Topic: Energy and Environment

Will Obama Make Housing Affordable?

Property-rights and housing-affordability advocates were surprised and elated that the chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, Jason Furman, gave a speech blaming housing affordability problems on zoning and land-use regulation. They shouldn’t be: while Furman is correct in general, he is wrong about the details and the prescriptions he offers could make the problems worse than ever.

There is no doubt, as Furman documents in his speech, that land-use regulation is the cause of growing housing affordability problems. Yet Furman fails to note the fact that these problems are only found in some parts of the country. This is a crucial observation, and those who fail to understand it are almost certain to misdiagnose the cause and propose the wrong remedies.

Citing Jane Jacobs (who was wrong at least as often as she was right), Forman blames affordability problems on zoning that “limits density and mixed-use development.” Such zoning is found in almost every city in the country except Houston, yet most cities don’t have housing affordability problems. Thus, such zoning alone cannot be the cause of rising rents and home prices.

Based on this erroneous assumption, Furman endorses what he calls the administration’s agenda, which is its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing program. Rather than making housing more affordable, this program is aimed at ending racial segregation of middle-class suburbs by requiring the construction of multifamily housing in suburbs that are not racially balanced relative to their urban areas. It assumes that multifamily housing is less costly (and thus more affordable to low-income minorities) than single family, but that is only true because units are smaller: on a dollar-per-square-foot basis, multifamily costs more than single family, especially for mid-rise and high-rise apartments. Multifamily also uses more energy per square foot than single family, which means heating bills will be higher.

Government As Scofflaw, On Pollution And Beyond

It’s a familiar libertarian insight that regulation often holds government itself to lower standards than it does private actors. Pension funds for public employees are mostly immune from the federal solvency and funding requirements that apply to their private counterparts; Federal Trade Commission rules against false advertising by profit-seeking companies do not restrain false advertising by government actors on the same topics; the FTC can fine companies massively for data breaches even as the federal government itself suffers gigantic losses of sensitive data to foreign actors with few career consequences for many of those who had dozed; anticompetitive practices per se illegal under antitrust law become legal when states do them, and so forth and so on.

Now David Konisky of Indiana University and Manuel Teodoro of Texas A&M, in a study published by the American Journal of Political Science entitled “When Governments Regulate Governments,” have pulled together some data:

Our empirical subjects are public and private entities’ compliance with the U.S. Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. We find that, compared with private firms, governments violate these laws significantly more frequently and are less likely to be penalized for violations.

Progress in the Fight against Leukemia and Other Positive News

In this installment of positive news, we look at tiny 3D cameras that could revolutionize brain surgery, a new way of growing large quantities of red blood cells and progress in the fight against Leukemia. 

NASA’s 3D Camera Could Improve Brain Surgery 

Tiny 3D cameras developed by NASA may revolutionize the way doctors practice brain surgery. A device, known as MARVEL (short for Multi-Angle Rear Viewing Endoscopic Tool), is a 0.2 inch diameter camera that is attached to an endoscope - a snaking instrument used to examine the inside of the human body. NASA officials claim that MARVEL could make brain surgery quicker and cheaper, with less recovery time required. Before this technology can reach the operating room, the team needs to develop prototype for the FDA’s approval.  

Scientists Have Found a Way to Make Red Blood Cells 

The global blood supply remains in a state of constant shortage, a precarious situation for patients undergoing intensive surgery. Promisingly, a group of scientists have discovered a new way of producing large quantities of red blood cells, which perform the critical oxygen-ferrying duties of blood. The scientists identified a particular gene within stem cells and modified it so that these stem cells mature into red blood cells in greater numbers. 

These Are the Genes Linked to Aging 

New research has pinpointed 1,500 genes responsible for human aging. Scientists examined blood samples amongst 14,983 aging adults of European ancestry, and measured levels of RNA—the genetic product that our genes produce when they’re active. One caveat to these finding is that while individuals with Hispanic or Native American ancestry largely matched these markers, the RNA crossover dropped to only 27 percent in populations with African ancestry. 

New Kind of ‘Designer’ Immune Cells Clear Baby’s Leukemia 

A baby in London has been cleared of a previously incurable form of Leukemia thanks to an experimental cell therapy that creates ‘designer immune cells.’ After all other treatment options had failed, the doctors injected the baby with genetically edited cells in a tiny 1-milliliter intravenous infusion. The therapy works by adding new genes to healthy immune cells known as T-cells. The T-cells are rendered invisible to a powerful leukemia drug that would usually kill them and reprogramed to only fight leukemia cells. 

Supreme Court Must Defend Interstate Commerce

The Commerce Clause, while invoked since the New Deal as a warrant for progressive federal policy, actually provides protections for businesses against state regulations that burden interstate commerce. In Brown-Forman Distillers Corp. v. New York State Liquor Authority (1986), for example, the Supreme Court struck down New York’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Law on the ground that it regulated the price of alcohol outside the state.

Or take this hypothetical example: Colorado gets its electricity from a grid that services 11 states, Canada, and Mexico. Electricity used anywhere within this grid can come from any source that services it and, once loaded onto the grid, this electricity is identical, regardless of how it was produced or the fuel used to generate it. Yet Colorado renewable-energy regulations require that all energy that enters the state be created in compliance with certain parochial standards, which excludes the type of power generated by a particular power company in California. What Colorado has effectively enacted is an extraterritorial law, regulating economic activity outside the state and thus violating the Commerce Clause (more technically, the Dormant Commerce Clause, in the sense that Congress hasn’t explicitly legislated to prohibit the Colorado regulation).

This situation is not hypothetical, however, but the actual case of Energy & Environment Legal Institute v. Epel, wherein the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held that Colorado’s regime evaded Commerce Clause scrutiny because it did not consist of pure price controls. No matter that the regulations has a clear anticompetitive and protectionist effect on the interstate energy market—favoring in-state (complying) producers over out-of-state ones—the court sanctioned any state’s adoption of extraterritorial regulation so long as the state is savvy enough to crafts its rules as something other than a price-control mechanism.

Accordingly, Cato has joined the Pacific Legal Foundation, National Federation of Independent Business, and Reason Foundation on an amicus brief supporting a request that the Supreme Court take the case and restore a (relatively) free and competitive interstate energy market. This brief comes at an important crossroads for state-federal economic regulation, particularly relating to environmental norms. Indeed, California’s attempt to regulate out-of-state emissions was raised before the Court in Rocky Mountain Farmers Union v. Corey (2015)—turnabout is fair play?—and North Dakota is suing Minnesota for attempting to regulate its neighbors’ emissions.

The ban on extraterritorial regulation vis-à-vis the Commerce Clause is essential to preserving the competitive-federalism regime enshrined in the Constitution and the Supreme Court’s precedents. If states were able to impose their regulatory schemes on out-of-state companies in interstate industries, the 50 “laboratories of democracy” would not be able to function as such.

Under a regime of federal rivalry, competition for voters, taxpayers, and industries forces states to be accountable to those they govern and innovative in their search for solutions to vexing problems. If a state finds a cheaper, more efficient way to solve a policy conundrum, people and businesses will flock to it. But if states can impose the costs of their regulatory regimes on their neighbors, they could blunt this competitive effect.

The Supreme Court should take up Epel and flesh out federal constitutional protections for interstate commerce.

A Diatom’s Response to Three Levels of CO2

Phaeodactylum tricornutum is a marine diatom that is also a potential alternative energy source due to its high growth rates and lipid (fat) content, the latter of which – according to Wikipedia  – constitutes about 20 to 30 percent of total dry cell weight under standard culture conditions. Given as much, this species is of interest to scientists, such as the seven-member research team of Wu et al. (2015), who recently conducted an experiment to determine how this potential biofuel responds to different levels of atmospheric CO2. More specifically, the group of Chinese researchers studied the response of P. tricornutum to three levels of CO2 (150, 350 and 1500 parts per million (ppm)) over a period of seven days. 

For comparative purposes, a CO2 concentration of 150ppm is around the threshold value required to sustain plant growth on this earth. We came perilously close to this at the nadir of the last ice age. 350ppm is the concentration from a quarter-century ago (we’re around 400ppm now) and 1500ppm is quite a bit higher than even the most optimistic forecasts can get it to around 2100.

And what did they learn? As shown in the figure below, diatom growth rates rose with the level of CO2 treatment. The growth at 350 and 1500 ppm treatments were approximately 70 and 192 percent greater than that observed in the lowest CO2 treatment (150 ppm). And those values may be conservative, given that growth rates at the two higher CO2 concentrations appear to still be rising at the end of the experiment on day 7 (i.e., the green and red lines have not peaked). Similar trends were seen in culture dry weights, where the mean dry weight values reported for the medium and high CO2 treatments were 31 percent and 195 percent greater than in the low CO2 treatment. Lastly, lipid content, expressed as a percent of dry cell weight, amounted to 33, 36 and 54 percent in the 150, 350 and 1500 ppm treatments, respectively.

In discussing their findings, Wu et al. note their results are “consistent with numerous previous studies that higher levels of CO2 support higher growth rates.” And, they further demonstrate the possible viability of using P. tricornutum as a biofuel, which many persons today consider an added benefit.



Wu, S., Huang, A., Zhang, B., Huan, L., Zhao, P., Lin, A. and Wang, G. 2015. Enzyme activity highlights the importance of the oxidative pentose phosphate pathway in lipid accumulation and growth of Phaeodactylum tricornutum under CO2 concentration. Biotechnology for Biofuels 8: 78, DOI 10.1186/s13068-015-0262-7.

Silenced Spring: New York Attorney General Goes After Climate Wrongthink

Months of agitation promoting a government investigation of supposedly wrongful advocacy on the issue of climate change have begun to pay off. As Holman Jenkins notes, purportedly levelheaded Democrats and environmentalists are now jumping on the bandwagon for a probe of possible unlawful speech or non-speech by energy companies and advocacy groups they’ve backed. Perhaps the most remarkable name on that list is Hillary Clinton, who said the other day in New Hampshire, referring to Exxon, “There’s a lot of evidence that they misled people.” That’s right: Hillary Clinton, of all people, now wants to make it unlawful for those who engage in public controversy to mislead people.

The first high-profile law enforcer to bite, it seems, will be Eric Schneiderman, whose doings I’ve examined at length lately. “The New York attorney general has launched an investigation into Exxon Mobil to determine whether the country’s largest oil and gas company lied to investors about how global warming could hurt its balance sheets and also hid the risks posed by climate change from the public,” reports U.S. News. Show me the denier, as someone almost said, and I will find you the crime: “The Martin Act is a nearly empty vessel into which the AG can pour virtually any content that he wants,” as Reuters points out. More on the Martin Act here and here.

At Forbes, Daniel Fisher notes the possible origins of the legal action in an environmentalist-litigator confab in 2012 (“Climate Accountability Initiative”) in which participants speculated that getting access to the internal files of energy companies and advocacy groups could be a way to blow up the climate controversy politically. Fisher also notes that Justice Stephen Breyer, in the Nike v. Kasky case dismissed 12 years ago on other grounds, warned that it will tend to chill advocacy both truthful and otherwise by businesses if opponents can seize on disagreements on contentious public issues and run to court with complaints of consumer (or presumably securities) fraud.

Perhaps in this case chilling advocacy is the whole point. And very much related: my colleague Roger Pilon’s post last week, “Whatever Happened to the Left’s Love of Free Speech?“; Robert Samuelson (“The advocates of a probe into Exxon Mobil are essentially proposing that the company be punished for expressing its opinions.”)

[cross-posted from Overlawyered]

A 1,000-Year History of Eastern Australia Megadroughts: How Do They Compare with the Recent Occurrence of the “Big Dry”?

Drought is a common feature of climate; but every so often when a longer-lasting or somewhat severe drought occurs, it is not long before someone, somewhere, makes the claim that that drought was either caused or made worse by CO2-induced global warming. A simple test of this thesis can be conducted by examining the historic record of drought for the location in question. If it can be shown that similar (or greater) frequencies or magnitudes of drought have occurred in the past, prior to the modern increase in CO2, then it cannot be definitively concluded that the current drought is the product of anything other than natural climate variability.

Unfortunately, long-term historical drought records covering more than a few decades of time are lacking for most locations across the planet. As a result, scientists have sought to augment these short-term instrumental drought histories with much longer proxy records, records that will sometimes extend back in time several centuries to millennia. Such is the case in the recent study of Vance et al. (2015), who derived a 1,003-year proxy of historical drought in eastern Australia.