Federal Regulations Have Made Western Wildfires Worse

“Take controlled burns: fires that are lit on purpose, intentionally burning tinder to keep potentially larger, unintentional wildfires from finding fuel. Especially since the 1960s, efforts to extinguish all fires—even natural, low-impact forest fires that serve as nature’s equivalent of a controlled burn—have made forests more susceptible to larger fires and have made controlled burns more and more necessary.

But the regulatory requirements one must meet before starting a controlled burn are complex and lengthy. According to Jonathan Wood, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation and an adjunct fellow with the Property and Environment Research Center, the National Environmental Policy Act requires “a couple-thousand-page document analyzing every single conceivable impact to the environment that the plan might have.” This is a public process, Wood adds, that “often results in litigation.” There’s even more paperwork when the controlled burn might overlap with areas designated as critical habitat for an endangered species.

“What you’ll often find,” Wood says, “is that there are projects which have been extremely well-vetted, which have been years in the work, there will be a 5,000-page document, which no one could conceivably ever read because it’s so long and complicated, but then the project will still get put on hold for an indefinite period of time, because some special interest group filed a lawsuit.” So much time is spent considering the ramifications of an action; little is spent considering the impact of doing nothing.”

“The Clean Air Act of 1990 creates another obstacle. The law treat the smoke from a controlled, prescribed burn as a pollutant that must be analyzed and permitted before the burn can be done. The smoke from a wildfire is not similarly scrutinized. But needless to say, the environmental impact of a multi-state wildfire is much larger than that of a smaller controlled burn.

There is no magic bullet when it comes to the issue of preventing wildfires. But if we want to stop disasters of the scale, state and federal governments need to rethink forest management. They could start by easing the regulatory burden upon proven techniques.”

Half of All False Convictions in the U.S. Involved Police or Prosecutor Misconduct, Finds New Report

“When innocent people are falsely convicted of crimes and later freed, in more than half of the cases, misconduct by police and prosecutors played a contributing role.

That’s the primary theme of a new report, “Government Misconduct and Convicting the Innocent,” released today by the National Registry of Exonerations, which has been tracking all known exonerations in the United States for the past 30 years.”

“what happens when a person is ultimately exonerated and the truth of police and prosecutorial misconduct is revealed? Are the police officers or prosecutors disciplined for their behavior? Often the answer is no. The report analyzed what happened to cops and prosecutors who engaged in misconduct and found that some sort of discipline was imposed in only 17 percent of these cases. Prosecutors are hardly ever punished for misconduct, even though the report notes that they are equally culpable as cops. In only four percent of cases did they find prosecutors disciplined in any way for misconduct. Just two have been fired, three disbarred, and only two have ever themselves been criminally prosecuted and found guilty of misconduct.

Police officers, on the other hand, were disciplined in some fashion in 19 percent of all exoneration cases involving police misconduct. That’s still remarkably low, but police are far more likely than prosecutors to be criminally charged with misconduct in these cases. At least 30 officers have been convicted. That number may seem low, but the report notes that a single police officer may actually be responsible for several false convictions (most notably in Chicago, which has seen mass exonerations over police misconduct).”

” The final quarter of the report is devoted to recommendations: record police interrogations; have forensic crime labs operate independently of police departments to reduce the pressure to fudge results; create special units in prosecutors’ offices to revisit old cases and look for errors; implement open-file discovery and better information-sharing practices with public defenders; and, obviously, institute actual consequences for officers and prosecutors who engage in misconduct that leads to the innocent being convicted.”

Getting to 100% renewables requires cheap energy storage. But how cheap?

“To a first approximation, the question of whether renewables will be able to get to 100 percent reduces to the question of whether storage will get cheap enough. With cheap-enough storage, we can add a ton of it to the grid and absorb just about any fluctuations.

But how cheap is cheap enough?

That question is the subject of a fascinating recent bit of research out of an MIT lab run by researcher Jessika Trancik (I’ve written about Trancik’s work before), just released in the journal Joule.

To spoil the ending: The answer is $20 per kilowatt hour in energy capacity costs. That’s how cheap storage would have to get for renewables to get to 100 percent. That’s around a 90 percent drop from today’s costs. While that is entirely within the realm of the possible, there is wide disagreement over when it might happen; few expect it by 2030.”

“It’s important to test renewable energy over longer time spans. In addition to daily and weekly fluctuations in solar and wind, there can be yearly or even multi-year fluctuations. And indeed, by looking back over 20 years, the team found several rare events in which wind and solar were both unusually low for an unusually long time. These rare events represent a spike in the amount of storage needed. Planning for them substantially increases the cost of a pure-renewables system.”

“these researchers set an extremely high bar: a system with all-renewable energy, with flexibility handled entirely by storage, adequate to meet demand at every hour of every day for 20 years.

Soften any of these restraints even a little and the cost target that storage must meet rises to something far more tractable.

First and most notably, loosen the amount of time that the system must meet demand and things get much easier for storage. And a 100 percent EAF is a little crazy anyway; the existing power system is not up and available 100 percent of the time. There are brownouts and blackouts, after all. No power system is 100 percent reliable.

Trancik’s team found that if the EAF target is lowered from 100 to 95 percent, the cost target that storage must hit rises to $150/kWh. (More specifically, lowering the EAF reduced the total cost of energy storage by 25 percent for the first tier of storage technologies and 48 percent for the second tier.) That’s a much more tractable number, within reach of existing technologies.

Why does lowering the EAF so little ease the pressure on storage so much? The explanation is in those rare meteorological events of extended low wind and sun. They don’t happen often over a 20-year span, but building enough storage to deal with them when they do happen makes the last few percent of EAF exponentially more expensive. To lower the EAF to 95 percent is to say, “something else can handle those rare events.””

“the team is modeling a system in which storage is doing almost all the flexibility work. In fact, there are other sources of grid flexibility. My favorite candidate for flexibility dark horse is “load flexibility,” demand-side programs that can shift energy consumption around in time. Another source of flexibility is enhanced long-distance transmission, to carry renewable energy from regions that produce it to regions that need it. Another is dispatchable renewables like run-of-the-river hydro and advanced geothermal.

All of those sources of flexibility will grow and help to smooth out renewables. Storage won’t have to do all the work on its own. That, too, should ease the price pressure.”

“a renewables+storage system also gets easier if renewables get cheaper. The numbers that Trancik’s team use for renewables are quite conservative. (For instance, $1/Watt solar costs are already being beat routinely in the US.) If renewable energy continues to defy expectations and plunge in cost, it would become cheaper and easier to oversize renewables and curtail the excess energy. That in turn would ease pressure on storage.”

“the headline $20/kWh cost target for energy storage is almost certainly more stringent than what will be required in the real world. Even the $150/kWh target required for an EAF of 95 percent is likely too stringent. In the real world, storage will be assisted by other forms of grid flexibility like long-distance transmission, load flexibility, and microgrids, along with regulatory and legislative reforms. And renewables will probably continue to get cheaper faster than anyone predicts.

So let’s call the target $150-$200, or thereabouts. Can storage hit that?”

“There are two key characteristics of a storage technology: power capacity and energy capacity. Roughly speaking, power capacity refers to how fast you can get energy out of it, measured in kW; energy capacity refers to how much energy you can store in it, measured in kWh. Each is priced separately, power capacity costs and energy capacity costs. The latter is the number we’ve been using for targets”

“It expects, by 2030, “a drop in the total installed cost for Li-ion batteries for stationary applications to between USD 145 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) and USD 480/kWh, depending on battery chemistry.” Hey, $145 is well within our target range!

Nonetheless, lithium-ion batteries are limited. Researchers generally treat the raw materials costs of a storage technology as the lower possible bound of its total costs. Manufacturing and transportation costs can be lowered with scale, but materials costs are stubborn, and the materials involved in Li-ion batteries alone are costly enough that they will likely never hit $20/kWh. In the $150 range, though — that’s doable.”

“How about flow batteries? “The two main flow battery technologies — vanadium redox flow and zinc bromine flow — had total installation costs in 2016 of between USD 315 and USD 1,680/kWh,” IRENA reports. “By 2030, the cost is expected to come down to between USD 108 and USD 576/kWh.” Yes, $108 is well within our target range. (Note that there are flow battery companies already claiming to beat that.)

High-temperature sodium sulphur (NaS) and sodium nickel chloride batteries have been around for a while, but they are also expected to get much cheaper. “Cost reductions of up to 75% could be achieved by 2030, with NaS battery installation cost decreasing to between USD 120 and USD 330/kWh,” says IRENA. “In parallel, the energy installation cost of the sodium nickel chloride high-temperature battery could fall from the current USD 315 to USD 490/kWh to between USD 130 and USD 200/kWh by 2030.” Again, at the lower end, well within our target range.

CAES costs are extremely site-specific, as they depend on a reservoir in which to pump the air. “The typical installation cost is estimated to be approximately USD 50/kWh,” says IRENA, “possibly dropping to USD 40/kWh if an existing reservoir is available.”

Then there are thermal-storage options, like the increasingly popular option of storing electricity as heat in molten salt, with claims of energy capacity costs as low as $50/kWh.”

“Storage is rapidly evolving, diversifying, and falling in cost, to the point that wind and solar power plants coupled with storage are beginning to compete directly with fossil fuel power plants on cost. That’s only going to accelerate as both renewables and storage get cheaper. Providing all of US power, all day every day, will require oversizing renewables and installing an enormous amount of storage, but if they get cheap enough, that’s what we’ll do.

To put that more plainly: A US energy grid run entirely on renewable energy (at least 95 percent of the time), leaning primarily on energy storage to provide grid flexibility, may be more realistic, and closer to hand, than conventional wisdom has it.”

The Myth of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

“While a severe migrant uptick did occur circa 2015, the influx rapidly declined to earlier levels. As economist Bryan Caplan has noted, “total arrivals from 2014 to 2018 came to less than 1 percent of the population of the European Union (E.U.). Many European countries—most notably West Germany during the Cold War—have swiftly absorbed much larger inflows in the past.” By early 2019, the European Commission officially declared an end to the “migration crisis.””

“For a sense of the scope of the fake scare, visit HOAXmap, an internet project constructed in 2016 to track rumors about refugees in Germany. The map currently features 496 rumors in the country and in nearby German-speaking nations.
In early 2018, the German paper Der Spiegel ran its own study of 445 alleged refugee rapes in 10 German states, as reported on Rapefugees.net. One-third of the incidents were filtered out because they were duplicates, broken links, or law enforcement was unaware of the purported crime.

Of the remaining 291 cases, 24 claims were false, others were “less dramatic” than rape (i.e., groping) and 29 percent of cases could not be confirmed or denied. One-third (95) involved refugee suspects. Of 57 actual rape cases, 26 involved refugee suspects, with 18 cases resulting in convictions. Each incident is serious and to be condemned. But the facts don’t support fears of epidemic levels of social breakdown caused by migrants.

Unfortunately, it is easy for people to believe rumors when the rumors match already-held fears, such as the West’s historical mistrust of foreign migrants. Real horrific events like those in Cologne make it even easier to suspend skepticism about similar—but fake—cases. But the apparent chasm between truth and rumor means we need to abandon salacious anecdotes, and instead focus on hard data before presuming there is a crisis that demands a response.”

“A Pew survey from mid-2016 showed 46 percent of Swedes believed “refugees in our country are more to blame for crime than other groups.”

But crime trends there remained steady or declined both before and after the migration explosion”

“The migrant wave’s effect on Germany’s crime rates had also been negligible, as revealed in a series of analyses of local police data from early 2016. For example, a “large majority” of refugees who are registered never show up in police records. Those from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are rarely in criminal statistics. In Cologne, for example, only five of 1,100 (under 0.5 percent) registered Syrians were in trouble with the police between October 2014 and November 2015.

The German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) concluded in 2015 that, “on average, refugees commit as many or as few crimes as the local population.” From 2014 to 2015, the refugee population increased 440 percent, while the number of refugee crimes committed rose only 79 percent, according to the BKA. Here, there wasn’t even a correlation: While offenses increased significantly in early 2015, offenses stagnated in late 2015, precisely when “most refugees arrived in Germany.” The BKA concluded that the “vast majority of asylum-seekers [commit] no offenses.”

By 2018, although 44 percent of Germans felt less secure than they did in recent years, their government announced that crime was at a quarter-century low, while Germany’s migrant population was at a record high. As of 2019, the total number of crimes kept falling while the migrant population kept rising.

This does not mean migrants never contribute to Germany’s criminal issues. Indeed, certain immigrant areas reported significant gang problems. Moreover, North African nationals registered high criminal activity relative to the rest of the population. No doubt German law enforcement needs to take notice of these issues. But it would be a mistake to conclude from these specifics that the broader Middle Eastern migrant wave is the problem, when crime rates from certain Eastern European nationals who aren’t normally considered part of this wave are also relatively crime-prone, while nationals from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are relatively crime-free. Rather, the overall picture is clear: Migrants were not a special criminal problem in Germany.”

[Sweden]: “”the number of reported rape offences has increased by 34 per cent over the last ten years (2009-2018)” because the definition of rape was legally expanded. In 2013, just before the latest European migrant wave, the definition was “expanded to include cases where the victim reacts passively.” An earlier legislative change in 2005 meant that “certain acts which were previously classified as sexual exploitation are now classified as rape.” These include sex with persons who are asleep or intoxicated.

The changing definition of rape maps much better to the data than do refugee numbers”

“When it comes to terrorism, neither migrants nor migration are the dominant part of the problem. They could, however, be part of the solution to extremist threats, especially threats from the Middle East. If the American experience is at all transferable to Europe, welcomed and assimilated Muslims could be an asset that would strengthen Europe’s security and reduce radicalism.”

Virginia Democrats Declined To End Qualified Immunity. Police Unions Are Alive and Well.

“The Virginia Senate last week passed a comprehensive police reform package that would prohibit the use of no-knock warrants and chokeholds in the majority of cases and make it easier for departments to decertify rogue cops. One thing was noticeably absent, though: a ban on qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity makes it exceedingly difficult to sue public officials when they violate your rights, as it requires that any alleged misconduct be outlined almost identically in a previous court precedent. The doctrine has come under fire from all sides of the political spectrum. In June, Rep. Justin Amash (L–Mich.), joined by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D–Mass.) and several other Democratic members of Congress, introduced a bill in the U.S. House that would have abolished qualified immunity (though it has not received a vote and will likely die without one).”

“But Virginia Democrats’ decision to punt on the issue puts them more in line with moderates in the Republican Party—a testament to the power of the law enforcement lobby.”

“DeBoard might gain new perspective on that if she were to talk to the mother of the 10-year-old boy who was shot in Georgia by sheriff’s deputy Matthew Vickers, who received qualified immunity. Or the parents of the 15-year-old boy on his way to school who was shot in Los Angeles by Officer Michael Gutierrez, who received qualified immunity. Or the man who had a police canine sicced on him—after he had surrendered—by two cops who both received qualified immunity. Or the men who allegedly had $225,000 stolen from them by two officers, executing a search warrant, who both received qualified immunity.

The latter case epitomizes the mental contortions required by the legal doctrine. A unanimous panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit wrote that “although the City Officers ought to have recognized that the alleged theft was morally wrong, they did not have clear notice that it violated the Fourth Amendment.” In other words, officers need case law text to tell them stealing is bad.

Advocates like DeBoard present an apocalyptic vision of a world without qualified immunity, one in which officers go bankrupt from frivolous civil suits and leave the force in droves. That’s not a vision based in reality. For one, losing qualified immunity is not equivalent to losing a lawsuit. It simply provides someone with the right to bring such a suit in front of a jury—a right the American public is technically still guaranteed under federal law. And in the case that a public servant does lose a suit, the municipality nearly always foots the bill.”

Attorney General Bill Barr Encourages Federal Prosecutors To Charge Violent Protesters With Sedition

“Arson, vandalism, and other acts of rioting have accompanied many of the anti-police-brutality protests around the country. But since this violence is often adjacent to protected First Amendment activities, law enforcement’s response needs to be careful, targeted, and proportionate. We should try to stop the violence and vandalism, but peaceful protesters shouldn’t be unjustly punished or otherwise dissuaded from exercising their rights to free speech and assembly.

By encouraging prosecutors to be as punitive as possible, Barr appears to be taking the exact opposite approach. His suggestion that they dust off sedition laws should alarm all civil liberties advocates.”

Why Some Get Bad COVID, and Others Don’t—Discovered

“”From the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists baffled by the disease’s ferocity have wondered whether the body’s vanguard virus fighter, a molecular messenger called type I interferon, is missing in action in some severe cases. Two papers published online in Science this week confirm that suspicion. They reveal that in a significant minority of patients with serious COVID-19, the interferon response has been crippled by genetic flaws or by rogue antibodies that attack interferon itself,””

The Export-Import Bank’s China Program Lacks Vision

“Vast research shows that, while subsidies might prop up the direct recipients, governments that subsidize harm their economies overall. That said, in the name of national security or geopolitical concerns, these principles may sometimes be traded off against other concerns.

But this doesn’t mean that all subsidies should get a free pass. There must be a concrete strategy behind the effort to use subsidies in this way. For instance, China mostly operates in lower-income nations. If Ex-Im is serious about competing with China, that’s where its loans should be going, rather than continuing to finance foreign borrowers in rich countries such as Italy, France, or the United Arab Emirates, where they’re served well by a commercial banking market.

Ex-Im’s recent annual conference was full of bold statements about fighting China as mandated by Congress during the agency’s reauthorization process back in December 2019. Unfortunately, despite much bluster from its leadership, there’s been no fundamental change in the way Ex-Im operates or in which companies Ex-Im extends financing to with taxpayer backing.”

“the Export-Import Bank’s failure ultimately lies with the policymakers who believe an agency that has been devoted to serving well-connected companies for so long would actually change.”

The Israeli-Arab Extraterrestrial Accords

“The Abraham Accords, signed September 15, formally normalized Israel’s relationship with both Bahrain and United Arab Emirates. While geopolitical concerns have dominated both the substance of the accords and media coverage of the deal, the signatories also pledged a “common interest in establishing and developing mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes,” which may include “joint programs, projects, and activities.

Both Israel and the United Arab Emirates have thriving space programs. The Israeli Space Agency, founded in 1982, has launched a number of satellites—most notably, in 2019, the Beresheet Lander to the moon. Co-designed and built by the Israeli companies SpaceIL and Israeli Aerospace Industries, Beresheet was launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and made it all the way to the Moon for less than $100 million dollars.

Unfortunately, the Beresheet lander crashed into the lunar surface due to a mechanical error. Still, the fact that the Israeli Space Agency was able to get that close is significant. The only other nations who have been able to get that close to the lunar surface are the Americans, the Chinese, and the Russians.

The Emirati space program is significant too. Currently rocketing its way from Earth to Mars is the Al-Amal (Arabic for “Hope”) satellite, which launched in July. It is expected to arrive in February, when it will begin to investigate Martian weather patterns.

It is too soon to know how the accord will affect the two space programs. But on August 17, before the Abraham Accords were signed, Israeli Minister of Science and Technology Izhar Shay said that cooperation was “imminent” and that “[t]he infrastructure is there for the commercial engagements for the sharing of know-how and mutual efforts.””

California’s recurring wildfire problem, explained

“This August was California’s warmest on record (as it was for five other states as well), setting the stage for the extraordinary streak of extra-large fires burning now. Five of the current fires are in the 20 largest wildfires in the state’s history: the August Complex (the largest blaze in state history as of Thursday), the SCU Lightning Complex, the LNU Lightning Complex, the North Complex, and the Bear Complex. As their names hint, these are megafires that gained size and strength when smaller fires combined into unified blazes.

The heat wave that preceded this terrifying swarm was not a blip. The weeks of arid, hot air that crisped out the forests and shrubs now aflame are part of a familiar pattern of extreme weather events: the climate crisis accelerating right in our faces.

As the climate heats up, many other states in the West, including Oregon and Colorado, are seeing larger, more devastating fires and more dangerous air quality from wildfire smoke. But California is at particular risk, both because its increasingly volatile weather may bring more droughts than other states and because it has more people and more buildings.”

“California’s forests and shrublands have been subjected to wildfire pretty much forever; fire is a natural part of many of the state’s ecosystems and the Indigenous peoples of California set controlled burns to manage the landscape. What’s different now is that the season is getting longer, it’s gotten harder to manage the forest, and the fires are on average getting bigger and more destructive.

“Climate change is amplifying fire behavior and fire size,” Alan Ager, a researcher at the US Forest Service who studies how to manage wildfire risk on federally managed forests and other lands, told Vox in 2019. “Fire can travel larger distances” than in the past because there’s more fuel.

The basic recipe for a monster 21st century wildfire is this: Take hot air and no rain and moisture evaporating from trees, shrubs, and soil. After a series of these long, expansive, hot, dry spells, trees and shrubs will be transformed into ideal tinder to feed a fire. The bigger the area affected, the more available fuel. All you need then is a spark, which could come from a power line failure, a cigarette, or a firecracker.”

“The second factor making the state more fire-prone is poor forest management.

“And in the early 2000s, park rangers practiced a certain form of forestry management — prescribed burns, clearing brush, remediating clear cuts. But it fell out of favor as an increasingly large, paramilitary fire brigade took over. “As rangers joined up with the ranks of better-paid firefighters,” Arax writes, “their numbers dwindled to maybe 250, even as the number of firefighters inside the [Department of Forestry and Fire Protection] jumped to 7,000.”

Firefighters put out fires; they don’t do prescribed burns. But consistent fire suppression only increases the amount of dry, flammable material.”

“California also has a housing crisis, born largely of the fact that wealthier urban residents refuse to allow more housing to be built in urban areas, near jobs. Consequently, as more residents stream into the state, the price of existing urban housing stock rises and development sprawls outward. More and more of that development is being pushed into the “wildland-urban interface” (WUI), where wildfires are more frequent and more difficult to fight.”

“Add all this together — increasing heat from global warming, several years of unusually high winds and low humidity, poor logging practices with fewer preventive burns, more people living on forested ridges and hills in remote, fire-prone areas — and the result is disaster.”