Tag: power plants

Obama Commands the Impossible

Today’s New York Times reports that President Obama has “ordered the rapid development of technology to capture carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of coal,” as well as mandating the production of more corn-based ethanol and financing farmers to produce “cellulosic” ethanol from waste fiber.

You’ve got to like the president’s moxie.  Faced with his inability to pass health care reform and cap-and-trade, he now chooses to command the impossible and the inefficient.

Most power plants are simply not designed for carbon capture.  There isn’t any infrastructure to transport large amounts of carbon dioxide, and no one has agreed on where to put all of it.  Corn-based ethanol produces more carbon dioxide in its life cycle than it eliminates, and cellulosic ethanol has been “just around the corner” since I’ve been just around the corner.

However, doing what doesn’t make any economic sense makes a lot of political sense in Washington, because inefficient technologies require subsidies–in this case to farmers, ethanol processors, utilities, engineering and construction conglomerates, and a whole host of others.  Has the president forgotten that his unpopular predecessor started the ethanol boondogle (his response to global warming) and drove up the price of corn to the point of worldwide food riots? Hasn’t he read that cellulosic ethanol is outrageously expensive? Has he ever heard of the “not-in-my-backyard” phenomenon when it comes to storing something people don’t especially like?

Yeah, he probably has.  But the political gains certainly are worth the economic costs.  Think about it.  In the case of carbon capture, it’s so wildly inefficient that it can easily double the amount of fuel necessary to produce carbon-based energy.  What’s not to like if you’re a coal company, now required to load twice as many hopper cars?  What’s not to like if you’re a utility, guaranteed a profit and an incentive to build a snazzy, expensive new plant?  And what’s not to like if you’re a farmer, gaining yet another subsidy?

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?

Obama the Planner

New Republic editor John Judis has a couple of insights about the Obama administration’s economic and social goals. He points out that, for more than a century, Progressive and free-market forces have gone through cycles of “reform and reaction.”

The Progressives — who my friend John Baden calls the “American counterrevolutionaries” — have repeatedly sought to increase the size and scope of government: railroad regulation, public land agencies, and the income tax in the 1900s; Social Security, low-interest home loans, and government ownership of power plants in the 1930s; Medicare, the war on poverty, and environmental laws in the 1960s.

In between, friends of free markets tried to roll back those reforms, but were never completely successful. Thus, each successive reform era has further increased government power and reduced free markets.

This reminds me of the basic strategy used by the wilderness movement (in which I was active from about 1975 through 1993). Wilderness activists basically considered land that had already been preserved as wilderness or some other classification to be “theirs,” while all remaining land was “potentially theirs.” Successive congressional land-use bills or presidential decrees would put more land in “their” category, but no matter how much they got, it was never enough.

At the time, I called this the “scorched earth policy,” meaning wilderness advocates embedded so many poison pills in the protected lands that no one would ever try to declassify them. This isn’t necessarily a deliberate strategy, just an effect of our political system.

Judis goes on to outline the ways in which Obama wants to build on past reforms. First, he wants to use “the budget to shift the locus of industrial production toward ‘green’ jobs and products.” He also wants to “make dramatic changes in transportation with [government’s] intervention in the auto industry and in its funding of high-speed rail.” Finally, he wants to institute a form of “national planning” in order to “reverse existing trends” towards “suburban housing [and shopping] malls.”

People who are attracted to such policies tend to judge them based on their intent rather than their results. In fact, these interventions have nearly all either backfired or had huge unintended consequences.

Railroad regulation was imposed just as trucks appeared on the scene in 1907, leaving railroads helpless against growing competition. “Progressive” income taxes ended up with so many loopholes that they weren’t really progressive. The federal loan companies, such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, played a key role in the current crisis when they succumbed to political pressure to buy increasingly risky loans.

Social Security is a giant Ponzi scheme that is also one of the most regressive taxes on the books, not to mention that it has provided billions of dollars of surpluses for Congress to borrow with little hope of ever paying it back. Medicare is an even bigger Ponzi scheme, while the war on poverty created a semi-permanent underclass that has been all but forgotten by the liberals who claim to care most about them.

Environmental laws produced many benefits when they focused on technical solutions, but they failed miserably when they attempted to change people’s behavior. As transportation expert Alan Pisarski recently told the Institute of Transportation Engineers, technical solutions to air pollution are responsible for 95 to 105 percent of the improvements in air quality in the past 40 years, while behavior solutions produced only minus 5 to 5 percent of the improvements — minus 5 meaning some behavioral solutions made pollution worse.

Unfortunately, Obama’s plans are all about changing behavior. This means two things: they will be expensive — especially when counting the unintended consequences — and they won’t work. High-speed rail and urban revitalization, for example, are all about redesigning the country for yuppy elites, not ordinary Americans. The question for free-market advocates is: how can we minimize the damage now and roll back the reforms later?