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Weeklyish Reading

by Michael Levi
August 19, 2011

It’s that time of the week again. Some recommendations:

  • Life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of Marcellus shale gas”, Environmental Research Letters. Six researchers at Carnegie Mellon take a careful look at the emissions from shale gas development. They conclude that they’re far lower than those from coal.
  • Environmental Accounting for Pollution in the United States Economy”, American Economic Review. (Working paper version here.) Three researchers look at what would happen if you included air pollution damages in U.S. economic accounts. More bad news for coal: the damage created by coal-fired power appears to be considerably larger than the value that the sector creates.
  • Jared Bernstein and Brad Plumer both wonder why driving has taken such a dive during the recent economic downturn. (It barely budged during the last couple.) Each speculates about fundamental shifts that might underlie the change. I’m not so sure that exotic explanations are necessary: the most recent recession featured a much larger dip in output than the previous two and way followed by much higher gasoline prices than on either of the other occasions. I’m hoping someone with a bit of time on their hands will take a look at this.

I’m off on vacation for the next week. Enjoy the rest of August.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by David B. Benson

    Yes, the damage from buring coal vastly exceeds the contribution to the so-called economy.

    Excepting only its boost to the health care and mortuary sectors, of course.

  • Posted by Hans Nicolaisen

    Some comments on the Bernstein and Plumer articles referenced by ML.

    First, the chart used in both articles (from the Federal Highway Administration) is deceptive because the compressed timeline (x-axis) magnifies the drop in highway miles driven and thus leads to Bernstein remarking about, “…a massive decline in driving over the downturn with little uptick since.” In fact, during the period he’s referring to (2007-2011), miles driven declined by about 1% – which isn’t remarkable given the recession coupled with large increases in the cost of transportation fuel. If the chart had been drawn using a more conventional time scale the drop in miles driven would not appear so dramatic.

    Further, one should question the accuracy of the FHA’s data on miles driven. In the link to the FHA, given by Bernstein, is an Excel file with data going back to 1970. Taking that in conjunction with EIA data on transportation fuel consumption and prices for the same time period leads to questions on the accuracy of the FHA data.

    For instance, during the last period similar to this (1978-1982) fuel consumption (EIA) fell by nearly 12%, while miles driven (FHA) rose by nearly 3%. It’s hard to believe that fleet fuel economy rose by that much…. Also, during both periods in question, fuel prices increased by about 58% in real (2005) dollars yet miles driven increased, or declined slightly.

    All in all, I think the FHA data is a pretty shaky foundation upon which to declare we’ve reached a new normal (Bernstein). Plumer’s reference to the theory that young Americans, “….are simply no longer as car crazy as they were in the 1970s” may have some merit. That, along with a deterioration in highway infrastructure, combined with higher future fuel prices, will probably lead to a new normal. But, it’s too early to call.

    For now, ML’s earlier blog on energy price volatility being the new normal is probably the only safe bet.

  • Posted by Marlowe Johnson


    The rated fuel economy of the u.s. fleet increased by 20% from 1978-82, from 20 to 25 mpg. When you adjust for the difference between the FTP test cycle and real world performance, the rise in VKT and drop in fuel consumption makes sense…

  • Posted by Hans Nicolaisen


    20 to 25 mpg is a 25% increase, not 20% – which is even harder to believe happening in the space of four years. And must not include trucks, which are included in FHA miles driven. Could you supply a link to the data?


  • Posted by Marlowe Johnson

    Thanks for catching the math error Hans. Lots of detailed info can be found here:



  • Posted by Hans Nicolaisen

    Thanks, MJ. Looks like quite a lot to look at and I’ll try to get to it over the weekend – if the coming storm/hurricane doesn’t get too distracting…

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