Peak (or finite) helium

Via MR, are helium party-balloons the next commodity to spike? Apparently helium, which cannot be made synthetically or chemically, is subject to a serious market pricing distortion:
The US government established a national helium reserve in 1925, and today a billion cubic metres of the gas are stored in a facility near Amarillo, Texas. In 1996 Congress passed an act requiring that this strategic reserve, which represents half the Earth's helium stocks, be sold off by 2015. As a result, helium is far too cheap and is not treated as a precious resource.
Nobel prizewinner Robert Richardson thinks the government should
Get out of the business and let the free market prevail. The consequence will be a rise in prices. Unfortunately party balloons will be $100 each rather than $3 but we'll have to live with that. We will have to live with those prices eventually anyway.
I would love to understand the political reasons why this happened - the economic illogic is patently apparent, and I can't imagine it does much for national security either.

Market won't drive clean energy transition

Geoff Styles blogs a recent Science article explaining why the transition to cleaner fuels will take a long time.
Here's a clear and concise explanation from the top science journal in the country on why the transition to alternative energy won't--and can't--be quick, cheap or easy...

That's a crucial point for anyone who sees this energy transition driven not just by concerns about energy security and greenhouse gas emissions, but by notions of clean energy as the next big wealth-creating global trend, akin to the computer revolution. A kilowatt-hour or BTU does the same work, regardless of its source, so unless it can be produced for significantly less than from conventional sources, greener energy offers no productivity gains of the kind that have fueled the global infotech transformation.
Density and intermittency are both large disadvantages that many renewable energy sources must overcome... and even without these disadvantages, the article explains, the transition to current fossil fuels took half a century.

Pursuing renewable energy is a worthwhile goal (neither Geoff nor the author disagree), as is chasing energy efficiency, which is perhaps our most attractive short-term option to balance energy demand and supply. But I also agree that it's prudent to disregard the optimistic claims of those who believe things along the lines of "replacing oil will be the greatest commercial opportunity of our generation." It won't.

Pakistan floods and world weather patterns

Via MR, striking pictures of the flooding in Pakistan, which may have affected more than 20 million people and was apparently caused by the same weather patterns responsible for this summer's heat wave in Russia (and the next global food crisis?).

Remember that the Punjab is also a major wheat breadbasket, although it does not appear to be among the majorly affected regions.

Is it climate change's fault? Hard to say, honestly, since pinning any single weather pattern on climate change is impossible, although as the Economist article cited above says, it fits the pattern of increased extreme events we would expect with global warming.

Update: Apparently one fifth(!) of the country is underwater. You could infer this from the above picture but it hadn't occurred to me that it could be interpreted so directly.

Blaming and curbing food speculators

With wheat prices up 50% since June and Russia banning grain exports, the media is all over "the next food crisis." I'm disappointed that former IFPRI Director-General Joachim von Braun appears to lay much of the blame on those evil speculators.
The setting of prices at the main international commodity exchanges was significantly influenced by speculation that boosted prices. Not only are food and energy markets linked, but also food and financial markets have become intertwined – in short, the “financialisation” of food trade. There are increasing indications that some financial capital is shifting from speculation on housing and complex derivatives to commodities, including food.
von Braun is right to call for "accelerated public investment in agriculture." But I believe it's misleading to imply that speculation-curbing measures such as requiring larger capital deposits of traders will really help moderate either prices or volatility. For prices, note how prices also rose in non-speculatable food commodities in 2008, and for the impact of speculation (a.k.a. liquidity) on volatility, just remember the onions.

I'm not 100% sure I'm right on this, but I would have appreciated a more robust substantiation of the claims about speculation's impact from someone of von Braun's stature.

Sea rise not that scary?

That's the case that climate adaptationist Bjorn Lomborg (don't call him a skeptic) makes at Project Syndicate, because we've dealt with it already:
Imagine that over the next 70 or 80 years, a giant port city – say, Tokyo – found itself engulfed by sea levels rising as much as 15 feet or more... Without a vast, highly coordinated global effort, how could we possibly cope with sea-level rises on that order of magnitude?

Well, we already have. In fact, we’re doing it right now. Since 1930, excessive groundwater withdrawal has caused Tokyo to subside by as much as 15 feet, with some of the lowest parts of the downtown area dropping almost a foot per year in some years. Similar subsidence has occurred over the past century in a wide range of cities, including Tianjin, Shanghai, Osaka, Bangkok, and Jakarta. In each case, the city has managed to protect itself from such large sea-level rises and thrive.
Lomborg cites research research claiming that over 95% of the world's coastal population is urban, making rising oceans no big deal.
A 20-foot rise in sea levels (which, not incidentally, is about ten times more than the United Nations climate panel’s worst-case expectations) would inundate about 16,000 square miles of coastline, where more than 400 million people currently live... [and] the vast majority of those 400 million people reside within cities, where they could be protected relatively easily, as in Tokyo.
Off the top of my head, I'd challenge this with Bangladesh, which has 160 million people and is very low-lying:

Is it really fair to assume Dhaka has an easy out just because it's "urban"? Maybe Jakarta has coped with rising seas, but Indonesia's per capita GDP is still 3x that of Bangladesh.

Lagos and Karachi are two other poor coastal megacities that would be worth doing the same analysis for.

Update: I just had dinner with someone from Bangladesh who confirmed that the idea that rising seas won't hit Bangladesh hard is preposterous. First, there are millions of people living in low-lying, non-urban areas (especially hundreds of islands in the Ganges Delta). Second, much of the productive agricultural land is similarly low and is already suffering from soaring salinity in many areas. So it seems that the underlying analysis is weak, and Lomborg himself should be doing better quality control of the sources he chooses to cite.

Update 2: A few relevant numbers to refine our back-of-the-envelope: 46% of Bangladeshis live within 10 meters of the average sea level, and the country is only 27% urban. So it seems very unlikely that Lomborg's math that "only ~15 million people would need to be relocated [over the course of the century]" can possibly be right.

Cow on motorbike

Happy Friday!!

Hat tip Chris Blattman.

Market believes heat hurts crop yields

The market believes what Michael Roberts' popular paper showed about crop yields - higher temperatures really hurt.
Corn futures rose the most in almost two weeks and soybeans gained on speculation that the recent Midwest heat wave will mean smaller production than the record crops predicted today by the government.

August has gotten off to the second-warmest start since 1960, T-Storm Weather LLC said today in a report. Another forecaster, Commodity Weather Group LLC, said about 25 percent of the U.S. soybean-growing area won’t get enough rain for proper plant development over the next two weeks, and that the dryness could harm a third of the Midwest should rain miss sections of Illinois this weekend, as expected.

“The crops are going downhill rapidly in parts of the Midwest and South,” said Mark Schultz, the chief analyst for Northstar Commodity Investment Co. in Minneapolis. “Our farmers are already preparing for corn yields that may fall 5 percent to as much as 10 percent from earlier field samples.”
Looking for the silver lining, might this influence the farm lobby's stance on climate change?

Via Michael at Greed, Green and Grains.

Update: I'm struggling a bit to square this with USDA predictions of record U.S. corn production... I wonder if those forecasts were based on outdated inputs (like, perhaps, "earlier field samples").

Price rises in non-speculatable food commodities

I recently had a contentious discussion over the extent to which financial speculation caused the food price run-up of 2008 (and prior years). I am skeptical that speculation was a major culprit, and I was unable to remember the specifics of the argument that prices rose similarly in commodities which are not index-traded. For future reference (my own as much as my readers'), I tracked it down in this paper recently released by the OECD. (emphases are mine)
If index fund buying drove commodity prices higher then markets without index fund investment should not have seen prices advance. Again, the observed facts are inconsistent with this notion. Irwin, Sanders, Merrin (2009) show that markets without index fund participation (fluid milk and rice futures) and commodities without futures markets (apples and edible beans) also showed price increases over the 2006-2008 period. Stoll and Whaley (2009) report that returns for Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) wheat, Kansas City Board of Trade (KCBOT) wheat, and Minneapolis Grain Exchange (MGEX) wheat are all highly positively correlated over 2006-09, yet only CBOT wheat is used heavily by index investors. In a similar fashion, Commodity Exchange (COMEX) gold, COMEX silver, New York Mercantile (NYMEX) palladium, and NYMEX platinum futures prices are highly correlated over the same time period but only gold and silver are included in popular commodity indexes. Headey and Fan (2008) cite the rapid increases in the prices for non-financialized commodities such as rubber, onions, and iron ore as evidence that rapid price inflation occurred in commodities without futures markets. While certainly instructive, the limits of these kinds of comparisons also need to be kept in mind. Bubble proponents have pointed out that commodity markets selected for the development of futures contracts may be naturally more volatile than those commodities without futures markets.
The paper also includes more far more statistical including the latest Granger causality analysis, which is more rigorous, but also in my view less effective than anecdotes like the above in many informal discussions. Their overall conclusion is unequivocally in line with my view that
... at this time, the weight of evidence clearly suggests that increased index fund activity in 2006-08 did not cause a bubble in commodity futures prices.
In related reading, here are previous posts citing Thomas Malthus and Darrell Duffie on the benefits of speculation in food markets, and here is Scott Irwin (one of the OECD paper co-authors) last year on why index speculators didn't break the wheat market.

The fragile credibility of cap-and-trade markets

This isn't fresh news, but it's a powerful illustration of how sensitive cap-and-trade systems are to loss of political credibility. The SOx cap-and-trade market was a long-standing success story and talisman for those who sought to establish a similar, broader system for GHG emissions to curb climate change.

The current problems in the acid-rain market stem from 2005, when the EPA, with the backing of many utilities and environmental groups, announced major new reductions in smog-forming and soot-producing emissions, and expanded the reach of the cap-and-trade system in more than two dozen, mostly Eastern, states.
In response to lawsuits filed by a handful of utilities and North Carolina, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the EPA had overstepped its authority...

In response to the ruling, prices for the pollution allowances plunged to $130 a ton. Utilities held off on projects to clean up their plants.
Last week, the EPA issued new rules to comply with the court's decision. The new program will limit the use of the market and instead require most of the emission reductions to come from changes at the plants themselves. And millions of allowances that utilities now hold can't be used under the new program, which will issue its own allowances.
And unsurprisingly, prices have now fallen to essentially zero. A powerful cautionary tale.

74% of BP spill eliminated

The good news - an impressive 74% of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill is estimated to have "already evaporated, dispersed, been captured or otherwise eliminated":
A government report finds that about 26 percent of the oil released from BP’s runaway well is still in the water or onshore in a form that could, in principle, cause new problems. But most is light sheen at the ocean surface or in a dispersed form below the surface, and federal scientists believe that it is breaking down rapidly in both places.
That bad news is that 5 billion barrels of oil was a lot to start with.