March 03, 2018

Proposed Alternative Town Meeting Resolution on Climate Change

Thursday I posted my reasons for objecting to the 350VT resolution proposed for Stowe and other town meetings. Far below is my proposed substitute resolution. Immediately below is a summary of the changes I am proposing.

I changed the whereas clauses to make them more science-based.

The call to ban new fossil fuel infrastructure including gas pipelines is removed since substitution of natural gas for coal and oil is the reason why the US is the leader among developing countries in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The biggest change is to urge the state to make GHG reduction the goal for which renewables are just one means rather than making renewables themselves the goal regardless of efficacy or cost. The target date is changed from 2050 to 2030 so we can actually measure what we are doing.

There is a list which I'm sure is not complete of alternatives for reducing GHGs which should be weighed against each other as means to reach the goal of GHG emissions.

Although I largely agree with the strategies recommended to the Town for reducing local GHG emissions, I've added some alternatives 350VT didn't consider.


Advisory Resolution on Climate Change

Whereas atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, have been rising due in a large degree to human activities;

Whereas the earth has been warming for about 20,000 years since the last glacial epoch;

Whereas the combination of these two factors raises the probability of rapid and disruptive climate change worldwide;

Whereas it is prudent to reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses in the most cost-effective ways available while realizing that climate will continue to change and mitigation of climate change effects may also be necessary;

And whereas the use of renewables alone for such reduction is neither environmentally nor fiscally responsible;

Now, therefore, let it be resolved;

  1. That the Town urges the State of Vermont to:
    1. Target a specific goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont by 2030 using the most effective means available;
    2. Consider all alternatives for reducing greenhouse gas emissions including but not limited to renewables, conservation, increased access to hydropower, and substitution of natural gas for coal, oil, and propane;
    3. Ensure that the transition to lower emissions of greenhouses gasses considers impact on all residents.
  1. That the town will do its part the goal of lower emissions by committing to efforts such as:
    1. Reducing transportation emissions by enhancing public transportation and bike lanes, increasing opportunities for usage of electric, hybrid, and natural gas vehicles, and providing commuter parking area;
    2. Weatherizing town buildings and schools where applicable;
    3. Identifying sites for both solar photovoltaic and solar hot water panels including town and school building rooftops;
    4. Supporting initiatives for the reduction of personal energy consumption.




March 01, 2018

Renewables Are a Means, Not an End

Especially if the goal is to reduce greenhouse gasses.

An organization called 350VT has caused an advisory item to be placed on the town meeting agenda for my town of Stowe and many other towns around the state whose first plank is to “Halt any new or expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, including but not limited to pipelines”. It also calls on the state to “Firmly commit to at least 90% renewable energy for all people in Vermont.” Interestingly the goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is not mentioned anywhere in the resolution.

 If these resolutions are adopted by towns and if the state government heeds them, the result will be an INCREASE, not a DECREASE in GHG emissions. On environmental grounds, the resolutions should be amended or defeated.

The United States has reduced GHG emissions more than any other developed country largely because it has replaced coal and oil with natural gas in electrical generation and as an industrial boiler fuel. Burning natural gas emits 50% less CO2 than burning coal and 26% less CO2 than burning oil or propane for each BTU or kilowatt-hour produced. We have increased our use of renewables significantly also; when not over-priced, this is a good thing. But the major reduction is because we have cheap natural gas available and we’ve used it.

According to the Federal Energy Information Agency, in 2014 Vermont had the lowest output of CO2 in the country per electrical Megawatt hour (Mwh) generated: 19lbs/Mwh; the national average is 1123lbs/Mwh. However, at that time, 72 per cent of our electricity was generated at a nuclear power plant which has now shut down. 4.4% of our production was from wind and .2% from solar.

Now we generate less than 35% of the 5.5 million Megawatt-hours we use annually. The rest is carbon-free power from Hydro Quebec and “traditional” power from the New England Grid.  As a whole, New England in 2014 emitted 571lbs/Mwh of generation. Net net we are responsible for a lot more CO2 emissions than we were when Vermont Yankee was still producing. Nuclear power is a perfect example of a “non-renewable” highly effective way to reduce GHG emissions. But we won’t be building any new nukes in Vermont soon.

Vermont is reducing its emissions thanks to the Vermont Gas pipeline extension to Middlebury. Almost every new customer of that pipeline is substituting cleaner natural gas for oil or propane. One of the biggest customers of that pipeline is Middlebury College, which likes to boast that it is carbon-neutral. There’s some irony here: 350VT is the Vermont affiliate of, an organization co-founded by Middlebury professor Bill McKibben. The classrooms Bill teaches in are heated by natural gas from just the kind of pipeline extension and 350VT are against. Natural gas allowed Middlebury to stop burning very dirty #6 oil and was an essential part of its achieving carbon-neutrality. If pipeline opponents had had their way, Middlebury would still be burning oil. Hmmm.

350VT advocates encouraging electric cars. This is not a bad idea but they are ignoring the inconvenient fact that incremental electricity in New England is produced mainly by burning natural gas, especially with New England nukes shutting down. Although there are huge supplies of inexpensive natural gas just west of us in central Pennsylvania, there is not enough pipeline capacity from there to meet the winter demand by New England electrical generators. This winter old oil and coal plants had to come back online and a tanker full of Siberian liquified natural gas (LNG) discharged in Everett Harbor. Why hasn’t pipeline capacity increased, you ask? Because organization including have successfully opposed proposed new pipelines even though the price of not having them is more GHG emission (and higher costs for consumers).

Making renewables a goal instead of a means is environmentally irresponsible; it is making the perfect the enemy of the good.

Opponents of natural gas use point out that its main component, methane, is itself a much more potent GHG than CO2. This would be relevant if methane were released instead of burned; it would be relevant if a large amount of methane were released in extraction or transportation; but they aren’t. It would be relevant if atmospheric concentrations of methane were increasing as CO2 concentrations certainly are; however, according to the UN International Panel on Climate Change, the bible of climate change, atmospheric methane is stable to declining despite more drilling than ever and despite a world which consumes more beef than ever (bovine flatulence and manure are major methane sources).

I intend to offer an amendment to the 350VT advisory resolution at Stowe town meeting. It will replace the call for an arbitrary percentage of renewable energy and the ban on “new fossil fuel infrastructure” with a call for the state to:

  1. Target a specific goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont by 2030 using the most effective means available;
  2. Consider all alternatives for reducing greenhouse gas emissions including but not limited to renewables, conservation, increased access to hydropower, and substitution of natural gas for coal, oil, and propane;

We are trying to reduce the probability of rapid human-caused climate change, not create a business case for any particular energy technology. Renewables are one of the means toward that end.

The Stowe version of the 350VT resolution is here; the proposed substitute resolution is here. I’m quite happy to amend it before town meeting in response to comments on this blog or comments on Facebook.

[full disclosure: I am the founder and chairman of NG Advantage, a Vermont company which delivers compressed natural gas (CNG) by truck to large users who don’t have access to a pipeline. Last year our customers reduced CO2 emissions by about 160,000,000 lbs., about the same reduction as can be attributed to all the commercial wind turbines in Vermont. We delivered gas to be used by Middlebury College before the pipeline got down there; but I support the pipeline although it cost us the Middlebury business.]


February 13, 2018

A Surprising Letter from David Koch

Recently we got a letter from David Koch. As you would guess, it is a request for support for Americans for Prosperity (AFP), which he co-founded. What I wouldn’t have guessed before reading is that there is nothing in the eight pages I disagree with and much which is compelling.

Some of the letter could’ve come from the left as easily as the right:

“We are rapidly becoming a two-tiered society where the well-connected thrive and everyone else falls further and further behind.  What’s worse, all of this corporate welfare and the government picking winners and losers is moving us towards as society characterized by cronyism, government dependency, and poverty where individuals and groups are pitted against each other as they compete for government largess.”

Nowhere in the letter (or on the AFP website) is there a complaint against welfare payments to individuals.  There is no discussion of the social issues often associated with the right. The letter is pro-immigration. Koch is afraid of growing socialism; he doesn’t like Bernie Sanders any more than Bernie Sanders likes him.  Koch puts the blame for this lurch to the left squarely where it belongs:

“There is more behind this turn towards government [control] than the economic stagnation and falling standards of living of the past decade.

“I believe the answer lies in the fact that across America, people are seeing that those who are well-connected in Washington and, yes, the wealthy, are winning favors and thriving while the rest of the nation falls further behind.

“…why is it that countless other large companies can get artificially cheap loans while people starting out can’t get any?

“…American consumers …[pay] double the world price for sugar while a small handful of sugar farmers are getting rich off government subsidies and quotas.

“…at the same time as Americans were hurting and record numbers were signing up for food stamps, countless American companies were getting huge corporate welfare payments or thousands of tax breaks that other Americans can’t utilize…"

He quotes a bumper sticker I haven’t seen: “our system isn’t broken… it’s fixed.”  David Koch is honest enough to admit that, although ethanol mandates are one more example of crony capitalism, Koch Industries makes ethanol.

What Koch doesn’t say but I believe is that Americans feeling the system is rigged are responsible not only for Bernie’s near victory over Hillary but also Trump’s actual victory. The Clintons as well as most of the people who ran in the Republican primary are part of the establishment which benefits from a rigged system where success depends on connections and big government and big corporations are in each other’s pockets (or, more accurately, in our pockets). Bernie and the Donald were both perceived as outsiders. If you add their supporters together, that’s an outraged majority.

Yes, there is great irony that this letter is signed by the owner of the second largest privately-owned corporation in America. Bernie’s website points out the extreme platform of the Libertarian Party in 1980 as evidence of what the Koch brothers want and David Koch was the Libertarian candidate for vice president that year. On the other hand, Bernie works for the biggest government in the country and would like to make it bigger.

The lesson of socialism is an equality of misery for most people except those who benefit enormously by being close to the all-controlling government (see Venezuela or North Korea for current examples). But crony capitalism suffers from many of the same faults.  Too often Democrats ignore the dangers of socialism; too often Republicans ignore the danger of oligarchy. Right now the danger is that so many Americans are disaffected and prone to lurch from one extreme to the other.  Part of the solution is to un-rig the system.  Americans for Prosperity seems to be dedicated to that un-rigging.  I’ve signed their petition against corporate welfare and may support them further.

February 08, 2018

Software Nerd Goes Hard

Result works but isn’t pretty

Patched pc

Q: How many programmers does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: Can’t be done. It’s a hardware problem.

I’m a software guy (58 years of programming) but I had a hardware problem.  Closed the screen of my almost new laptop on my portable mouse while getting up from my airline seat.  The screen was crushed and had only a shimmering rainbow on the bottom and the right side radiating from the ugly black imprint of the mouse.

The machine was useable at home where it’s docked to an external monitor but I have some travel coming up when it needs to be self-contained.  Sending the machine back to Lenovo was possible, but I know from experience that would mean being without it for two weeks and having to set up another computer.  There are no authorized Lenovo dealers within a hundred miles.

Tried a local computer repair place, hoping they could order a replacement screen and only take the laptop for an installation day. Apparently they couldn’t find parts from their distributor, probably because the machine is a new model and not many people have managed to break their screens yet.

Reluctantly decided to do hardware myself; after all, I did fix a vacuum cleaner after watching a video and two weeks ago I hung a window shade to Mary’s delighted surprise.  Searched YouTube for a how-to replacement video. Plenty of videos but all for older models. Googling “X1 Carbon fifth generation replacement screen” did lead me to LcdOLed on Amazon (surprisingly it’s often easier to find products on Amazon with Google than with Amazon’s own search).

I ordered. But LcdOLed contacted me through Amazon and said there are multiple screens for this model (touch, non-touch, different resolutions, WLAN antenna etc.). They advised me to open up the machine to get the part number.

“Can you point me to a video for that?” I asked.

They did and I ordered the tools needed to remove the screen. Fortunately, when I asked Mary to look over my shoulder, she diagnosed that the reason I couldn’t get the screen out is that the model in the video was different from my computer.

Serious googling. Found the Lenovo training video for its techs. Looked hard but doable. However, on the chance that once I took it apart I’d never get it back together, I didn’t want to liberate the screen until I had the replacement. Eureka, the Lenovo tech site could map my serial number to a part number.

“Send it,” I emailed to LcdOled.

“OK,” they said. “If it’s the wrong one, you can ship it back. We’ll get it out right away before Chinese New Year shuts our shipping down.”

Gathered my courage for a day after it arrived and started on the job last night. Lots of things to do in the right order. I watch each video twice on a spare computer before each step.

  1. Turn off the internal battery (software step to build my confidence)
  2. Remove the SIM holder (insert paper clip. I can do that.)
  3. Remove the back (last step which doesn’t void warrantee)
  4. Disconnect camera cable from motherboard (finally spotted the little clip that needed to be lifted by watching the video on how to put camera cable back.) Clip
  5. Disconnect LCD cable
  6. Disconnect hinges from case
  7. Remove LCD unit
  8. Remove LCD bezel (supposed to do with fingers but I had to use a tool)
  9. Remove LCD hinges (the other side of them)
  10. Remove LCD strip bezel
  11. Remove LCD unit
  12. Remove other end of LCD cable (now I’m good at the little clips)

Then you substitute the new screen and reverse all the steps. The bezel didn’t quite go back completely; that’s why the scotch tape in the picture above. One tiny nasty black screw disappeared. If you have a tremor, you should be sure you use a magnetic screwdriver. Hopefully the screw’s not rattling around inside waiting to short something. Hinge seems strong enough with two rather than three screws.

But, worth it all, its works!

February 05, 2018

Protecting Civil Liberties

There is no way that the allegations in the Nunes memo, even if they are all true and there is no mitigating evidence which was withheld, exonerate the President from allegations that he or his campaign collaborated with Russians or that he attempted to obstruct justice. Conversely, what Trump did or didn’t do is not relevant to whether the Justice Department and FBI have misused the FISA process.

We need the Mueller investigation to continue.  My first hope is Mueller finds that there were no serious offenses by Trump.  That would be best for the country so long as it is true. If there were offenses, I hope the evidence is strong and clear.  Weak charges would also be bad for the country.

We need the investigation into the FBI and Justice Department to continue.  Of course, the Democratic memo should be released once it is vetted for possible security problems. The FISA Courts, set up after 9/11, were a deliberate dangerous compromise to find a way to deal with the threat of terrorism while preserving our Constitutional right to be free from unreasonable government surveillance.  Because FISA is secret, it can easily be abused.  There must be oversight by Congress; Congress needs to be able to cry foul.  The partisan system is good for assuring that oversight is not just cheerleading.

One of the dangers in the FISA Court is that the judge hears only from the FBI and Justice.  That has to be since you don’t want to tip off the target of investigation.  However, the one-sided nature of what the judge hears puts a burden on the prosecutors and investigators to tell the judge everything significant that they know and puts a burden on the judge to be curious about sources.  If the judge wasn’t told that the Steele memorandum was paid for by the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary campaign, that is at least a violation of trust.  If the decision to grant a warrant to spy on Carter Page was based mostly on the memo whose origin was not revealed to the judge, this is a very serious violation of Carter Page’s civil rights, no matter what he may or may not be guilty of.  The FBI and Justice need to be told that withholding material information from the court is NOT OK IN ANY CIRCUMSTANCE.

There must always be oversight of the FBI.  Such oversight is not anti law enforcement or unpatriotic.  The FBI has some great accomplishments.  It also has dark spots in its history starting with J. Edgar Hoover, harassment of Martin Luther King and Einstein, and, according to both Trump and Hillary Clinton, continuing in the tenure of James Comey.  It is sad to see my liberal friends criticizing investigation of the FISA incident because they are afraid that it will somehow exculpate Trump or at least distract attention from the Mueller investigation.

The defense of civil liberties often means defending unpopular or even obnoxious causes and people. Currently, we must have a thorough investigation of the allegations against Trump and also oversight of the investigators.  No matter how much you may wish Trump impeached, you should want the evidence to be solid and credible AND CONSTITUTIONAL.  On the other hand, no matter how much you want Trump to stay in office, you should want the investigation to continue free from obstruction.

Whether Trump is innocent or guilty, the FBI and Justice can still be guilty of unconstitutional behavior.  Whether the FBI and Justice are guilty, on the other hand, has no bearing on whether Trump colluded or obstructed justice.  Both Trump and his opponents are conflating these issues; we shouldn’t let ourselves be confused.

February 02, 2018

Vermont Trailers v. the Tanker from Siberia



Truck with Logo_0



In the recent winter cold snap, the LNG tanker GASELYS hooked up in Everett near Boston to discharge what’s assumed to be Siberian natural gas into the dangerously depleted pipelines of southern New England.  The arrival was well reported as was the irony of an almost energy-independent US being dependent on gas from sanctioned Russian producers.  Much more quietly, trailers from NG Advantage (NGA) were already delivering natural gas from Vermont to our southern neighbors whenever we had adequate supplies and they didn’t (full disclosure: I cofounded the company and own a stake in it). NGA will continue these deliveries as long as there is a need.

Both LNG (liquified natural gas) tankers and CNG (compressed natural gas) trailers are examples of virtual pipelines, delivery capacity that moves to routes where it’s needed.  However, the unloading facilities for LNG tankers are huge; the one in Everett was built when it was thought the US would run out of natural gas. CNG can be unloaded much more simply from trailers into existing natural gas pipelines.  The gas NGA delivers to southern New England currently comes mainly from Canada though a pipeline which enters the US at Highgate, VT.  It’s an easy argument that it’s better for us to be dependent on North American supply than Siberian; an even easier one that it’s better to create jobs in rural New England than in Siberia.

There are two main reasons why southern New England has an increasing appetite for natural gas on cold days: the shutdown of nuclear plants and a switch from coal and oil to much cleaner natural gas for electrical generation. When natural gas is used to generate electricity, there is 50% less carbon dioxide emitted than when coal is used and 26% less than when energy comes from oil.  Moreover, there is no soot and almost no Sulphur dioxide or nitrous oxides when natural gas is burned nor is there any black smoke.  The switch from coal and oil to natural gas is a huge environmental plus and is the reason why the US was able to meet its carbon reduction goal under the Kyoto treaty it never signed even when the actual signatories weren’t.

There is a huge supply of natural gas just a few hundred miles west of New England in the Marcellus shale. Normally the east-west pipelines are adequate to carry what New England needs. But, during winter cold snaps, the demand exceeds pipeline capacity. The cost of natural gas can increase tenfold or more on the spot market. Oil and even coal powerplants replace gas-fired generators so that there will be enough gas to keep houses warm. The air gets dirtier and electricity gets more expensive, even in Vermont, which gets much of its electricity from the New England grid now that Vermont Yankee is closed.

There were plans to build much more east-west capacity.  But new pipelines didn’t get permitted. Three arguments were used against them:

  1. I don’t want a pipeline through my town to serve people in New England;
  2. We shouldn’t build permanent infrastructure for any fossil fuel even if we’re replacing a fossil fuel which emits more pollutants;
  3. The pipelines are only needed part of the year so they don’t justify the investment or right-of-way required to build them.

In my view, argument one is simply NIMBY (Not In My BackYard). NIMBY’s been around since before the Roman roads were built.  Property owners need to be properly compensated but the greater good must prevail or we’d have no infrastructure.

Argument two makes the perfect the enemy of the good; it boils down to polluting more now than we have to because we don’t yet have an ideal energy source.

Argument three is sometimes right. It would not be justified, for example, to build a pipeline from Vermont to southern New England to relieve a fraction of winter shortage.  Where a physical pipeline isn’t justified or hasn’t been built yet, a virtual pipeline can deliver the energy needed. If there comes a time when the energy isn’t needed or a pipeline is built, the trucks can go work somewhere else.  For example, NGA delivered natural gas by truck to Middlebury, VT before the Vermont Gas pipeline to that city was finished. Middlebury business and institutions got some of the economic and all the environmental benefits of natural gas earlier than they would have otherwise.

Environmentally, it’s better to burn Siberian natural gas than coal or oil; but it’s much better to burn North American gas and create jobs here.  NGA and its competitors don’t have the capacity yet to make occasional tanker visits unnecessary; but we’re working on it.

See also:

Natural Gas vs. Climate Change

Vermont Shouldn't Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

January 25, 2018

Microsoft Is Uploading Files from Your Computer

You may be in breach of nondisclosure agreements.

While setting up a new computer, I was horrified to see this default security setting:


This says that documents you’re working on, spreadsheets, confidential presentations, personal pictures, clever algorithms, or anything else on your computer may be uploaded to Microsoft at any time without your knowledge. How does Microsoft decide what is “personal”? Do they notify you or do they ask you if they are uploading personal information? What if the document is top secret but impersonal?

How much of your company’s confidential information is already at Microsoft? What if the document contains material non-public information about a public company; will the SEC hold you liable if it gets out? Maybe you obtained the document under a confidentiality agreement and aren’t allowed to share it; you just did.

How is Microsoft protecting your data, which it shouldn’t have in the first place, from unauthorized use by its own employees or hackers? How does Microsoft know that you are on a secure connection while it is happily transmitting your data? The only assurance in their privacy statement is that they won’t use this data to target you for specific advertising.

Are you worried about government surveillance? The government may be getting your data from Microsoft with or without a subpoena. Are you involved in a lawsuit? How long before opposing council demands your documents from Microsoft.

Having this option on by default is an outrage. [Note: I found it turned on in Windows 10 on a Lenovo X1 Carbon; it is possible that the setting is different in different versions of Windows or on different machines. Note also that this "feature" is part of Windows Defender, the default ant-virus program distributed with Windows. You don't need to worry about this if you are using other anti-virus programs. ]

 Here’ s how to check the setting and turn off document pilfering in Windows 10:


Start by clicking the arrow circled below in the taskbar.

Next click the shield.


Scroll down and you’ll be able to turn off this worse-than-intrusive option. However, your shield like mine will now have a yellow exclamation point. Microsoft wants you to know you are unsafe because you won’t let them spy on you.

January 16, 2018

The Wretched Refuse of Your Teeming Shore

There are two major reasons why we accept immigrants.

One is purely selfish: some immigrants have skills or money to bring which will make America better. These potential immigrants can presumably be identified. It shouldn’t matter where they’re from or what their race or religion is so long as they are bringing something of value. We have various programs like H1B for people with skills we need and EB-5 for people with money. They need examination and I think we should actively be recruiting those with skills; but there is no crisis here.

The second reason is much more important to America and the world. There are people who need refuge and we are able to grant it to some of them.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

That’s what it says on the plaque on the Statue of Liberty. That describes most of my ancestors when they came two generations ago. Yes, the places they left were shitholes, at least for them. That doesn’t make them shit, just wretched refuse yearning to breathe free.

My grandparents were fleeing pogroms in Russia and the Ukraine. They contributed to their new country and I hope we who were lucky to be born here have contributed as well. But there was no way to know what they or their progeny would add when they came. They wouldn’t have qualified for H1B or been able to pay half a million dollars for an EB-5 visa.

At least partially because of prejudice, America refused most Jewish refugees from the Nazis even as it became apparent what would happen to them in Nazi-occupied Europe. As a Jew, I don’t want to see us turn back Moslems fleeing catastrophe.

There are so many refugees that the US can’t possibly take them all. Unfortunately, there are so many refugees from conflict that we must prioritize them over people who “just” want to be free or “just” what a chance to make a better living. In a world plagued by terror we have to vet refugees as best we can rather than let them teem into Ellis Island the way my ancestors did. We do have a right to insist that refugees adapt to our country and follow our laws. But we have a responsibility to provide refuge.

America is no longer great if we cannot lift our lamp beside the golden door.

January 11, 2018

Marijuana and the Constitution

It took the 19th amendment to the US Constitution to ban most manufacture, transport, and sale of alcoholic beverage in the United States. Why then was Congress able to ban marijuana and a host of other substances by simply passing a law? Good question and one worth addressing when this congressional prohibition is at odds with what most American apparently want and actions taken by the states. The question of congressional power is especially worth examining given a dysfunctional Congress which complains about enforcement of its own law but seems incapable of the simple act of amendment.

Section 8 of Article 1 of the US Constitution gives Congress the power “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes”. Clearly that gives Congress the power to regulate interstate sale of marijuana and its importation. Article X of the bill of rights says “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” For most of American history, these two clauses were read together to reserve the power to regulate intrastate commerce to the states. That’s why it took a constitutional amendment to impose prohibition.

In 1942 a Supreme Court decision Wickard v Filburn essentially took the words “between the states” out of the commerce clause.  From Wikipedia:

“An Ohio farmer, Roscoe Filburn, was growing wheat to feed animals on his own farm. The U.S. government had established limits on wheat production based on acreage owned by a farmer, in order to stabilize wheat prices and supplies. Filburn grew more than the limits he was permitted and was ordered to pay a penalty. In response, he said that his wheat was not sold, so his activity could not be regulated as commerce, let alone "interstate" commerce…

“The Court decided that Filburn's wheat-growing activities reduced the amount of wheat he would buy for animal feed on the open market, which is traded nationally (interstate), and is therefore within the scope of the Commerce Clause. Although Filburn's relatively small amount of production of more wheat than he was allotted would not affect interstate commerce itself, the cumulative actions of thousands of other farmers just like Filburn would certainly become substantial. Therefore, according to the court, Filburn's production could be regulated by the federal government.”

The background of this ruling is that in 1942 eight of the nine justices had been appointed by President Roosevelt, the architect of the law being challenged – as good a reason as any for term limits. The US was also at war and draconian regulation of all kind was tolerated.

Fast forward to 2003 and Gonzales v Raich, a case challenging the federal government’s right to prosecute the instate use of medicinal marijuana in California where a referendum had legalized such use. Relying heavily on the Wickard v Filburn decision, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the feds did have this right because the intrastate use of marijuana might interfere with interstate commerce in pot (even though such commerce was illegal).

Justice Thomas wrote in dissent:

“Respondents Diane Monson and Angel Raich use marijuana that has never been bought or sold, that has never crossed state lines, and that has had no demonstrable effect on the national market for marijuana. If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything—and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers.”

It's not a good idea for the federal government to have unlimited powers even if it weren’t dysfunctional.

Justice O’Conner wrote in her dissent:

“Relying on Congress’ abstract assertions, the Court has endorsed making it a federal crime to grow small amounts of marijuana in one’s own home for one’s own medicinal use. This overreaching stifles an express choice by some States, concerned for the lives and liberties of their people, to regulate medical marijuana differently. If I were a California citizen, I would not have voted for the medical marijuana ballot initiative; if I were a California legislator I would not have supported the Compassionate Use Act. But whatever the wisdom of California’s experiment with medical marijuana, the federalism principles that have driven our Commerce Clause cases require that room for experiment be protected in this case.”

I think she is right. People the world over are resentful of over-reaching central authority (see Brexit, Catalonian separatists, Iranian demonstrators, and the election of Donald Trump for just a few examples). We in the United States are fortunate that the states and the US Constitution are a mechanism for resumed local control. We don’t need a revolution to ratchet back central power, just a return to federalism as it was practiced for most of our history. Invalidating federal control over instate drug use and sale will not make all drugs legal everywhere any more than the end of prohibition made alcohol legal everywhere. Control will just go back to the states and localities – and the feds will still be free to combat international smuggling or even interstate drug commerce.

 The Court is reluctant to reverse prior decisions but has done so. Brown v Topeka, which outlawed segregated public schools, expressly undid Plessy v. Ferguson, which held that separate but equal is good enough.  I hope the Court will give itself the opportunity to reverse the overreach of both Wickard v Filburn and Gonzales v Raich. 

Meanwhile, Congress should stop blowing smoke and promptly undo its own unwise listing of marijuana on the same schedule as heroin in the possibly unconstitutional Controlled Substances Act. See Marijuana and Congress for more on that.

January 08, 2018

Marijuana and Congress

The haze of bipartisan Congressional hypocrisy is thicker than the air in a marijuana bar. I’m for legalization; it’s time for Congress to stop blowing smoke and start legislating.

The Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug like heroin and proclaims it more dangerous than fentanyl and oxytocin (Schedule II), was passed by Congress in 1970. It has been amended many times since but congresspeople have not seen fit to remove marijuana from Schedule I.

If Congress did exempt marijuana from the CSA, which already exempts tobacco and alcohol, pot would not become legal everywhere. States would be free to ban or regulate it anyway they saw fit; exactly what outraged congresspeople say they want.

Under CSA the Drug Enforcement Administration has the authority to remove a substance from the various schedules. The DEA has rejected petitions to allow use of marijuana for medicinal purposes several times; the latest rejection was in 2011 and was upheld on appeal in 2013.

In 2013 President Obama’s Justice Department issued the Cole Memorandum essentially instructing federal prosecutors to lay off prosecuting marijuana offenses in most case. If Obama had just instructed the DEA to delist marijuana, we wouldn’t be having the debate we’re having today; but that’s history. Trump could give the same order; but we’ve seen that what one president can do by executive order, another can undo.

Last week Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a lifelong foe of marijuana use, rescinded the Cole Memorandum in what he calls a “return to the rule of law”. He didn’t mandate federal prosecution of cannabis cases but made non-prosecution less certain. His memo said:

“In deciding which marijuana activities to prosecute under these laws with the department's finite resources, prosecutors should follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions. These principles require federal prosecutors deciding which cases to prosecute to weigh all relevant considerations of the crime, the deterrent effect of criminal prosecution, and the cumulative impact of particular crimes on the community.”

Senator Bernie Sanders lashed out:

“No, Attorney General Sessions. Marijuana is not the same as heroin. No one who has seriously studied the issue believes that marijuana should be classified as a Schedule 1 drug beside killer drugs like heroin. Quite the contrary.”

While I agree with Bernie about the pharmacology, he is deliberately overlooking the fact that it is Congress and not the Attorney General who put pot on Schedule I. Does he really want Trump’s AG to overrule Congress? Where is the Sander’s bill to declassify marijuana?

There seems to be Republican as well as Democratic support for legalization:

“I am obligated to the people of Colorado to take all steps necessary to protect the state of Colorado and their rights,” said Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, a conservative member of the Republican leadership who has rarely broken with the Trump White House.

The senator seemed flabbergasted by what amounted to a federal assault on the expanding $1 billion legal pot business approved by voters in Colorado… (NYTimes)

Gardner apparently doesn’t think his obligation to the people of Colorado includes doing his job by pushing for amendment of the offending federal law. Presumably he’d support delisting.

Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, a leading Trump ally in the House, said the decision would deny relief to suffering cancer patients, including children. He said the move by Mr. Sessions was “heartless and cold, and shows his desire to pursue an antiquated, disproven dogma instead of the will of the American people. He should focus his energies on prosecuting criminals, not patients.” (NYTimes)

Gaetz has a good point about the suffering caused by the prohibition of medicinal use of marijuana. An article in VTdigger details how assisted-living facilities, which receive federal funds, won’t allow the use of marijuana for pain-relief even though such use is legal under Vermont And New Hampshire law.  They are justifiably afraid of running afoul of the feds. It’s up to Congress to remove this threat. Gaetz should consider proposing legislation.

Nancy Pelosi: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s [sic] decision bulldozes over the will of the American people and insults the democratic process under which majorities of voters in California and in states across the nation supported decriminalization at the ballot box.” (NYTimes)

I don’t remember Ms. Pelosi pushing for federal deregulation when she was Majority Leader of the House. She apparently doesn’t remember that Congress, presumably following the will of the voters, made pot illegal. And I doubt if she really wants the AG to substitute his reading of the will of the people for Congressional mandates.

There is a good chance that there would be bipartisan support for the feds getting out of the marijuana regulation business. But would Sessions’ boss, President Trump veto such a bill if it passed Congress? Unlike Sessions, whom he certainly doesn’t feel a need to defer to, the President hasn’t said how he personally feels about pot use.

From the same NYTimes article: As for the president’s evolution on marijuana, Ms. Sanders [nb. his spokeperson] said Mr. Trump “believes in enforcing federal law. That would be his top priority, and that is regardless of what the topic is.”

If the federal law were changed, enforcement wouldn’t be an issue. Time for Congress to put their votes where their mouths are and “follow the will of the people.”

See also Marijuana and the Constitution for a discussion of whether Congress actually has the constitutional right to ban instate use of marijuana.


January 04, 2018

AT&T-Run Network Announces “Ruthless Preemption”

If you think this is some nightmare result of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voting to rescind the 2015 “Net Neutrality” regulations, think again. “Ruthless Preemption” is a feature of a so-far non-existent network called FirstNet for which the federal government has given AT&T a 25-year operating agreement, the exclusive right to sell FirstNet services to first responders, and lots of valuable radio spectrum.

While we technical types have been debating Net Neutrality regulation as a mechanism for curbing the last-mile oligarchy, AT&T has managed to walk away with another big gob of access spectrum in return for the slow deployment of an inferior service that addresses a need which no longer exists and leaves the real needs of first responders without a solution.

The genesis for FirstNet was an interoperability problem in the response to 9/11. Police and fire department radios were on different frequencies; they couldn’t talk to each other. The 9/11 commission recommended an interoperable network be built for first responders. Nothing happened until 2012 when Congress added FirstNet and a bureaucracy to run it to the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of that year. Still none of this network has been built; late last year AT&T was awarded the contract.

But a lot has changed sine 9/11/2001. First responders, like the rest of us, have smartphones; they can even use their smartphones as walkie talkies and can look at citizen-uploaded or drone-taken videos of whatever catastrophe they are responding to. Fire Department smartphones can talk to police smartphones can talk to ambulance smartphones. Computers in first responder vehicles stay online on the cellular network. FirstNet boasts that it is built on LTE, the technology now used for almost all cellular communication. So, with the interoperability problem gone, why do we need FirstNet?

There is the “Ruthless Preemption”, the cyber equivalent of a wailing siren and a flashing light which assures that that first responder communications won’t be caught in a digital traffic jam. But we don’t need a new network to implement preemption where it is justified. In fact, if the first responders are on the same network as everyone else, there will be much more bandwidth available for them to preempt if needed.

In rural areas of the US we are painfully aware that there is not universal cell coverage. FirstNet says it will build out to 95% coverage; but first responders go everywhere. One of the very real problems we all face in an emergency is that cell towers are destroyed or can’t operate for long without grid power (see Puerto Rico or Vermont after Irene). AT&T says they may have mobile towers to deploy but hasn’t committed to a response time. The solution is obvious, but it isn’t FirstNet. First responders should have satellite phones. Satellites are not affected by local catastrophes; they are solar powered; and satellite service is available everywhere except under a rock.

The next argument for FirstNet is that it will help increase broadband penetration in rural areas. Problem is that the FirstNet’s agreement with the US Department of Commerce only requires a download speed of 768kbs and upload of 256kbs. The FCC minimum definition of broadband is 32 times faster on download and 12 times faster for upload. This is fake “broadband”; it won’t solve the economic and social problems caused by lack of broadband in rural areas. At FirstNet minimum speeds no one is going to be uploading or downloading incident-scene videos. And only 95% coverage is promised. The rural problem is exactly that last 5%.

Terry LaValley, chairman of the Vermont Public Safety Broadband Commission, which recommended that Vermont join FirstNet, said “The speeds are a minimum which may or may not support a voice call.” He went on, according to VTDigger, to say  that these speeds allow sending and receiving texts. Text messaging in 95% of places some years in the future is hardly a breakthrough for first responders. I have a device from Garmin called an InReach. It costs $300 retail. For $50 dollars/month (also retail) I can use it to send and receive unlimited texts anywhere in the world where the sky can be seen. It uses satellite so no danger of local towers being invisible or out of service. It also sends a trail of bread crumbs so people can track me on Google maps. I’m not sure why a device like this isn’t built into every first responder vehicle. We could have that today.

Writing in The Atlantic, Steven Brill says “the prize for the most wasteful post-91/11 initiative arguably should go to FirstNet.“

TechCrunch says:

“For AT&T, the victory provides a new source of revenue from local police and fire departments, who will presumably come to rely on FirstNet for their emergency communications. It also gets a serious boost in its spectrum, along with free cash from taxpayers. But for all of us, it seems billions of dollars will be spent to create a specialist comm channel, when existing technologies are more than up to the task of providing these highly reliable services.”

Even though all 50 states have signed on to FirstNet (free money and draconian threats), I think the only visible results will be more spectrum for AT&T to sell in urban areas and no significant new buildout in rural areas. First responders will meet their real needs with devices which use the cell network when they can and satellites and perhaps mesh networks when they have to. Rescinding “Net Neutrality” means that prioritization and preemption if needed can be built into the broader Internet and cell networks to avoid digital gridlock in an emergency. Most first responders will never sign FirstNet contracts when their needs can be met more quickly and more effectively with non-AT&T solutions.

I hope the false promises of this boondoggle don’t lead anyone to say “mission accomplished” as far as first responder communication or rural broadband deployment.

January 02, 2018

The End of Net Neutrality Regulation COULD Mean the End of Last-Mile Oligopolies

Landline networks like the old phone system and the new(er) cable systems do lend themselves to monopoly or at least duopoly outcomes. Building these networks is both very expensive and requires myriad government approvals. Once a system is in place, it is hard for anyone to raise the capital to duplicate it. Even a network of wireless towers is hard to compete with. It’s hard enough to get a permit to build a tower to serve unserved areas (“it’ll ruin my view”; “it will stop the wildebeests from migrating”). It’s much harder to get permitted for a tower whose “only” purpose is to increase competition.

It is a fact that we have little competition for Internet access, especially in rural areas. This lack of competition and mediocre service from incumbents is why most of my friends in the tech world supported the “Net Neutrality” regulations promulgated in 2015, which allows the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate the Internet under the same terms as it regulated the phone network. The FCC did not regulate rates for Internet access, although it gave itself the authority to do so. They are furious that the FCC rescinded this regulation last month. They are right, in my opinion, that there is too little competition in access. They are wrong, also in my opinion, that regulation is the way to solve the local oligopoly problem.

Regulation acknowledges monopoly and protects it. Incumbents like utilities learn to live with regulation. They hire staffs of regulatory lawyers. They avoid innovation – it’s expensive and may raise regulatory issues. If innovations succeed, the incumbents argue, the regulators will make the utility give back the profits. If innovations fail, the utility’s shareholders will have to pay the cost. Most important, protected monopolies don’t have to worry about competition in the marketplace. They can count on the burden of regulatory compliance and the relatively low return of regulated businesses to make it impossible for a would-be challenger to raise capital. These are the reasons why the regulated phone network was almost an innovation-free zone for sixty years.

But now the net neutrality regulations have been repealed. Ironically, startups in the last mile access business are using that repeal as a fund-raising pitch. Daniela Perdomo is the cofounder and CEO of goTenna, a company which provides meshed connectivity for messaging and location sharing without using any connections to commercial networks. She says “Society requires connectivity to function and to advance but we are leaving telecommunications in the hands of a few large corporations. The lack of a choice is a problem.” To an innovator, every problem is an opportunity,

GoTenna is no threat to AT&T – yet. But, because goTenna doesn’t require any infrastructure, it was able to bring basic communication to parts of hurricane-damaged Puerto Rico immediately. Solar-charging is plenty of energy for goTenna to operate so they require neither an electrical grid nor generators. Mesh networks like goTenna gain capacity with each user they add so they can grow without enormous capital expense. Needless to say, no permitting required. So far goTenna users can only talk to other in their mesh. But if meshes connected by sat phone….

Veniam provides meshed networking between vehicles. This mesh does have access to the full Internet which it reaches through a combination of cellular connections and WiFi hotspots; among other uses are free WiFi for bus riders (and passenger information for the transit providers). At any moment a connection to the Internet may be directly to a hotspot or hopped through a mesh of vehicles. There are currently Veniam nets in Porto, Portugal, New York City, and Singapore. An obvious future use of Veniam is critical communication between autonomous vehicles.

I think that growth of companies like goTenna and Veniam will be super-charged by the end of Net Neutrality regulation. Lack of innovation and mediocre service from incumbents creates a need. Investors will like that there is no longer a threat, in the US at least, that regulators will decide that some service they are offering isn’t properly “neutral”. Even defending such a claim could stop a small company in its tracks. It’s possible that one of these companies or a company like them will want to offer a “fast lane” for emergency service or communication between autonomous vehicles. Under the “net neutrality” rules they wouldn’t have been allowed to. There is no longer a threat of “rate-of-return” utility price controls.  Regulation smothers innovation.

I may be an optimist to think that deregulation will topple the access network oligarchies. But I know that regulation would preserve the unsatisfactory status quo.

Full disclosure, I am indirectly a very small investor in both goTenna and Veniam.

December 27, 2017

America Not So Great

News about the new Lanzhou to Xian highspeed train in China made me sad. Service started this year with 35 roundtrips/day. Travel time is reduced from seven hours via the old train to 2.5 hours on the new train, which runs at 155 mph.

I’m happy for people who travel between Xian and Lanzhou or make connections on this route. I’m sad for my own country. When is the last time you remember us making a big improvement like this? We’re not even keeping up with the decay of our own existing infrastructure.

Contrast the new train with Amtrak’s flagship Acela service.  Acela has a top speed of 150 mph but can’t run that fast over most of its curvy and congested route. Its fastest scheduled time for the 226 mile trip from NYC to Washington, DC is two hours and forty five minutes, fifteen minutes more than the Lanzhou-Xian train takes to cover its whole 457 mile route. Pretty pitiful.

The reason for the difference is not the train technology but the track. Railroads in the US were laid out in the last century. Most routes haven’t changed since. That’s why there is a 30-mph curve in Olympia, WA on the new Portland-Seattle route. The curve was the scene of a fatal derailment of the train’s inaugural run.

The Portland to Seattle run helps point out our problem. Original plans for the route included straightening the curve according to a Wall Street Journal story based on planning documents. The plan was dropped because of cost, says the story, although as a former state stimulus czar, I suspect that the time required for permitting the straightening would have made the project ineligible for stimulus funding, which was only available for ostensibly “shovel-ready” projects. The article does talk about “fraught acquisition battles” and “reluctance to use eminent domain”. In other words we can’t get anything built because we allow opponents to drag out projects endlessly, and we don’t have the political will to pursue the greater good when there are local consequences.

At least as disgraceful is that a fairly simple technology called “positive train control” hadn’t yet been installed on the line; this technology would have prevented the train from entering the 30-mph hour curve at 80. Service is now not going to resume until positive train control is installed. Critics are asking why service was allowed to start without it; a better question is why positive train control isn’t everywhere in the US. It was mandated by Congress in 2008 with a 2015 deadline. Railroads lobbied successfully to have the deadline extended. It’s cheaper to lobby than actually do something, even something that safety requires.

It’s we who must choose to make America great again… or not.

See also Everything is Shovel-Ready in China.

December 19, 2017

Chinese View of US Tax Cut

Certainly the tax bill, which is now close to becoming law, is far from perfect. Just as certainly it has some things in it that needed to be done like lowering the industrialized world’s highest corporate tax rate, doubling the standard deduction for individuals, and wiping out many (but not enough) loopholes. It will increase the deficit if there is not enough growth stimulated to offset the lower rates.

So is the bill as whole a good thing for the US economy?

In China they are asking, of course, what is the effect on China. Here’s some answers from China’s Global Times.

“…some Chinese companies may consider moving to the US, where the corporate tax rate will be 20 percent [nb. Since raised to 21%]…while China may inhibit the momentum of capital and manufacturing outflow through policy adjustments, such changes could have an impact on the domestic economy and taxation system….

“Second, as a result of the US tax cuts and the anticipated interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve, global capital will be attracted to the US, pushing up the value of the US dollar….

“Third, the US tax plan also involves individual income tax. When the tax cut is combined with US immigration reform, the country may be able to attract high-technology talent from other countries. China should guard against the possibility of a brain drain…. [nb. I’m not sure what they mean by immigration reform]

“Last but not least, tax cuts in the world's largest economy will have a global spillover effect. While stimulating the US' economic growth and attracting capital inflows, the tax reduction plan may set off a wave of similar cuts across the world, intensifying economic competition and prompting countries to move toward a taxation and legal environment that is favorable for the most dynamic companies.

“The UK, France and other European countries are reportedly working on tax-cut programs. If other developing countries also cut their corporate tax rates, China's manufacturing cost advantages will be eroded and the nation may experience outflows of high-technology talent and intellectual property. The Chinese government needs to be prepared and have comprehensive plans for all potential scenarios.”

Note that the tightly-controlled Chinese press are not fans of President Trump. Nevertheless he would probably be pleased to read Chinese fears that the tax changes will MAGA.

December 15, 2017

The Bicycles of Lanzhou

Lanzhou is a Chinese city , which you’ve probably never heard of , with a population of 3.6 million. It has a history: it’s here that the Silk Road crosses the Yellow River (on chained barges way back when). The Japanese never captured Lanzhou during WW2. It’s a major industrial city and a center of the Chinese nuclear industry as well as home to Institute of Modern Physics, Chinese Academy of Science. Lanzhou was once one of the most polluted cities in the world but in 2015 it won China’s climate progress title.

The climate progress wasn’t because of the bikes; they’ve only become significant again in the last year. At the end of the 20th century, traffic in Chinese cities was mostly bikes. Thy turned into scooters and motorcycle then into Audis and Mercedes as prosperity spread. At least twice a day the new cars froze into fuming gridlock.

Like many cities with a pollution and congestion problem, Lanzhou deployed municipal bike rental racks. They didn’t get much use, often looked like the picture below. IMG_20171208_214213766

People had the usual complaints. The racks weren’t conveniently located at either end of a trip. At your destination you might find a full rack and not be able to return the bike without going somewhere else. With so few bikes on the road, drivers didn’t expect them; and, even though some bicycle lanes had been designated, riding was extremely dangerous.

But private enterprises, which flourishes in the nominally communist country, had an answer. A new breed of rental bike quickly sprawled over the sidewalks. The innovation is that these are rackless bikes. There are no fixed bike racks. Each bike has a GPS, a cellular data connection of some kind (cell coverage is excellent in Lanzhou), and a locking clamp  on the rear wheel. IMG_20171208_213407611_LL

Since bikes are sprawled almost everywhere in the city, there is usually one very near the beginning of your trip. If you don’t immediately see one, the bike app on your phone will tell you where the nearest ones are. Remember, bikes transmit their location. You use the app to unlock the nearest bike and you’re off. When you finish a trip, you leave the bike outside the door of your destination and engage its rear wheel lock. Engaging the lock ends your rental.

Bikes are faster than cars during rush hours. Last year when I was in Lanzhou there were almost no bikes on the streets. This year there are so many bikes that they have become a new hazard to pedestrians but car traffic does seems to have thinned out. A bike is a normal way to get to a business appointment. People complain about the unsightly sprawl of bicycles everywhere; but the bikes are being used. American riders, however, would be shocked to see absolutely no bicycle helmets.

I understand that the same two companies whose bikes are now ubiquitous in Lanzhou are in other Chinese cities as well. My friend Fred Wilson, who is a Citibike fan in NYC, noticed that Shanghai has solved the rack problem which devils him at home. China has successfully gone back to the future and made progress against both congestion and pollution.

November 30, 2017

Vermont Shouldn't Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

State of Vermont

In my last post I blogged that the world’s CO2 output is still rising despite various treaty commitments and huge expenditures on renewables. However, the US stands alone in having exceeded the emission reduction it would have been obligated to had we signed the Kyoto treaty. This accomplishment owes something to deployment of renewables but is largely the result of substituting natural gas for coal in our power plants.  Even though natural gas is also a fossil fuel, it emits less than half as much CO2 per Megawatt-hour of electricity generated than coal.

According to the Federal Energy Information Agency, in 2014 Vermont had the lowest output of CO2 in the country per electrical Megawatt hour (Mwh) generated: 19lbs/Mwh; the national average is 1123lbs/Mwh. However, at that time, 72 per cent of our electricity was generated at a nuclear power plant which has now shut down. 4.4% of our production was from wind and .2% from solar.

Now we generate less than 35% of the 5.5 million Megawatt-hours we use annually. The rest is carbon-free power from Hydro Quebec and “traditional” power from the New England Grid.  As a whole, New England in 2014 emitted 571lbs/Mwh of generation. Net net we are responsible for a lot more CO2 emissions than we were when Vermont Yankee was still producing.

Our wind generation rose rapidly a few years ago but has since plateaued. It was 293,000 Megawatt-hours in 2016.

As with the nation, natural gas is a bright spot in Vermont. The electricity we’re now importing from the rest of New England would be far more expensive if the price of the natural gas used to produce it weren’t historically low.

Very close to home Vermont Gas (VGS) and NG Advantage (NGA), a company I am chair of (please note I do have a pony in this race) deliver natural gas to significantly reduce CO2 emissions. Vermont Gas sells pipeline gas to residential, commercial, and industrial customers in Vermont. NG Advantage (NGA) trucks gas to large users including factories, asphalt plants, and hospitals located beyond the reach of pipelines; NGA buys the majority of its gas from VGS.

All NGA customers once used oil as a fuel. Because natural gas had become much cheaper than oil on a per BTU basis, they were at a disadvantage compared to competitors located on pipelines. They spent millions of their own dollars (no grants available) to upgrade their boilers to natural gas once they knew we could deliver it to them. Some might well have gone out of business without the savings we could help them achieve.

But they save more than dollars. The smoke that comes out of their stacks isn’t black anymore. They no longer emit SO2 and have virtually eliminated NOx.. Their neighbors like the change; first responders appreciate that natural gas is safer than oil or propane because it is lighter than air and can’t cause a sea of flame in an accident or pollute ground water. Replacing oil with natural gas reduces CO2 emissions by 26%, about 5 lbs. per gallon. Last year alone NGA customers reduced CO2 by at least 160,000,000 lbs.

What does that mean?

It’s the equivalent of taking 15,000 cars off the road.

It also stacks up favorably against CO2 savings from wind turbines. Let’s assume that the 293,000 of Megawatt-hours (Mwh) of electricity generated by wind in Vermont last year reduced CO2 by the full amount of the New England average, 571lbs/Mwh; that’s a total savings 168,768,000 lbs. In other words, NGA’s natural gas was responsible for about the same amount of CO2 reduction as all the wind turbines in Vermont. I’m proud of that. Next year NGA will do better.

Exclusive of sales to NGA, VGS sells almost twice as much gas as NGA. If they weren’t selling that gas, their customers would probably heat with oil or propane as most Vermonters do. If VGS weren’t selling that gas, there’d be another 300 million or so pounds of CO2 discharged annually in Vermont and their customers would be paying more for burning a dirtier fuel. Last year VGS completed an expansion to Middlebury and took over some service NGA used to provide. That’s a good thing; made gas even cheaper for those people and added residential customers whom our equipment isn’t suited to serve. I hope VGS will expand to Rutland where NGA also provides service. If that happy day comes, NGA will use its trucks to serve institutions somewhere else.

But What about the Negatives?

I wrote about fracking safety here and claims that “fugitive emissions” of natural gas outweigh the CO2 reductions in net greenhouse effect here. The facts are that drilling for natural gas is much safer than it’s ever been (but, of course, must be done right).  According to an extensive study by Argonne National Laboratory (done during the Obama administration), the environmental benefit of natural gas use far outweighs the environmental cost of leakage and leakage continues to be reduced while extraction increases rapidly. Moreover, according to the UN International Panel on Climate Change, the bible of climate change, atmospheric methane, the main ingredient of natural gas, is stable to declining despite more drilling than ever.

CO2 levels in the atmosphere, on the other hand, are increasing. That’s one problem natural gas can help with.

And in Conclusion

Renewables alone are not sufficient to reduce atmospheric CO2 as quickly as many people believe it must be reduced to avoid catastrophically rapid climate change. Nuclear power and natural gas both have an important role to play in that reduction. Unless there is massive permitting reform (or massive subsidies), nuclear is very expensive and very slow to deploy. Even where there are massive deployments of solar and wind, natural gas “peaker” plants are needed to fill in for the times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

Thanks to new technology, America has huge new natural gas supplies economically accessible. We are buying American energy because we have product at the best price. We are becoming a supplier of natural gas to the world rather than a dependent on risky foreign oil.

Natural gas is a fossil fuel. Wherever it displaces coal or oil, there is an enormous environmental benefit. Those who oppose natural gas use, no matter how well-meaning, are delaying the day when we can burn less coal and oil. They are imposing the extra economic and environmental cost of dirtier, more expensive fuels on their neighbors, their communities, and the world. We don’t want to make some theoretical perfect fuel the enemy of all the good that increased natural gas substitution can do.

We want to drill (safely, of course), build pipelines where justified, and truck natural gas where pipelines don’t reach and aren’t economic. We don’t need incentives or mandates for this part of our environmental mission; we only need to make sure that our regulatory and permitting processes are reasonable. Natural gas adoption pays for itself. That’s sustainable!

November 28, 2017

Don’t let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

Increased use of natural gas has so far been the most effective way to reduce CO2 emissions. Natural gas is an excellent complement to renewables for electricity generation since it can be used effectively at almost any scale to fill in when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.  Not surprisingly, those who sell competitive sources of energy like nuclear, oil, and coal are not fans of natural gas since it beats them on price, at least in North America. Many, but not all, marketers of renewables object to natural gas because it is a “fossil fuel” and because it is not carbon-free, despite the fact that natural gas is helping to reduce emissions and making renewables more practical.

I’m in the natural gas business so you should assume that I’m affected by self-interest like any businessperson. Nevertheless, this and my next couple of posts will be about why we should be using more natural gas to make the world a better place and why declining to do that means more carbon emissions and makes the perfect (carbon-free fuels) the enemy of the good (less emissions of CO2 and no emission of SO2 and other noxious gasses).

Let’s Start with the State of the World

Despite various climate accords, worldwide emissions of CO2 have continued to climb:

image from

Germany, which has invested very heavily in renewables and has some of the highest electric rates in the developed world, has actually had a small increase in emissions for each of the last two years and has announced that it will miss the emission reduction goals it set for itself. Part of Germany’s problem is that it decided to shut down its nuclear plants after Fukushima. Germany also made a political decision against fracking so natural gas is expensive there (and comes in a dangerous degree from Russia). Renewable can’t replace the baseline power; Germany is burning more coal. The results are blowing in the wind.

And Now the State of the US

Our CO2 emissions continue to go down:

image from


The United States is the only nation to meet the climate control goals set for it in the Kyoto Treaty – even though the US Senate never ratified it.   According to the EPA, almost all the US reduction in CO2 is result of a massive switch from coal to natural gas for electrical generation. This switch was driven by simple economics: the invention of horizontal drilling and the development of hydraulic fracturing made natural gas cheaper than coal. Fifty percent less greenhouse gasses are released per unit of energy when natural gas rather than coal is the source of that energy.

The US switched from coal to natural gas largely because natural gas is less expensive. Government didn’t drive this switch. Certainly, the Kyoto treaty had nothing to do with it.  Nevertheless, the switch and the consequent environmental benefits are “sustainable”. They are not dependent on either regulation or subsidy. The US leads the world in carbon reduction because we have allowed new technologies to reduce the cost of cleaner energy. We haven’t insisted on perfection; we have achieved good.

Next post, the state of the State of Vermont

November 16, 2017

I want Judge Moore to be Guilty – That’s a Problem

Roy Moore shouldn’t be a US senator IMO; but he’s running for the senate from Alabama where I’m not a voter so my opinion doesn’t count. Until last week it looked like Alabama voters would elect him easily despite (or because of) the fact that he lost his job as chief justice of that state’s supreme court twice, once for disobeying orders to take the ten commandments down in the court house and a second time for refusing to recognize gay marriage. Public officials are not entitled to substitute their own opinions for law (although it is certainly honorable to resign rather than enforce a law you don’t agree with).

Now there are specific and credible (but not proven) allegations by five women that Moore abused them when he was in his thirties and they were in their teens. I was happy to hear the allegations and hope they are true so that he won’t become a senator.

I’m wrong to feel this way.

I want people to believe that he is guilty of the women’s charges so he won’t be elected senator; but I already didn’t want him to be elected because of both his fundamentalism and his previous disregard for the law. The women’s charges may well not be proven by election day; but I want him to be considered guilty anyway , not innocent until proven guilty. I want it to be impossible for Alabamans to make a decision I don’t want them to make.

Similarly many people I know and like want Trump to be guilty of colluding with the Russians so they can undo the choice the electorate made.

Other people would like Hillary Clinton to be guilty of various crimes, at least partly to prove that they were right not to vote for her. (Times change: Bill Clinton probably would’ve been removed from office for the Monica Lewinsky affair had it happened today. At least those allegations were true.)

Obviously, if Trump did collude with the Russians, he should be impeached; but I hope that he didn’t. If there was a real quid-pro-quo in contributions to the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s acts as Secretary of State, she should be prosecuted; but I hope there wasn’t.

It adds to the danger of the times when we consider people guilty just on the basis of accusations because we want to criminalize our opponents.

But I still hope Roy Moore is defeated.

November 13, 2017

Google Now a Target for Regulation

Headline in the Washington Post:

Tech companies pushed for net neutrality. Now Sen. Al Franken wants to turn it on them.

The time was – way back around the turn of the century – when all Internet companies believed that the Internet should be free from government regulation. I lobbied along with Google and Amazon to that end (there were no twitter and Facebook then); we were successful over the objection of traditional telcos who wanted the protection of regulation. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under both Democrats and Republicans agreed to forbear from regulating the Internet the way they regulate the telephone network; the Internet flourished, to put it mildly.

Fast forward to 2015. Google and other Internet giants and their trade group, the Internet Association, were successful in convincing the Obama FCC to reverse that policy and regulate Internet Service Providers (ISPs) under the same regulation which helped to stifle innovation in telephony for decades. The intent, according to the Internet Association, was to protect Net Neutrality (a very good name) and assure that ISPs didn’t either censor or prefer their own content over the content of others – Google, for example. The regulation was acknowledged to be preemptive - ISPs weren’t discriminating but they might.

This spring Trump’s FCC Chair, Ajit Pai, announced the beginning of an effort to repeal the 2015 regulations and return the Internet to its former lightly regulated state. The Internet Association and its allies mounted a massive online campaign against deregulation in order, they said, to protect Net Neutrality. One of their allies was the Open Market Initiative, which was then part of The New America Foundation. More about them below.

I blogged to Google:

“You run a fantastically successful business. You deliver search results so valuable that we willingly trade the history of our search requests for free access. Your private network of data centers, content caches and Internet connections assure that Google data pops quickly off our screen. Your free Chrome browser, Android operating system, and gmail see our communication before it gets to the Internet and gets a last look at what comes back from the Internet before passing it on to us. You make billions by monetizing this information with at least our implied consent. I mean all this as genuine praise.

“But I think you’ve made a mistake by inviting the regulatory genie on to the Internet. Have you considered that Google is likely to be the next regulatory target?”

It didn’t take long.

In August the European Union declared a penalty against Google. Barry Lynn of the Open Market Initiative posted praise for the EU decision on the New America website. According to the NY Times:

“The New America Foundation has received more than $21 million from Google; its parent company’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt; and his family’s foundation since the think tank’s founding in 1999. That money helped to establish New America as an elite voice in policy debates on the American left and helped Google shape those debates…

“Hours after this article was published online Wednesday morning, Ms. Slaughter announced that the think tank had fired Mr. Lynn on Wednesday for ‘his repeated refusal to adhere to New America’s standards of openness and institutional collegiality.’”

Mr. Lynn and his colleagues immediately founded The Open Market Institute. The front page of their websites says:

“Amazon, Google and other online super-monopolists, armed with massive dossiers of data on every American, are tightening their grip on the most vital arteries of commerce, and their control over the media we use to share news and information with one another.”

Sen. Al Franken and the Open Market Institute held an event which led to the WaPo headline and the article which begins:

“For years, tech companies have insisted that they're different from everything else. Take Facebook, which has long claimed that it's a simple tech platform, not a media entity. ‘Don't be evil,’ Google once said to its employees, as though it were setting itself apart from the world's other massive corporations.

“But now, some policymakers are increasingly insisting that firms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter really aren't that special after all — and that perhaps it's time they were held to the same standard that many Americans expect of electricity companies or Internet providers.

“Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) became the latest and most vocal of these critics Wednesday when, at a Washington conference, he called for tech companies to follow the same net neutrality principles that the federal government has applied to broadband companies such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast.”

I’m not happy to have been right; on the contrary, I’m appalled. The last thing we should want is the government regulating Internet content, especially at a time when both the political right and the political left are anti free speech. But there is no principled argument that Google’s potential competitors, the ISPs, should be constrained by regulatory oversight while Google, much bigger than any of these competitors and much more dominant worldwide, can exert its dominance freely. Google truly opened a Pandora’s box and let out a regulatory genie.

As much as I am against regulatory oversight of content, I do believe that the government has a very proper role both in antitrust and in truth in advertising. These are some of the tools which do need to be used to keep new or old oligarchs from ruling the world.

November 01, 2017

The Zen of Bicycle Tire Changing

Mary and I just spent a wonderful five days biking down the coast of Portugal from Porto (from whence Port Wine gets its name) to Praia de Sao Pedro de Moel. Much of the ancient forest we cycled through had burned to a crisp in the last few months (more in a future post). The beaches were wonderful; the weather atypically beatific for this time of year.

We were on an unescorted tour which meant that our bags magically got from hotel to hotel but that we were responsible for getting ourselves and our bikes from place to place. There was a GPS with a track on my handlebar and we had fairly detailed maps so navigation was simple except when you needed it most – getting in and out of cities, especially over a bridge which required instant decisions on whether there was a bike path on the outside of the guardrail, a wide shoulder on the inside, or just ride in traffic and pray. We did some of each but not always the right choice for the bridge we were on. Portuguese drivers, however, are understanding and forgiving.

Besides a GPS and a burn phone to call for help, the tour company provided us with a repair kit. I paid little attention during the briefing since I haven’t had a flat in five years of riding in Vermont. I do have a tire repair kit at home which daughter Kate gave me and I had leafed through the instructions once.

Day two. Mary stops fairly suddenly. “Bear, I think I have a flat.” Yup, the rim of her rear tire is on the gravel bike path (actually, as we saw, gravel and glass). Front wheels are easy to takeoff. On these bikes removing the back wheel means disentangling the gears from the chain, big opportunity to get covered with grease. But what you really need to be paying attention to is the relationship between the sprockets, the chain, and the derailleur (the thing that keeps tension on the chain). I didn’t.

Next step is to use three handy shims that were in the kit to get one side of the tire out of the rim. At this point Mary had found instructions and was reading to me as I worked. We did have spare tubes so I didn’t need the patch kit. Mary, as instructed, felt around the inside of the tire and did find and remove a piece of glass which was waiting to puncture the new tube.

“This #### tube is too big for the rim,” I growled.

“Partially inflate the tube to make it easier to handle,” Mary read from the instructions. I did; now it more or less fit. For no good reason I had removed both sides of the tire from the rim but finally figured out one needed to be replaced, then the tube put on, finally the other side tucked back in. Easier said than done. I had 300 degrees of tire in the rim.

“You are now at the hardest part of your task,” Mary read. “It is preferable that you tuck the tire in with your fingers rather than use a tool which may puncture the tube. Most important is patience.” Yeah, sure. But finally the whole tire was back on the wheel. I inflated it with the hand pump, screwed the cap down tight on the stem, and got the hub hopelessly entangled with the chain because, of course, I hadn’t paid attention to how I removed it. Fortunately, we had my intact bike to use as a model of what the reassembled rig was supposed to look like so, lots more grease stains later, it was all put back together.

Just as I was ready to triumphantly turn the bike right side up, I noticed that the new tire was completely flat!

More in despair than hope, I pumped it up again. This time I heard the air hissing out from the valve as I screwed the cap on. I backed off from tightening the cap and the hissing stopped. Put some more air in, put the cap halfway on, and were back on the road. Total time 1 hour, 15 minutes. Had to skip lunch.

Next day my back tire went flat. Couldn’t inflate the first new tube I tried; pump just wouldn’t move. We had asked to have extra tubes dropped with our luggage so had another which did inflate. Total time of repair 20 minutes. I’m educable.

But I also like to think of myself as an engineer by inclination if not by training. Thought a lot about the tires the next night. The valves were different than what we’re used to in the US: Presta instead of Shrader.

Screenshot-2017-10-30 bicycle tube valves - Google Search

Maybe, I thought, the little valve on the top needs to be turned to open and then turned again to close BEFORE the cap is put on. That would explain both problems. I tried partially unscrewing the cap on the tube I hadn’t been able to inflate and then pumping. It worked.

“I’m going to fix the valves on both the tubes I replaced,“ I told Mary before we started off on the next leg. Managed to deflate both. Theory was right but practice more difficult. Total time lost 35 minutes. In Vermont they say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But you know engineers.

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