn't cost much more than a high-end graphing calculator.  In addition to doing everything that the calculator can, Mathematica is also far better at taking derivatives or integrals than you or I will ever be.
  • Enough integral calculus to understand the "infinite summing up" aspect.  I've always felt that this was the important aspect of the integral as applied to real life.  You can answer an enormous range of "how much" questions this way.
  • An introduction to something like discrete dynamic systems, including feedback loops.  I think that sort of thing is much more accessible than writing systems of differential equations.  For some of the packages implementing this type of discrete model, there are graphical tools that help put things together.
  • Finally, a module on graph theory with an emphasis on algorithms.  A lot of graph theory problems are "non-math" math -- no numbers involved at all.  I think it's important that non-mathematicians understand that math doesn't have to be just about numbers.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

SCOTUS Predictions and Same-Sex Marriage

Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) heard arguments regarding California's Proposition 8 (the amendment to the state constitution that made same-sex marriages illegal in California).  Today the Court heard arguments on the constitutionality of one portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  Lots of Internet discussion about what all the questions and comments asked/made by the justices meant.  I see the problem somewhat differently than most of what I've read: in some fashion, Chief Justice Roberts needs to find a majority (or majorities) that will produce coherent consistent decisions about three things: DOMA, Prop 8, and the fact that several states have now passed laws allowing same-sex marriage.  The last one wasn't argued in either of this week's cases, but it's still a pretty big elephant in the room.

To start, why do I think the burden is on Roberts?  My perception is that he is desperate to avoid going down in history as the Chief Justice under whom the SCOTUS became a blatantly partisan beast.  He voted with the four liberal justices for a strained compromise over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) last year.  I also have another opinion about the Chief Justice: whatever the decision, he wants it to benefit big corporations.  The PPACA decision certainly seems to provide benefits to large business interests.  Big insurance gets millions of new policy holders.  Big hospitals get reimbursed for what has been until now charity care (the remaining states will come around on the Medicaid expansion when the hospitals lean on the governors and legislators hard enough).  More insured patients has to be good for big pharma.  And it is at least the beginning of the light at the end of the tunnel for employers no longer having to provide employees with subsidized access to group health plans.

So, where does the large corporate interest lie in same-sex marriage?  The only one that comes immediately to mind is consistency in treatment of marriage from a benefits perspective.  As part of a corporate acquisition, I retired from a large company for which I had never actually worked.  That company acquired, along with the instantly-retired me, legal obligations to provide a variety of retiree benefits to me [1].  These obligations are quite different than those the company provides to its own long-term employees who retire.  Human resources absolutely hates the small group of us who receive special treatment [2].

If that's the corporate interest, then the outcome will be Roberts and the four liberal justices ruling in the two cases that the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause makes it improper to treat same-sex couples any differently than different-sex couples with respect to civil issues.  The federal government, state governments, and employers will be required to recognize same-sex couples as "married" couples.  Can't leave the decisions up to the states if the goal is HR consistency; and probably can't outright ban same-sex marriages because of the partisan thing. Religious organizations will be allowed to pick and choose the couples for whom they will perform a ceremony (as they do today), but will be stuck with the same kind of situation they're struggling through over abortion and birth control when they act as an employer in the civil sense.

The other four justices will just be stuck writing whiny dissents.

[1] As an aside, most of those obligations had followed me through three previous corporate reorganizations.  The original plan terms were broadly set by a company that had long since ceased to exist.  A few other things had been tacked on as the plan and I (and the people in the same situation) moved along.  Most of those add-ons were attempts to make retirement attractive enough that we would take it.

[2] Hate as an organizational thing.  The human-resource representatives with whom I have interacted over the last decade have been uniformly courteous and helpful.  It's just that instead of being able to be helpful immediately, it sometimes takes several days because they have to go research if and how my special status changes the normal answer.  Even longer if they have to go get an opinion from the legal staff.