Here I Am

by Michael Cain

Back a while, Patrick Cahalan posted Progress, inviting people to describe how conversations at the League had changed their minds on issues.  I remarked at the time that

I only have one issue that I’m really concerned about. It’s long term – I probably won’t live long enough to see it resolved – and it’s happening in slow-motion, so it doesn’t come up and (obviously) no one has changed my mind about it. OTOH, my own belief is that looking back from 2100 it will be viewed as the issue from the first half of the century.

Patrick responded that this paragraph screamed for a guest post.  I’ve taken him up on that offer.

So, in one sentence: I want future generations in the American West to have robust reliable electricity (and the high tech that electricity enables), and have concluded that the best way to ensure that result is the peaceful secession of the 11 states stretching from the western parts of the Great Plains to the Pacific (the states highlighted in yellow in the cartogram below; I’ll get back to the figure later).  And yes, I know just how odd that sounds.  However, if someone had predicted in 1995 that within 25 years most of the states would be having critical budget problems – the Great Recession accelerated the process, but it’s a long way from being over – it would have seemed odd.  Even though the budget crises were, and continue to be, present in the trends: political limits to state revenue growth; Medicaid cost growth rates; K-12 education cost growth rates; the growth of equalization schemes that shift K-12 funding from local to state sources; and retiree obligations.  And I’m pretty sure that most people at the end of 1830 would have thought the idea that the South would secede within 30 years – and then fight an insanely bloody war over the matter – seemed odd.


The story I’m going to tell here is the result of extrapolating several current trends.  It’s a big story that can’t be told adequately in a blog posting; over the last couple of years it has become a book-sized project for me.  It’s a big story because it requires pulling so many different threads together.  As I’m going to tell it, it’s also a parochial story, focused almost exclusively on the 48 contiguous US states, even though some of the things that drive the story also have significant global impacts.  I didn’t start from the idea of secession.  I sort of backed into it as I looked at various trends associated with long-term energy supplies, and what it might take to maintain a broadly-rich high-tech society in at least part of the US going forward.  Because I’ve tried to keep this to a sane size, all of the arguments presented are incomplete.

Let me start by saying that no one in the world knows how to have a large, rich, developed economy with a high level of technology without producing and consuming prodigious amounts of electricity.  China today is an outstanding example.  The leadership there is in the process of trying to lift a billion peasants from poverty, and recognizes the amount of electricity required to do that.  As a consequence, China is investing massively in anything that produces electricity: coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, wind, solar.  India is attempting the same feat with its peasant population, but is lagging behind China’s progress, in substantial part because they have neglected their electricity supplies.  Rich high-tech means electricity, and lots of it.

The first thread is a slowly developing crisis in the US’s ability to produce and deliver sufficient amounts of electricity.  Two factors dominate.  First, coal-fired generators currently provide the largest share of US electricity [1].  On the other hand, coal is nasty dirty stuff that is becoming, at least in many parts of the country, politically unpopular.  Technology exists to deal with most of the non-CO2 pollutants like sulfur dioxide, mercury, and fine particulates.  Any serious effort to limit CO2 emissions in the US would have to drastically reduce the amount of coal burned [2].  Second, over the next 30 years, essentially all of the US commercial nuclear reactors will reach the end of their operating license extensions.  Given the increasing frequency of problems we are seeing (eg, tritium leaks), and the currently small chance that the US will resolve its spent fuel waste problem in a timely manner, the most probable outcome is that those reactors will be retired when the extensions expire.

Those problems affect a large share of US production.  The conventional statement is that the US power grid gets 50% of its electricity from coal and 20% from nuclear.  However, the US doesn’t have a single power grid.  It has three geographically distinct grids with relatively little power flow between them.  They are (rather unimaginatively) known as the Eastern Interconnect, the Western Interconnect, and the Texas Interconnect.  The Western Interconnect consists of the same states that make up my 11-state West; the Texas Interconnect consists of most of Texas; and the Eastern Interconnect consists of everything else.  The interconnect boundaries don’t follow state borders exactly, but are close enough for my purposes.  For several reasons consistent with my East/West story, I’ll be including Texas as part of the East.  When we look at the coal-and-nuclear problem, it is disproportionately an Eastern problem.  In 2011, the states of the Western Interconnect accounted for 23% of the US population and 18% of total electricity generation, but only 12% of the coal-fired electricity and 9% of the nuclear [3].

The second thread is a variation on the Peak Oil hypothesis.  Peak Oil doesn’t say that we’re about to run out of oil; it simply says that the global rate of production of oil and other liquid hydrocarbon fuels will peak in the near future and then begin to decline [4].  The consequences are unlikely to be a Mad Max end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it quick and total collapse of civilization.  However, the amount of liquid fuels available in the US each year will slowly decrease and the price of those fuels increase.  The process won’t necessarily be smooth, but it will be steady, with an average decline rate in fuel volume around 2.5% per year.  In 25 years, the US will have to get by on roughly half as much liquid fuel as it does today.  In 50 years, a quarter as much.  Most of the rest of the world will face similar restrictions.

The importance of Peak Oil to my story is that the world becomes a “bigger” place than it is today on several scales.  When I say bigger, I mean that reduced physical contact between two places makes them farther apart.  On a large scale, there will be less trade between continents: far fewer goods imported from China, much less grain shipped to Africa, many fewer vacations taken in Europe.  On a somewhat smaller scale, there will be less contact across the width of the US.  Jumping on an airplane to fly from LA to New York or Miami will be, relatively to today, a lot more expensive.  And on a small scale, people will stay closer to home.  Heading over to the other side of the metro area to eat at that trendy new restaurant will be reserved for special occasions, because of the difficulties (in either money or time) of getting there.  One of the most important consequences is that it becomes much more expensive to project military power across a bigger world.  The US will become a more regional and less global military power.

The third thread is the continuation of the 80-year trend of depopulation of the US Great Plains.  The total population of the Great Plains counties peaked in the 1930s, and has been falling ever since.  In some areas, the process has reached the point of positive feedback: the population is too sparse to support many services (for example, a private medical practice), and without those services even more of the remaining people are leaving.  Or at least their children are.  Global warming is going to make much of the Plains even less well-suited for agriculture than it is already [5].  That’s already happening in West Texas, and will spread north.  In short, the Poppers are winning [6].  The Great Plains will provide a 500-mile wide increasingly-empty buffer between the eastern and western portions of the US.  In a world where long-distance transportation is more expensive, the effect of that buffer will be greater than it is today.

A fourth thread is that there are a number of other fundamental differences between East and West.  Start with the geographical differences.  The West is mountainous, which has forced its population to be crowded into a relatively small number of metro areas [7].  On average, using the Census Bureau definition, the West’s population is less rural than the East’s.  Most parts of the West receive far less annual precipitation than the country east of the Great Plains, so agriculture in the West has always involved large-scale water storage and management.  The same storage-and-management needs have become true for most of the major metro areas.  California’s water wars from the early part of last century that made modern Los Angeles possible are well known.  Colorado has now passed a law that requires large developers to identify their long-term sources of water before they can build.  Dealing with big wildfires is a part of life in much of the West [8].  Even the structure of cities is somewhat different: because so much of the population growth occurred after the automobile was widely available, urban cores are much smaller in the West relative to the overall metro areas.

There is an important political difference as well: the large federal land holdings in the West.  In each of those 11 big states, between 30% and 85% of the area is owned by the federal government.  To emphasize the point, the cartogram up at the top of this post scales the 48 contiguous states using the size of the federal land holdings in each.  If you haven’t lived extensively in the West, it can be difficult to understand the issue this creates.  The land holdings have been a source of a lot of resentment since about 1900, the point when the federal government unofficially abandoned its previous practice of getting public land into the hands of either the states or private ownership as quickly as possible.  Every 30 years or so, such resentment seems to reach a peak.  The last peak was in the late 1970s: the Sagebrush Rebellion [9].  Resentment is on the rise again, with several of the state legislatures introducing – and in some cases passing – bills that either assert control over large parts of the federal lands or demanding transfer of ownership and control to the states.

The final difference I’ll include regards renewable energy resources.  The West is rich in renewable resources; the East, not nearly so much, especially compared to Eastern consumption.  Depending on the amount of snow pack, between 30% and 40% of the power generated in the states of the Western Interconnect each year already comes from renewable resources.  All but two of the states have requirements to increase their use of renewable sources.  One of the two that don’t – Idaho – produces such large amounts of electricity (relative to its size) from renewable sources that a mandate seems silly.  Examples of some of the more aggressive mandates include Colorado’s requirement to get 30% of its electricity from renewables by 2020, and Los Angeles’ commitment to be coal-free by 2025.  There have been several credible nuts-and-bolts level studies that describe how the West can replace its coal and nuclear generation with renewable power.  For the East, it’s a much harder problem [10].

So how would the East deal with the current coal-and-nuclear problem?  There are three approaches that appear to have the best chances of working: some combination of austerity, a nuclear renaissance, and raid the West’s renewables.  Austerity can mean a lot of different things.  One part of it is that the East generates (and consumes) about 35% more electricity per person than the West.  The East could seek Western-like efficiency, perhaps using higher prices as the whip.  We know a lot more about nuclear reactor design than we did when the current reactors were built.  Safer, more efficient reactors are possible.  And there are lots of proposals for “raiding,” although generally not described that way.  NREL’s Renewable Electricity Futures Study looks, at a relatively high level, for the lowest-cost methods to achieve specific levels of renewable power across all three interconnect regions.  As the target level for renewables goes up linearly, the amount of new transmission capacity needed goes up at a much higher rate.  The principle reason is that at higher levels, it becomes cheaper to generate electricity in the West and ship it east over large HVDC transmission systems than to squeeze additional production out of Eastern resources.

I argue that in all three of those cases, the East will be motivated to impose its will in one way or another on a not-necessarily cooperative West.  Perhaps I’m borrowing trouble, but when (not if) the federal government becomes involved in enforcing austerity, it seems unlikely that the West will escape, even though it is already more efficient overall.  In the case of new nuclear, spent fuel repositories (or even spent fuel reprocessing plants) would be needed and would almost certainly be sited on those federal lands in the West.  As for raids… well, lots of those big federal land holdings are well suited for renewable generation, and the East has already demonstrated that it has sufficient votes in Congress to dictate land-use policy decisions.

Recent history has continued to provide examples demonstrating that states in the West have reason to be suspicious of the federal government in land-use matters.  Elimination of all sites but Yucca Mountain, Nevada for consideration for long-term storage of high-level commercial nuclear wastes in the 1980s turned more on politics than science.  The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument designation of federal lands in Utah in 1996 was done by President Clinton without consulting any of Utah’s state officials or Congressional delegation.  Since 2003, Colorado has been fighting the proposed expansion of the US Army’s Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site.  The initial proposal for the expansion covered 6.9 million acres – an area slightly larger than the state of Massachusetts – of mostly privately owned land, much of that to be taken by eminent domain.  Half of the existing Maneuver Site was obtained through the largest (in terms of area) eminent domain proceding in US history.

The easiest way for the West to ensure that none of those things happen – or at least that they happen on Western terms – is to secede.  A successful secession movement would need to satisfy various conditions.  Factors for the West seem more straightforward: there are arguably both economic and political benefits as an independent entity; and in a world with less contact between the coasts, a growing regional identity at the expense of the national identity.  Timing is important.  I don’t believe secession is a viable option in less than 25 years.  Some of the arguments against a standalone West will likely have been resolved in 25 years: for example, the deficit and debt problems, and issues with Mexico.  National programs like Social Security are mostly a matter of accounting.  A peaceful secession would require convincing the East that it is to their benefit to let the West go.  That seems to me the more difficult undertaking.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go put on my flame-proof underwear.

[1]  Electricity from natural gas may come in very slightly ahead of coal in 2012.  The switch has largely been the result of the current glut of cheap natural gas.  There are good reasons to believe that the glut is temporary, and that prices will return to normal.  At which time the big generators that previously used coal will largely switch back.

[2]  Throughout, I’m going to ignore “then a miracle occurs” technology developments.  Clean coal – carbon capture and sequestration, CCS – on the necessary scale hasn’t been demonstrated.  In anticipation of other arguments, fusion-based commercial power hasn’t been demonstrated, nor has enhanced geothermal power.

[3]  Population figures from the Census Bureau.  Electricity generation numbers aggregated from the Energy Information Administration’s by-state-by-source spreadsheets.  Corrected whole-year generation figures for 2012 won’t be available until October or November.

[4]  This is an example of what I meant when I said this story was really too big for a blog posting.  There are a lot of “But what about X?” questions that challenge the hypothesis that the production rate has peaked or is about to peak.  I believe there are good reasons to think that the hypothesis is valid.  Feel free to treat it as an assumption.

[5]  Attribute climate change to any source you like, but symptoms such as rapidly shrinking Arctic sea ice extent say that something is making parts of the planet warmer.  One of the things that almost all of the computer models agree on is that the Great Plains are one of the ground-zero areas for being warmer and, during critical seasons, drier.

[6]  The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust, 1987.

[7]  Some potentially interesting maps about the effects on the population pattern here.

[8]  Total fire suppression in most of the western forests has to be near the top of the list of the stupidest long-term federal policies ever implemented.  Forest restoration across the entire West is impossibly expensive.  In another hundred years, the forests will be largely restored, simply because most of them will have burned in catastrophic crown fires and grown back in something closer to their natural state.  Of course, dealing with the consequences of those fires will be very expensive in the West, with costs largely borne by the states.  And some of the regrowth will take longer than 100 years.

[9]  Triggered in part by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, which made perpetual federal ownership the official policy.  So far as I have been able to determine, the bill passed without a single aye vote from the Congressional delegations of the 11 western states.

[10]  Studies of the Western Interconnect pretty much all come to the same conclusions: develop the resources here, run the necessary transmission upgrades there (largely determined by the terrain).  Attempts at detailed studies for the other interconnects, the Eastern in particular, are hard to find.  It really is a much harder problem: fewer resources, population less concentrated, and simply a much larger amount of electricity that has to be generated.

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128 thoughts on “Here I Am

  1. Couple thoughts:

    Water shortages are going to a be major issue throughout the entire southwest which you do touch on. It wouldn’t surprise me if over 30-50 years the SW starts to lose population or its growth is massively curtailed due to lack of water. The arid or desert parts of the west are actually most of the west. Norcal, Portland and Seattle might end up ruling the west.

    Social media will prevent people from different coasts becoming culturally seperated and divided.


    • Well it depends on agriculture. There is an enormous amount of water available in the west for dense population if the enormous federal and state subsidies of desert agriculture were scaled back or eliminated. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when the dense voter rich urban areas finally engage in an actual fight with the vote poor rural areas over water.


      • The Ogallala Aquifer is in big trouble. Phoenix had the foresight (and the cojones) to obtain water rights but there’s only so far they can take that proposition. The Colorado River is another ugly dogfight: it’s been consistently over-allocated. Denver’s in trouble. California’s in trouble. Driving I-10 from Phoenix to LA, you can see those huge pipes going up into that mountain ridge.

        It won’t matter how much these various entities fight over it, the West is over its carrying capacity. It’s a bunch of hungry coyotes fighting over an already stripped to the bone deer carcase.


        • Denver (and the Front Range in general) doesn’t have a water problem, it has a water management problem. Outlaw residential grass and Denver has water it doesn’t know what to do with. Outlaw irrigation of corn to feed the ethanol factories and the Front Range from the Palmer Divide to the Wyoming border is in much the same situation.

          The Lower Colorado River Basin is going to be… ugly.


  2. What about gas? Gas powered power stations are cheap, can be made quite small, and are very easy to switch on an off. Gas is clean, and since the US suddenly appears to have a great deal of it, also very cheap.


    • The scenario does seem to hand wave away the entire frakking related advances in oil extraction and natural gas production. Funny thing is people know about a lot of oil that was uneconomical to extract at previous prices but becomes so as oil prices rise. Peak oil keeps finding higher and higher peaks as the price goes up. Still, fundamentally there is a ceiling. Fossil fuel reserves are finite; of that there’s no doubt.


      • My guess is people will learn to tolerate very high gas prices before significant changes are made. Certainly people drive less as prices go up. But i don’t see major changes like more public transport, less road funding, etc any time soon.


          • The only potential problem is if the worries about groundwater turn out to be substantiated.

            Generally, the environmental impact of large-scale fracking efforts is totally unknown at this point. Not just groundwater, but potential leaks, spills, etc. People mined coal for a long time before black lung became a political issue.

            I’m also not entirely certain that we’ll be progressing in our fracking at our current rate, let’s just say that.


        • Trends say it’s sustainable, and there’s more than just shale. At some point if shale gas becomes uneconomical, there’s always methrane hydrates that WILL become economical at some point in the next 20-30 years and the US has vast vast reserves of that off its continental shelf.


    • Gas is only cheap if one doesn’t factor in the environmental cost or the defense budget. I have heard projections ranging from three to five degrees temperature increase from tar sands.
      If half of what the people who care about our unborn grandchildren say is true gas is very expensive.


  3. I could have written a similar post focusing on water, with the west facing shortages.

    But I’m sort of troubled by the notion that the East has a shortage of renewable energy sources. Before this was even a topic of discussion, 40% of my mix is from hydro. That’s standard mix; and we’re talking some big generating companies including FLP. There are windfarms and bio generators coming coming onto the grid, and research on tidal generation, with a unit already in the Gulf of Maine showing tremendous potential.

    Peak oil seems to have really meant peak easy oil, the tar-sands variety and other forms that need more refining seem plentiful, but that’s an impression I have, and one I’ll let WillH or others with more/better industry knowledge address. My concerns here aren’t supply any longer, it’s carbon loading the atmosphere.

    As SimonKinahan said, natural gas production.

    Water, on the other hand, is an interesting conundrum for the west. By my estimations, already a much bigger problem then energy will be for the East.


    • Yeah, we’re about at peak oil, or so. But that’s peak of production, basically, and more an index of demand versus supply. Of course there will be more supplies, they will just cost more, and become more and more energetically infeasible.


  4. Hmph well barring some huge advance in wind or tide (I doubt it, wind is variable and tide has been spinning its wheels for decades) I’d put bets on a nuclear renaissance. If energy prices rise very much reprocessing becomes economical which throws the question of storing waste (there’ll be very little) out the window.
    Raise prices even more and then heavy water nuclear becomes economical, the Canadians have been doing it for decades now. I just don’t see us running out of electricity.


    • I sure wish you were right, North. Trouble is, going nuclear only trades one set of geopolitical devils we know for another set of devils we know somewhat less well: uranium finds, like oil, always seems to crop up in awful places.


      • True BlaiseP. But there’s a great deal of the stuff rolling around here in North America for the near and mid term and, of course, there’s all kinds of potential fuels waiting for someone desperate for electricity to sling some serious science at them. I know you don’t think much of thorium but there are others.


        • Truth is, I wouldn’t care what fuels the reactors. Some folks hear “nuclear reactor” and break out in a rash of assholes. Most people in point of fact. (spreads hands wide) Damned near everybody, North. This country is so afflicted with the dumbass, so eaten up with idiocy, so absolutely clueless to the geopolitical trick bag into which we’ve put ourselves over time, it’s almost pointless to even mention this fact. You’ll just hurt these people’s feelings.


          • Blaise, Some studies have indicated that there has been a 28% increase in thyroid problems in children born in Hawaii and western states since Fukushima. Anybody that isn’t worried about nuclear power is everything you said in the last sentence of your diatribe.
            While I am about 90% convinced that nuclear power could be safe if, and this is a huuuuge if, nobody lied so the plant could run longer and make more money, I am 110% convinced that we don’t know how to store something that dangerous for thousands of years.


            • Look, here’s the problem in a nutshell: the US Navy has been running reactors off a basic safe design for many decades. When Thresher went to the bottom, that reactor survived. It scrammed, exactly as it should have. Thresher imploded into thousands of tiny pieces — everything except its reactor. It’s still at the bottom, safe as milk. That was 1963.

              This custom reactor designs like Fukushima and Three Mile Island and the rest of these crazy-ass designs, they’re nothing but trouble. France put in a standard reactor design, something like 56 Westinghouse reactors and they haven’t had Problem One over the years. They planned to recycle their nuclear waste from the very beginning so they never had the problem with disposal. There was some concern about burying some residual nuclear waste so the French said “we’ll just stockpile it so we can keep an eye on it” and the furore died down.

              Now France is trying to screw around with more custom reactors and they’ve gone over budget.

              American reactors are so stupid, it’s like burning the bark off a log and throwing the whole thing, still blazing away, into the trash can. We don’t have a good fuel reprocessing infrastructure: Jimmy Carter, that ass, thought it was a bad idea. As such, yes, you’re absolutely right, given the stupidity of building reactors which won’t survive a disaster like Fukushima. But that’s not universally true.

              If you’re going nuclear, you need three things: a standard reactor, standard training and a standard reprocessing / disposal regime. The US Navy graduates the best nuclear techs in the world but the morons in Washington who send their nuclear-powered ships and submarines here ‘n there are too stupid to realise they’ve already got the solution in uniform.


              • This, so very much this.

                Dexter, just for the record, France reprocesses their fuel and then stores what is left over in glass casks. The waste that cannot be recycled that has been produced in the entire lifetime of the French nuclear industry amounts to the volume of a high school gymnasium.


                • What’s needed is a thorough review of nuclear power, with a full and frank concession to the anti-nuclear folks, admitting the obvious. For the last fifty years, the nuclear power industry has behaved like maniacs, lying to us and lying to themselves. Dozens of reactors, billions of dollars spent, tons of nuclear waste, that shit will be blazing away as far distant forward from us in time as the Sumerian civilisation was in our past.

                  The US Navy needs to take this matter in hand, immediately. I wouldn’t trust these utilities with anything sharper than a marshmallow. Institute SUBSAFE protocols all the way through.


                • France actually has a fairly serious spent fuel problem in that its high and medium radioactive waste is 1: difficult to handle after reprocessing and 2: has no permanent storage site. Right now they keep it stored at La Hague, but that’s a temporary solution and they’ve yet to come up with a permanent way to deal with it. It’s true that the vitifried waste is about the size of a rugby pitch, but it’s still really nasty stuff ™ that needs a good long-term storage solution.


                  • Difficult is as difficult does. France and Japan have a policy and a procedure for reprocessing, Japan’s rather worse than France’s: Rokkasho is a bureaucratic mess.

                    The USA doesn’t have anything of the sort.

                    Given that a coal-fired plant emits more radionuclides than a nuclear power plant and its ash creates megatons of really nasty stuff ™, when it comes to the feeding of beasts and mucking out their stalls, there’s always a trade off in both horsepower and electrical power. The half-life of politically nasty tatemae as it decays to stable honne is about as long and dangerous as anything in the barrels and the ash heaps.


              • Four things: you left out a culture that takes safety and maintenance seriously rather than as things that can be gutted when management bonus time comes around.


                • Mike’s reply is very close to my thinking. I believe we could do nuclear, but I do not trust the corps to tell the truth. The only people that lie more than politicians are the corps that tell those marionettes in Washington what to write into law.
                  How many windmills could we build for the cost of one nuclear plant. How much solar energy could we produce if, instead of giving the highly profitable oil companies entitlements, we used that money for solar panels?


                  • Look, these are the strategic variables in energy.

                    1. Congruency with market demand.
                    2: Total upfront costs before a single watt is generated.
                    3: Cost of megawatts over the life of the power plant
                    4: Uptime, consistency and reliability
                    5. Power transmission loss.

                    Solar and wind only become viable if they’re very close to demand. If we reduced transmission loss — which we could do — at massive #2 upfront cost, they might become more viable. They currently get failing marks at #4. Perhaps if we can work out how to store that power for later usage, their marks might improve somewhat.

                    Nuclear has massive upfront costs. Those could be substantially reduced with standardised reactors. Nuclear also needs water for steam and cooling. But it’s reliable and the #3 cost is surprisingly low.

                    Oil doesn’t play a role in power generation: it’s not the same problem domain. Gas does play a large role, especially in #1, with peaker plants. When demand goes up, a peaker plant can spin up to meet that demand.

                    An optimal wind turbine can only reach 59% efficiency. It’s a mechanical nightmare keeping one running. You’ll find the largest wind turbines running at just north of 7 Mw. San Onofre generates 1.24 Gw. So, lessee, that’s 1240 Mw, you’d need 165 of the biggest wind turbines in the world today running full out 24/7/365. And that’s not going to happen.


                  • Like Blaise said, Dex, neither wind nor solar can provide base load power. Also solar panels have both serious toxicity problems of their own on disposal and huge rare earth bottlenecks for production.

                    Now I’m down with strict regulation of nuclear power. Much more strict than there has been. My own primary point is that when environmentalists start happily talking about how much of a crunch on electricity we’re going to have nuclear isn’t something they can hand wave away. Try to seriously ration energy and the artificial culture of fear about nuclear power that we maintain in the US is gonna go out the window.


            • Some studies have indicated that there has been a 28% increase in thyroid problems in children born in Hawaii and western states since Fukushima.

              Imma need a citation on that one.

              Fukushima wasn’t anywhere near long enough ago for that to crop up in any sort of longitudinal study and anything short term probably wouldn’t cover Hawaii *and* the western states.


      • If uranium ever goes over the 23,000 yen per kilogram, we’ll be able to get loads of the stuff out of seawater. It’s not a huge problem, as there’s lots of things under development to make it easily recoverable from non-traditional sources.


      • I leave fusion out of my mental calculus for nuclear Kimmi me dear. It’s just too magic. If someone pulls it off then we’re probably talking singularity. Until that point I find it more practical just to assume it will remain twenty years away from feasibility for the rest of my lifetime.


        • ITER’s coming online this year. If all goes well with it, we’re talking a useful tokomak design within 5-10 years. Commercial scale development is something else, of course, and there’s always problems with how to deal with waste products, even with fusion. But it’s more feasible now than it’s ever been.

          It’s just the US government isn’t spending much money on it while the Europeans and Japanese are.


          • If all goes well with it, we’re talking a useful tokomak design within 5-10 years.

            Fusion has been 10 years away for 50 years. But never let it be said that we’re not making progress. After 50 years of hard work, it’s now 5 years away!

            We’ll get fusion eventually, no doubt. There has been progress. But relying on it as a solution in the immediate future is probably a mistake.


            • I don’t think anyone’s really relying on it as a solution, it seems to me everyone’s already written it off as a potential solution in the next 20 years, hence the reason why we have long-horizon experiments like ITER. Once ITER is up and running though, we’ll have a better idea of how net energy fusion will work, or won’t work on the scale of a 10x energy generating tokomak. That’s progress, even if it won’t solve our energy woes by 2040.


          • ITER’s coming online this year. If all goes well with it, we’re talking a useful tokomak design within 5-10 years.

            Simply not true. The current official ITER schedule calls for first plasma in 2020 and first deuterium-tritium fusion in 2027, so we’re 14 years away — if there are no additional delays — from the first instance of the reaction that they’re pinning their hopes on. ITER itself won’t be used to generate electricity. The project’s schedule calls for the DEMO system, ITER’s successor, to begin generating power in 2033. After an indeterminate period of DEMO operation, they plan to design PROTO — the prototype for a commercial reactor. And there are game-breakers all along the way. For example, no one knows if the structural materials they’ve chosen will stand up as predicted in that kind of neutron flux — that’s one of the questions ITER is supposed to answer.


  5. Do you think if we pushed compact theory far enough and then statization of the lands that secession could be avoided?

    Is there not a case to be made that the people could have retained their state and in addition have a national government at an equal but not greater than level upon ratification?


    • Let’s make it a more detailed hypothetical. Land turned over to the states, the only strings being that they have to provide the kind of services that the Bureau of Land Management and US Forest Service have. No federal payments to the states to cover that — it’s their land now — but the states keep all of the royalty monies instead of half. Some of the states could afford it. Wyoming could pay for it just out of the increased coal royalties; California, Colorado, and Washington could probably swing it out of their state budgets; I think the voters there would accept the necessary small tax increases. Idaho, Montana, and New Mexico? Almost certainly not. Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Utah could go either way.

      There are a lot of complications. Some of the capabilities needed — eg, air tankers for fighting forest fires — should be shared. FERC is the final authority for resolving conflicts over siting electricity transmission facilities on the federal lands, and new transmission will need to be built (IMO). Do the states get the big hydro systems located on public lands? The BPA and other power administrations operate across state lines and at least BPA deals with Canada. Does BPA report to Oregon and Washington? How much “real” authority over the public lands can be given to the states as long as they remain part of the US is a difficult question to answer.


  6. There’s going to be a heavy “prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” element to this reply, so with that said. Pick any 30 year pair within the last 100 years. How difficult was it to get right technological, political, and geostrategic concerns three decades hence?

    Let’s look at 30 years ago: USSR still a big deal, the Internet not a big deal, heck, personal computing maybe the beginnings of the bigger deal it was to become but not yet pocket smartphone level. Speaking of cell phones a 1983 cell phone was, let’s say, a substantial device.

    All of which to say, there are quite a few technological innovations that could cut through some of the concerns you mention. I don’t even have to reach for the singularity, just developments in materials science and biotech could seriously push back on the energy concerns you highlight. I don’t know how difficult genetically modifying sugarcane is or whether nano-scale solar power is a promising avenue, but those fields have to be good for something beside putting ears on the backs of mice and writing IBM in really small print.

    People like nice things, like European vacations, and the US certainly likes the nice thing of being the dominant global military power. Capitalism, when it isn’t collapsing in on itself, has a record of delivering nice things. I think its, um, courageous to bet against that record continuing. Also, in the area I know a bit more about, I don’t get the power transition you’re describing for the US. It took two all consuming world wars to drop Britain down from top tier to middling power, energy is really going to push the US off its pedestal towards regional power status?

    tl;dr, techno-utopia ahead, sort of.


  7. I just don’t see other Western states being foolish enough to tie themsselves any closer to California, which would certainly be the politically dominant partner. California is completely unable to manage its own budget, to the extent that Congressmen have discussed the legalities and precedents for suspending its statehood when it goes belly-up, much the way Michigan has intervened in Detroit by appointing emergency managers.


        • So they fixed it then. If avoiding a complete meltdown doesn’t qualify as the time to use emergency funds, i’m not sure what does. they also raised taxes and cut services. Every bodies is happy.


            • The biggest cause of the financial problems for the states and the country was the giant recession. Since the economy is slowly improving that suggests things are fixed for the foreseeable future.


              • It’s imperative to keep looking down upon CA liberalism as the penultimate problem.

                (If you’re curious, the other coast is ultimate, first or last depending on if you’re measuring by the sun stream or the jet stream; but ultimate, nonetheless, as the OP indicates.)


        • Pat- Fair enough. It would be interesting to hear your take on the Cali. financial situation. It is certainly used a political football in national politics to prove whatever point is convenient. I’ve read a few things about the current state of “fixedness” from other Cali people. What is your view?


          • We’d be a lot better off if we did two things: sent broke people back to their state of origin so that our social welfare bill wasn’t covering a good chunk of imports from states where their welfare support sucks (I’m looking at you, everywhere with terrible Medicaid support), and legalized the illegal immigrant population so that we could put them on the tax rolls. I’d hazard a guess that those two things alone might put us in the green, really.

            I’m not happy with the school funding, but that’s a problem with the way the money is distributed more than anything else. I think there’s probably enough total cash in the system.

            I’d also like to repeal Prop 13 and let the urban cycle send retirees out of neighborhoods that were built for families, but nobody wants to encourage grandma to move out of her neighborhood.


            • “We’d be a lot better off if we did two things: sent broke people back to their state of origin so that our social welfare bill wasn’t covering a good chunk of imports from states where their welfare support sucks”

              As I said below, this violates the Privileges and Immunities clause of Article IV and the Fourth Amendment. States don’t have the right to exclude other American citizens (there might be an exception for parloees but that has more to do with the scope of their parole order). There is a right to domestic travel.


              • There is a right to domestic travel, but not for immediate benefits. I thought of it like in-state tuition residency requirements. I guess the difference is that Medicaid, even though states put a lot of money into it, is still a federal program.

                I don’t think I like that ruling. It puts generous states like California at an unfair disadvantage.


                  • As long as you intend to make it your permanent resident/domicile. I am not a citizen of Oregon because I decide to spend go there for a three day vacation.


                    • I perhaps should not have specified Medicaid, in particular.

                      California’s social safety net covers a number of things that many other states do not. We have a number of state-level lower income support programs, for example, that are funded at the state level.

                      There is quite possibly some free riding going on there, I’m guessing likely. I can’t say for certain, this is beyond my scope of knowledge, but just looking at the state-immigrant population (people who live in California who were born elsewhere in the U.S.) I think we have more than our fair share of other states’ expats.

                      To be clear, I’m not advocating throwing them out on the street. I would just like it if people in such-and-so conservative state didn’t harp so much about how California is overly generous and liberal when their relatives are part of our social safety net, here. Yes, your state runs a much more trim ship. Bite me.


                    • I would just like it if people in such-and-so conservative state didn’t harp so much about how California is overly generous and liberal when their relatives are part of our social safety net, here.

                      And I would add, conservative states that accept more than the 50% federal Medicaid reimbursement rate that California gets. If California got the same 74.3% reimbursement rate that Mississippi gets (to choose the worse example), it would free up almost $15B in California General Fund dollars. Even Texas’ 69.3% would free up over $5.5B. Add the Medicaid rate as a criterion and Alaska and Wyoming are the only two red states that get to bitch. With barely 1.3 million people between the two of them.


                    • Michael,

                      Those numbers are thrown off by the willingness of California to spend more for more generous services*. Despite the fact that the federal government spends less as a percentage of overall spending, federal HHS spends more per-capita in California than it does in Texas (not Mississippi, though).

                      * – Which, to be sure, I’m not criticizing. I can think of worse places for the state’s money to go.


                    • No. Or at least, while I may be wrong, I don’t think so. The federal reimbursement rate to the state is determined by a simple formula: everyone gets 50%, then the formula calculates if you’re “poor” enough to get a higher rate. Everything a state spends, so long as it is covered under the Medicaid minimum requirements, or an expansion covered under an approved waiver, is reimbursed at exactly that rate. California is a rich state under the statute; they get 50% of their approved spending reimbursed. 14 states are “rich” and get the minimum match.

                      California is generous in terms of who is covered, and to a lesser extent, what is covered. I believe all of Medi-Cal is covered under waivers, so they get 50% (care they provide not covered under a waiver or the original federal statute is all on the state’s dime). Texas is poor, so even though their eligibility requirements are tighter than California’s, and they don’t cover as many things, they get a higher reimbursement rate. Mississippi, falling into the dirt-poor category, gets an even higher reimbursement rate.

                      The PPACA locked California’s eligibility rules into place. I am a slight expert on the effect of this part of the PPACA because as a staffer for the Joint Budget Committee in Colorado, I had to run around like crazy to make sure that a particular JBC-sponsored bill died. Said bill put all of the state’s federal Medicaid money at risk because there was a chance that it made ineligible a dozen or so people who were eligible under the state’s Medicaid rules that were in force at the time the PPACA became effective.

                      California has been quite generous in who gets covered (this may turn out to screw them under the terms of the PPACA, compared to a state that was not previously generous this way). They’ve been relatively generous in what gets covered. OTOH, what they pay some of the care providers is, IMO, a fairly clear violation of the basic Medicaid language. No way is the (IIRC) $12.50 they pay a provider for an office visit sufficient to provide access to care equal to the population in general, which is what the federal statute requires. If the feds decided to be nasty, Medi-Cal is probably nonconforming and all of the federal Medicaid reimbursements could be withheld.


                • It was hardly a 5-4 controversial decision. It was a 7-2 blowout with Scalia, Kennedy, and O’Connor joining Stevens, Breyer, Ginsburg, and Souter.

                  This is not the decision of an activist or partisan Supreme Court. It is a basic reading of the Privileges and Immunities clause of the US Constitution.


                  • I’m not saying it’s activism. Just that it doesn’t sit right with me. College education isn’t a right in the constitution, but neither is Medicaid. I get the rationale (and think P&I is a good thing). I just don’t think it should apply here (at least, as it pertains to a relatively minimal waiting period).


                    • I might feel more comfortable about it if there was something the states could do. Like “For your first two years* here, we will only honor whatever commitments the state you left would have had.” Something like that. By the reasoning of the ruling, even that wouldn’t be acceptable.

                      * – My initial thought was “No benefits at all for a year. Maybe that would be prohibitive. I’d need to think on it. Two years in that case would definitely be problematic. But if Cali were willing to honor Idaho’s commitments, then two years would seem more fair.


                • That’s because there is no right to a college education in the United States Constitution. If there was, the case above would apply.

                  That being said, you can also live in a state for a year and get in-state tuition. So someone could declare that Cal was their domicile and get In-State tuition for their sophomore to senior years of college.


                  • That may be the case in California, but it other states if you move somewhere and start school immediately, you are not an in-state resident for the duration of your education. You basically have to move somewhere, wait out a year, and then start. (This is relevant to me as we have moved around a lot, and I have been interested in maybe going back to school.)


                  • I’m not sure of the current status in Texas, but when I was there in the later 1970s, the state Supreme Court ruled that UT couldn’t impose more strict residency requirements than the state did for other purposes. So basically, register to vote, register your car, get a Texas drivers license, and use the same physical Texas address on all of those (a dorm room was fine) and you qualified. I think they may have weaseled something so they could still ding you for out-of-state the first semester, but by the second semester you were good.


                • Part of the Privileges and Immunities clause does cover stuff like a right to earn a living.

                  South Carolina once declared that a commercial fishing license for South Carolina residents costs 50 dollars. Out of staters needed to pay 2500 dollars. The Supreme Court ruled that Unconstitutional:

                  7. Section 3379, S.C.Code, requiring nonresidents of South Carolina to pay a license fee of $2,500 for each shrimp boat and residents to pay a fee of only $25, violates the privileges and immunities clause of Art. IV, § 2, of the Constitution. Pp. 334 U. S. 395-403.

                  (a) The privileges and immunities clause was intended to outlaw classifications based on the fact of noncitizenship unless there is something to indicate that noncitizens constitute a peculiar source of the evil at which the statute is aimed, and, in this case, there is no convincing showing of a reasonable relationship between the alleged danger to the shrimp supply represented by noncitizens, as a class, and the severe discrimination practiced upon them. Pp. 334 U. S. 396-399.



            • We’d be a lot better off if we did two things: sent broke people back to their state of origin so that our social welfare bill wasn’t covering a good chunk of imports from states where their welfare support sucks (I’m looking at you, everywhere with terrible Medicaid support)

              As much as the idea of a welfare state collapsing under the weight of the moochers it attracts warms my heart, is this really that much of an issue? Do people really move to California just to get better welfare?


              • Maybe some.

                I would say plenty of people move to California for social liberalism. The Bay Area still has a free to be what you want to be vibe even if it is now super-expensive.

                Others move for weather and job opportunities. We have a lot of winter haters here.


              • I’d say people move to California for the reasons anybody moves to California. However, from forever ago to 2010 the population in any given year was more than half non-native (right now it’s just under that).

                Since new arrivals have generally less access to their own family safety net, I’d guess they’re more likely than people who grew up here to have access to resources other than aid.

                Now, there are two big advantages to immigrants: they usually come with schooling and ready to join the workforce (provided there are jobs, this is actually a huge win for the receiving state), and it may be the case that people who are re-locating are statistically more likely to have high value employment opportunities than not (I honestly don’t have a good feel for the odds on that one).

                But when half of your population are people that came here, if they come here late enough they haven’t contributed to the social welfare pool before they start taking from it.

                How big of a problem is it, really? I don’t know. Undocumented workers are a bigger issue because they don’t pay an appropriate share of the tax burden.


              • I know at least a couple of people who moved to Oregon specifically because of their comparatively great benefits for kids with disabilities. Stevens apparently barred California from denying services for the first year on the basis that people wouldn’t move to California for the benefits. I’m not sure he’s wrong on that point, but I’m not sure he’s right on it, either.


                • I can definitely see parents who have children with disabilities doing it. Birth defects aren’t really confined to the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum the way reliance on regular means-tested welfare is. So you have parents who are resourceful enough to do the research, run the numbers, find jobs good enough that they’re not taking more in pay cut than they’re gaining in benefits, and move to Oregon.

                  With the typical means-tested welfare recipient, I don’t know if I can see it happening. I keep hearing from the left how unreasonable it is to expect the unemployed to move to where the jobs are, because they just don’t have the resources.


    • I find myself constantly amused by the conservative obsession with California and their certainity that it will — sooner or later — collapse into a liberal apocalypse.

      It was almost as funny as watching my Governor prance around California trying to beg businesses to leave that liberal, regulatory hell-hole and come to Texas. I don’t think he quite understands why they don’t…


      • Rick Perry goes to California to draw attention to Rick Perry. Bringing employers over would be great – and we’re doing pretty well as far as that goes – but we don’t really need a governor – definitely not that governor – to do it. It’s publicity.


        • We still have Google, Apple, Intel, Hollywood and most of the rest of the entertainment industry, Genentech, some of the best universities in the world.

          And really temperate weather.


          • In per-capita terms, it’s about 10% above the national average. The list is…fascinating. DC leads the pack at $175k. Delaware is next at a hair under $70k, followed by Alaska, Connecticut, and Wyoming(!) in #5. I’d guess that Wyoming’s high per capita GDP is due probably due natural resources and a small population. America’s Norway.

            I don’t know whether that list is PPP-adjusted. It doesn’t say it is, so I assume not.


    • I just don’t see other Western states being foolish enough to tie themsselves any closer to California, which would certainly be the politically dominant partner. California is completely unable to manage its own budget, to the extent that Congressmen have discussed the legalities and precedents for suspending its statehood when it goes belly-up, much the way Michigan has intervened in Detroit by appointing emergency managers.

      I find the notion of Congress criticizing California’s budget amusing, given that Congress is borrowing a trillion dollars a year for operating expenses, debt that will most likely be paid off by printing money (or its electronic equivalent), an option that they don’t offer California. I note for the record that interest payments on the federal debt this year will be larger than California’s entire state budget. If the Federal Reserve ever lets interest rates go up, interest on the national debt may be larger than all of the western state budgets combined.

      I’ll absolutely agree that the “rest of the West” can’t stand on its own. But given a choice between being tied to California or being tied to the East Coast, I think the rest of the West would be better off going with California. At least California understands when I say “irrigation” or “big water project” or “forest fire management” or “BLM bastards” or “wind and solar”. On the East Coast, not nearly so much. Or “light rail”. With the exception of Las Vegas, every major metro area in the West has some form of light rail up and running, and most are expanding or have plans to do so. Federal tax donor/recipient calculations are usually suspect, but there’s no question that California is a substantial donor, and little doubt that the West as a region is a donor.


  8. Doesn’t this argument have a major flaw that most people in the Western states do not want to succeed from the Union?


      • Thats what you get from non-careful reading. I seriously doubt that even if all the predictions come true in twenty years that we’ll see a rise in secessionist feeling in the Western states. These things take a long time to build and we don’t even have any rumblings.


        • Which is why I say it’s at least 25 years out. There are things that the East could do to help things along. Like, the first time the federal government decides to drop the designation on half of one of the big wilderness areas so that natural gas drilling can take place, and the gas all goes into a pipeline to Illinois or Ohio or Georgia. One of the local curmudgeons used to write regularly in his column in the Denver Post that if the governor really cared about the people of Colorado, he’d send the National Guard out to blow up the existing pipelines that haul gas that far, so Colorado could go back to having cheap NG.


          • I still think that you overstate the extent to which distance might become an issue. While avgas is likely to go up and not come down, shale gas reserves, plus methane hydrates are likely to make transportation at least feasible by ship. And of course there’s always tea clippers for really valuable and perishable goods.


            • It’s hard when you’ve decided that you’ve got one paragraph to say why lots less liquid hydrocarbon fuel is important. I think the military aspects may end up mattering more than the others. IMO, the civilian population in 50 years won’t accept the costs (not just financial, but opportunity) of putting enough of the available liquid hydrocarbon supplies into a military the size we now have. A nuclear carrier sans all that lovely JP8 for the air wing and diesel for the screening elements isn’t a carrier strike force, it’s a target — particularly in a world where everyone is getting better at building missiles and such. And those are applications where energy density and tankage weight are important. A drone with the performance requirements of an F-35 for speed, range, agility, armament, and payload isn’t going to be that much smaller or lighter.

              How much of the US identity is tied up in being the biggest baddest military power on the planet? The world’s policeman (well, except for all the nasty situations where we’re not). I don’t know. I do think that absent a global military role, it’s easier for people to think of themselves as Westerners or Easterners. If the East and West think of each other as “us” and “them” enough of the time, the split’s a done deal, all that remains is bickering over the details.


              • We are already spending literallyjoebiden about a hundred bucks a gallon to fuel a pointless campaign on the far side of the world. I think you underestimate the military’s ability (both now, in the past, and in the future) to always take their vig off the top of the public purse.

                Plus, I think you underestimate how much the military industrial complex still provides decent paying working class jobs (many unionized) and 2nd order economic effects to a good number of western communities. (esp compared to say, New England, where the remaining presence is largely confined to the two shipyards at Kittery & EB)

                Last, the West is closer to Asia, which is where everything interesting in the next 100 years will take place.


  9. The current trend is for a smaller world, rather than a bigger one. You posit a decline in fuel availability will reverse that trend. OK, let’s go with it. But what actually happens when you get peak oil combined with the improving communications technology that’s driving the current shrinking of the world? I’m not sure this leads to the regionalism you describe; it’s certainly not obvious that it does.

    Peak oil, as you’ve described it, makes travelling all distances more difficult. At least once you get above what can comfortably be walked (or maybe biked or covered by a non-gasoline transit network). Neighborhoods and city centers might become more close-knit, where the transportation is still manageable. But that’s not the kind of regionalism you’re talking about, and traveling between LA and Seattle becomes more difficult and expensive, just like traveling between LA and New York. Indeed, you say, even driving across town becomes not something to do lightly.

    Meanwhile, electronic communication gets better and better and easier and easier. It seems almost inevitable that the importance of electronic communication is going to rise. Sure, travel from LA to New York gets a lot harder and hence a lot rarer. But all travel gets a lot harder and hence a lot rarer. You don’t travel, you videochat. And whereas, even now, there’s a big difference between travelling 200 miles versus 2000 miles, electronic communication is more or less independent of distance. If the default mode of long-distance interaction is electronic, those geographic regions become LESS salient, not more.


  10. I have never actually really understood the point of the federal government owning so much land in the West. Admittedly, though, I don’t know much about the history and politics of it. It seems, though, based on an entirely naive and ahistorical perspective that if the federal government was having budget issues, they could easily sell portions of this land to the private sector if it needed to generate some revenue. Not only would this generate a one-time boost to revenue, but it would also be efficiency-maximizing (i.e. promote economic growth) in the long-run since I doubt that the federal government is using this land in the most productive way possible.


    • Long ago, when the nation was young and hadn’t yet got around to a national income tax, that land was the ‘money in the bank,’ so to speak. When something needed doing, one of the funding mechanisms was selling federal lands.


    • The Feds took ownership of the lands that nobody else wanted. They would lease lands to ranchers at low rates and the ranchers were plenty fine with that. They sold some lands, made some into parks, and allowed resource extraction in other cases. There are plenty of reasonable gripes in the West about fed land ownership. There are also other gripes that are people who are upset they can’t get a good deal anymore or are just unhappy about how the land is used. To be clear about the last statement, there are always people happy vs. unhappy about public land usage. Just because my ox got gored doesn’t mean i’m oppressed, it means my preferred usage wasn’t’ allowed or got a preference. That is life. There have been land use battles locally that i wasn’t happy about the Fed or State decision and others where i have been happy.


      • It’s not a question of being oppressed. But it’s not unreasonable grounds for objection. Particularly given the sheer size of the federally-managed lands. “Quit yer bellyaching, you still get half your state” doesn’t strike me as a particularly good retort.


        • I think a lot of people were fine with Fed ownership as long as they got what they wanted. If the argument is “Fed ownership is bad when i don’t get what i want, but fine when i do” than that isn’t an argument i’m all that sympathetic to. Up here in America’s Saudi Arabia we have lots’o’fed land. As long as the fed’s lease it to BP, everybody is just ducky. People love hunting moose on Fed lands up until the fed’s don’t want to regulate wolves to create more moose for bad or unlucky hunters.

          I think there are reasonable objections to Fed ownership. I just don’t think people always make them. This is a disagreement we’ve had before, i know that. But many of the complaints i hear are more of the “they won’t give me what i want AND they let those other guys get what they want, therefore life isn’t fair” arguments. I’ve heard those arguments made by BOTH sides on motorized vs. non-motorized, hunter vs environmental, oil vs environmental debates.


            • Z- So would i. Protecting habitat , parks and recreational land are, to me, public good and will not be addressed by the market. So more of that is good to me.


          • At the end of the day, Texas gets to pass laws for 98% of its state and New York for 99% of its state while Idaho gets to pass laws for 50% of its state. I really, truly struggle to find why Idaho is the problem for thinking that maybe the land should be used for this and not that. If it were in Idaho’s hands, they could settle a whole lot of it themselves. That doesn’t mean that everyone would be happy, but I’m not sure on what basis I should look askance at Idaho’s attempt to have a greater say on what is or isn’t done in Idaho.


            • Like i believe in mythical places like Idaho and middle earth. History is a PITA. Idaho has less of a say because of the way the country was colonized and developed. If it had been developed from West to East then most likely the Adirondacks would be a far more pristine area and the Sawtooth’s would be far more developed. Of course the West is harsher with bigger mountains and all that.

              Path dependence is a harsh mistress. None of that means people in Idaho deserve less say or will be happy with it nor do i see that explanation lessening their feelings. But Jellystone or Hells Canyon are still Fed areas that protect unique treasures. If locals want to put up strip malls in them, then there is a problem. I’m not against localism, but also think, as i stated above, enviro protection/natural areas are a public good and that we are a nation.


              • I don’t have a problem with set-asides. Nor do most Idahoans, I don’t think. Nobody wants to see Yellowstone turned into an amusement part not the least of which residents of Wyoming. But most federal lands aren’t Yellowstone. Not all of Church needs to be set-aside to have something wonderful and marvelous there. The primary issue is that the people who actually live here get very little say in it. People live here. It’s not just a set-aside place to make urban environmentalists feel good about themselves.

                I know I keep harping on this, but over half of Idaho is set aside. For Idaho in particular, this is really problematic because a great bulk of it is in the middle of the state. So there’s no way to connect Pocatello and Moscow except a real roundabout through Montana or out to Boise and up through McCall (ever taken that drive? Not pleasant in a way that you can’t appreciate looking at Google Maps).

                I don’t really see any problem with Idahoans thinking that some should be protected, some should be developed, some should be turned over for logging, and so on. I’m not saying that these policies were put into effect to screw Idaho (it’s mostly, as you point out, a function of history). But I think the area is looked at with a disregard for the people that actually live there (here).


                • I understand how much of the west is Fed owned. I have driven all over the West although i admit to have only drive down the eastern side of Idaho. I don’t particularly disagree with much of what you have said. There is room to accommodate more varied land uses in some places and still preserve a lot of land. Also Fed designation has done a hellava lot to protect NA ruins and history all over the west. If we had done as well by the living NA’s as we have their history it would be good. But still, plenty of NA ruins would have been bulldozed or trashed without the Feds.

                  However this is more than just making urban enviro’s happy. That is weak stuff. Plenty of eviros live way deep in the woods and wander all over those public lands. Conversely there are people who push for more hunting on public lands up here who cater to urban hunters from the lower 48. Lots of Californians and other of “those” types agitate for more game animals here.


                  • Likewise, there is a lot of protection I (nor anyone out here) really object(s) to. I’d definitely put NA preservation high on that list. If Idaho talks about tearing those down, I think we’d be on the same side. I see that as a fraction of what we’re seeing here.

                    (I probably should have specified “East Coast.” California, Oregon, and Washington have to deal with a lot of the same issues. Those that live in those states that enthusiastically welcome the preservation… power to them.)


                • There’s a lot of decision making about public lands that is actually based on science; particularly in National Forests. There is a specific public process that includes local (and is weighted toward) local residents in developing management plans, and those management plans are, by law, updated every ten years.

                  This goes to one of my huge pet peeves; folks grousing and complaining about Federal government but mostly never lifting a finger in an internet search or attending a hearing to actually find out about the topic with which they’re peeved. That’s a basic responsibility of citizenship: it’s publicly posted, it’s your responsibility to seek it out.

                  And only making laws for 50% of Idaho? That’s almost as funny as the election-night maps showing the giant red US and the itty-bitty blue US; because 100% of Idaho’s residents are also covered by Idaho’s laws, (exceptions for tribal lands), even though half land in the state is publicly owned.


                  • I didn’t say 50% of the population, I meant 50% of the land. Which, for matters of regional public policy, actually matters a great deal. The areas in between one population center and the next matter.


                    • I know you didn’t say 50% of population; that was exactly the point; there are multiple ways of viewing these things; and the red/blue election map was the view you took; but land mass =/= legal representation in our democracy. Thankfully, we are not a nation where the right to participate in the political process is linked to land ownership.

                      But achieving your goals within the process is linked to participating.


  11. California’s water picture is enormously complex; people who flatly assert that water is “subsidized” for the most part have no idea what they’re talking about.

    To start with, there are three distinct conveyance systems: (a) the Colorado River projects (which include the All-American canal and the Colorado River aqueduct), governed by the Law of the River, (b) the State Water Project (or SWP) which brings water out of the mountains northeast of Sacramento, across the Bay-Delta, south across the western side of the Central Valley and all the way down to San Diego, governed by a mix of state and federal law; and (c) the Central Valley Project, a series of federally funded projects, the largest of which moves water north, up the eastern side of the Central Valley, and governed almost entirely by federal law, most recently the Central Valley Improvement Act. The water rights, distribution of water beneath ag and urban, environmental impacts and water pricing for each system are very different.

    More generally, though, the term “subsidy” has very little meaning in the context of large-scale water projects. Yes, very few taxpayers lived in Los Angeles when the federal government decided to build Hoover Dam. In return for the investment, the recipients of the water and power generated thereby have sent an enormous stream of taxes back to DC, grown an enormous quantity of food, and built one of the great cities on the planet. Quit yer bitchin; you’ve been paid back.

    As to allocating between urban and ag, urban users tend to be able to afford higher prices. But they also require higher quality and much higher reliability. And if long-distance shipping is becoming prohibitively expensive in this hypothetical future, then I suspect that farming lobbyists will have a very powerful argument that urban users need to rip out their lawns before farms take a major cut in allocation. It’s called eating.

    Going forward, California is entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet of water annually off the Colorado River, and those are the most senior rights. We’ll be fine. It’s Nevada, Arizona and the Upper Basin states that are facing the most serious challenges. One thing those states can do is to pay for desal plants in Southern California, then get California to leave water in the River in return for taking the desal water. But that’s verry expensive.


    • More generally, though, the term “subsidy” has very little meaning in the context of large-scale water projects. Yes, very few taxpayers lived in Los Angeles when the federal government decided to build Hoover Dam. In return for the investment, the recipients of the water and power generated thereby have sent an enormous stream of taxes back to DC, grown an enormous quantity of food, and built one of the great cities on the planet.

      You don’t even have to look at the taxes sent back. The big federal projects were run like a business, more or less. The federal money was treated like it came from a bond issue. Water users are charged fees to cover the principle and modest interest based on a 50-year payback period, plus operational costs. Same for electricity users — with a few seasonal exceptions, the electricity isn’t given away, it’s sold, with revenues going into the federal government. At the dam, big dams were wonderful investments — but it took the federal government to settle land ownership, water rights, and assorted other issues.


    • Dude, the fact remains. The water is sold to agriculture at massively below market rates. If the water pricing were allowed to fluctuate to meet demand (and water quality issues would be very quickly fixed if they were) then you’d see a massive flight of agriculture out of the deserts and the cities would have plenty of water.


  12. I don’t think transport energy costs makes as much of difference as you hypothesize. We had a continent spanning country when it took three days to get from New York to California. (we even had one when it took 3 weeks.) And the cliche is that the center is called ‘flyover country’ already.

    Airline travel may become more expensive in the future, but that would be more a reversion it being a mode of the elite. And more likely, it will still be available to the upper middle class. Either way, that’s a way of keeping political cohesion. And like gregniak says in his first comment , communication will still be the same or better than it is now, even if transport is too pricey.

    The other thing is that higher energy transport prices are unlikely to stem the flow of ‘stuff’ (as compared to people). Particularly across oceans. Water transport is remarkably efficient, energy wise. (it’s why canals were the hotness until the railroads came along). Containerized cargo has been the real revolution in globalization. Can’t find the cite, but I remember reading it takes as much energy per unit mass to ship something from Shanghai to Long Beach, as it does to take it from Long Beach to Denver.


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