July 27, 2022

Congressional Assailant Released by NY State but Detained by Feds

If he had tried to stab an ordinary citizen, he’d still be free under NY law!

On July 21 in front of many onlookers David Jakubonis tried to stab NY congressman and gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin (R). Jakubonis was subdued and arrested, but a town judge released him without bail and on his own recognizance. This was not a case of a rogue judge or a reluctant prosecutor. According to the NY Times “Since 2020, under New York law, judges have been barred from setting bail on the charge of attempted assault, a nonviolent felony; previously, prosecutors would have had the option to request that Mr. Jakubonis be held on bail.”

He was later arrested by the feds on charges of “assaulting a member of congress using a dangerous weapon.” They are holding on to him.

Presumably if Jakubonis tried (but failed) to stab anyone who is not a member of congress in NY State, he’d still be on the loose. This NY law is idiotic. It’s been denounced by NYC Mayor Eric Adams who wants judges to be able to take “dangerousness” into account. NY Governor Kathy Hochul, whom Zeldin is running against, had a chance to include fixes to bail law in the budget negotiations in March but settled for tweaks to the law instead. She says that the bail “reforms” are not responsible for rising crime. After Zeldin was stabbed, she tweeted:

“My team has informed me about the incident at Lee Zeldin's campaign event tonight. Relieved to hear that Congressman Zeldin was not injured and that the suspect is in custody. I condemn this violent behavior in the strongest terms possible — it has no place in New York.”

As relieved as she was to hear that the suspect was in custody, she didn’t tweet anything when he was released from custody a few hours later under her state’s bail law.

Some have said that, given that a congressperson was the target, the NY prosecutor (who is connected, bizarrely, to Zeldin’s campaign) could have filed a more serious charge so that requiring bail would have been permissible. Others say that the alleged perpetrator was drunk and depressed so that it was not his fault and that it was not a political attack. Even others say no harm no foul since the feds have locked him up or that the weapon wasn’t very fearsome. All of that is irrelevant. The point is that if Jakubonis had tried to stab an ordinary citizen, he’d still be free under NY law!

The police have not only been defunded; they’ve been disarmed. They can’t do their job of keeping us safe if people they arrest for attempted violent crimes are not held pending trial, even when those crimes indubitably happened. The police won’t even be told about much crime if they are not able to protect victims and witnesses. How would you feel about telling the police about someone who tried to assault you if that person was surely going to be out on the street within a few hours with an opportunity to finish the job?

The NY law needs to change so that not just congresspeople are protected. The communities with the most crime will benefit the most when the police can protect them effectively.

July 14, 2022

The Dynamo of Democracy

Time to get out of our own way.

We can have it all. We can bankrupt Putin. We can have affordable energy for our citizens and the Europeans who will otherwise surrender to energy blackmail. We can even reach zero net emissions in a reasonable amount of time. We can be not only the arsenal but the dynamo of democracy.

We’re not on track to do any of these good things. We’re standing squarely in our own way.

Our problem is an inability to build anything significant in real time. It takes decades to build a highway or new train track. Pipelines don’t get built at all in the US anymore. The 100-year-old electrical grid is sparking wildfires and isn’t in the right places to let us use renewable energy effectively. We need nuclear power as a clean source of electricity if we want to electrify most things, but “it’ll take forever to build new nuclear plants.” Offshore oil and gas wells and wind turbines make sense. Good luck in getting them built. During the great recession of 2008, we allocated almost a trillion dollars for recovery and found that nothing in America is shovel ready. No significant new infrastructure got built.

Construction isn’t the problem. Most things only take a year or two to design and two years to build. Bridges that fall are replaced within two years. Vermont replaced its roads wiped out by Tropical Storm Irene in less than a year. Ukraine replaces bombed rail lines almost overnight. China started building the fast train between Beijing and Shanghai as a public work to counter worldwide recession in 2008. I rode that train in 2011.

Even permitting is only part of the problem. Initial hearings often take up two years. That could be cut to one but permitting isn’t the cause of most of the delay.

Post-permit delays have crippled the ability of our country to build. Once a permit has been issued, the appeals begin. The appellants ask for and obtain restraining orders to stop construction. At almost no cost to themselves, anyone can impose the enormous cost of infrastructure delay on the builders and on the country which must do without the needed infrastructure. After the first decade of delays, the opponents start to claim – correctly – that the design is out of date. The builders either stick with the outmoded design or risk resetting the clock by redesigning and reentering the permit process.

Once the legal appeals have been exhausted, the illegal protests start. If it’s a big enough project, you can count on some Hollywood celebrities showing up in front of the cameras with locals who are affected by the project and politicians calling for further study. A new administration can score political points by reversing permits given by its predecessor (see the Keystone Pipeline). BTW, the real opponents of a project – the ones who put up money to stop it – are often commercial competitors; they try to stay away from the cameras. Fossil fuel companies and solar promoters don’t like wind turbines; green entrepreneurs don’t like gas pipelines. None of them like nuclear.

Here’s a pathetic example of tolerating intolerable delay. The US Forest Service uses controlled burns to prevent massive wildfires. These controlled burns require permits. The Montana-based Property and Environment Research Center published a report.

“Once the Forest Service initiates the environmental review process, it takes ​​an average of 3.6 years to begin a mechanical treatment and 4.7 years to begin a prescribed burn.

“For projects that require environmental impact statements—the most rigorous form of review—the time from initiation to implementation averages 5.3 years for mechanical treatments and 7.2 years for prescribed burns.”

If a project is appealed, the average time goes up to 9.4 years! Of course what really happens is the forests which needed the treatment often go up in smoke in the meantime.

The three-step fix

  1. All federal permits must be issued or denied within 18 months of application. The requirements must be rigid but predictable.
  2. We must restate and reassert federal primacy in all interstate projects. This used to be the rule and it is what Constitution provides for. Politics eroded this so, for example, NY State was allowed to block federally approved pipeline projects to bring much-needed Marcellus gas to New England because that’s what Cuomo wanted.
  3. No injunctions or restraining orders can be issued for permitted projects unless the opponents post a bond equal to the likely public and private cost of delay. If the appeal succeeds, the project stops (or is changed) and the bond is returned with interest. If the appeal fails, the bond reimburses the cost of delay.

No project will be perfect. Some will be seriously flawed. The cost of the flaws will be far, far less than the cost of delay.

Only Congress can pass these reforms. They are not partisan issues any more than forest fires are. These delays affect our ability to generate and use carbon-free energy as much or more than our ability to use clean natural gas and keep home heating and travel affordable. We can’t build back better if we can’t build at all. It would be great if Congress would start to act now. Given the Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia v EPA, congresspeople can no longer hope that nameless bureaucrats will take on policy issues that are politically risky to address. These elected congresspeople must make tough decisions themselves. That is what we pay them to do.

We run a good chance of both great economic hardship and western democracies succumbing to energy blackmail if we don’t immediately get our act together.

If we do pass reforms which let us build again, we won’t need federal funds for most infrastructure projects. Private money will rush in to fund good projects once the threat of unpredictable delay is gone. We will build back much, much better. We will have affordable energy, good roads, new railroads, and pipelines, and the electric grid we need as well as less catastrophic forest fires and a cleaner environment. We will be the dynamo democracy needs.

See also:

Keeping Our Republic

Confessions of a Stimulator

Jobs Rx: Make America Shovel Ready

Everything is Shovel-Ready in China

Let’s Really Build the Electric Grid Back BETTER

July 11, 2022

What Did the Wisconsin Supreme Court Do?

You be the judge.

Wisconsin Statute. § 6.87(4)(b)1: “The envelope shall be mailed by the elector, or delivered in person, to the municipal clerk issuing the ballot or ballots.” Also in the law is a provision for voting in a registered nursing home; special officials may be sent.

Do you read that sentence as authorizing unattended drop boxes into which ballots may be deposited? Neither did the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Just to close a loophole, the statutes do talk about alternative polling places (Wis. Stat. § 6.85) but make clear that these must be attended and are used instead of rather than in addition to the municipal clerk’s office.

Therefore, the court said, voting via the use of unattended drop boxes is not legal under Wisconsin law. The court did NOT say that drop boxes were a violation of either the US or Wisconsin constitution. The court did not say that properly authorized drop boxes were either a bad or good idea. It’s not up to the court to say what’s a good or bad idea. The court simply said that elections must be conducted according to the law as passed by the legislature. It did say that elections not conducted according to law lose legitimacy and erode respect for the democratic process.

Nevertheless, the ruling has been taken as a blow against open and fair elections.  The New York Times says “The court adopted a literal interpretation of state law” but considers this a move to restrict voting access in urban areas. Not sure what sort of interpretation of state law the NYT would like the court to make if not a literal one; perhaps one which assures outcomes desired by the NYT? The normally more conservative Wall Street Journal also treats this as a political decision without mentioning the plain language of the law.

It might be a good idea if reporters retook that part of civics 101 which says that the courts are supposed to interpret law, not make it.

There is a reason why this decision has raised so much angst. The case came about because there were more than 500 such unattended drop boxes in use in Wisconsin during the 2020 election which Trump lost to Biden in that state. Trump’s allies claimed that these drop boxes facilitated fraud which cost him election. There is no evidence that this happened. The court did NOT rule that the 2020 election was invalid because the drop boxes were used. It said they should not be used again unless authorized by the Wisconsin legislature, which is currently unlikely. The decision does affect future elections but not those in the past.

The court is not supposed to make public policy so their job in this case is done, whether such drop boxes are desirable or not.

There is still a public policy question which needs to be decided by action or inaction of the Wisconsin legislature and the legislatures of other states. Should unattended drop boxes be allowed to make it as easy as possible to cast ballots?

I say No! Emergency measures made sense when the pandemic hit suddenly. It’s good that ballots cast in drop boxes were not thrown out in 2020. But the emergency is over. With hindsight or foresight, I can’t see why using a mailbox rather than a drop box causes a hardship to any would-be voter, especially in urban areas. I can easily see how, with two years to plan, bad actors on either side or even from abroad can think of ways to tamper with ballots in the drop boxes either to change an election result or to discredit the election itself. It’s a time of great mistrust. We cannot afford a discredited election. Mailin ballots make it possible for more eligible people to vote; that’s good. It must also be demonstrably true beyond reasonable doubt that only legitimate ballots are counted.

Mail-in ballots should go in the US mail (postage paid, of course).

See also:

Keeping Our Republic

Democrats and Republicans Both Fear the Next Election Will be Stolen

July 04, 2022

Keeping Our Republic

As the Constitutional Convention adjourned in Philadelphia, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin “well Doctor what have we got a republic or a monarchy”.

Franklin famously replied “A Republic if you can keep it.”

This July 4th the question is still open. The most obvious recent threat is Trump’s treasonous (IMO) attempt to overturn the last election and the continuing credible threat of his regaining power. However, over the long term, Congress has been turning its responsibilities over to the President (and to some extent the courts). This abdication of responsibility by Congress gives the President dictatorial powers. Put dictatorial powers together with an executive who won’t leave office and you get a monarchy.

Trump

The January 6th committee reports are giving us all increasing evidence of Trump’s unfitness for office. I wish they could be less partisan, but it is the job of the opposition to ferret out the misdeeds of the other side. (It’s the job of the press to expose both sides but that’s another blog for another day).

In one respect, I think the committee is unintentionally downplaying Trump’s cowardice. The surprise isn’t that he said he would go with the mob to the Capitol; the surprise is that he didn’t go. As he is reported to have said “I’m the f’ng President”. He could’ve gone if he wanted to. Could’ve walked for that matter. It’s possible that the story about his trying to grab the wheel of the limo came first from him or his loyalists to excuse his absence. If it turns out that he didn’t try to grab the wheel or get himself where he’d said he’d be, with his troops, why not? That’s a question those who still support Trump should be asking themselves. Why did he abandon them?

Dictatorial Powers

The decision by the Supreme Court that the EPA cannot regulate greenhouse emissions is an important step to preserving our republic. It does NOT say that the federal government cannot regulate these emissions. It does NOT say that regulation is unconstitutional. It does not say that global warming is unimportant (or important). It does say that the President may not order his regulators to go beyond the authorization that Congress has explicitly given them.

It is not the job of the Supreme Court to make public policy decisions. They should not and did not rule on whether such emissions should be regulated or whether it is good public policy to ban coal-fired power plants.  Part of their job is to keep the two other branches of the federal government in their lanes and to keep the republic from becoming a monarchy.

“But,” people say about this issue and many others, “Congress didn’t act so the President had to do something!” These are well meaning people, but they are really saying “if Democracy doesn’t give the results I think are necessary, then we need to have a dictatorship.” Meanwhile congresspeople escape accountability for decisions and can blame any inconvenience on the damned bureaucrats or on businesspeople depending on their party (see the price of oil).

This decision does endanger many other unauthorized regulations. The Court already decided that the CDC does not have the authority to ban evictions nor does OSHA have the right to mandate large employer vaccination policies. The Court hasn’t said and shouldn’t say whether an eviction ban or a vaccine mandate are good or bad public policy. They have said that it is the role of Congress and not of the President through the executive agencies to make such policy or at least to explicitly delegate such authority to the executive branch.

If we want to keep our republic, we need to stand against both leaders who want to lead without the consent of the governed and legislative abdication to the executive.

Happy Fourth of July.

June 23, 2022

Buying an EV in Europe Now Helps Putin and Hurts the Environment

Electricity in Not Green Pixy Dust

Russia is now throttling back the supply of natural gas to Europe. Because gas is mostly delivered by pipeline, it is more difficult for Europe to source elsewhere than either oil or coal. Europe uses natural gas for heat (not critical at this time of year), to run factories (some of which are shutting down), and to generate electricity.

A new electric vehicle on the road means new demand for electricity. New renewables come online in years, not days. Germany shouldn’t have shut down its nukes; but it did – and became even more dependent on Russian natural gas for generating electricity. Now Germany is planning to restart old coal plants – perhaps the most polluting energy source of all – to make up for the high price and short supply of gas for power generation. For at least the next year, each new electric car- or appliance or heating system – means more coal must be burned. Coal emits at least twice as much greenhouse gas as natural gas per kilowatt hour of electricity generated besides lots of other unhealthy stuff like Sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxides. Running cars on gasoline or diesel is far less polluting than running them on electricity generated from coal.

Each new EV increases the demand for electricity and helps push the price of natural gas even higher. Higher prices for natural gas mean that Russia makes more and more by selling less natural gas. New EVs in Europe increase the money Putin has for war.

The only ways to decrease Russia’s revenue and leverage and make energy affordable again are to cut back on use (price is forcing that) and to increase energy supply. Money spent on electric cars is money NOT spent on new renewable energy sources, new nukes (yes, we need them), and drilling for more natural gas and oil in both the US and Europe. Europe made a terrible mistake outsourcing production of fossil fuels to Russia in order to appear greener. There’s plenty of good reason to add more carbon-free generating capacity as well as more relatively clean natural gas. There’s no reason to increase the demand for electricity by adding electric cars to the grid until coal is not the only short-term alternative for increasing electricity supply.

See also:

Neither High Energy Costs nor Dependence on Russian Energy are Acceptable

Defeating Putin Requires Winning the Energy War

High Oil and Gas Prices Fuel Russian and Iranian Aggressiveness

June 08, 2022

An Overabundance of Caution is Excessive

The price is often much higher than the risk avoided.

How many times in the past few years have we heard leaders say that some action was taken or not taken out of “an overabundance of caution”. This usually means that a politician is willing to impose an unknow cost on a large number of people in order to escape the risk that he or she will be blamed for doing nothing or, even worse, be blamed for something which does go wrong. Here are a few examples, glad to have you add to the list.

Out of an overabundance of caution, Germany started closing its nuclear plants after Fukushima.

The cost is overreliance on Russia for energy and an income flow to Putin which enabled and still enables his onslaught on Ukraine. How many lives has that overabundance of caution cost so far? The environmental cost is not only the emissions from war and burning cities, but also greenhouse and noxious gasses from burning coal to keep the lights on. We’re all paying the economic price at the pump - especially Europeans. Winter fuel will be an enormous problem.

Out of an overabundance of caution, the FDA pressured a manufacturer to shut down a huge infant formula plant without evidence that any contaminated product came from the plant. Out of an abundance of caution, the manufacturer complied.

The cost is babies going without formula or drinking ersatz concoctions. The cost is parents desperately driving from one unsupplied store to another.

Out of an overabundance of caution, public schools stayed shut long after the initial “short-term, bend the curve” Covid shutdowns.

The initial shutdown when hospitals were running out of space and supplies was probably a good call, especially given what we didn’t know about the virus at the time. We are still tallying the cost in lost emotional development and education from the extra one and a half years some schools stayed closed.

Out of an overabundance of caution, police didn’t attack the active shooter in Uvalde, Texas for more than 70 minutes.

No comment.

Out of an overabundance of caution, the school board in Burlington, Vermont shut the high school over high air-born PCB readings.

The fault is more with the state which apparently set the threshold so low that it could be exceeded even with local source of PCBs according to an article in 7Days. Hard to blame the Board for using the state figures which are now NOT being used in the screening of other schools for possible PCB contamination. However, Burlington is now facing a more than $200 million cost to build a new high school and tear down the old one. Is it an overabundance of caution which is preventing simply going back into the old school?

Out of an overabundance of caution and fear of offending Putin, we haven’t given Ukraine the weapons it needs to defeat Russia on a timely basis.

It’s understandable that we didn’t ship weapons to Ukraine in the first days of the war when almost everyone believed Russia would overwhelm the country quickly and end up with any weapons shipped in. But now that we’ve seen Ukrainian’s ability and willingness to fight, we ought to be adding to their arsenal as quickly as we can. Our weapon escalation should not come after public dithering. The first Putin should know that Ukraine has longer range artillery, better ship-sinking missiles, or more planes is when these new weapons break the back of planned Russian assaults or drive Russians back. The price of our caution is Ukrainian lives and a greater threat to our own and European freedom.

Caution is often appropriate. An overabundance of caution is excessive and dangerous.

May 31, 2022

Every First Responder HQ in Vermont Needs Two Portable Starlink Dishes

Satellite Broadband is Terrestrial Emergency Proof

When tropical storm Irene lashed Vermont eleven years ago, many towns became islands. The roads and bridges to them were gone. Some towns were also cutoff from all communications. The poles that brought them electricity, phone, and some Internet service (if they had any) were gone. Cellular towers were blown down, lost their own wired connections to the communications backbone, and/or ran out of diesel fuel for their backup generators. repair crews did a fabulous job; but they couldn’t be everywhere at once – and some places were simply inaccessible to the trucks for weeks.

Some cut off towns sent couriers out on foot to get emergency medicine or arrange helicopter evacuations of sick and injured people. Sometimes people found there was one hill they could drive to and get spotty cellular coverage as long as they had enough gas to get there and run the car to keep the cellphones charged.

No matter what weather or catastrophe hits us in the future, there is no excuse for ever losing communications again. The difference is the ready availability of satellite communication. Satellites circling 200 miles above us and powered by solar power obviously aren’t affected by whatever terrestrial problem  afflicts us. As long as first responders have some source of 110-volt power and a view of the northern sky, they can keep on communicating during and after a storm or other catastrophe.

Starlink terminals are now transportable so they can easily be taken to the site of any emergency and used to establish broadband communication almost instantly even if the site of the disaster didn’t have broadband coverage before. Think, perhaps, of a train wreck on an isolated section of track or a forest fire destroying the infrastructure around a rural town. In Ukraine Starlink terminals have kept communication alive even under relentless and ruthless Russian bombing of infrastructure. Reportedly the brave defenders of the Azovstal garrison in Mariupol had Starlink service up until the time they were overrun.

At the moment Starlink is available for immediate delivery almost everywhere in Vermont. Only the dark blue areas below are waitlisted.

Capture

 

The cost is trivial in a first responder budget. $599 for the initial kit including a WiFi router and everything you need for a ground installation (close to $700 when you add Vermont tax and shipping). $110/month with no minimum commitment or contract. Another $25/month for the option to move the dish from place to place.

Sometimes I sound – even to myself – like a salesman for Starlink. I do NOT have any financial interest in Starlink or anything else associated with Elon Musk. I do not think Starlink is a better option for home broadband than fiber – if you can get fiber. But, in a catastrophe, there are currently no other broadband alternatives. When there are, I’ll look at them, too.

Why wouldn’t a first responder unit want to have a dish on its roof and another on a truck ready-to-go? Hopefully they’ll never be used although they’re always good for creating a Wi-Fi hotspot between emergencies. Assuring portable emergency broadband is an action every town, fire department, ambulance service, and police department should take now. No need to wait for a grant. Very bad idea to wait for an emergency before preparing.

See also:

Starlink To Go

Where is Starlink Available Now? Finally An Official Map

Starlink

May 23, 2022

Some Good News for Democracy

We can us it.

Gerrymanders

Gerrymanders breed extreme partisans. If a district is “safe” for either the Ds or the Rs, then whoever wins the primary in the district wins the general election. The primary, in effect, becomes the election. The voters in primaries, only a small fraction of those who vote in general elections, tend to be extreme. Therefor candidates move to the extreme left or right to win the primary and get onto office.

If a district is competitive, the need to appeal to the broad electorate in the upcoming general election (usually) keeps candidates reasonably near the center. Primary voters then must think about electability as well as their hyper-partisan wishes.

Every ten years districts must be redrawn to reflect the most recent census. Each party does its best to win advantage from this process and accuses the other party of abuse of process. Since redistricting is done under state law at the state level, a party which controls the governorship and both houses of the state legislature usually has an advantage. Incumbents of either party also like getting re-elected so they have a stake in gerrymandering which is only selfish, not partisan.

The good news is that state courts this year have reversed some egregious gerrymanders on the basis of state laws or the state constitution. The most prominent reversal so far is in New York where the highest state court mandated a less-partisan revision of the electoral map drawn by a Democratic governor with super-majorities in both houses of the legislature. It speaks well of the justice system that all the justices who voted for the 4-3 decision were appointed by Democratic governors.

In North Carolina a Republican drawn map was rejected as unconstitutionally partisan. The court produced its own map, and that map survived an appeal to the US Supreme Court. The US Supreme Court also let stand a court-drawn map in Pennsylvania which replaced one drawn by Republicans. In other states, allegedly partisan maps have not been overturned.

At the beginning of the 2022 election cycle, “experts” said that redistricting would advantage Republicans. Then, after the NY legislature circumvented the state constitution in its enormous attempted gerrymander, it looked like the advantage had shifted to the Democrats nationally. Now it looks like the puts and takes of redistricting will be about a draw as far as partisan advantage. What’s a loss for partisans is a gain for the rest of us. But only a small gain so far.

Aid to Ukraine

Congress just passed a $40 billion aid to Ukraine bill which President Biden has now signed. The best news is that Ukraine will get another installment of the aid that it needs. Also good news is that a majority of both parties in both houses voted for the bill despite the fact that the extreme left and the extreme right have not been fans of supporting Ukrainian resistance. The parties were not held hostage to their extreme wings.

The Democrats got all their left wing on board; good for them. That includes the squad, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, who have until now been pretty successful at pulling the party their way on other issues.

There were a significant number of Republican no votes although most Republicans voted in favor of Ukraine. This continues an unfortunate isolationist Republican minority tradition we also saw before the second world war. Even worse, there is a fascist tinge to the isolationism now as there was then.

Nevertheless, according to Politico:

“Aid for Ukraine goes far beyond charity,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the floor Thursday morning. “The future of America’s security and core strategic interests will be shaped by the outcome of this fight.”

The Republican leader called on “every senator on both sides to join this bipartisan supermajority” in passing the bill. “Anyone concerned about the cost of supporting a Ukrainian victory should consider the much larger cost should Ukraine lose,” McConnell said.

Australia Sets a Good Example

According to Associated Press via Politico, defeated incumbent Scott Morrison conceded before all of the races were decided so that his successor could quickly be sworn in.

“I believe it’s very important that this country has certainty. I think it’s very important this country can move forward,” Morrison said.

“And particularly over the course of this week with the important meetings that are being held, I think it’s vitally important there’s a very clear understanding about the government of this country,” he added.

A very good lesson for you know whom.

See also: Democrats and Republicans Both Fear the Next Election Will be Stolen

May 18, 2022

Pandemic Lesson #2 – Experts Are Too Narrow to Make Policy

“Lock it all down,” the epidemiologists said. They were correct that, the less people left their houses, the less the disease would spread.

“How will food get to their houses?” we can imagine leaders asking.

“There will have to be few essential exceptions,” we can imagine an epidemiologist responding.

“And those would be?” Not a question to ask the epidemiologists. Outside their area of expertise. No criticism of them; we should expect experts to be narrowly focused on their area of expertise.

If you were a mayor or a governor or a head of state who must make immediate decisions in the face of a new pandemic, you have two choices: 1) just listen to the epidemiologists – a strategy which allows you to claim that you made the expert-endorsed decisions regardless of the outcome; 2) as quickly as you can, consult as wide a variety of experts in different fields like logistics, food supply, energy, and waste removal, talk to people whose thinking (as opposed to expertise you trust) and make the best decision you can at warp speed.

The first approach gives you the political cover that you listened to THE experts and THE science. You can claim that you are “acting from an excess” of caution. You will be tempted to stick with this decision even in the face of adverse effects like lost years of schooling, an economy in tatters without unsustainable subsidies, a rising suicide rate etc. etc. China is sticking to its lockdown policy despite people starving in their homes. How can you not do what the experts in infectious disease said to do?

If you take the second approach and do the best job you can of balancing the recommendations of experts in diverse fields, you are in the short term more vulnerable to second guessing. You, the non-expert, made the final decision. You will have to monitor results and almost assuredly adjust policy as both the virus and the society react and mutate in unpredictable ways. Experts from different fields (sometimes in the same field) will continue to disagree. You will be blamed for every death. You will be blamed for the demise of every business which you did not deem essential. And you will have done what leaders are chosen to do, synthesized the best advice you can get, acted, observed, and modified your actions.

Gov. Scott (R -VT and the second most popular governor in the country) took mainly the second approach and Vermont avoided the worst results of the pandemic in terms of mortality and also avoided the worst effects of an “excess of caution” – our schools reopened relatively early. Trump actually took a third course at first – he tried to wish the pandemic away. But he shut down international travel early and was accused of xenophobia (of which he is guilty in general), then was accused of acting too late. Recent “expert opinion” is that shutting down travel always amounted to locking the barn door while the horse galloped down the street. Some governors like Newsome in California took the “epidemiologist” approach of very tight lockdowns; others like DeSantis in Florida kept their economies largely opened.

We saw surges of Covid first in the mainly blue states with strict measures. Before the partisan gloating was over, the virus surged in the red states. Now, although much less virulent, it’s been back strong on the coasts again. Florida’s age-adjusted death rate is a tiny bit better than that of California. Florida’s unlocked economy has fared better.

The danger is that we see all this through partisan lenses and don’t learn the lesson we need for the next emergency. There is no simple “the science” according to which a leader can govern. There is no one type of expert who can make overall policy from the narrow perch of his or her expertise (sorry, Dr. Fauci). We must do our best to elect competent, calm people to executive positions and hope that they encourage a clash of expertise and opinion before making decisions, then monitor the results and change course as often as necessary.

See also:

Pandemic Lesson #1: “The Science” Must Always be Challenged

https://blog.tomevslin.com/covid/

May 13, 2022

Starlink To Go

Stress tested in Ukraine and now available to you.

Capture

Russians have targeted Ukrainian electricity and communication infrastructure. In some areas there may not be any utility poles left standing and underground conduits may have been bombed to oblivion. Starlink has been an important tool for these brave people to coordinate their resistance to Putin’s brutal invasion. Satellite communication doesn’t require any middle-mile infrastructure. Starlink provides low-latency high-bandwidth communication wherever there is 110/220 volt electricity available. Any vehicle with an inverter can supply this power as can a portable generator. Russia has endorsed Starlink’s effectiveness by  trying hard to hack it; so far, they haven’t succeeded.

Much more mundanely, a year ago I took a long RV trip and struggled with uneven WiFi in campgrounds and data caps on my Verizon phone. I saw camper setting up their portable Dish Network and DirectTV dishes and dreamed of the day when I’d be able to put my Starlink dish on a couple of cinder blocks next to the RV.

That day has come!

For an extra $25/month, traveling Starlink subscribers are now able to transport their dishes to new locations which currently have service. It can go to a campground. It can go to a camp or event site; but it must have 110/220 volt power available - same as at home. It must also have a clear view of the northern sky above about 25 degrees of elevation in the northern hemisphere or the southern sky in the southern hemisphere. You can turn roaming on or off from the Starlink website so you only have to pay the premium for the months you’re on the move.

The FAQs on https://support.starlink.com/ explain further limitations;

  • Best Effort Service: Portability service is provided on a best effort basis. Stated speeds and uninterrupted use of services are not guaranteed. Starlink prioritizes network resources for users at their registered service address. When you bring your Starlink to a new location, this prioritization may result in degraded service, particularly at times of peak usage or network congestion.
  • “International Travel: Starlink can only be used within the same continent as the registered Service Address. If you use Starlink in a foreign country for more than two months, you will be required to move your registered service address to your new location or purchase an additional Starlink to maintain service.
  • “No In-Motion Use:  We do not support Starlink use in motion at this time. Using the Starlink Kit in motion will void the limited warranty of your Kit. While our teams are actively working to make it possible to use Starlink on moving vehicles (e.g., automobiles, RVs, boats), Starlink is not yet configured to be safely used in this way.”

The Starlink service map is essential for planning travel. It shows, for example, that all the lower 48 states in the US have service. Alaska does not, and only part of Hawaii does. Southern Canada does and Northern Canada doesn’t. Mexico does but not Honduras.

The map also shows areas where there is a backlog for new service. In these areas you would expect to have degraded service during peak times because there are already as many permanent users there as Starlink can currently support.

Happy travels.

See also: https://blog.tomevslin.com/starlink/

May 05, 2022

Pandemic Lesson #1: “The Science” Must Always be Challenged

But that doesn’t mean all challenges are right.

In the beginning, scientists in Wuhan, the only scientists who had direct access to Covid data at the time, said that the disease couldn’t spread from person to person; it only spread when infected food was eaten. The World Health Organization (WHO) endorsed that “science”. It was wrong.

Once China and WHO changed their view and conceded that infection could spread from person to person, they also said that it spread mainly on surfaces. We had a mini-epidemic of handwashing and surface cleaning. Mary and I still have most of a big bottle of sanitizer left. We took our mail out of the mailbox with rubber gloves and quarantined it three days before opening. Dr. Fauci and the US CDC did not recommend masking at that time. Still to be determined is whether they didn’t recommend masking because they didn’t want the public to gobble up the limited supply of surgical masks or because they truly didn’t believe that airborne infection was significant.

An interesting side note is that epidemiologists had not kept up with the latest physics about tiny droplets. The physics embedded in their literature only acknowledged larger droplets, which are more likely to alight and persist on surfaces, and ignored tiny droplets which stay in the air – it’s those tiny droplets that the virus travels on. The “science” which emphasized infected surfaces was wrong. It’s a good thing it was challenged. It’s a good thing that we learned that small weave masks are effective. What if no one had been allowed to question “the science”?

Dr. Fauci and other experts said it would take at least two years to develop an effective vaccine. They were being optimistic based on experience up until then. Fortunately, they were wrong.

When the vaccines first got emergency approval, they were billed as being 85-95% effective. Most people, including me, thought that meant getting vaccinated would reduce the chance of getting infected by 85% to 95% and could well snuff out the disease like what has almost happened with polio and smallpox. Those estimates were the best available; but they were wrong, especially as the virus mutated. I urged vaccine requirements for air travel and some professions like medicine thinking that vaccinated people were largely not spreaders. I was wrong. The “science” was wrong. Experience has shown the vaccines effective at preventing hospitalization and death – a good thing; but not nearly as effective at preventing spread. For the least vulnerable, it is beginning to appear that mild infection is more effective than a shot at preventing hospitalization. The world changes and “the science” changes as well.

There is nothing wrong with the fact that we learn more as time goes on or that old truths become invalid as the world changes. What is wrong is to think that “the science” should go without challenge; that would be catastrophic. What is wrong is to think that any legion of fact-checkers can decide what we ought to read; that is also catastrophic. Science flourishes on challenge. New discoveries always tread on old truths. Progress depends on challenge – even if most challengers are wrong.

April 27, 2022

Neither High Energy Costs nor Dependence on Russian Energy are Acceptable

Both problems can be solved while reducing net greenhouse gas emissions.

We must have both energy independence and a responsible climate policy. The good news is that we can have both without imposing soaring energy prices on those who can least afford them. An “all of the above” energy policy, better infrastructure, and permitting reform will enable a transition to zero net greenhouse gas emissions, no dependence on murderous regimes for energy or critical energy components, and lower energy prices.

The Problems

Although climate change has always been part of human history, it is likely that, if the concentration of greenhouses gasses in the atmosphere continues to grow significantly, climate will change faster than we’re prepared to deal with new precipitation patterns, changed growing zones, and rising sea levels.

However, the cost of Europe’s premature abandonment of its own gas and oil resources and early shutdown of nuclear power was clear when energy costs on the continent skyrocketed even before the Ukraine War. Now that economic problem has become a literal matter of life and death with most European countries unable to do without the imports which finance Putin’s war and nearly helpless against his threats to cut off their energy supplies.

Although the US is fortunate to be a net exporter of oil and gas, we have dangerous energy dependencies of our own. Critical metals for electric cars, batteries, and other components of a greener economy are mostly imported, many from hostile places. Almost all our solar panels are made in China. We import uranium from Russia.

The electric grid in the US is ancient and obsolete. It is not dependable enough for an economy transitioning to electrically delivered energy. It is not engineered to be fail-safe. It is in the wrong places to deliver renewable energy from where it is generated to where it is consumed. It is starting deadly fires. Similarly, some gas pipelines are old and leaky; and we don’t have the pipeline capacity to move natural gas from where it is in abundance to where it is needed to displace coal and oil. The problem is so acute that the New England had to burn carbon-intensive oil and even more polluting coal to generate enough electricity to keep the lights on this past winter. A few years ago Russian tankers were offloading Siberian natural gas near Boston while US gas just 300 miles away was stranded for lack of pipelines,

Like most of Europe, the US has shut down carbon-free nuclear plants whose lives could have been extended. We have not set up a permanent depository for nuclear waste. Vermont used to be an exporter of carbon-free electricity; now, thanks to the shutdown of Vermont Yankee. Vermont imports electricity generated from fossil fuel in neighboring states.

It takes forever to build anything in the US. Major projects like new power and pipelines, railroads, power plants, wind farms, and solar installations often take as long as twenty years. Permitting requirements are overly detailed; endless injunctions often string out for decades after permits gave been issues. When legal appeals are exhausted, illegal protests raise costs and delay projects even further. Commercial rivals of projects are very skilled in rallying “environmental” opposition to almost anything – including renewable energy projects - and misusing the concerns of those who’d rather have a project built in someone else’s backyard.

The Good News

As late as 2007, more than half of US oil was imported. Now, thanks to new technology, we are net exporters of oil and gas. We cannot be blackmailed by Russia or Saudi Arabia. We are even able to provide some supply to our European allies. Even better, because the price of natural gas in the US is a fraction of what it was fifteen years ago, it is largely displacing coal. Natural gas emits only half the CO2 that coal does per megawatt of electricity generated and none of the other deadly pollutants that come from coal. The transition from coal to natural gas was driven by economics, not government mandates. As a result, the price of electricity in most of the US has declined in absolute dollars as coal was phased out and the US has more than met the emission reduction targets assigned to it in the Kyoto Treaty (which we never signed).

The cost of solar panels has come down 90% in the last decade and their efficiency has improved. Wind turbines have also become less expensive. Renewables are providing significant amounts of electricity. The pairing of renewable but intermittent sources like wind and solar with on-demand natural gas generation has made it practical to deploy much more renewable energy than we would have been able to otherwise.

The cost and performance of batteries has improved to the point where they are practical, in many cases, for electric cars and even trucks. Electric cars are in so much demand that dealers can’t keep them in stock and incentives to buyers are not necessary. There is danger that use of electric cars will outpace the growth of renewable electricity to charge them and the ability of the electrical grid to deliver that energy reliably.

Small, even safer nuclear power plants have been developed and are being deployed in other parts of the world. The US has no problem building nuclear power plants safe enough to power submarines and surface ships in wartime conditions.

The latest UN climate report says that warming will stop almost immediately when net zero emissions have been achieved. The old science was that warming would continue for at least decades and possibly centuries after the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere stabilized. The implication of this change is that we do have time to take reasonable sustainable actions to reduce net emissions and don’t need to make an emergency economic and social crash landing.

So What Do We Do?

  1. “all of the above” energy sourcing to drive down the cost of electricity while increasing the supply. Reduced electric rates are the best possible incentive for people and businesses to electrify. Continue the deployment of renewables where they are cost justified – which they are in many cases given new technology. Build small nuclear plants as part of a new regionalized grid. Keep existing nukes open until replaced by other carbon-free sources. Open the Yucca nuclear waste depository. Enable responsible production of natural gas; free market economics will result in that gas replacing the remaining use of coal and diesel fuel to generate electricity.
  2. Build the energy infrastructure back better.

    The electric grid must be much more decentralized and reliable to support more dependence on electricity and deployment of renewables and small-scale nuclear. As much of the grid as possible should be underground for reliability and reduced maintenance costs. Burying utilities including electricity and fiber for broadband should be considered as part of every road repair or building project. The US could lead the world by transitioning to the first direct current grid since Thomas Edison’s days with an enormous saving in transmission and conversion energy loss. A side benefit is losing all the inverters and other bumps in the line we use for converting alternating current to the direct current needed not only by electronics and battery charging but also by more and more appliance motors.

    Energy infrastructure includes oil and gas pipelines. Gas pipelines are needed now so that the abundant gas in the Pennsylvania can get to New England and other parts of the nation which need it and reduce both costs and emissions. These pipelines will eventually be used to transport green hydrogen so are not a short-term investment. Oil pipelines, especially those which have already been permitted, are needed so that US and Canadian oil can flow more readily (cheaply) to domestic markets and especially for shipment to world markets which we don’t want to have dependent on Russian supply.

    The well-studied Yucca Mountain repository for nuclear waste has been stalled for decades by politics. Time to open it.

  3. Assure that we mine our own ample supply of uranium and the rare earths like chrome, nickel, cadmium, and lithium needed to build a greener economy now, not after 20 years of appeals and protests.
  4. Continue building pilot projects for green hydrogen, geothermal, and various kinds of energy storage as well as continued research into new battery architectures, nuclear fusion, and mechanical carbon sequestration.
  5. Continue and expand the forestry effort which is already funded by the bipartisan infrastructure bill that the President signed. Trees take an enormous amount of CO2 out of the atmosphere (natural carbon sequestration) and store it as a useful carbon supplement in the ground. Taking a pound of greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere obviously has the same effect as avoiding a pound of emissions. Improved forestry worldwide is probably both the most effective and cheapest alternative we have for reducing greenhouse gas.
  6. Implement permitting reform and stop delays to approved projects! We have more time than we thought we had to reduce emissions, but we don’t have forever. There is a huge urgency to reducing the world’s dependence on energy from ill-intentioned suppliers and assuring our own energy independence. Getting to yay or nay on a project should always be possible for a well-prepared applicant in two years, preferably one. Once a permit has been duly granted, anyone who seeks injunctive delay of the project must be required to post bond for the full cost of the delay they are seeking. If they win the appeal, they get their money back; if not, it is forfeit. Illegal actions and vandalism to stop an approved project must simply not be tolerated no matter how many Hollywood celebrities show up in support. Protecting legal projects is one of the many things for which we need a well-financed and well-trained police force.

New powerlines, pipelines, wind and solar facilities, nuclear plants and mines for rare earth need to built and operable in the next few years. We can do this. We can reduce emissions, maintain and improve our own energy independence, and end the world’s dependence on Russian and middle eastern energy.

We must and can do these things in the next few years – and can make energy cleaner and more affordable in the process!

See also:

Fracking Saved Our Freedom

Subsidizing Electric Cars Might Even Hurt the Environment

Defeating Putin Requires Winning the Energy War

Let’s Really Build the Electric Grid Back BETTER

April 11, 2022

Special One-Time Offer to Save the Planet Extended 11 Years But You Must Act Now!

So says Prof. Michael Mann, inventor of the famous climate hockey stick.

On the scale of climate change alarmist (10) to climate change denier (0), Michael Mann is about a 9.5. His diagram of the temperature hockey stick with its inflection point when industrial emissions of greenhouse gas (GHG) started to rise has been almost as persuasive as Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth in raising five alarms about the dangers of global warming. So, when Mann says that he and the UN Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have decided that the danger is not nearly as immediate as we (and he and they) thought, we must pay attention.

I’m going to include his entire blog post below (it is licensed for such redistribution) so that you can draw your own conclusions. My thoughts, not all positive, follow his post.

The Best Climate Science You’ve Never Heard Of

By Michael E. Mann on Saturday, February 26, 2022 - 09:43

By Mark Hertsgaard, Saleemul Huq and Michael E. Mann

Picture1

(note: this is the original full version of our recent Washington Post op-ed, based on a recent press briefing involving the authors, sponsored by Scientific American and Covering Climate Now)

One of the biggest obstacles to avoiding global climate breakdown is that so many people think there’s nothing we can do about it.  

They point out that record-breaking heat waves, fires, and storms are already devastating communities and economies throughout the world.  And they’ve long been told that temperatures will keep rising for decades to come, no matter how many solar panels replace oil derricks or how many meat-eaters go vegetarian.  No wonder they think we’re doomed.

But climate science actually doesn’t say this.  On the contrary, the best climate science you’ve probably never heard of suggests that humanity can still limit the damage to a fraction of the worst projections if—and, we admit, this is a big if—governments, businesses, and all of us take strong action starting now.

The science we’re referencing is included in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report, issued last August.  But first, some context. 

For many years, the scientific rule of thumb was that a sizable amount of temperature rise was indeed locked into the earth’s climate system.  Scientists believed—and told policymakers and journalists, who told the public—that even if humanity hypothetically halted all heat trapping emissions overnight, carbon dioxide’s long lifetime in the atmosphere combined with the sluggish thermal properties of the oceans would nevertheless keep global surface temperatures rising for 30 to 40 more years.  Since shifting to a zero-carbon global economy would take at least a decade or two, temperatures were bound to keep rising for at least another half century.

But guided by subsequent research, scientists dramatically revised that lag time estimate down to as little as 3 to 5 years. The updated finding is included in the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, Working Group I, that made headlines last August.  Indeed, it underlies the widely-now used concept of a “carbon budget”. It allows us to specify (with some uncertainty range) the maximum amount of carbon that we can still burn if we are to keep global surface warming below the critical level of 1.5C (3F).

Most importantly, it tells us that if humanity slashes emissions to zero, global temperatures will stop rising almost immediately.

To its credit, Scientific American did discuss this updated science in a short article last October. But why isn’t this reason for cautious optimism more widely known?

There’s plenty of blame to go around. Two of the co-authors of this article are climate scientists, while the other is a veteran journalist.We can collectively attest that scientists aren’t always the best natural communicators, journalists and scientists typically don’t speak the same language, and much gets lost in translation. Add to that the concerted headwind of a fossil fuel industry-funded disinformation campaign, and you have the makings of a substantial breakdown in communication.

That’s a shame, because this revised timeline implies a paradigm shift in how humanity can respond the to the climate emergency.  The implications fall into three categories—the three P’s of psychology, politics, and policies.

Psychology is arguably the most important, for it makes possible the rest.  Knowing that global temperature rise can be stopped almost immediately means that humanity is not doomed after all.  We can still save our civilization, at least most of it, if we take rapid, forceful action.  This knowledge can banish the sense of inevitability that paralyzes people and instead inspire them towards greater resolve and activity.

This psychological shift can in turn transform the politics of climate change, for it can entice more people to join the fight—or to stay in the fight rather than succumbing to despair.  

Newcomers to climate action might begin by eating less meat or ditching the gas-guzzler for an electric vehicle. Another key step, the climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe urges, is for people simply to talk more about climate change with family, friends, and co-workers—because you can’t solve a problem if you don’t even talk about it. 

Most important, though, politics must be committed.  “Many individuals are doing what they can,” the naturalist David Attenborough has said.  “But real success can only come if there is a change in our societies and in our economics and in our politics.”

That will only happen if many more people vote, march, and otherwise pressure governments and corporations to favor climate protection over climate destruction.  For example, the world spent an estimated $5.9 trillion in 2020 subsidizing fossil fuels, the main driver of global warming.  US taxpayers alone subsidize oil and gas drilling by $660 billion a year.  Making fossil fuels artificially cheaper in this way tilts the economic playing field so lopsidedly that it hardly matters how many individuals decide to take the train rather than fly. 

Astonishingly, even people who consider themselves environmentalists do not always vote.  In the US, environmentalists could decide the crucial 2022 mid-term elections in eight swing states if they just bothered to vote, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Environmental Voter Project.  Almost one million people who did vote in the 2020 general election have never voted in a mid-term, the project found.

Finally, changing the politics of climate change can change the policies used to fight it.  Measures that once seemed politically impossible—such as the Green New Deal or president Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislation—can suddenly become feasible as some lawmakers get voted out and others get voted in, and even recalcitrant lawmakers still in power begin to calculate the costs of blocking action differently. 

Where all this matters most is in highly climate vulnerable communities, especially in the global South.  Countless people in these communities have been suffering climate disasters for decades already, because their communities tend to be more exposed to climate impacts and have less financial capacity to protect themselves.  For these people, limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius is not a scientific abstraction but rather “a matter of life and death,” Mohammed Nasheed, the former president of The Maldives said at the COP26 UN climate summit last November.

The fact that 30 more years of rising temperatures is not necessarily locked in is tremendously empowering, but it is not a silver bullet.  Some impacts are already irreversible, especially ice sheet melting and sea level rise.  The IPCC’s next report, due for release later this month, will address how societies can adapt to these and other such profound challenges.

Nevertheless, the latest climate science suggests that COP26’s goal of keeping 1.5C alive remains within reach—if humanity phases out fossil fuels rapidly and slashes emissions in half by 2030.  If we do that, we might still preserve a livable planet for all who deserve it, which is everyone.

_____________

Follow Michael E. Mann on Twitter or Facebook to be notified of new blog posts, or subscribe by RSS


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

*************************************************************************************************************************

OK, this is Tom again.

It certainly is good news that “the science” now says we have time to act reasonably and responsibly and don’t have to do a lot of panicky, expensive, and often ineffectual things like ethanol mandates, raising the price of home heating oil in a year when it’s already doubled, or subsidizing electric cars that people will buy anyway. The climate is now not expected to turn into an irreversible inferno.

What’s missing from this post is an explanation of why Mann and the IPCC have made such a huge change in assumptions. I’m not surprised to see the scientific consensus change; it’s good that Mann is trying to publicly correct the mistake; but it’s disappointing not to understand what the actual mistake was. How do we know how much faith to put in the new prediction since it’s made with the same assuredness as the old one? How do we know if all the implications of whatever incorrect assumption was made have been thought through?  How do we know that the assumption wasn’t changed just because people were saying “oh, too late. Sorry.” Mann spends several paragraphs explaining how the new assumption changes “the three P’s of psychology, politics, and policies”; I’d rather he explained why the new assumptions are believed to be right, not why they’re convenient.

I’m also not convinced by his claim that the reason this good news has not gotten more currency is because of disinformation by the fossil fuel industry. I buy that the fossil fuel industry has pushed back against or even suppressed claims that fossil fuel use is dangerous to the environment; I can’t see any motive for the industry suppressing any news which deemphasizes the climate emergency.

Nevertheless, if correct, this change in assumptions is very good news. The current plight of Europe dependent on Russian fuels and Ukraine being decimated by weapons paid for by the users of Russian fuels shows how counterproductive and dangerous it is to act precipitously (or need to appear to act precipitously) because there is allegedly no time to implement long term solutions. My optimistic take is that we’re at the beginning of forging a practical and actionable consensus on climate and energy.

April 04, 2022

Where is Starlink Available Now? Finally An Official Map

Good news for Vermont.

Up until now, the only way to find out whether Starlink is immediately available where you want to use it was to try ordering and see whether the website forced you to backorder status. Doing that every day was not practical. Now there is an official map from Starlink – presumably updated frequently – which gives you a current view of availability worldwide: https://www.starlink.com/map. Light green means available for immediate order; dark green means backorder only.

Vtstarlink

Note the good news for Vermont above. Availability everywhere except our northern and southern borders. There’s no telling from this map how much availability there is in each one of the hexagons. However, I suspect (but this is a guess) that availability is and will remain good. Here’s why: from our PoV on the ground the satellites rise somewhere southwest to northwest of us and travel in arcs setting northeast to southeast. Serving the area to the southwest of Vermont takes lots of satellites because there are lots of people. However, once these satellites are usable here, they are no longer usable very far west of us; they’re all ours. We have low population density in the areas where fiber and cable are not available. Every Vermonter that signs up is incremental revenue for Starlink from the satellites in an under-utilized part of their orbit. Lucky us.

All the Starlink news is not good. Starlink prices have gone up so that the equipment in Vermont now costs about $700 with tax and shipping and the monthly cost is now $110.

Starlink quality is not as good as fiber. However, after a year and a half, I still use it for everything including teleconferencing. Since we now also have fiber, I use Starlink so I can report on its quality using the zoomready shareware I wrote and decide whether I should keep recommending it to people who can’t get a fiber connection.

I do recommend Starlink if you are in an area where you can get it, can afford it, have a good enough view of the sky, and can’t get fiber.

See also:

How to Find Out Free If Starlink Will Work at Your House

Another Free Way to Tell if Starlink Broadband Will Work at Your Location

Vermont Starlink FAQs

Starlink’s zoomready Rating Is Going Down

March 29, 2022

Live this morning: talking about inane actions by VT legislature

This morning (March 29) at 11AM ET I'll be on WDEV (96.1 FM, 550 AM) in VT with Bill Sayre discussing the inane actions by the Vermony legislature to push already sky high home heating costs even higher and to subsidize electric cars even though they are sold out. Streaming at https://wdevradio.com/stream/. It's a callin so you can question and opine as well.

Apparently the legislature hasn't noticed that their goal of raising fossil fuel prices have already been over-achieved by inflation and war and that electric cars are selling above sticker price when they can be had at all.

See also:

Dear Vermont Legislature

Subsidizing Electric Cars Might Even Hurt the Environment

 

March 28, 2022

Fracking Saved Our Freedom

And it’s good for the environment, too.

How would we respond to Putin if we in the US still imported 62% of our oil as we did in 2007? Where would Europe be if we were competing with them for scarce oil and natural gas rather than providing some of our surplus to reduce their dependency on Russia? If we had left it to Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran to be the world’s only super petro-powers, we wouldn’t be able to protect ourselves from domination by them, let alone help Ukraine.

How did we cure our dangerous dependency on imported oil and natural gas?

Chart

Back in 1973 when we imported only 42% of the oil we consumed, our economy was almost brought to a standstill by the Arab Oil Embargo. Every president since pledged to reduce our imports. Instead, imports and prices rose relentlessly. In 2008 oil prices were higher than they are now (allowing for inflation) and natural gas prices five times as high in much of the country. 62% of our oil products were imported.  Natural gas was mainly domestic but production was declining and import terminals were being built for liquified natural gas (LNG). Even in 2011, the best forecast was that net oil imports would stabilize at 60% of consumption and President Obama was calling for reducing that by one third (but didn’t say how).

Around 2008 hydraulic fracturing (yes, “fracking”) and horizontal drilling were successfully deployed, first to recover natural gas from fields formerly thought to be depleted and then to recover oil as well. The price of natural gas plummeted and has never recovered. What had first been planned as terminals to import natural gas became, instead, export terminals. By 2020 we were a net exporter of oil and oil products. BTW, Gazprom in Russia was against our fracking from the first.

[We do still import some oil. Primarily from Canada and Mexico, because some of their wells are nearer our markets than theirs and we export to them in other places for the opposite reason. We also import unnecessarily (even from Russia until two weeks ago) because the protectionist Jones Act prevents us from delivering our own oil to ourselves on foreign tankers and we don’t have tankers of our own. But we still export more than we import.]

If it weren’t for fracking (lousy word but we should get used to saying it and keep doing it) and horizontal drilling, we’d be begging bad guys for more gas and oil and in no position to confront them. We would also not have enjoyed the prosperity we had in the ten years leading up to the pandemic. That prosperity was to a great degree fueled by not having to send money abroad for oil and by increased competitiveness of American factories once we had cheaper energy available than the rest of the world.

Europeans also have depleted oil and gas wells. They decided not to frack or even, for the most part, to invest in new wells. They outsourced their energy needs to Russia. Germany also shut down most of its nuclear plants so had even greater need for Russian natural gas to generate electricity – despite all they had invested in renewables. That’s why Germany was just about to open one more gas pipeline from Russia before Putin’s invasion. BTW, not drilling in Europe didn’t save the world from greenhouse gasses (GHG) – it just moved the GHG sources to Russian drilling (not well-regulated) and burning Russian fuel including coal.

It is not an exaggeration to say Putin’s war is financed by the fuel Europe is buying from Russia and which Europe would be in a world of hurt without.

But what about the environment?

Chart-title

The chart above tells the story. Since fracking was popularized in 2008 and the price of natural gas plummeted, the use of coal to generate electricity in the US has halved and natural gas use has more than doubled to replace it. Renewables have grown as well, partly because natural gas as a nighttime backup makes them more practical. Natural gas emits less than half the GHGs that coal does per kilowatt of electricity generated.

Us-ghg-emissions_download1_2021

The chart above shows how US GHG emissions have declined. Some of this decline is due to greater efficiency, some to renewables. The bulk of it is from substituting natural gas for coal, something we can and should keep doing.

You may have heard that fracking leads to increased methane emissions from wells. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. However, as you can see above, US methane emissions, most of which are from agriculture, have not gone up even though we are producing much more gas and oil than ever before. Horizontal drilling reduces leakage because less than 10% as many well shafts are needed to recover the fuel from a given area.  However, we can reduce leakage especially from oil wells even further, and we should.

Even before Putin’s invasion, Europe realized that natural gas and nuclear are both crucial to meeting carbon targets. Unfortunately, they didn’t realize the danger of outsourcing natural gas supply to Russia. They do now.

So what?

Drilling for oil or gas today means fracking and horizontal drilling. We have very little reserves we can tap without these technologies, and they are the cleanest way to produce oil and gas. We are incredibly fortunate that these technologies were deployed when they were, and we will need to continue to use them for years to come. We will reduce emissions further as natural gas continues to replace coal. This doesn’t mean we stop development of no-carbon alternatives including nuclear or that we pause electrification. It does mean that we do not “dis-invest” in fossil fuels until alternatives are available. It does mean that we don’t ever allow Russia or Iran or Saudi Arabia to determine our energy future. It does mean that we get over considering fracking as an obscenity.

[full disclosure: Mary and I founded a company which trucks natural gas to large users not served by pipelines. We’re proud of that but no longer have any operational or significant financial connection to the company.]

See also:

What Vermont Employers Are Telling Us (about the need for natural gas beyond the pipeline)

What Should We Do About the Threat of Climate Change?

“Defying expectations of a rise, global carbon dioxide emissions flatlined in 2019” – IEA

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

Defeating Putin Requires Winning the Energy War

March 21, 2022

Dear Vermont Legislature,

Have you noticed that there are both severe inflation and a war going on?

Last year when you passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) over the Governor’s veto, you thought that we needed higher prices for fossil fuels to save the planet. After all, home heating oil was only $2.77/gallon then and people weren’t hurrying to buy air-source heat pumps. Now, this week, home heating oil is $4.81/gallon. Shouldn’t you declare “mission accomplished” and try to protect Vermonters from the further price increases which are likely to come?

You seem to be going in the wrong direction. Last week the House gave preliminary approval to the “Clean Heat Standard”, legislation which, no matter what else it does, deliberately raises the cost of delivering heating oil and propane to Vermonters. Don’t you think a near doubling of prices in a year is enough? Are the heat pumps you want people to install so inefficient that a doubling of fuel oil prices won’t result in their adoption?

Part of your prescription for reducing Vermont’s carbon footprint is continued subsidies for electric cars. Over that last year, the average price of gasoline here has gone from $2.72 to $4.34/gallon. Isn’t that incentive enough? Apparently, it is because electric cars are driving off the lot faster than dealers can replenish them. The incentives paid by Vermont utilities for buying electric cars are now counter-productive to the goal of getting people to switch from fossil fuel to electricity because, since they are actually paid by electric ratepayers, they INCREASE the cost of electricity. BTW, the price of natural gas which generates 53% of the electricity here in New England has gone up 93% in the past year. We will soon see that reflected in much higher electric rates. Are you sure you want to drive those rates even higher with unneeded subsidies?

In your defense, the world has changed very fast. Even if all the assumptions you used when you passed the GWSA were correct then, the world has changed in ways few of us imagined. Turns out that printing too much government money actually does lead to inflation. Turns out that discouraging US fossil fuel production actually leads to less energy availability. You certainly can’t be blamed for the effects of Putin’s war and the effect on world fuel prices of Europe’s over-dependence on Russia as a supplier.

Inflation, low US fossil-fuel production, and this terrible war are all facts now. Please take them into account – starting now. Stop work on GWSA at least until the fog of war is cleared. Look at the effect of already higher fossil fuel prices on Vermonters and consider very carefully whether those prices already provide the incentives you were looking for to switch from these fuels that. The world is changing at an alarming rate. We need a People’s Legislature which sees the world as it is and is willing to change as quickly as the world turns.

Thank you.

See also: Subsidizing Electric Cars Might Even Hurt the Environment

March 20, 2022

Send the MiGs to Ukraine Now!

Not sending them more dangerous.

First we all thought that Ukraine would be conquered in two days. It wasn’t only Putin who made that mistake, it was almost everyone else including me. Now, because of Ukrainians’ incredible courage, we’re dangerously optimistic that they will manage to defeat the Russian invasion even though Putin is clearly willing to fight to the last Ukrainian. They may never surrender but they can be slaughtered and brutally subjugated – at least for a while.

Even if we didn’t care about them as people, we cannot afford to have them lose. At this point any end which doesn’t involve the humiliation of Putin is a clear and present danger to the rest of NATO – which includes us. If triumphant – or even allowed a face-saving way out, Putin has now learned the weakness of his army and will correct much of it before his next assault. He will also be reinforced in his belief that the West does not have the will to avoid being conquered piecemeal. Meanwhile Ukrainian refugees will become a burden on their host countries and Eastern Europe will be increasingly uncertain of our resolve to defend NATO and they will seek Russian accommodation.

Even if Russia does occupy Ukraine, we will continue our sanctions – and should. Europe will reduce its dependence on Russian energy; but that oil and gas will be sold cheaply to its other big customer – China. With a source of cheap energy including plenty of coal, China will continue to grow stronger. This stronger and even richer China will invade Taiwan, confident that the West will retreat behind a cordon of self-drawn red lines.

At some point we’ll have to face a resurgent Russia, possibly a Russia in military alliance with China.

There is no better time than now, no less risky time than now, to push the bear as far back in its cave as we can. The Russian army has been at least wounded thanks to the Ukrainians. It’ll take time for it to rebuild and reinvent itself. Putin doesn’t want war with NATO now. How do I know? Because, if he wanted such a war, he could easily have it. He’s said the sanctions are tantamount to war. He’s said that our supplying weapons to Ukraine is tantamount to war. He’s tiptoed closer to the Polish border. But he hasn’t even cut off natural gas to the countries which are arming Ukraine. He needs the money. His army clearly isn’t ready. This is the time to push him back.

I favor a no-fly zone but don’t think there’s a national consensus for that – yet. Meanwhile we should be facilitating the transfer of the Polish MiGs to the Ukrainians. It must happen in the next few days.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby say that we have decided that the MiGs wouldn’t be much help to the Ukrainians. A lot we know about that. We didn’t think they could hold off Russian tanks for two days.  Let the Ukrainians be the judge of what they need to protect their people.

Most dangerous of all is the argument Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have been making in public against both the no-fly zone and the transfer of the MiGs: “It’s risky. We might end up shooting at or being shot at by Russians.” Yeah, sticking by our NATO obligations is also risky. It means shooting at Russians if the time comes. Do you think the people of Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania aren’t worried we won’t be risk adverse when the Russians attack them?

There is risk in confronting Putin, no doubt about it. There’s also risk for Putin in firing the first shot at NATO, especially when his army is clearly in no shape to take on more enemies and when he hasn’t yet built more pipelines to China. There’s more risk to us in waiting until he’s stronger.

We should enforce a no-fly zone. Failing that, we must at least get the MiGs into Ukrainian hands while they’re still able to use them in our defense as well as their own.

March 16, 2022

US Policy Enables and Encourages Monopoly Behavior by Major Oil Companies

Only independent producers will bring prices down.

The Competition Problem

Producers of commodity products have a problem they’ve had ever since capitalism was invented and probably before. It’s called competition and they don’t like it. Competition forces prices and profits down; that’s good for consumers but bad for producers. The classic answer to the competition problem is monopoly. If monopoly is not possible, then collusion to keep prices high and under-supply the market is the next best choice. But such collusion is a violation of anti-trust law in the US. Moreover, if prices are too high for too long, competitors will be able to raise capital to crash the monopoly market. The price of international phone calls went from dollars to pennies per minute in a few short years at the end of the 20th century when the internet enabled new companies to crash the international phone cartel.

The oil business has long “suffered” from competition. Demand for fuel soars. Drilling increases everywhere at once. Once all the new wells are pumping; there’s more fuel than the market needs; and prices come crashing down. A well that was drilled to produce oil profitably which can be sold for $80/barrel is underwater at $60. Whoops, time to write down all those assets. Wall Street hates write-downs; there goes the stock price; can’t even pay big bonuses. What’s worse from an oil-company PoV is that those uneconomical wells keep producing even if the original drillers go bankrupt since the people who bought them out of bankruptcy paid pennies on the dollar. It takes a long, long time for prices to go back up.

Fracking to the Rescue

You think “environmentalists” are the only ones who hate fracking? Think again. It was small independent producers who implemented fracking. First they bought the price of US natural gas down by 80%. Next they brought the price of US oil down from over $120/barrel to less than $30. All of a sudden the gas and oil in the ground which the major oil companies controlled was worth only a fraction of what their books showed. Major write-downs. Major discomfort. Not only western oil companies were hurt. Russia had to be bailed out from near bankruptcy as the price of its oil went below the cost of production (ironically helping bring Putin to power). Saudi Arabia was imperiled by the Arab Spring just when it was running out of petro dollars to buy off its citizens.

Finally the majors had to frack themselves to stay in business. Their investors complained that they spent too much on drilling and were never able to harvest enough profit. Their CEOs promised to “act responsibly” meaning they would drill less and charge more. But, every time the price of oil and gas, picked up, those pesky independents raised some more capital, picked up their drilling rigs where they’d laid them down, even bought new rigs, and down came prices. Damn!

Paint my Monopoly Green

However, a new-found love for environmentalism gave the majors the cover they needed to cut production. They couldn’t conspire legally (and probably didn’t) to stop investing in new production; but they could legally announce where all their competitors could see it that they were cutting development of new wells to save the world. Lack of new production makes all the land and all the leases they hold even more valuable – even if they don’t drill there currently. But what about the pesky independents; won’t they just come back and crash the market again?

Government to the Rescue – of whom?

Not if our government can help it. We’ve used the Securities and Exchange Commission and banking regulation to discourage investment in fossil fuels. In practice that only hurts the independents who have to raise money to start drilling. The majors are awash in cash and they don’t want to drill much anyway. We’ve slow-rolled leasing on public lands. The independents drill new leases as fast as they can; they’ve got to have a cash return on their capital. The majors – as Biden pointed out - sit on their leases content to have the assets appreciate untapped. We’ve stopped pipelines which could move oil and gas more efficiently or open new areas for drilling or give more Americans the benefit of cheaper energy. We’ve effectively capped opportunity for those who could now bring us lower energy prices, help rescue our allies from their unwise dependence on Russia, and drive that country back into the bankrupt hole that Putin crawled out of.

Many people sincerely believed that outsourcing fossil fuel production to Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia helped the environment. The major oil companies rode this vulnerability as they postured green. Meanwhile, since they were spared investing in the west, they invested in Russia (did you notice them recently saying they were going to stop this investment?). Oil and gas produced in the US is a hell of a lot cleaner than oil and gas produced elsewhere. Would you want to be the one to tell Putin that production has to be cut to avoid fugitive methane emissions? War has a terrible carbon footprint and Russia’s war in Ukraine is bought and paid for by petro dollars.

Unleash the Independents

None of this has to do with whether carbon-free energy should be substituted for fossil fuels whenever that can actually be done at a price people can afford. But we need to have the carbon-free energy and the means to deliver it BEFORE we give up our own fossil fuel production. That’s become painfully clear.

We can bring supply up and prices down this year by unleasing the independents. We don’t have to subsidize them; they’ll be able to raise investment dollars once our government stops discouraging investment. We don’t want a windfall profits tax, even though the majors deserve it, because we need to bring some more expensive supply online quickly. The independents, once allowed to drill again, will keep the profits of the majors down. We should regulate old and new drilling to control fugitive emissions – but can’t let regulation be used by those who want to ban drilling altogether or to preserve their monopolies to stop the independents from providing us the energy the world needs.

I’ve been around the oil and gas patches a bit in the last decade. The independents are cowboys and cowgirls; they’re not politically correct; some spit on the ground. They need to be watched environmentally. Many of them have gone bankrupt and many will go bankrupt again; but they’re not too big to fail and shouldn’t get bailouts. Once more, we in the west need the cowperson spirit.

We can do this!

See also:

Defeating Putin Requires Winning the Energy War

High Oil and Gas Prices Fuel Russian and Iranian Aggressiveness

March 08, 2022

The Bear That Didn’t Bite

Why hasn’t Putin cut off gas and oil to Europe?

According to this story in the WSJ, Germany will continue to buy gas and oil from Russia.

“Germany and Europe are too dependent on Russian energy imports for power, heating and industrial production to be able to cut trade links with Moscow in the short term, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in a statement.

’Europe’s supply of energy for heating, for mobility, for electricity generation and for the industry can’t be secured otherwise at the moment,’ Mr. Scholz said. Russian energy, he added, was essential for the daily lives of citizens.”

Scholz is not exaggerating Europe’s vulnerability. Why, then, hasn’t Putin responded by cutting off oil and gas to Europe or threatening to do so if NATO keeps arming Ukraine? He doesn’t hesitate to slaughter civilians or threaten nuclear war.

The only answer I can think of is that Russia can’t afford to lose the income from these sales. Russia is at least as dependent on this trade as Europe. If this is true, immediately cutting Russian oil and gas sales way back may be an effective way to get Russia the hell out of Ukraine.

Europe has no choice but to make emergency plans for doing without Russian fuel unless it intends to surrender if Putin cuts them off. But Europe needs massive help to turn the oil weapon against Putin. Helping them is our job here in the US. We need to share their pain by sharing – and increasing – our massive domestic supplies of oil, gas, and even coal. We must find a way not to be profiteers as the world price of fuels soars but instead to be the responsible suppliers of last resort.

With our tentative new-found unity and what we’ve learned of courage from the Ukrainians, we can do this. Ending European dependence on Russian fuels within months will be painful and difficult, but not nearly as painful and difficult as the defense of Kyiv. The Russian bear that hasn’t bitten yet tells us that Putin may have to fold once it is clear he isn’t getting this revenue to prop up his kleptocracy.

See also:

Stop Buying Russian Oil; No-Fly Zone

Brave Ukraine Can Unite a Fractured US

Defeating Putin Requires Winning the Energy War

High Oil and Gas Prices Fuel Russian and Iranian Aggressiveness

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