Tag: energy

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.

Energy Mismanagment

Try as they might, supporters of big government spending cannot make federal programs work very well. The Department of Energy, for example, has been plagued by mismanagement, cost overruns, and scandals for decades.

Today, the Washington Post reports on the poor performance of DoE’s environmental clean-up programs. As I reviewed in the linked essay, these enormously costly programs have been plagued by mismanagement for at least 25 years. Last week, Lou Dobbs lambasted DOE’s National Ignition Facility in California for its huge cost overruns (Hat Tip: Harrison Moar).

I summarize these costly projects and other DoE boondoggles here. With bipartisan support for increases to energy subsidies, we can expect a raft of bipartisan boondoggles developing over coming months and years.

New at Cato

Here are a few highlights from Cato Today, a daily email from the Cato Institute.

  • Dan Ikenson and Scott Lincicome argue in a new study that restoring the pro-trade consensus must be a top priority for the Obama administration.
  • In the DC Examiner, Gene Healy discusses Obama’s first 100 days and argues that he’s massively expanded the power of government in a short period of time.
  • In the Asia Times Online, David Isenberg discusses private security contractors in the war in Iraq.
  • Watch Patrick J. Michaels discuss energy on CNBC.
  • In Tuesday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Peter Van Doren discusses the interaction between Congress and regulators on the issue of food safety.
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Week in Review: Tax Day, Pirates and Cuba

Tax Day: The Nightmare from Which There’s No Waking Up

Cato scholars were busy exposing the burden of the American tax system on Wednesday, the deadline to file 2008 tax returns.

At CNSNews.com, tax analyst Chris Edwards argued that policymakers should give Americans the simple and low-rate tax code they deserve:

The outlook for American taxpayers is pretty grim. The federal tax code is getting more complex, the president is proposing tax hikes on high-earners, businesses, and energy consumers; and huge deficits may create pressure for further increases down the road…

The solution to all these problems is to rip out the income tax and replace it with a low-rate flat tax, as two dozen other nations have done.

At Townhall, Dan Mitchell excoriated the complexity of the current tax code:

Beginning as a simple two-page form in 1913, the Internal Revenue Code has morphed into a complex nightmare that simultaneously hinders compliance by honest people and rewards cheating by Washington insiders and other dishonest people.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. The tax code also penalizes economic growth, distorts taxpayer behavior, undermines American competitiveness, invites corruption and promotes inefficiency.

Mitchell appeared on MSNBC, arguing that every American will soon see massive tax hikes, despite Washington rhetoric.

Don’t miss the new Cato video that highlights just how troubling the American tax code really is.

U.S. Navy Rescues Captain Held Hostage by Somali Pirates

gallery-somali-pirates-pi-003USA Today reports that the captain of a merchant vessel that was attacked by Somali pirates was freed Monday when Navy SEAL sharpshooters killed the pirates. The episode raises a larger question: How should the United States respond to the growing threat of piracy in the region?

Writing shortly after Capt. Richard Phillips was freed, foreign policy expert Benjamin Friedman explained the reasons behind the increase in piracy:

It’s worth noting the current level of American concern about piracy is overblown. As Peter Van Doren pointed out to me the other day, the right way to think about this problem is that pirates are imposing a tax on shipping in their area. They are a bit like a pseudo-government, as Alexander the Great apparently learned. The tax amounts to $20-40 million a year, which is, as Ken Menkhaus put it in this Washington Post online forum, a “nuisance tax for global shipping.”

The reason ships are being hijacked along the Somali coast is because there are still ships sailing down the Somali coast. Piracy is evidently not a big enough problem to encourage many shippers to use alternative shipping routes. In addition, shippers apparently find it cheaper to pay ransom than to pay insurance for armed guards and deal with the added legal hassle in port. The provision of naval vessels to the region is an attempted subsidy to the shippers, and ultimately consumers of their goods, albeit one governments have traditionally paid. Whether or not that subsidy is cheaper than letting the market actors sort it out remains unclear to me.

Appearing on Russia Today, Friedman discussed the implications of the increased threat and what ships can do to avoid future incidents with Somali pirates.

Since the problems at sea are related to problems on Somali land, what can Western nations do to decrease poverty and lawlessness on the African continent? Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid, argued at a Cato Policy Forum last week that the best way to combat these issues is to halt government-to-government aid, and proposed an “aid-free solution” to development based on the experience of successful African countries.

Obama Lifts Some Travel Bans on Cuba

The Washington Post reports:

President Obama is lifting some restrictions on Cuban Americans’ contact with Cuba and allowing U.S. telecom companies to operate there, opening up the communist island nation to more cellular and satellite service… The decision does not lift the trade embargo on Cuba but eases the prohibitions that have restricted Cuban Americans from visiting their relatives and has limited what they can send back home.

In the new Cato Handbook for Policymakers, Juan Carlos Hidalgo and Ian Vasquez recommend a number of policy initiatives for future relations with Cuba, including ending all trade sanctions on Cuba and allowing U.S. citizens and companies to visit and establish businesses as they see fit; and moving toward the normalization of diplomatic relations with the island nation.

While Obama’s plan is a small step in the right direction, Hidalgo argues in a Cato Daily Podcast that Obama should take further steps to lift the travel ban and open Cuba to all Americans.

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FutureGen: Economic and Political Decisions

People who support expanded federal intervention into areas such as energy and health care naively assume that policymakers can make economically rational and efficient decisions to allocate resources. They cannot, as a Washington Post story today on FutureGen illustrates.

The story describes the political battle over the location of a $1.8 billion ”clean coal” plant. I don’t know where the most efficient place to site such a plant is, or  if such a plant makes any sense in the first place. But the story illustrates that as soon as such decisions are moved from the private sector to the political arena, millions of dollars are spent to lobby the decisionmakers, and members of Congress are hopelessly biased in favor of home-state spending regardless of what might be best for the national economy as a whole.

President Obama has promised to ramp up spending on such green projects. So get ready for some huge political fights over the big-dollar spoils, and get ready for some monsterous energy boondoggles.

Department of Energy Boondoggles

The Wall Street Journal recently looked at the trouble the Department of Energy will have efficiently spending all the extra cash allocated to it under the stimulus bill. The article noted: “The Energy Department has had limited experience pulling off big, transformative energy projects.”

Actually, the department has undertaken big projects many times, but the Journal is correct that it sure as heck hasn’t pulled them off. Indeed, the history of big federal energy projects is one of boondoggle, boondoggle, boondoggle.

Unless President Obama has a magic formula that fundamentally changes the nature of government management, Americans can expect a horribly wasteful energy spending spree in coming years.