Tag: pollution

Oil Prices Too Low?

Remember peak oil? Remember when oil prices were $140 a barrel and Goldman Sachs predicted they would soon reach $200? Now, the latest news is that oil prices have gone up all the way to $34 a barrel. Last fall, Goldman Sachs predicted prices would fall to $20 a barrel, which other analysts argued was “no better than its prior predictions,” but in fact they came a lot closer to that than to $200.

Low oil prices generate huge economic benefits. Low prices mean increased mobility, which means increased economic productivity. The end result, says Bank of America analyst Francisco Blanch, is “one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history” as $3 trillion remain in consumers’ pockets rather than going to the oil companies. I wouldn’t call this a “wealth transfer” so much as a reduction in income inequality, but either way, it is a good thing.

Naturally, some people hate the idea of increased mobility from lower fuel prices. “Cheap gas raises fears of urban sprawl,” warns NPR. Since “urban sprawl” is a made-up problem, I’d have to rewrite this as, “Cheap gas raises hopes of urban sprawl.” The only real “fear” is on the part of city officials who want everyone to pay taxes to them so they can build stadiums, light-rail lines, and other useless urban monuments.

A more cogent argument is made by UC Berkeley sustainability professor Maximilian Auffhammer, who argues that “gas is too cheap” because current prices fail to cover all of the external costs of driving. He cites what he calls a “classic paper” that calculates the external costs of driving to be $2.28 per gallon. If that were true, then one approach would be to tax gasoline $2.28 a gallon and use the revenues to pay those external costs.

The only problem is that most of the so-called external costs aren’t external at all but are paid by highway users. The largest share of calculated costs, estimated at $1.05 a gallon, is the cost of congestion. This is really a cost of bad planning, not gasoline. Either way, the cost is almost entirely paid by people in traffic consuming that gasoline.

Why Are Environmental Policy Conflicts So Intractable?

On Earth Day the op-ed pages remind me of “Groundhog Day.”  Environmentalists argue we need stricter environmental regulation.  Business interests argue such regulations reduce economic growth and cost the economy jobs.  Each also invokes “sound science” as an adjudicator of the conflict.  Environmentalists invoke “science” in the case of CO2 emissions and effects while business interests invoke “science” in the case of traditional pollution emissions.  Each year we wake up and the same movie plays out.

The scientific validity of people’s preferences plays no role in the market’s delivery of private goods.  Markets can and do supply organic lettuce regardless of whether it is really “better” for your health.  The scientific validity of people’s preferences is irrelevant.

Air- and water-quality environmental disputes are more challenging to analyze than the supply of organic lettuce for two reasons.  First, while property rights exist for lettuce, they often do not exist for air and water.   Thus, environmental politics involves continuous struggle over implicit property rights and the wealth effects that flow from such rights.  Second, both conventional air and water quality are “local” public goods (club goods) rather than private goods, thus individual differences in consumption, the primary method of reducing conflict associated with private goods, are not possible.  Instead, everyone’s varied preferences for environmental goods can only result in one jointly consumed outcome.

One possible impediment to the implementation of market-like solutions to air and water quality is that the initial ownership of property rights to air or water emissions not only has wealth but also efficiency effects.  That is those particular property rights (the right to a pristine environment) are so valuable relative to other assets that their initial allocation alters the willingness of people to pay for them and thus affects how much pollution exists.  In such cases the initial distribution is the whole ballgame because it determines the resulting air- and water- quality levels.

Indur Goklany’s Double Play in the New York Times

Indur Goklany’s great book, The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet, has been cited this week by both John Tierney and Andrew Revkin in the New York Times.

But neither of them really says much about it. Don’t bother with the articles, just go buy the book. It’s a compelling, comprehensive case – with more than 100 charts and tables – for the case made in the title, which deserves to be bullet-pointed. It shows that the state of the world is improving because

  • We’re Living Longer,
  • Healthier,
  • More Comfortable Lives
  • on a Cleaner Planet

Check out the evidence.

Krugman and Libertarianism and Political Power

Paul Krugman has a post today titled “Why Libertarianism Doesn’t Work, Part N.” Maybe parts A-M were compelling, but it seems like there’s a big flaw in his logic today. Here’s the entire item:

Thinking about BP and the Gulf: in this old interview, Milton Friedman says that there’s no need for product safety regulation, because corporations know that if they do harm they’ll be sued.

Interviewer: So tort law takes care of a lot of this ..

Friedman: Absolutely, absolutely.

Meanwhile, in the real world:

In the wake of last month’s catastrophic Gulf Coast oil spill, Sen. Lisa Murkowski blocked a bill that would have raised the maximum liability for oil companies after a spill from a paltry $75 million to $10 billion. The Republican lawmaker said the bill, introduced by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), would have unfairly hurt smaller oil companies by raising the costs of oil production. The legislation is “not where we need to be right now” she said.

And don’t say that we just need better politicians. If libertarianism requires incorruptible politicians to work, it’s not serious.

Well, he’s got a point. Politicians do interfere in the tort system — by placing caps on liability, by stripping defendants of traditional legal defenses, and in other ways. As my colleague Aaron Powell notes, the problem here is that politicians have power that libertarians wouldn’t grant them. And:

Second, and more troubling for Krugman, is his admission that all politicians are corruptible. If that’s true (and it almost certainly is), then what does it say about Krugman’s constant calls for granting those same corruptible folks more power over our lives? Surely if Murkowski is corrupt enough to protect BP from tort damages, she’s corrupt enough to rig safety regulations in BP’s favor.

The libertarian system of markets and property rights is impeded when politicians interfere in it. But Krugman’s ideal system is that politicians should decide all questions — monetary policy, health care policy, product safety, environmental tradeoffs, you name it. Whose system is more likely to produce corrupt politicians, and more likely to fail because of them?

India Explicitly Rejects Bringing Environmental Issues Into WTO

An article today in BRIDGES Weekly Trade News Digest (What? You don’t subscribe??) contains an explicit rejection by India’s trade minister of the idea that carbon border tax adjustments belong in the WTO’s agenda.  Border tax adjustments in this context refers to de facto tariffs that would “level the playing field” for domestic producers competing with foreign producers not subject to climate change policies of an equivalent rigour, also called “border carbon adjustments” or variations on that theme.

While Minister Khullar predicts that these sorts of measures will be in place in 2-3 years time, he rejects that the WTO is the forum to deal with environmental issues.

Furthermore, countries introducing such measures can expect litigation:

India and other developing countries will undoubtedly challenge the true impetus behind the [border carbon adjustment] measures.

“Such measures imposing restrictions on imports on the grounds of providing a ‘level playing field’, or maintaining the ‘competitiveness’ of the domestic industry, etc are likely to be viewed as mere protectionist measures by the developed world to block the exports of the poorer nations,” [a recent report from an Indian think-tank closely connected with the Indian government] reads. “This is because there is little empirical evidence that companies relocate to take advantage of lax pollution controls.”

The [report] argues that such unilateral trade measures will inevitably lead to tit-for-tat trade retaliation that could spiral into an all-out trade war. Such warnings have also been raised by China and several think tanks following the issue.

I’ve written before on the dangers of introducing climate change issues into the WTO (and Dan Griswold has written more broadly on why labor and environmental standards don’t mix well with the aim of freeing trade) but this is yet another firm, unequivocal warning to developed countries that their proposals (and they are still just proposals at this stage) will have consequences. Developed country politicians who insist on forcing rich-world standards on the poor world should listen carefully.

Cap ‘n Trade: The Ultimate Pork-Fest

Some naive people might have been convinced that the U.S. House voted to wreck the American economy by endorsing cap and trade because it was the only way to save the world.  But even many environmentalists had given up on the bill approved last Friday.  It is truly a monstrosity:  it would cost consumers plenty, while doing little to reduce global temperatures.

But the legislation had something far more important for legislators and special interests alike.  It was a pork-fest that wouldn’t quit.

Reports the New York Times:

As the most ambitious energy and climate-change legislation ever introduced in Congress made its way to a floor vote last Friday, it grew fat with compromises, carve-outs, concessions and out-and-out gifts intended to win the votes of wavering lawmakers and the support of powerful industries.

The deal making continued right up until the final minutes, with the bill’s co-author Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, doling out billions of dollars in promises on the House floor to secure the final votes needed for passage.

The bill was freighted with hundreds of pages of special-interest favors, even as environmentalists lamented that its greenhouse-gas reduction targets had been whittled down.

Some of the prizes were relatively small, like the $50 million hurricane research center for a freshman lawmaker from Florida.

Others were huge and threatened to undermine the environmental goals of the bill, like a series of compromises reached with rural and farm-state members that would funnel billions of dollars in payments to agriculture and forestry interests.

Automakers, steel companies, natural gas drillers, refiners, universities and real estate agents all got in on the fast-moving action.

The biggest concessions went to utilities, which wanted assurances that they could continue to operate and build coal – burning power plants without shouldering new costs. The utilities received not only tens of billions of dollars worth of free pollution permits, but also billions for work on technology to capture carbon-dioxide emissions from coal combustion to help meet future pollution targets.

That deal, negotiated by Representative Rick Boucher, a conservative Democrat from Virginia’s coal country, won the support of the Edison Electric Institute, the utility industry lobby, and lawmakers from regions dependent on coal for electricity.

Liberal Democrats got a piece, too. Representative Bobby Rush, Democrat of Illinois, withheld his support for the bill until a last-minute accord was struck to provide nearly $1 billion for energy-related jobs and job training for low-income workers and new subsidies for making public housing more energy-efficient.

Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican staunchly opposed to the bill, marveled at the deal-cutting on Friday.

“It is unprecedented,” Mr. Barton said, “but at least it’s transparent.”

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who follows Washington.  Still, the degree of special interest dealing was extraordinary.  Anyone want to imagine what a health care “reform” bill is likely to look like when legislators finish with it?

Which Is Greener?

Which uses less energy and emits less pollution: a train, a bus, or a car? Advocates of rail transportation rely on the public’s willingness to take for granted the assumption that trains – whether light rail, subways, or high-speed intercity rail – are the most energy-efficient and cleanest forms of transportation. But there is plenty of evidence that this is far from true.

Rail advocates often reason like this: the average car has 1.1 people in it. Compare the BTUs or carbon emissions per passenger mile with those from a full train, and the train wins hands down.

The problem with such hypothetical examples is that the numbers are always wrong. As a recent study from the University of California (Davis) notes, the load factors are critical.

The average commuter car has 1.1 people, but even during rush hour most of the vehicles on the road are not transporting commuters. When counting all trips, the average is 1.6, and a little higher (1.7) for light trucks (pick ups, full-sized vans, and SUVs).

On the other hand, the trains are rarely full, yet they operate all day long (while your car runs only when it has someone in it who wants to go somewhere). According to the National Transit Database, in 2007 the average American subway car had 25 people in it (against a theoretical capacity of 150); the average light-rail car had 24 people (capacity 170); the average commuter-rail car had 37 people (capacity 165); and the average bus had 11 (capacity 64). In other words, our transit systems operate at about one-sixth of capacity. Even an SUV averaging 1.7 people does better than that.

When Amtrak compares its fuel economy with automobiles (see p. 19), it relies on Department of Energy data that presumes 1.6 people per car (see tables 2.13 for cars and 2.14 for Amtrak). But another Department of Energy report points out that cars in intercity travel tend to be more fully loaded – the average turns out to be 2.4 people.

“Intercity auto trips tend to [have] higher-than-average vehicle occupancy rates,” says the DOE. “On average, they are as energy-efficient as rail intercity trips.” Moreover, the report adds, “if passenger rail competes for modal share by moving to high speed service, its energy efficiency should be reduced somewhat – making overall energy savings even more problematic.”

Projections that high-speed rail will be energy-efficient assume high load factors (in the linked case, 70 percent). But with some of the routes in the Obama high-speed rail plan terminating in such relatively small cities as Eugene, Oregon; Mobile, Alabama; and Portland, Maine, load factors will often be much lower.

Even if a particular rail proposal did save a little energy in year-to-year operations, studies show that the energy cost of constructing rail lines dwarfs any annual savings. The environmental impact statement for a Portland, Oregon light-rail line found it would take 171 years of annual energy savings to repay the energy cost of construction (they built it anyway).

Public transit buses tend to be some the least energy-efficient vehicles around because agencies tend to buy really big buses (why not? The feds pay for them), and they run around empty much of the time. But private intercity buses are some of the most energy efficient vehicles because the private operators have an incentive to fill them up. A study commissioned by the American Bus Association found that intercity buses use little more than a third as much energy per passenger mile as Amtrak. (The source may seem self-serving, but DOE data estimate intercity buses are even more efficient than that–compare table 2.12 with intercity bus passenger miles in this table).

When it comes to energy consumption per passenger mile, the real waste is generated by public transit agencies and Amtrak. Instead of trying to fill seats, they are politically driven to provide service to all taxpayers, regardless of population density or demand. One of Amtrak’s unheralded high-speed (110-mph) rail lines is between Chicago and Detroit, but it carries so few people that Amtrak loses $84 per passenger (compared with an average of $37 for other short-distance corridors).

Meanwhile, transit agencies build light-rail lines to wealthy suburbs with three cars in every garage. With capacities of more than 170, the average light-rail car in Baltimore and Denver carries less than 15 people, while San Jose’s carries 16. For that we need to spend $40 million a mile on track and $3 million per railcar (vs. $300,000 for a bus)?

If we really wanted to save energy, we would privatize transit, privatize Amtrak, and sell highways to private entrepreneurs who would have an incentive to reduce the congestion that wastes nearly 3 billion gallons of fuel each year (p. 1). But of course, the real goal of the rail people is not to save energy but to reshape American lifestyles. They just can’t stand to see people enjoying the freedom of being able to go where they want, when they want to get there.