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Bravos and Brickbats

Firefighters, fracking, and fiscal matters grab the attention of our readers Firefighters, fracking, and fiscal matters grab the attention of our readers September/October 2011: What a great issue! One of the all-timers. Two great pieces by Brad Herzog ’90—the amazing, moving article about Chris Ganci ’99 (“Company Man”) and the amusing one about the two […]

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Firefighters, fracking, and fiscal matters grab the attention of our readers

Firefighters, fracking, and fiscal matters grab the attention of our readers

September/October 2011: What a great issue! One of the all-timers. Two great pieces by Brad Herzog ’90—the amazing, moving article about Chris Ganci ’99 (“Company Man”) and the amusing one about the two Colbert staffers (“Observe and Report”)—and a useful excerpt from the new Robert Frank book (“Starve the Beast?”). Not to mention the Cornelliana endpiece by Maya Rajamani ’12 about my fraternity house, Llenroc, which was a pleasure to see. Bravo!

Keith Johnson ’56
Sharon, Connecticut

Thank you for the wonderful article on my daughter Meredith Scardino ’98 and her co-worker Liz Levin ’98, writer and producer, respectively, for “The Colbert Report.” Both the Scardino and Levin families had outstanding experiences while our daughters were at Cornell. And because both girls were athletes, we got to enjoy all the fun of the games and the incredible tailgates, not to mention staying overnight at the Statler. Any parent should be proud when they receive that acceptance packet in the mail. Cornell is an incredible place that prepared my daughter for a successful future.

Anne Scardino
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

 

Drilling Down

I decry the unbalanced reporting in “Hot Topic” (Currents, September/October 2011). The author devotes most of the article to describing a study led by Cornell professor Robert Howarth that claims the 100-year greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint caused by extracting natural gas from the Marcellus shale is “comparable to that of coal.”

         The fact that other Cornell professors disagree with Howarth is dismissed in a single sentence. There is no meaningful discussion of opposing views. The article goes on to say that “Howarth is quick to point out that no peer-reviewed journal has published a study that refutes his work.” However, a ten-minute search on the Web turned up a peer-reviewed paper published in Environmental Research Letters  by a team from Carnegie Mellon Institute titled “Life cycle greenhouse emissions of Marcellus shale gas.” They concluded that “Marcellus shale gas adds only 3 percent more emissions to the average conventional gas, which is likely within the uncertainty bounds of the study. Marcellus shale gas has lower GHG emissions relative to coal when used to generate electricity.”

         I don’t know whether the Howarth paper or the Carnegie Mellon paper represents the better scientific approach, but it seems to me that the readers of CAM would be better served if equal consideration were given to both sides of an important environmental question.

W. C. Thurber ’54
Edgewater, Maryland

Prof. Howarth replies: Shale gas has been widely promoted as a transitional fuel that allows society to continue to use fossil fuels while emitting less greenhouse gases than other fossil fuels, such as oil and coal. Surprisingly, this belief was based on little or no objective analysis. We examined the premise and, as reported in our peer-reviewed paper in Climatic Change Letters last April, found the claim to be wrong. In fact, using the best available information, we concluded that the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas is larger than that of oil or coal, when venting and leakage of methane gas is included, particularly when considered over time scales of twenty years or so following emission. Our paper was the first comprehensive analysis on this topic, the only one written by faculty or staff at Cornell, and until August, the only one in the peer-reviewed literature. 

Mr. Thurber refers to the paper by Jiang et al., which was published on August 5, many weeks after my interview with CAM. Of interest, the Jiang et al. paper does not conclude that our analysis was wrong or flawed in any way. In fact, they do not refer to our paper, and they address a more narrow topic than we did. They analyze the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas when used only for electricity production, and they focus on the time scale of 100 years after emission. Their conclusion is that under these constraints, shale gas is preferable to coal. This conclusion is broadly consistent with our study, although we believe Jiang et al. have underestimated methane emissions as well as the global warming potential of methane compared to carbon dioxide.

The larger issues, though, are their focus on electricity production and on the 100-year time frame. We focused on heat production from gas, since this is the major use of gas in the U.S., and shale gas is predicted to largely be used to replace conventional gas as a source of heat and industrial energy (and only secondarily to be used for electricity). Natural gas is used more efficiently than coal in generating electricity, but has no efficiency advantage over coal or oil when used for heat. And we focused on both the twenty-year and 100-year time frames. Because methane is relatively short-lived in the atmosphere, its influence on the longer time frame is relatively small. We believe the shorter time frame is critical, if society is serious about addressing global climate change. Again, at shorter time scales, the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas is worse than that of coal, particularly when used to generate heat and process energy.

Had Mr. Thurber continued his Web search for other literature, he also would have found a new paper by Wigley, accepted for publication in Climatic Change Letters on August 10. Wigley uses a more sophisticated model for estimating the consequences of methane on global warming than we did. He largely confirms our conclusion that shale gas is worse than coal in terms of global warming when viewed over shorter time scales, although his model results suggest less of a difference than our analysis indicated. Interested readers can further explore the consequences of assumptions behind our work at our lab website: www.eeb.cornell.edu/howarth/Marcellus.html.

 

Bash the Beast

I tend to agree with Robert Frank’s concern in “Starve the Beast?” that limiting the supply of tax dollars as a means to stop waste might result in collateral damage worse than the waste it is intended to stop. But don’t we minimize that risk if we localize it? If Alaskans had to pay for the “Bridge to Nowhere,” it is unlikely to be built unless it is an efficient use of resources. The legislators in Juneau do not have the same opportunity that legislators in Washington have for marginalizing the tax effects of the project.

         If the federal government is the beast (as it is in the bridge example), instead of starving it we might consider confining its reign. States and municipalities have governments, too, and can raise their own revenues. Let any matter that can be efficiently handled at the state or local level be handled there and restrict federal spending to matters where this cannot work (national defense, pollution that crosses state lines, and other areas where externalities cannot be internalized and the benefits of the public good cannot be confined to one state). Cost-benefit analysis works best when those who reap the benefits bear the costs. I seem to remember a young Robert Frank teaching something along these lines in Econ 102 back in 1973.

Frank Spinella Jr. ’76, JD ’79
Bow, New Hampshire

Prof. Frank is letting his ideology get ahead of his logic. He wants to limit political contributions from the wealthy and corporations because, he reasons, they cause wasteful spending. However, his example is the “Bridge to Nowhere.” That bridge is an example of the pork that nearly every politician tries to bring home for his constituents. Projects like the bridge create (unreasonably expensive) jobs, and politicians trade support for them with our tax money. They aren’t funded at the request of a wealthy donor; rather, they’re viewed as good for the district. I suspect that in the future, Prof. Frank will use an example that better supports his political position.

Dan Stern ’65, PhD ’71
Manhattan Beach, California

Prof. Frank’s criticism from a distance of California’s Proposition 13 in “Starve the Beast?” is misinformed and wrong. Tax revenue per capita in California is consistently ranked within the top ten states. The income tax rates are within the highest five states. The top 9.55 percent tax rate kicks in at only $46,766 of taxable income. California has no separate capital gains rate—capital gains are taxed at ordinary income rates. There is a sales tax that varies locally at an average of 8 to 9 percent. Californians are not under-taxed. 

         Our fiscal problems would be better solved by cutting the state budget than by raising taxes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, state and local government employees in California are paid an average of $40.10 per hour in wages and benefits against $27.88 in the private sector. A community college professor can earn $150,000 to $200,000 or more, plus benefits. Before he left office, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger predicted that in twenty to twenty-five years there will be no money in the state budget for anything except public employee wages and benefits. Although the amounts are in dispute, there is little disagreement that state and local governments face staggering unfunded pension and benefit liabilities. Public employee wage and benefit levels are driven by public employee union political contributions. The prison guards union was former Governor Gray Davis’s largest campaign contributor, for example. The wage and benefit costs extracted by the public employee unions in return for their political contributions are what is bankrupting the state.

         Californians rightly see Proposition 13 as their last bastion of defense against state and local governments insatiable for more tax revenue and spending too much of what they now receive on a favored class of public employees. If Proposition 13 were repealed, the tax burden added to the taxes we already have would drive more businesses and productive individuals out of the state in addition to those who have already left, with immense adverse economic consequences, a result not considered in “Starve the Beast?”

Robert Dunn ’58
Corte Madera, California

Prof. Frank replies: Taking Mr. Dunn’s description of conditions in the Golden State at face value, he and his fellow citizens appear to be suffering at the hands of a dysfunctional state government. The fact that government is often wasteful was, of course, my point of departure in “Starve the Beast?” But what should we do about that?

         Mr. Dunn believes it’s a good thing that Proposition 13 has reduced his overall tax burden, suggesting that he also believes that depriving the state of tax revenue is a productive way to eliminate government waste. But as evidenced by the comments from Californians at the online version of my article on the CAM website, that approach has caused good programs to be cut along with bad ones. Mr. Dunn is correct to say that if the overall tax burden and lack of public services in California grow sufficiently burdensome, the most mobile individuals and businesses will continue to flee the state. But the most effective solution to that problem would be to reform state government in California. Mr. Dunn cites examples of the corrupting influence of campaign contributions from public employee unions. Others would cite the corrupting influence of campaign contributions from corporate interests. Any and all sources of corruption are ripe for attack, but the corrupting influence of campaign cash should be at the top of every reformer’s list.

         Building good government is hard work. But it’s not impossible. Many countries and many American states have succeeded in building responsible, responsive governments. None of them did it by starving the beast.

 

Alumni Deaths: Yeegads!

When I receive CAM, I always flip to the obituaries first to see if I know anybody, to see if I’m listed, and to read about the accomplishments of former Cornellians. I was stunned by the decimation of our alumni ranks this time—three pages of names with no kind words regarding their careers. There was also no mention of the plague that is wiping out Cornellians so rapidly. Is it contagious? Am I doomed?

         I did find the nine-page PDF of the full obituaries on the website, but the printed version in the September/October 2011 issue was a shock. Let’s hope this plague abates.

Jeff Earickson ’77, MS ’80
Waterville, Maine

Ed. Note: Don’t worry, Jeff—there’s no plague. But we have, as you noted, changed the way we’re presenting Alumni Deaths in the print magazine. As Cornell’s alumni body has grown larger each year, we have found it more and more difficult to keep up with the deaths reported to us. This problem has been exacerbated by budgetary constraints that have reduced the number of pages in most of our print issues. More deaths and fewer pages—so we have been falling farther and farther behind in publishing the obituaries. Recently we were running almost a year behind, which is simply unacceptable. We considered a number of options and decided on a compromise solution, with a listing of names and date of death in print and full-text memorials online, where there are no space restrictions. This will allow us to publish these memorials in a timely manner and, in fact, expand the longer versions when appropriate. For full-text versions of all memorials, go to the CAM website.

 

Corrections

Legacies 2011 (July/August 2011, website): Elissa Prout ’14 was inadvertently omitted from the One Parent list. She is the daughter of James Prout ’83. Elissa is also the great-granddaughter of Ellis Robison 1918.

Authors (September/October 2011, page 21): We wrote that Royal Pains was “the second foray into royal history” by Leslie Carroll ’81. It is actually her third.

“High and Mighty” (Currents, September/October 2011, page 24): The photographs should have been credited to Jon Reis/Photolink.

“The Great Red Way” (Currents, September/October 2011, page 36): Due to an editing error, we misidentified the play that was inspired by Walt Whitman. It was Yawper on the Balch Bridge by Lauren Feldman ’01, not Arts and Sciences by Sheri Wilner ’91.

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