Thursday, December 19, 2013

Western Secession 4 - US Partitions, Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 13, 2013

Moving Pollution About

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Western Secession 3 - The World Gets Bigger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Western Secession 2 - Liquid Hydocarbons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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