Coal Miner

I do not want to challenge 19 really smart professors, but I am skeptical of all the conclusions in the new report from the National Research Council, Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use.  The report, as titled, examined costs of energy, especially coal, that go unaccounted for in market prices.

The report estimates dollar values for several major components of these costs.  The damages the committee was able to quantify were an estimated $120 billion in the U.S. in 2005, a number that reflects primarily health damages from air pollution associated with electricity generation and motor vehicle transportation.  The figure does not include damages from climate change, harm to ecosystems, effects of some air pollutants such as mercury, and risks to national security, which the report examines but does not monetize.

The report made significant conclusions about transportation, especially cars, according to GreenTech Media:

Overall, the transportation industry incurred $56 billion of mostly health-related damage in the United States in 2005. Driving cars typically contributed to less than a third of the hidden costs and translated into 1.2 cents to 1.7 cents per mile traveled, the report said.

Gasoline has earned a foul reputation because the country’s reliance on foreign oil. But the heavy focus on domestically produced ethanol doesn’t necessary provide less damaging options, the report found.

Impact from corn ethanol production was similar or “slightly worse” than gasoline because turning corn into fuel takes more energy, the report said. Making ethanol from corn stover and other types of plants, on the other hand, inflicted less damage.

Electric and plug-in hybrid cars also aren’t as “green” as they appear. While these cars produce less or no emissions, they are run on power from fossil fuels, the report said. Manufacturing batteries and electric motors also takes up quite a lot of energy.

The report concluded that the non-climate damage caused by manufacturing and operating electric/hybrid cars was “somewhat higher” than other types of cars in 2005, and the same trend would continue in 2030.

Maybe it’s difficult, but how do you release a study like that without taking into account the effect on the environment or admitting the political difficulties of oil.  I’m not going to disagree that electric cars that essentially run on oil are problematic too.  However, electric cars, which are picking up steam from major manufacturers, have potential because they could run on renewable energy.  Yet, that doesn’t mean all oil-based cars are inherently wrong.

Electric cars are only part of a larger transit solution, but if we drive electric cars as we drive our current cars we will still have problems.  Our goals instead should always be as follows (in no particular order):

– Driving less, of any car.

– Taking public transportation, walking and cycling more.

– Owning cars for a longer time.  Fuel efficiency is only relevant if the energy to build a car is not used every 2-4 years.

– Driving fuel-efficient cars.

– Building environments and neighborhoods that emphasize these values.

I’m glad someone is taking account of energy use and not just mindlessly swooning over electric cars.  However, electric cars provide part of an answer in a transit and energy revolution and should not be dismissed just because they may run on coal energy now.  Real economists cannot look at just one sector and claim to have made a whole study, the politics and environmental effects of oil and coal and potential for new energy solutions must be taken into account as well.

Damian Ortega, False MovementShana Tova loyal Transit Pass readers.  I welcome you all back and wish you all a happy and healthy new year.  In Sunday’s New York Times, long-time columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about the necessity of a hike in the gasoline tax.  Friedman challenges the masculinity of the nation, saying essentially that even the French have more courage to confront their problems than we do.

But are we really that tough? If the metric is a willingness to send troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and consider the use of force against Iran, the answer is yes. And we should be eternally grateful to the Americans willing to go off and fight those fights. But in another way — when it comes to doing things that would actually weaken the people we are sending our boys and girls to fight — we are total wimps. We are, in fact, the wimps of the world. We are, in fact, so wimpy our politicians are afraid to even talk about how wimpy we are.

Friedman goes on to say that America needs a gasoline tax because it would reduce our dependence on foreign oil, spur energy innovation and investment in alternative energies and improve some of our foreign policy issues (and, oh, people might drive less).

Such a tax would make our economy healthier by reducing the deficit, by stimulating the renewable energy industry, by strengthening the dollar through shrinking oil imports and by helping to shift the burden of health care away from business to government so our companies can compete better globally. Such a tax would make our population healthier by expanding health care and reducing emissions. Such a tax would make our national-security healthier by shrinking our dependence on oil from countries that have drawn a bull’s-eye on our backs and by increasing our leverage over petro-dictators, like those in Iran, Russia and Venezuela, through shrinking their oil incomes.

Friedman and I differ on how to spend the money from a gasoline tax.  He would use most of it on the defecit and healthcare.  I would put a gasoline tax toward improving our transportation infrastructure.  However, that’s small chickens compared to the notion of actually having a gasoline tax.

Americans, since the advent of large road building projects and the AAA and truckers’ unions have depended on largely free roads.  Of course there is no such thing as a free road, it gets paid for somehow.  But Americans have never really had to think hard how their roads get paid for.  On the other hand we’re all too well aware of the cost of public transportation, in the form of a fare.  But roads don’t have fares largely, it’s just pay the cost of a car and the gasoline and go driving. There aren’t even significant car taxes or licensing fees to pay for the upkeep of roads.  We like our big government, just not paying for it.

However, a gasoline tax is incredibly important, if for no other reason than we need to wean people from gasoline and cars because they will eventually be largely unaffordable if we keep driving at our current pace.  The whole notion of auto-based cities and suburbs and sprawling exurbs need to become ideas of the past.  The car cannot and should not be eliminated, but this country needs to emphasize the urban, and the car is not a significant part of our urban future.

There is no debating that our country is growing; the US census estimates there will be 392 million people in the country by 2050.  Those new people have to live somewhere, and the formula of quarter acre lots in the suburbs is not sustainable.  We should not and cannot raze the suburbs, but we can make sure that our cities are beacons for the next generation.  In order to do so the transportation networks must be better, more thorough, reliable and affordable.  A gasoline tax would go a long way towards helping to create those necessary infrastructure improvements.

One final thought, how about tax breaks for car sharing?  If the idea is to get people to drive less and own fewer cars, what better way than supporting car sharing systems with essentially subsidized gas?


Forgive me, but I am beginning to lose my temper with Edward Glaeser and his discussion of high speed rail’s benefits in the United States in the Economix blog on the New York Times website.  His work seems intellectually dishonest, at best, as he seems to be out to support a conclusion, not make a real finding of fact.  This starts with his desire to use a Dallas-Houston link as his example, again.  He justifies this decision by arguing at least he isn’t discussing the proposed link between Oklahoma City and Dallas.  Honestly, how many times in the national high speed rail discussions does Oklahoma City come up?  We tend to focus on California, the Chicago area and the Northeast Corridor.

Here is my itemized discussion of the points I find most troubling:

– Dallas currently has 1.3 million people and the metropolitan area has 6.3 million residents.  Houston is home to 2.2 million people and the metropolitan area has 5.7 million people.  Given the geographic locations of the cities, birth rates, and the nature of their economies it is relatively certain to say these cities are going to continue to grow for the foreseeable future.   Glaeser misses the point in discussing the cost of new infrastructure.  These two cities are going to need to build infrastructure anyway, whether it is new roads and airports, or just keeping up the constantly-worn roads they already have.  Glaeser in no way addresses whether it is better to build new railroads or new highways, rather he just compares new rails to existing roads.  He likewise fails to mention that high speed rail may spawn more railroads in the area whereas more highway will spawn more roads.

– It is almost criminally negligent to not point out that energy prices are not stable.  If trains are in fact more efficient that is a very big deal, as energy prices are sure to rise as oil prices inevitably rise again.  Moreover, planes are fossil fuel dependent.  And, while cars in theory could run on energy sources other than fossil fuels, they largely do not right now, especially in Houston and Dallas.  That said, trains have the clear advantage of being electronically powered, which means they can run on any resource that powers the grid, including wind, water, solar and other renewable resources.  This makes trains far more green than planes, and automobiles at the moment.

– This is a bone more with economics than with Glaeser in particular, but is it possible to really measure environmental damage only in dollars and cents?  Is the value of a good environment really reduced to counting bills with Andrew Jackson on the face?  Any effort that can help reduce negative environmental effects should be valuable and while efficiency is important, if it is not inefficient it should not trivialized either.  Lots of little changes equal a larger change.

– Lastly, Glaeser ignores any value of work done on trains.  People largely do not do work in cars, and work on planes is challenging.  However, trains with their leg room, cafe cars, and access to wireless networks can be great places to work, even with your peers!  Of course it’s usually easier to get from downtown to the train than the plane, so work can go on longer in the office too.

– Given that Glaeser said he will address land use issues in his next post, I will resist the desire to pillory him on how people get to train stations and airports and the nature of sprawl.

I am really disappointed in these posts.  I am not quite sure who Glaeser think his audience is, but the quality of his intellectual output in these blog posts is insulting to his readers.