Archive for category Energy

Children of the Corn

My latest for Who Said You Said:

“When everyone says you’re drunk, you’d better sit down.” When both The Wall Street Journal and NPR have questions about a policy, it’s time to rethink it.

The Renewable Fuel Standard’s ethanol mandate requires an increasing amount of ethanol be blended in gasoline every year. Last year, more than a third of America’s corn crop went to ethanol; this year, with decreased production and increased diversion, that proportion is expected to rise to at least 40%. This requirement has pitted ethanol producers against food and feed consumers of corn, driving up corn prices even faster than normal supply shortages would dictate.

The EPA could, if it chose, suspend the ethanol mandate altogether for the year, but so far has chosen not to do so. Not only Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar have been strong supporters of ethanol. On July 16, 2008, Salazar, then a U.S. Senator from Colorado, spoke on the floor of the Senate in terms of ethanol’s contribution to America’s “energy independence,” its importance in keeping gas prices down, and the jobs that were then being created on Colorado’s eastern plains in the new ethanol plants being opened there.

The Obama Administration may have been caught off guard by the severity of the current drought, but questions about price distortions caused by the mandate aren’t new. Last year, in February of 2011, Vilsack addressed exactly these same concerns at a press conference [See CNSNews.com video above]:

“Certainly not worried in the long term about our capacity to produce enough corn to meet our food and feed needs as well as our fuel needs. The last time we had any issue relative to food prices when this issue was raised about ethanol production, our studies indicated that the ethanol production was a very, very, very small percentage of the food price increases.

“When you look at food price increases, you’re looking more at marketing, advertising, refrigeration, transportation, expenses that are incurred in the food chain. And you’re also recognizing that farmers are receiving an ever shrinking share of the retail food dollar. There are a lot of folks that have to be satisfied out of that retail dollar.

“So I’m not concerned about it. We obviously will continue to look at what the Spring will bring, in terms of cropping decisions. Part of what’s happening worldwide is the result of weather conditions in a number of countries. Export controls and restrictions by some countries have made it a little more difficult. But here in this United States, we’re anticipating food prices to rise somewhere between 2-3%, which is relatively moderate.”

The problem, of course, is that neither people nor livestock can wait for the long run to eat. It may be easy enough for us to adjust to some food price increases, but folks living closer to the margin, as in Mexico, don’t have that luxury. See Egypt for what happens when entire countries have to choose between food and fuel.

And while Vilsack has correctly identified the price inputs into food production, he’s forgotten that prices change because of action on the margin, and the price of corn has proven to be especially volatile, but also especially remunerative to farmers in recent years. A large part of this increase is a result of the ethanol mandate. And contrary to Sec. Vilsack’s protestations that little of the money is flowing through to farmers, agricultural land values have been shooting through the roof, indicating that investors see corn production as a good investment.

The winners include ethanol producers, who are guaranteed a market for their product, corn farmers, who see the results of the government bidding against private ranchers and farmers for their product, and fertilizer companies, whose nitrogen-based product is needed to save the soil from the increased corn crop. Much of the increased corn planting takes place at the expense of soybeans, which replenish the soil. (As a side note, a major component of fertilizer is natural gas; the combination of falling natural gas prices and rising corn plantings has been a windfall for those companies, so to the extent that the farm vote is in play, look for politicians to make hay with that.)

The losers include ranchers, who are having to bid against the government for corn to feed their herds, and you. Because not only are food prices rising faster than your paycheck, there’s little to no statistical evidence that all this diversion of food to fuel is keeping gas prices down. And in spite of the mandates, ethanol plants are shutting down, anyway.

For decades, as their agriculture became a running joke, the Soviet Union used to blame chronic food shortages and poor crops on the weather. A Russian history professor of mine responded to a student’s question about Gorbachev’s political prospects, “Well, he’s got his main rival (Yeltsin) in charge of agriculture, so I’d say he’s in pretty good shape.”

It’s doubtful that Barack Obama felt threatened by Vilsack’s presidential ambitions (his abortive presidential run ended in early 2007, about a year before his home-state Iowa Caucuses), but it’s likely that Vilsack will end up as collateral damage of this Administration’s misbegotten economic and energy policies, nevertheless, when he finds himself – hopefully – looking for work after the November elections.

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Colorado’s Windy Senator

In our last post, we looked at Sen. Mark Udall’s claims that Colorado’s renewables mandate had been a “great success.” This time, let’s look at his claims that “…wind, now, competes with coal and some would argue is actually cheaper than coal.

The only way that someone could make that claim is if they ignored the subsidies that wind gets in comparison with anything we get electricity from today (that CBO report was issued just a few weeks ago at the behest of the very committee in which Udall serves and made his remarks):

The jobs that Bennet brags about include those from Vestas, which the company admits only exist because of those subsidies.

The proof, of course, is in the markets. The energy that could successfully compete with a power source that has its capital expenditures almost completely amortized – most coal plants were built decades ago – would seem to be a natural for investors. Unfortunately, well…

Proponents of wind energy will point to the various externalities associated with coal. Of course, wind has a few externalities of its own, like bird kills, higher local temperatures, and downwind crop & building damage.

Sorry, Mr. Udall.  Wind isn’t competitive with coal, and although the Obama administration seems hell-bent on driving up the cost of coal, they’ve got a way to go, notwithstanding all the damage they’ll do to your wallet in the process.  It’s not even close, and they still try to cheat.

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Colorado’s Diminished-Capacity Senator

Yesterday, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources took up the Clean Energy Standard Act of 2012, which would “require covered electricity retailers to supply a specified share of their electricity sales from qualifying clean energy resources.” The target would start at 24% in 2015, climbing to its final, and permanent level of 84% by 2035. Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) made the following comments:

“With that, let me just say that this bill would be a step in the right direction. I also want to emphasize that I still support, as I know do many of my colleagues, a renewable electricity standard nationally. We’ve had great success in the State of Colorado with the renewable electricity standard, and I would argue in fact, we felt less of the effect of this Great Recession because of our energy sector’s capacity to innovate, create jobs, and provide power that’s less and less expensive. We all know for example that wind, now, competes with coal and some would argue is actually cheaper than coal.”

There’s enough material to keep us occupied for a week – and it may – but we’ll start with the idea that Colorado’s Renewable Electricity Standard has been a “great success.”

It may have been a great success for Xcel and its shareholders, but for the ratepayers, it’s a slowly building vacuum, sucking more and more of their decidedly non-renewable dollars. In 2011, the RES was responsible for something like 4.5% of Coloradoans’ electricity bills, and number that is only going to grow over time, as the RES ramps up to its final 30% requirement in 2020:

According to the Public Service Company’s 2010 RES Compliance Plan, the ECA is projected to be $6.3 million this year, before it balloons to $141 million in 2012. It then increases exponentially to $738 million in 2020, or almost 23 percent of total retail electricity sales—none of which would count against the 2 percent retail rate impact.

Assuming 1.5 million ratepayers in Colorado (current figure is 1.3 million) in 2020, and the mandated 20 percent renewable standard, the ECA cost alone will average nearly $500 per year per ratepayer.

The ECA is the Electric Commodity Adjustment, and it’s the means by which Xcel gets around the 2% per year rate limit that is supposed to protect consumers from the fact that renewables are, contra, Sen. Udall, much more expensive than traditional sources of electricity. More about that in a succeeding post.

The Colorado plan, if extended to the country as a whole, will have the same deleterious effects on peoples businesses and homes. That link at the top of the page was to an Energy Information Agency study showing the effects of the proposed standard. Not only would the BCES cost dozens of gigawatts of capacity by 2035:

It would also raise the cost of electricity by about 18%:

If you look closely, you see that the EIA assumes that nuclear will take the place of coal’s baseline capacity, but in fact, the extremely large up-front capital expenditures may make that prohibitively expensive, in which case we’ll have no choice but to cover as much as we can with solar and wind. The result of that little dream scenario? We have more capacity, but the price is 20% higher, rather than 18%. The increase in supply still isn’t enough to make up for the extra cost of wind and solar as sources.

Coloradans have excellent reason to wonder why their senator thinks that paying more than neighboring states for their electricity constitutes a “great success,” and Americans should run like the wind from any effort to replicate the experiment nationally.

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EPA “Doesn’t Live In The Energy World”

In a recent hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said under questioning by U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Committee Chairman Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., that her agency – despite issuing regulations that will have a profound affect on electricity production in the United States – “doesn’t live in the energy world.”

“Tri-State is a wholesale electric power supplier in Colorado that is owned by the 44 cooperative, generating – transmitting electricity and has come to my office multiple times trying to talk about their compliance with EPA’s Utility Max standards and…their estimate is that it would likely cost them $1 million …I’m asking you to comment on the rural co-ops which are non-profits.

Ms. McCarthy confirmed that some ratepayers would see their rates increase by about 3%, which the EPA calculated to be about $3 a month for the average family, there was this exchange between the panel and her:

Rep. Gardner: ”And so that – the only way they can do that is to pass those increased costs on to their ratepayers?”

McCarthy: “I have trouble answering that question because I don’t live in the energy world, but my understanding is that compliance can be achieved by lower demand, as well as increased generation, fuel switching, and a number of techniques.”

Whitfield: “I think that’s the point that we’re trying to drive home. You’re right, Ms. McCarthy, you do not live in the energy world. But then you make extrapolations on gigawatt issues that are a reliability concern based on the chart I saw. DOE rolls over in acceptance of your electricity generation, or lack thereof, analysis, and when you have the people in the field who are disputing that analysis on the gigawatt issue, we’re debating with an environmental agency, not our Department of Energy. And if the analysis was close to what industry, financial people, FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission), EEI (Edison Electric Institute) say then, we would cut some leeway.

“But the administrations proposal – actually, the environmental rules – and the effect on the electric grid, of 10 gigawatts, is laughable. And so, you can do all the analysis on emittants you want, but we reject the premise that you are experts in electricity generation, the cost of building plants, and developing those.”

Rep. Whitfield’s point is that the opinions of actual experts – which seem to be in broad agreement that the EPA rules run the risk of reducing the US’s overall electricity output – are being subordinated to the judgments of the EPA, which, by its own administrator’s admission, doesn’t live “in the energy world.”

Is it true? Well, the EPA estimates a loss of 10 gigawatts (GW) of electrical generation nationwide as a result of its new rules. This estimate is indeed not only out of line, but well out of line, with a variety of other estimates from Credit Suisse (50 GW realistic, 60+ GW possible), Friedman Billings Ramsay (45 GW), the North American Electric Reliabiliy Corporation, or NERC (33-70 GW), the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, or MISO (13 GW immediate, up to 61 GW retrofitted), and the Institute for Energy Research (34 GW).

It’s one thing to be independent of the industries you’re supposed to be regulating. But even independent regulatory bodies shouldn’t be making rules based on assumptions and models whose results virtually nobody in the field takes seriously. Maybe the EPA should live a little more “in the energy world,” a world it so closely regulates.

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Sun Sets On Solar

Chinese solar manufacturers, heavily subsidized by the Chinese government though they are, are not completely immune from the laws of economics.  Faced with falling demand, falling prices, and growing inventories, they’re cutting production.  The follows on the heels of a number of high-profile failures of solar manufacturers here in the states.

True that the Chinese government, in its relentless mercantilism, was, and is, subsidizing solar heavily enough that three of their companies may survive the shakeout, whereas it’s possible none of ours will.  But in fact, they were just responding to a market that largely existed because of European and American solar subsidies in the first place.  The collapse of solar prices isn’t about new manufacturing techniques (yet), it’s about Europeans realizing that not only is the energy more than they can afford, so are the jobs, and they’re mostly going overseas, anyway.

The irony is that we’re still being told that we need to “invest” in solar because the Chinese are committed to it, and that must validate the idea.  It turns out that the Chinese were only invested in it because they figured to have us as their high-priced customers.   Not only were we funding both sides in the solar arms race, we were using the result to justify nonsense subsidies like Solyndra and LightSquared.  It’s like one of those experiments where the monkey reacts to itself in the mirror.  Only in this case, it was more like Lucy and Harpo pretending to fool each other.

Colorado, under former Governer Bill Ritter, began to pursue a “New Energy Economy,” chasing and subsidizing alternative energy companies, hoping to lure them to the state.  Ritter was elected in 2006, and the financial meltdown and succeeding recession created revenue shortfalls that limited the damage he could do.  The latest brouhaha over missing funds at the Governor’s Energy Office hasn’t done their cause any good, either.

The ideologues won’t be swayed, of course, but perhaps many of the more pragmatic politicians can be persuaded that these are bad bets for governments to be making.

 

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Efficiency Without Regulation

As many of you know, I’m completing a year’s sojourn here in Omaha, the midwestern town with a decidedly western sensibility. (Don’t believe me? Check out the River City Rodeo sometime.)

I’ve been doing web development for Werner Enterprises, one of the country’s larger trucking firms, but having dabbled in finance, I also always take a peek at the quarterly earnings reports. They almost always include a line like the following:

We continued to effectively manage the impact of higher fuel costs by improving our fuel miles per gallon… We are controlling truck idling; optimizing the speed, weight and specifications of our equipment; and implementing fuel enhancing equipment changes to our fleet.

How good are they at it? Turns out, they’re pretty good. Below is a graph of the national average diesel price vs. the company’s reported (or calculated) fuel cost per mile:

At first, you’ll see that the fuel cost grows faster than the fuel price. Some of this is a result of EPA emission regulations, which made the newer engines less fuel-efficient. As they newer engines were gradually introduced to the fleet, they affected overall operating costs. (In fact, at least one of the 10Qs from that era notes that Werner was able to command a premium when re-selling its older, hand-me-down tractors to other carriers.)

Over time, the company has managed to implement certain fuel-saving practices and patent aerodynamic designs that have cut fuel costs. The diesel price curve (courtesy of the US Energy Information Administration) look a lot like the curve leading up to 2008, but the cost per mile has dropped below it. For comparison, in Q3 2006 and Q3 2010, diesel was a little over $2.90/gallon, but Werner’s fuel cost per mile was 17% lower. That represents just under 4% of operating revenues, which is slightly enormous in this business.

They’ve done this even as the rise of intermodal has limited trip length:

Shorter trip lengths are associated with lower fuel efficiency; they involve more stops and starts, more idle time, and a higher percentage of time spent off of the interstates. So the cost containment has happened in spite of this.

It’s also happened despite the fact that class 8 trucks have no CAFE standards at all (although class 8 truckers probably have cafe standards of their own, mostly involving coffee & pie).

If anything, as we’ve seen, the government has made fuel efficiency more difficult by choosing emissions control over it. This choice may or may not be justified; that isn’t the point. The point is that, left to fend for themselves, with the government having made policy decisions that placed other priorities above fuel efficiency, trucking companies have been able to improve their own processes, and to demand better mileage from their suppliers.

More than that, it’s a little “I, Pencil” microcosm. These decisions are the result of a long chain of cost-benefit calculations stretching from engine manufacturer to trucker through customer to consumer. Each of these relationships has its own set of elasticities of supply and demand, which affect how much of the fuel cost can be pushed downstream. The amount that can’t be passed on to each customer provides the incentive for fuel economy.

It also provides the ceiling for how much each is willing to pay for it. Including the engine manufacturer. The government could probably demand higher fuel efficiency out of tractor engines, and the result would be greater inefficiency overall, because the cost of producing that engine would be greater than the system is currently willing to pay.

You could justify those expenses as externalities, say, the national security cost of keeping the Saudi pipeline safe and operating. But then you’re stuck arguing that the political & regulatory systems are as efficient in balancing interests as the economy is in balancing costs, which I think is, at best, an unproven assumption.

Note: Naturally, the opinions expressed here are entirely my own, and do not in any way represent Werner.

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All Your Energy Belong To Us

Thirty-four years.  It was a third of a century ago today, that the Department of Energy was born:

Prior to 1973, the United States had no coherent energy policy. Instead, a number of smaller agencies, often working independently of one another, handled different aspects of the nation’s energy needs. In the early years of the Atomic Age, for example, the military assumed responsibility for all nuclear-related issues.

The Nixon administration responded [to the 1973 Arab oil embargo - ed.] with Project Independence and the creation of the Federal Energy Office, the former intended to give the United States total energy independence by 1980 and the latter to manage a national energy policy. The energy program grew incrementally under the Nixon and Ford administrations, but remained diffuse.

Jimmy Carter had acquired a technical background in nuclear propulsion as an engineering officer in the Navy. When he took office in 1977, he proposed creating a Cabinet-level überagency that would consolidate everything energy-related — research, exploration, conservation, production and disposal — under its authority. The Energy Department would also be responsible for setting the national energy agenda and assuring nuclear safety.

Congress passed the act, and Carter signed it Aug. 4. The Department of Energy began operating Oct. 1, 1977.

 

Government programs have much shorter gestation periods and much longer lifespans than the humans who comprise them.

But just look at the results!  For the last 34 years, we’ve had a coherent energy policy! That this policy appears to have been designed by monkeys trying to write Shakespeare, and has done to the country approximately what the chimps would do to the typewriters after a few minutes is beside the point.  It’s a policy! It’s coherent!

(And what came before, only set the stage.  Like most of Nixon’s forays into economic policy, Project Independence achieved all of its goals, and then some!  Oh, wait.)

I particularly like the part about assuring nuclear safety.  Two years later, Three Mile Island imitated “art.”  It doesn’t actually say anything about ensuring the availability of nuclear power.  That would have to wait for deregulation, according to a new study from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

Wow.  Seems like only yesterday that gas cost $0.50.

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Green Still Costs Green

Regular readers know, my favorite left-of-center blogger is Walter Russell Mead, over at The American Interest.  The reason Mead is so interesting is that, unlike the Paul Krugmans and Ezra Kleins of the world, he’s willing to challenge liberal shibboleths, recognizing that for liberalism to be more relevant, it needs to be more intellectually robust.  At times he writes almost like a conservative, although he’s not.  This morning is one of those posts:

Wal-Mart has hitched its wagon to the local food train, but not to save the planet. It’s the money.  As Darrin Robbins, Wal-Mart’s senior manager for produce told the Wall Street Journal:

“We can get chili peppers from Florida all day long, but at the end of the day that is not necessarily the best model for us” … “I’m going to pay a higher price in Ohio for peppers, but if I don’t have to ship them halfway across the country to a store, it’s a better deal.”

It turns out that in the age of high gasoline and transportation costs, local produce is ultimately cheaper.

I’ve written before that Walmart is doing more for the planet than Greenpeace; this is just more proof.  A ruthless focus on price and efficiency is the best way to reduce humanity’s environmental footprint.

I think his conclusion is right: companies dislike waste more than most Greenies do – it hurts the bottom line.  Usually Greenies are wasting someone else’s time or money.  This doesn’t mean that some companies wouldn’t willingly forgo all sorts of reasonable environmental protections if they could, although it’s worth noting that the worst environmental disasters of the last century were centrally planned by the Soviet, and this century’s are shaping up to be centrally planned by the Chinese.

Nevertheless, I think he misses a more subtle point.  Those higher gasoline and transportation costs are real, and they are the result of governmental policies, usually pursued by Democrats specifically in order to drive up fuel prices.  They’ll admit this during primaries.  Wal-Mart is simply responding to incentives.

The problem, of course, is that “buy local,” unless is some specialty item, almost always means a lower standard of living.  It makes you more dependent on a smaller base of supply, and decreases out-of-season availability.  If the local crop fails, you still have to import the food from farther away, at the higher cost.  I don’t have data to back this up, but it would also make sense that the availability of long-haul refrigerated units for produce would decline along with demand, which adds even more to the marginal cost of replacing a local supply gone missing.

The country always undergoes a series of local crop failures which go unnoticed by consumers.  Now they’ll be more likely to notice those failures, and more likely to hear someone other numb-nut attributing it to your air conditioning, as well.  So not only do we bear the cost of food, we also have to put up with the sermonizing.

Mead’s incredibly insightful about larger social and economic trends, so it’s a shame to see him missing a trick on this one.

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Snow Shovel-Ready

Michael Mann may get some use out of that hockey stick yet.

After a particularly quiet solar minimum, solar physicists are preparing for the possibility that sunspots may be scarce for a while:

Hill’s own research focuses on surface pulsations of the Sun and their relationship with sunspots, and his team has already used their methods to successfully predict the late onset of Cycle 24.

…Hill’s results match those from physicists Matt Penn and William Livingston, who have gone over 13 years of sunspot data from the McMath-Pierce Telescope at Kitt Peak in Arizona. They have seen the strength of the magnetic fields which create sunspots declining steadily.

Three different methods all confirm that we’re headed into uncharted solar waters, potentially rivaling the Maunder Minimum, which coincided with a particularly severe 70-year stretch of the so-called Little Ice Age:

Naturally, the headline writers have seized on the term “Ice Age,” with the result that people who only read the headlines think that they’re likely to wake up one morning in 2025 only to see that the massive 10-ft wall of blue ice has finally sealed them into their homes for good.

In fact, the Little Ice Age may have been a regional phenomenon, affecting the northern hemisphere.  OK, yes, that’s where most of the land is, and, yes, that where most of the people live, so this isn’t necessarily good news by any stretch.  Cooler periods tend to be drier and less fertile, although better for ice skating on wide, frozen rivers.  But we don’t know the magnitude of the effect of diminishing the sun’s input.  It certainly seems counter-intuitive at best to argue that the earth will be just as good if not better at capturing the sun’s heat when there’s less of it coming in.

Sure, the Hockey Puck has one hockey stick that can state with certitude that less heat from the sun absolutely, positively, won’t make any different whatsoever in the earth’s climate, which seems a little silly to me, inasmuch as it gets colder at night.  But most actual scientists, you know, the ones who aren’t going around trying to suppress their model, data, or emails, recognize that the climate is a complex chaotic system, and that even small changes in the inputs can result in huge and sudden variations in the output.

NASA, for instance:

And the changes in the inputs may not be as small as the Nittany Lyin’ wants to assert:

In a recent paper in Geophysical Research Letters, solar physicist Karel Schrijver of the Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto, California, and his colleagues argue that during the Maunder Minimum, the sun couldn’t have dimmed enough to explain the Little Ice Age. Even during a prolonged minimum, they claim, an extensive network of very small faculae on the sun’s hot surface remains to keep the energy output above a certain threshold level.

Not so, says Peter Foukal, an independent solar physicist with Heliophysics Inc. in Nahant, Massachusetts, who contends that Schrijver and his colleagues are “assuming an answer” in a circular argument. According to Foukal, who presented his work yesterday here at the summer meeting of the American Astronomical Society, there is no reason to believe that the network of small faculae would persist during long periods of solar quiescence. In fact, he says, observations between 2007 and 2009, when the sun was spotless for an unusually long time, reveal that all forms of magnetic activity diminished, including the small-faculae network.

What’s more, detailed observations from orbiting solar telescopes have shown that the small faculae pump out more energy per unit surface area than the larger ones already known to disappear along with the sunspots. So if the small faculae start to fade, too, that would have an even stronger effect on the total energy production of the sun. “There’s tantalizing evidence that [during the Maunder Minimum] the sun may have actually dimmed more than we have thought until now,” Foukal says.

Let’s assume, just for argument, that we’re in for a century’s worth or so of cooling temps.  That would imply that just about every policy we’re pursuing right now to prevent “climate change,” is both ineffectual and mistaken.  Instead of eating our food, we’re burning it for fuel.  Instead of expanding our energy resources, we’re constricting them, just at the time when some natural gas might come in handy on those cold, dark, May nights.

Most of these policies are easily reversible, given the will, but Global Warmism has become such an idee fixee on the part of the political class and its bought-and-paid for scientists that they’re more than capable of looking at a cooling thermometer (as it has been for the last 13 years), and declaring that nothing’s changed.  Self-trained to see nothing but warming, and certain that they’ll be insulated from any ill-effects, the political class will, like their predecessors in Soviet Ag Policy, declare that every crop failure or shortage is a result of “special circumstances.”

I’m not sure I place any more faith in NASA’s complex models just because the results are sort of comforting and sort of intuitive.  (There’s a reason Easy-Bake Ovens don’t work very well.)  That has to go for the other side, as well, but then, that would require a level of intellectual honesty that a dependence on a government-funded viewpoint precludes.

So expect this report – and any actual observations that James Hanson sees fit to print – to change the political debate over climate change not one bit.  But for those paying attention, a climate science that’s been maundering about quite a bit on its own is likely to get some very interesting data over the next few decades.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sunspot_Numbers.png

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Ethanol and Natural Gas

UPDATE: And as if on cue, this morning, JJG, Barclays ETF on grains, is up almost 5% this morning.  This is not just a generalized inflation play (meaning this isn’t just about the Fed printing dollars), since GLD and TBT (the bearish bet on the 10-year Treasury) are up, but only about 1%.

Much has been said about the contradictions between the energy policy that President Obama announced today, and how his government has behaved up until this point. But even taken on its own terms, today’s ethanol-and-natural-gas announcement contains enough internal contradictions to make it fall over like a basketball player with his shoes tied together.

The key point here is that ethanol already depends heavily on natural gas. Twice. Directly, as an ingredient in its production. But ethanol is made from corn, and corn – especially when planted in the same fields, year after year – requires a lot of fertilizer. And the key component in ammonia-based fertilizers like anhydrous ammonia, urea, and ammonium nitrate in nitrogen. From natural gas.

When I worked at the brokerage, one of the companies we covered was a fertilizer company (since bought out), based in the heart of the corn belt. We considered it an ethanol play, with the company remaining profitable as long as corn plantings increased and natural gas didn’t get too expensive. Again. Here’s the chart for the wellhead price of US natural gas:

In 2007, during the last burst, corn planting came at the expense of soybeans, which returns nitrogen to the soil. This meant a large increase in the amount of fertilizer necessary. For the last few years, soybean planting has returned to its long-term trendline, and increased corn production appears to have occurred at the expense of winter wheat, which uses a comparable amount of fertilizer:

Up until now, that’s meant that increased corn plantings, inadequate though they may be, haven’t in and of themselves driven up the price of natural gas. This year, however, soybean plantings may be down, as corn nears its postwar high, meaning additional natural gas demand.

All of this is happening even without Obama’s intervention to commandeer even more of our food for fuel. We already push 1/3 (yes, one third) of our corn harvest into ethanol plants rather than kitchen tables, which amounts to about 8% of the world supply of corn. Any additional ethanol subsidies will only make things worse.

Moreover, Obama’s plan does absolutely nothing to increase natural gas production. To do that, he seems satisfied to ride herd on oil and gas companies that already have more than enough incentive to increase production, if only our government would let them. (Sadly, Colorado, between Ken Salazar and Diana DeGette, is playing a disproportionate role in enforcing that dictate.) He does, however, propose all sorts of subsidies to encourage increased natural gas consumption, promising to drive the price up even farther.

To circle back to my original point, this is going to make ethanol unprofitable even with subsidies.  Just for fun, I went back and looked at the gross profit margin for Green Plains (GPRE), a major ethanol producer, and compared it to the natural gas price six months earlier, for the last 8 quarters:

The correlation is an astounding -0.96, which is about as close to metaphysical certainty as you get in statistical analysis.  Those who know something about statistics will say that the outlier increases the correlation, and they would be right.  If we get rid of the outlier, the correlation is still -0.84, and the slope of the line only changes slightly.  If the other points, the ones below 6.00 on the price scale, were clustered together, that would be a problem.  But they lie on a nice line of their own.

Using a very rough model, using the company projections for unit sales over the next year, assuming that interest rates don’t rise and the company doesn’t take on any additional debt, the wellhead price of NG would have to rise to 6.8 to eliminate the company’s pre-tax earnings completely for the next year.  That’s happened twice over last decade, and this administration’s policies will only make it more likely.  Let that happen, or interest rates rise, or both, and see how fast Green Plains decides that it really does need those subsidies – and more – after all.

To the extent that ethanol production can increase, it will help drive up natural gas prices.  To the extent that it can’t, its price will rise, and it will need compete for ever-more-scarce natural gas.

Even if ethanol weren’t already a colossal waste of money and resources, this plan couldn’t be designed any better to make things worse.

In this at least, Obama’s being consistent with the rest of his economic policies.

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