Topic: Energy and Environment

You Ought to Have a Look: Supreme Court, Business-as-Usual, Poison Ivy and Shark Attacks

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

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This week, as our title suggests, we have a somewhat eclectic mix of articles worthy of your attention (and some that are not). Let’s get started.

In handing down its decision on Monday in Michigan v. EPA, the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was remiss for not considering costs when deciding to (expensively) regulate mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. This ruling was urged in Cato’s amicus brief, and hailed as a victory for “liberty and sound science.”

But the direct impact on the ruling as it pertains to mercury emissions is likely to be slight as most coal-fired power plants have already been modified (or shut down) in an effort to reduce mercury emissions under the EPA’s 2012 regulation. Rather, what is being debated in the ruling’s aftermath is what the implication may be on future EPA actions.

Some have argued the ruling in Michigan v. EPA was “pointless,” while other have argued that it “may be the beginning of the end of the Obama Administration’s climate agenda.” Perhaps the biggest thing that could result would be for the Supreme Court to re-evaluate its decision in the Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council case.  This possibility was raised by Clarence Thomas in his concurring opinion on the case.  The Wall Street Journal editors picked up on this in their review of the Michigan v. EPA decision and highlight its importance:

Which is why Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion deserves a larger audience. He makes a provocative case that the Court’s 1984 decision in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council is unconstitutional. Under what has become known as “Chevron deference,” the Court defers to executive interpretations when laws are ambiguous. Justice Thomas writes that this has become a license for the executive to usurp legislative powers that are supposed to be vested in Congress.

“Perhaps there is some unique historical justification for deferring to federal agencies, but these cases reveal how paltry an effort we have made to understand it or to confine ourselves to its boundaries,” Justice Thomas writes. “Although we hold today that EPA exceeded even the extremely permissive limits on agency power set by our precedents, we should be alarmed that it felt sufficiently emboldened by those precedents to make the bid for deference that it did here.”

That’s an especially apt point coming in a year when the Supreme Court seemed to abdicate much of its obligation to police the Constitution’s separation between the executive and legislative power. A future Court ought to revisit Chevron deference in what has become an era of presidential law-making.

Here’s hoping!

And here’s how it can happen. At Cato, your obedient servants have, through the years, purposefully compiled a massive record of public comments on global warming regulation that we have filed as official responses to requests for them in the Federal Register. These include our Addendum to the Government’s second “National Assessment” of climate change. It was designed to have a look similar to the federal document, with the cover the exact same material paragraph-by-paragraph, if possible, to make comparison as simple as possible. 

Does EPA’s Supreme Court Loss Doom Obama’s Climate Agenda?

In a 5-4 decision today, the Supreme Court struck down the Obama Administration EPA’s signature “Mercury and Air Toxic Rule,” which regulates emissions by fossil-fuel-fired power plants. Before regulating, EPA was obligated to decide whether regulation under one the Act’s most burdensome programs was “appropriate and necessary.” EPA interpreted that language to preclude it from considering the costs of regulation—some $10 billion per year, in exchange for $4 million or so in direct benefits. That interpretation, the Court decided, was ludicrous.

The decision may well leave the Obama climate agenda in tatters. Why that is requires a bit of explanation. In the usual case when the Court finds a rule to be unlawful, it vacates the offending action—in other words, deprives it of legal force. But that’s not what the Court did here. Instead, it sent the case back down to the D.C. Circuit for further proceedings, knowing full well that that court will follow its usual practice of “remand without vacatur”—in other words, let the agency fix any flaws in its rule while leaving the rule in place.

This is a very big deal. The centerpiece of the Obama Administration’s climate agenda is EPA’s so-called “Clean Power Plan,” which aims to cut power plants’ carbon-dioxide emissions by around 30 percent and force the phase-out of coal-fired generation. But the statutory authority that EPA claims supports this effort explicitly carves out any regulation of facilities that are already subject to regulations like the Mercury Rule. So if the rule remains in place—as seems likely—then the Clean Power Plan should be dead in the water.

But there’s a more subtle, and perhaps more important, reason to expect trouble ahead for the Clean Power Plan. The Supreme Court’s failure to vacate the Mercury Rule reflects its recognition that the bulk of the rule’s costs—and it was one of the most expensive government regulations ever—has already been borne by industry. So there’s no urgency, at this point, to putting the rule on hold; to the contrary, doing so would be disruptive. But the flip side is that this means utilities and their customers spent tens of billions of dollars complying with a regulation that was always unlawful. One can imagine that the Court won’t be eager for that to happen again. And one can also imagine that the Court’s decision today is a shot across the bow of the D.C. Circuit: when the next billion-dollar rule comes up, and there’s any legal question about EPA’s authority, put the rule on hold so the courts have a chance to do their business. More reading-between-the-lines: if you don’t, we will.

The Clean Power Plan is expected to be finalized in late August, and challengers will ask the D.C. Circuit for a stay just as soon as they can. If that happens, the rule most likely won’t go into effect during the Obama Administration and, depending on the results of the next election, may never go forward.

And that’s why today may be the beginning of the end of the Obama Administration’s climate agenda.

Victory in State of Michigan v. EPA

The Cato Institute submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the State of Michigan in their case State of Michigan v. EPA, which was decided today. In the amicus I noted the wanton nature of the EPA’s science. In a brief statement I’ve sent out to press today, I said:

Today’s Supreme Court decision on EPA’s regulation of mercury emissions from power plants is a clear victory for common sense. While the EPA claimed that it did not have to take into account the costs of regulation versus the benefits, they admitted the direct benefits of their regulations were impossibly small to measure, being a “savings” of 0.00209 I.Q. points (the margin for error is ~5000x this value) in a theoretical population of 240,000 people—no doubt this factored into the EPA’s decision to simply say that they didn’t have to consider the costs. The Court held that the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 clearly requires EPA to do this, and that any claim that they did not was a totally inappropriate reading of the statute.

We’re very pleased the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of liberty and sound science.

Red Light for Red Line, Yellow Light for Purple Line

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced today that he was canceling Baltimore’s Red light-rail line while approving suburban Washington’s Purple Line. However, that approval comes with some caveats that could still mean the wasteful transit project will never be built.

The latest cost estimate for the Purple Line is nearly $2.5 billion for a project that, if done with buses, would cost less than 2 percent as much. The Purple Line finance plan calls for the federal government to put up $900 million, the state to immediately add $738 million, and then for the state to borrow another $810 million.

Instead, Governor Hogan says Maryland will contribute only $168 million to the project, and that local governments–meaning, mainly, Montgomery County but also Prince Georges County–will have to come up with the rest. It isn’t clear from press reports whether Hogan is willing to commit Maryland taxpayers to repay $810 million worth of loans, but it is clear that local taxpayers will have to pay at least half a billion dollars more than they were expecting.

You Ought to Have a Look: Critical Looks at the Papal Encyclical, Carbon Tax, and the Clean Power Plan

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

 

This week, we feature three analyses of the top climate stories of recent weeks—the papal encyclical, the carbon tax, and the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Each of these analyses provides uncommon insight.

The first is an article penned by the always insightful Roger Pielke Jr. appearing in the typically non-insightful U.K.’s The Guardian.  Roger’s piece is titled “Is science policy a theological matter?” and is a reminder that Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’ is “just the latest intervention in a debate over technologies that has been going on for centuries.”

Roger reviews some of the historic highlights of this debate and the philosophical roots of Pope Francis’ way of thinking—basically that “human roots of the ecological crisis” are grounded in a “technocratic paradigm.” In other words, technology (spurred by capitalism) is leading to the downfall of humanity through ecological deterioration. Not everyone agrees with the pope on this. But even for those who do, Roger points out they are often inconsistent when it comes to embracing (or disavowing) the fruits of technology. Roger provides this example:

But for many, embracing an overt religious framing for existential debates over technology can quickly become problematic, or at least deeply inconsistent. Consider technologies of family planning. Consistent with Catholic history, Pope Francis largely dismisses concern about global population as a contributor to environmental problems, “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.”

Spin Cycle: Free Markets, Poverty and the Environment

The Spin Cycle is a reoccurring feature based upon just how much the latest weather or climate story, policy pronouncement, or simply poo-bah blather spins the truth. Statements are given a rating between 1-5 spin cycles, with less cycles meaning less spin. For a more in-depth description, visit the inaugural edition.


The Papal encyclical Laudato Si’ is so rife with messages spun to fit the Pope’s liking that we hardly know where to begin.

The general theme of the encyclical is that in much of the world, a devotion to free market capitalism (i.e., profits) has disturbingly replaced a devotion to Mother Nature and such misplaced adoration is leading the world to deviate from God’s will and into poverty and ruin.

In doing so, the Pope downplays the myriad and remarkable technological achievements that have arisen in the developed world and have led to an improved standard of living, abundant food, greater well-being, longer lifespans, and a protected and healthier environment. It is from these existing and future technologies—largely made possible by free market conditions—that the solutions to poverty and accompanying environmental degradation will be rooted.

Going forward, we should not seek to rejoin with Nature (as the Pope urges), but rather decouple from it. This concept has been described recently in the Ecomodernist Manifesto. While we think this manifesto needs a bit of tweaking (e.g., less reliance on government actions), it seems decidedly on the right track (and one in nearly opposite direction of current state of environmentalism—which the Pope seems to be an adherent). For more on the Ecomodernists’ take on the papal encyclical, this collection of tweets from Michael Schellenberger of The Breakthrough Institute is especially enlightening.

When it comes to human poverty, there is a mountain of research dedicated to the topic. The role played by human-caused climate change (the particular focus of the encyclical) is virtually unidentifiable, much less quantifiable. Thus, an encyclical stressing a centrally coordinated (and compelled) international response to climate change—focused on eliminating the cheapest, abundant, and most reliable form of energy—as a solution to global poverty can only serve as a distraction from the issue.

There are lots of directed actions that can be effective at helping those around the world who live in poverty, but attempting to alter the course of the global climate isn’t among them. Bjorn Lomberg offers a few suggestions (and there are surely countless others):

These policies — ensuring freer trade, greater access to family planning, and nutritional interventions — cost a fraction of expensive, inefficient climate policies. When helping the world’s poorest is the goal, these are the investments that would truly make the biggest difference.

Instead of empowering, the policies being forwarded by the Vatican will lead to a worsening of the very social and environmental problems it seeks to address.

For this reason, we assign Pope Francis’ encyclical our highest rating—Permanent Press—“purposefully misleading commentary on science which will hinder actual scientific debate and credibility for generations to come, especially those with negative policy outcomes”—and award it five spin cycles.

The New Papal Encyclical Has Good Intentions but Bad Effects

The Vatican has released a new papal encyclical on the environment. Based on the version of Laudato Sii leaked ahead of time, the document is a highly political discussion of the theology of the environment.

Pope Francis mixes heartfelt concern for ecology with an often limited or confused understanding of the problem of pollution and meaning of markets. Humanity’s obligation for the environment is complex and the Pope discusses ecological values in the context of economic development and care for the poor.

Unfortunately, the document’s policy prescriptions sound like they were written by an advocate. The resulting factual and philosophical shortcomings undercut the larger and more profound theological discussion.

For instance, the encyclical complains much of capitalism as well as property rights, which, in the Pope’s view, allow selfish individuals to act against the public interest. Yet capitalism provides the resources and technology to improve environmental protection. Indeed, he acknowledges that “science and technology are a wonderful product of human creativity that is a gift from God.”

Market prices operate as signals. Laudato Sii complains that disproportionate consumption steals from “future generations.” Yet rising resource prices encourage people to use less, producers to find more, manufacturers to operate more efficiently, and entrepreneurs to create substitutes. Claims that humanity was running out of resources and destroying the ecology go back centuries and so far have been proved wrong.

Markets also compare the costs and benefits of different means to achieve a common end. In fact, markets and property rights are the most important means to provide people with what the Pontiff calls “a dignified life through work.” However, jobs are not created, like the earth, ex nihilio. The more regulatory dictates and higher energy prices, the fewer the jobs and lower the salaries.

The Pontiff asserts the “social function of any form of private property.” Property rights may not be absolute, but the legal right to land is most important for those who lack wealth and influence. Property rights also create incentives for environmental stewardship. Ownership vests both costs and benefits with a sole decision-maker who can be held responsible.

Most environmental problems occur because of what economists call externalities—costs and benefits that fall on others. Without an appropriate legal regime, industry can spew emissions far and wide. Drawing the line requires balancing complex interests: prosperity, liberty, ecology.

The encyclical lacks much sense of the flawed nature of government. The Pope is disappointed that environmental efforts “are often frustrated not only by the refusal of the powerful, but also by the lack of interest of the other.” However, public choice economists diagnosed this problem decades ago: concentrated benefits, diffuse costs.

Laudato Sii also argues for redefining progress. The Pontiff should encourage people to ask, “How much is enough?” But it is important that those living in comfort in the industrialized West not try to answer for those living in the impoverished Third World.

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