The Big Chill in the Northeast

The 12/19/05 USA Today has an article entitled The Big Chill about what could happen if there is a winter fuel crisis.  Here are some telling quotes about the North East US, where I live (emphasis are mine):

While the Big Chill will hit low-income households the hardest, no one
may be immune if the weather turns foul. New England and perhaps all of
the Northeast, including New York City, are a special worry. Gas
companies grant big price breaks to customers year-round if they agree
to have their service cut when supplies are short. Chances are great
these discount customers will be shut down this winter, and they
include manufacturers, some schools and hospitals, and, ominously,
about 77 percent of New England’s gas-fired electric power generation,
which requires large quantities of fuel

The curtailment of "interruptible" customers will trigger a double
squeeze on consumers throughout the Northeast. First, costs for home
heating oil will skyrocket, as scores of power plants and other
interruptible gas customers switch fuels and make a grab for all the
oil on the market. Even though heating oil is a major fuel source in
the Northeast, there are no oil pipelines from refineries into New
England, which relies on deliveries by tanker or barge. And in recent
years, the oil industry–following the U.S. industrial trend–has been
keeping inventories low to promote efficiency. Tim Irving, executive
director of Heat, U.S.A., a company that buys heating oil in bulk for
northeastern homes, recalls that in the most recent severe cold snap,
January 2004, the industry simply could not ship in sufficient
supplies. "The just-in-time inventory system, when put together with
the utility policy of having interruptible gas customers, creates a
very volatile situation where literally in a week, New York harbor went
dry [of heating oil shipments] because utility customers went on line
Irving says. "Your middle American ends up paying more to support this

Electricity could also be effected:

The second threat is a severe electricity shortage in the
Northeast–with possible brownouts or blackouts. Deregulated
natural-gas-fired power generators, under no legal obligation to serve
customers as the old monopoly electric companies were, can simply stop
generating power. Some plants will be interruptible customers with no
backup fuel source. But in other cases, power plants that have firm
natural gas contracts will stop generating electricity anyway and sell
their fuel at enormous profit. That is precisely what happened during
the three-day January 2004 cold snap, when more than 25 percent of New
England’s generating capacity went off line and the reserve margin was
near zero.
  The market weathered that storm, but ISO New England, the
organization responsible for managing the electric grid, says that even
under normal weather conditions, electricity demand this winter most
likely will set a new record surpassing that of the perilous 2004 cold
snap. The grid operator has taken steps to head off a shortage,
spearheading a public-relations campaign to urge New Englanders to
conserve electricity, attempting to work out agreements with big
customers to curtail demand, and asking the Coast Guard to station
ice-breaking barges in locations that will assure fuel oil deliveries
can make it downriver to electric plants. But Connecticut Attorney
General Richard Blumenthal says as long as power generators are allowed
to shut down and sell natural gas during a weather crisis, there is a
risk of the kind of market chaos, as well as manipulation, that roiled
California in 2000 and 2001. "The result could be a calamity," he says.

Thanks to The Oil Drum for pointing this article out.

Greenland and Glacier Melting

The Oil Drum has an interesting article on Greenland and the physics of ice melting.  It notes:

A "flat to gradually sloping icecap covers all but a narrow,
mountainous, barren, rocky coast". The ice sheet covers about 80% of
the land, and contains about 2.5 million cubic kilometers of ice. If
all that ice were to melt, it would increase global sea level by about 7m, or 23 feet.

There is a great deal of information here about the ice at the poles and it is well worth the read.

One of the maps it provides is an EPA map of the Eastern Sea board/Gulf coast that shows the portions of the US east coast that would be inundated by 1.5m and 3.5m of sea level rise.  As it notes:

3.5m would be reached halfway through a Greenland icesheet collapse. As
you can see, the total area isn’t that large, but it includes a pretty
large fraction of many of the east coast’s coastal cities. That would
be expensive.

It got me to thinking about where would Massachusetts and New England fare in a sea level rise.  To get an idea I found a set of EPA maps.  According to Google Earth, my house is at about 45 feet above sea level.  However, by the maps, some high value areas of Boston would be flooded or at least would be more vulnerable to hurricanes.  Food for thought.

Thoughts on the Fair Elections Financing Act

Someone asked me what I thought about about the Fair Elections Financing Act .  On a first read through and based on my experience running under the Clean Elections Law in 2002, the proposed law has serious flaws. 

Problems with the Clean Election Law

First problems with the previous and now dead Clean Elections law:

1.  While there was a significant amount of money available, if you didn’t qualify, and it isn’t easy to qualify, you were stuck.  Either, you run under the individual contribution limits, look like you are
sticking to your principles and raise little money or you chuck the limits and look like an inexperienced opportunist.

2.  Most voters don’t pay attention to campaigns until Sept., but the law required that a candidate be certified in April/May.  The primary isn’t even until Sept.  Setting things up this way helps people who already have a large network, or are willing to sacrifice everything for the first part of the year to build a network.  If you have a family & job, i.e. are a citizen who isn’t an activist, you don’t have
the time for this and you might as well not apply.

3.  It was never clear to me how a write-in candidate qualifies. Looks like they don’t.  Another strike against the now defunct system.

What is different with the new proposed law

The new system still suffers from these problems, but adds an additional hurdle to qualify (the aggregate contribution threshold) and doesn’t give you much money to run a campaign. 

The aggregate contribution threshold requires that in addition to a state rep. candidate getting 200 people to give a contribution, she also has to raise a total of $5000.  For state senate, both requirements are doubled.

Under the Clean Elections Law a candidate would get a large amount of money if they had a primary opponent and more if they had a general election opponent.  The proposed law would limit the amount given out to three dollars for every one dollar the candidate raises.  Under this scheme, it is unclear to me how a candidate gets more public money after they comply should they raise more money.

How I would make the proposed law better

Since the law changes from a lump sum to a matching format, which is a reasonable, though not ideal change, I would suggest that the law give people much more time to qualify, drop the aggregate contribution limit and drop the established opponent requirement.

1.  How about a candidate can qualify up to two weeks (a month max) before general election day?  If you cannot get things organized before then, well sorry, the OCPF (the nice folks who oversee the Commonwealth’s election laws) needs to be able to process the paperwork.  If you do not make it past the primary, then less paperwork, unless you mount a write-in campaign.

This way, write-ins get supported, candidates have more time to get organized and more people will be encouraged to run.

2.  I would also drop the aggregate contribution threshold.  If some state rep candidate gets 200 people to give them $5, then the max the state is out is $3000.  No great loss to the Commonwealth considering the money we waste in corporate subsidies and tax loopholes.  Indeed it would still take 5 such candidates to use the same amount of money as one candidate under the proposed aggregate contribution threshold.  However, my guess with our winner take all election system (whomever has the most votes wins even if that isn’t a majority), having an incumbent face five poorly financed opponents in a primary is more likely to unseat the incumbent than one moderately financed opponent.

3.  Drop the requirement to have an established opponent.  I would rather that some Dem has no opponent and gets clean election money (the remainder they have to give back at the end of the election anyway), then some Dem has no opponent and takes boat loads of money from developers and the rich so they can amass a war chest.  If they use too much public money, well then their opponent can use that against them in two years.  This way also does not penalize a complying candidate who faces a serious write-in candidate coming in at the last minute.

Those are my thoughts for now.

And now for something closer to home

New Standard News reports that Environmentalists Attack Massachusetts Wetlands Bank.  Specifically:

At issue are state-run wetlands mitigation banks, a concept that gives
"mitigation credits" that permit the destruction of otherwise protected
lands in exchange for present or future promises to restore, enhance,
preserve or otherwise improve wetlands elsewhere. Critics argue that
mitigation credits provide financial and regulatory cover for
development projects that harm vital ecosystems and. [sic]

From an economic stand point allowing flexibility in allocation of resources is a good thing.  However, it is difficult for humans to create, nevermind restore, etc. a wetland.  The webs of life are too complex for our modern mind attuned to putting things in little orderly compartments. 

As such, the wetlands we destroy won’t be as good as those  we create.  All in all, "migration credits" sounds like a horrible idea.

More effects of climate change: Slower Gulf Stream

The Independent reports that the:

ocean "engine" that helps to drive the warm waters of the Gulf
Stream and keeps Britain relatively mild in winter has begun to slow
down, say scientists.

Uh oh.  This would be bad news because:

Scientists estimate that the detected 30 per cent weakening of the
Atlantic currents could lead to a fall of about 1C in Britain’s average
temperatures over the next 20 years.

Specifically, the article notes that the rate of flow has fallen 30%
from 20 million tons of water flowing per second to 14 million tons of
water flowing per second.  Continuing this process could have dire implications:

They also warn that the weakening could be the first signs of an
accelerating trend that could eventually lead to a more drastic change,
including a complete shutdown of the currents. If this were to happen,
average temperatures in Britain could fall by between 4C and 6C,
leading to winter temperatures similar to Newfoundland in Canada, which
is on the same latitude as the UK but does not benefit from the Gulf

Such a change could also hurt New England, but Europe would bear the brunt of such a slow down in the current.

Common Dreams has another copy of the article.