Tag: energy independence

Friday Links

What’s Wrong with Imported Oil?

In a speech today at Georgetown University, President Obama called for a goal of cutting America’s oil imports by one-third within a decade. Like all efforts to wean Americans from big, bad imports, such a policy will mean we will all pay more than we need to for the energy that helps to power our economy.

I’ll leave it to my able Cato colleagues to dissect the president’s proposal in terms of energy policy, but in terms of trade policy, this is about as bad as it gets.

We Americans benefit tremendously from our relatively free trade in petroleum products. Like all forms of trade, the importation of oil produced abroad allows us to acquire it at a price far lower than we would pay if we had to rely more heavily on domestic oil supplies.

The money we save buying oil more cheaply on global markets allows our whole economy to operate more efficiently. Oil is the ultimate upstream input that virtually all U.S. producers use to make their final products, either in the product itself or for shipping. If U.S. manufacturers and other sectors are forced to pay sharply higher prices for petroleum products because of import restrictions, their final goods will cost more and will be less competitive in global markets. If households are forced to pay more for gasoline and heating oil, consumer will have less to spend on domestic goods and services.

The president talked in the speech about the goal of not being “dependent” on foreign suppliers, but most of our oil imports come from countries that are either friendly or at least not in any way an adversary. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, one third of our oil imports in 2010 came from our two closest neighbors and NAFTA partners, Canada and Mexico. Another third came from the problematic providers in the Arab Middle East and Venezuela (none from Iran, less than one-third of 1 percent from Libya.) The rest came from places such as Nigeria, Angola, Colombia, Brazil, Russia, Ecuador and Great Britain.

Even if, by the force of government, we could reduce our imports by a third, there is no reason to expect that the reduction would be concentrated in the problematic providers. In fact, oil is generally cheaper to extract in the Middle East, so a blanket reduction would probably tilt our imports away from our friends and toward our real and potential adversaries.

In one speech, the president has managed to state a policy goal that is bad trade policy, bad security policy, and bad foreign policy.

Egypt and Energy Policy

Today Politico Arena asks:

Given that crude oil prices surged to nearly $90 per barrel on Friday, and could spike even higher if the crisis causes a shutdown of the Suez Canal, how should policymakers in Wasihngton respond regarding oil and the crisis in Egypt? Does the situation underscore a need for more domestic production? And does this crisis bolster or hamper Obama’s clean energy initiative that he called for in his State of the Union address last week?

My response:

The unrest in Egypt should have no bearing whatever on American energy policy. Like nearly every other commodity – food, clothing, shelter, education, health care – energy, from whatever source, is far more efficiently and equitably produced and distributed by the market than by governments, even when foreign governments play a part in that process. We saw that in the “energy crises” of the ’70s; we’ve seen it in every ”crisis” since.

Why, in the name of “energy independence,” should the U.S. government “promote” domestic production if foreign energy is cheaper? Do we imagine that manifold foreign producers will not supply us if the price is right? Where’s the evidence for that? Any government promotion should be by simply getting out of the way and letting the market determine where energy is produced.

Nor should today’s Egyptian unrest affect Obama’s “clean energy initiative,” which should fall on its own terms. It’s nothing but a massive government intrusion into the market, subsidizing expensive sources of energy for little environmental gain, making us all poorer, but especially the poorest among us. Do we need any better example that the ethanol boondoggle, which even Al Gore has admitted is environmentally destructive? Energy policy will be an early test of whether the new House majority is serious about reducing the role of government in our lives.

Lighting for People, not Politics

Unfortunately, there are many good (and sad) examples of Uncle Sam’s insatiable desire to regulate the smallest aspects of our lives.  Legislators can’t even let us decide which light bulbs to buy.  Government believes that it knows best, and is banning the venerable incandescent bulb.

Lighting consultant Howard Brandston makes a plaintive plea for lighting that serves people rather than politics:

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 will effectively phase out incandescent light bulbs by 2012-2014 in favor of compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs. Other countries around the world have passed similar legislation to ban most incandescents.

Will some energy be saved? Probably. The problem is this benefit will be more than offset by rampant dissatisfaction with lighting. We are not talking about giving up a small luxury for the greater good. We are talking about compromising light. Light is fundamental. And light is obviously for people, not buildings. The primary objective in the design of any space is to make it comfortable and habitable. This is most critical in homes, where this law will impact our lives the most. And yet while energy conservation, a worthy cause, has strong advocacy in public policy, good lighting has very little.

He hopes for a congressional reversal of the ill-considered prohibition.  If that doesn’t work, people do have one more option:  stock-piling bulbs for future use.  Of course, that probably would lead to the creation of a federal light bulb police, tasked with wiping out the black market in incandescent bulbs.  “Use a bulb, go to jail” may become the newest law enforcement slogan!

Obama’s Fuel-Economy Standards

If you like driving a big car or SUV, the good news about Obama’s new fuel-economy standards is that they won’t dictate what kind of car you will be able to buy in the future. If you want to buy a 15-mpg SUV, Detroit (or Aichi or Wolfsburg) will be free to make and sell you one.

The bad news is that the standards may make your car more expensive. Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards are actually calculated as the mean of gallons per mile, not miles per gallon. So, as of 2016, for every 15-mpg model made by an auto maker, that company will have to make five models of cars that can go 50 mpg in order for its fleet to meet Obama’s new target. Since bringing each new model to market can cost billions of dollars, if there are not enough people who want to buy those fuel-efficient cars to cover their design costs, the company will have to add a share of those costs to your SUV.

If you want to save energy, the good news is that Obama’s standards are more stringent than those in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 – but not by much. While the 2007 law required new car fleets to average 35 mpg by 2020, Obama’s standard requires fleets to average 35.5 mpg by 2016.

The bad news is that nothing in Obama’s standard guarantees that they will actually save energy. The rule only requires that the mean fuel economy of all models, not all cars, made by a manufacturer meet the 35.5 mpg standard. Not much energy will be saved if gas guzzlers sell well and hybrids don’t.

If gas prices go up, people will buy the fuel-efficient models that auto makers are forced to make – but that would have happened anyway. If gas stays cheap, people will continue to buy fuel-inefficient cars (tempered only by having to pay extra to cover the start-up costs of models no one wants). If you believe that saving energy or reducing dependence on foreign oil is important, then you should prefer a stronger form incentive over this mandate.

The worst-cast scenario is that the new standards increase the cost of buying new cars but don’t save any energy (except to the extent that a few people can’t afford to own a car at all). The best-case scenario is that Obama’s standards result in future auto fleets that are not much different from what a free market would have produced. Considering that Honda and Toyota are now in a price war over their Insight vs. the third-generation Prius, that may be closer to the actual outcome.

The good news is that auto makers readily acquiesced to this standard, partly because they feared something worse but partly because they didn’t think it would cost much. The Obama administration estimates that the added cost of the new standard will be $1,300 per car, but that (if gasoline remains $3 per gallon) it will save drivers $500 per year. That means it could pay for itself in the long run – but only if people actually do buy more fuel-efficient cars.

The debate over the standard reminds me of the debate after Congress gave the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate air quality in 1970. One faction favored of technical solutions to pollution, such as catalytic converters. The other faction argued for behavioral tools aimed at getting people to drive less.

Today, we know the behavioral solutions were a complete failure. Although many cities imposed urban-growth boundaries, built light rail, and implemented various disincentives to driving, not one can say they have reduced per-capita driving by even 1 percent.

On the other hand, the technical solutions were highly successful. Though we drive nearly three times as many miles as in 1970, total automotive air pollution has declined more than 50 percent.

There was a third faction in 1970 whose voice was almost inaudible: economists who argued that incentives would clean the air better than mandates. The mandates that were put in place only acted on new cars, and it took more than a decade (and now takes almost two decades) to turn over the American auto fleet. Properly designed incentives could have acted on all cars and cleaned the air much faster (by, for example, giving people a choice between retrofitting their cars or paying a pollution fee that was dedicated to cleaning up pollution elsewhere).

The lesson libertarians take from this is that incentives are better than mandates. But the point I like to make is that, though incentives might work better than mandates, technical solutions work far better than behavioral ones.

Despite the past failure of behavioral tools, there is a strong movement in the administration and Congress today for more behavioral controls aimed at reducing driving to save energy and greenhouse gas emissions. These behavioral tools will be expensive, they will have costly unintended consequences, and in the end they will do little to protect the environment.

I remain unpersuaded that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But if there is a political need to do so, we should at least do it in ways that cost little and provide other benefits that will help cover those costs. McKinsey & Company estimates that the United States can meet the most stringent greenhouse gas targets by investing in programs that cost no more than $50 per ton of greenhouse gas abatements. More fuel-efficient cars meet this test, says McKinsey, and will also reduce the emissions of other pollutants such as nitrogen oxides.

Meanwhile, light rail, growth boundaries, and other behavioral tools, if they save energy and reduce greenhouse gases at all, will only do so at costs of tens of thousands of dollars per ton. Though I am far from thrilled about Obama’s new policy, at least it reminds us that, for a relatively low cost, we can significantly reduce energy consumption and various pollution emissions without trying to socially engineer American lifestyles.