Topic: Energy and Environment

Funding Highways: States Can Do It

Congress faces a deadline at the end of July to extend federal highway funding. Policymakers are likely to cobble together a short-term fix for the funding gap in the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), rather than enacting a permanent solution.

Annual HTF spending is projected to be $53 billion and rising in coming years, while HTF revenues will be $40 billion. That leaves an annual funding gap of at least $13 billion. A good permanent fix would be to cut federal spending by $13 billion to match the revenues. State governments could fill the gap with their own funding, efficiency improvements, or privatization.

That straightforward decentralization solution is not popular with highway lobby groups, and it is usually not mentioned as an option by reporters. A recent Washington Post Wonkblog column is typical. It examined road quality and potholes in the states, and then concluded that more federal money was needed.

The Post published my letter in response to Wonkblog on Saturday:

The article noted that some states (such as California) have many car-damaging potholes, while others (such as Florida) have very few. It said that “we haven’t been putting enough money into the Highway Trust Fund.”

Actually, the data reveal that California ought to be learning lessons from Florida on how to spend existing funds more efficiently. The fact that some states have much better highways than others shows that states can solve their own highway problems — without the top-down federal actions suggested in the article.

Here are some of the details from the original Wonkblog story:

… 28 percent of the nation’s major roadways—interstates, freeways, and major arterial roadways in urban areas—are in “poor” condition.

[Other than D.C.] … the worst roads are in California where 51 percent of the highways are rated poor. Rhode Island, New Jersey and Michigan all have “poor” ratings of 40 percent or more. Dang.

And while everybody loves to make fun of Florida, the Sunshine State actually has the smallest percentage of bad roads in the nation—only 7 percent. Nevada, Missouri, Minnesota and Arkansas round out the top 5.

Note that Florida is a warm and sunny, while Minnesota is cold and snowy, yet they both have very good roads. Meanwhile, California is warm and sunny, while Michigan is cold and snowy, yet they both have very poor roads. Wonkblog correctly notes, “I might have expected weather and latitude to play a big role in road quality, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.”

So far so good, but then Wonkblog jumps to his predetermined solution, and completely ignores the implication of the data he had just presented. He says, “One main reason why our roads are in such bad shape is that we haven’t been putting enough money into the Highway Trust Fund to keep up with infrastructure needs.”

According to Wonkblog’s own chart, only 10 percent of the roads in Minnesota are in “poor” condition, while 51 percent in California are poor. Thus, bad roads are clearly a state-level failing. Wonkblog immediately grabs for the magic wand of more federal funding, but he might have asked what it is that states like Minnesota are doing right with the existing funding.  

The other weird thing about Wonkblog’s conclusion is that he says, “we haven’t been putting enough money into” the HTF. But, of course, it is spending that might affect road quality, not the revenues “into” the fund. If you look at HTF spending, it has remained high in recent years because Congress has filled it with general fund revenues, as I chart here.

In sum, there are apparently dramatic differences in road quality between the states. That may stem from differences in state funding, state efficiency, and state competence, but seemingly not climate conditions. All the states have the ability by themselves to have high quality roads, but some states it appears have important road-investment lessons to learn from the others.

A Favorable Trend in Driver Licensing

Twelve states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, currently grant (or will soon grant) drivers’ licenses to unauthorized immigrants. An additional two—Arizona and Nebraska—explicitly grant licenses to immigrants brought to the United States as small children (“Dreamers”). This is a favorable trend, both for public safety and for liberty.

If you want an illustration of the public safety benefits from using drivers’ licenses solely for driving administration, give a read to this Voice of America article which illustrates clearly that illegal immigrants drive even when licensing is unavailable to them. Now that licensing is available, a California applicant who is not legally in this country must first prove residence. “He must also take an eye test to show he can see well, and a written test on driving rules. He must also take a driving test to show he can operate a motor vehicle.” Bringing all drivers up to such minimum standards undoubtedly improves safety outcomes.

For liberty, though, the shift back toward using driver licensing for driving is especially welcome. In 2005, amid a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment stoked by terror fears, Congress passed the REAL ID Act, which requires states to get proof of legal presence if their licenses and IDs are to be accepted by federal agencies. It appeared for a time as though states kowtowing to the federal government would help turn their driver’s licenses into an all-purpose federal tracking and control instrument, a national ID.

It has become increasingly clear that the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration will never follow through on the feds’ threat to turn away air travelers from states that don’t comply with REAL ID (though many are still taken in by DHS talking points). Some states are declining to implement REAL ID at all. Others are producing easy-to-acquire licenses that are labeled “not for federal purposes,” which REAL ID permits.

The states giving licenses to unauthorized immigrants today run the gamut from “liberal” to “conservative”: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware (effective December 2015), Hawaii (effective January 2016), Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Vermont, and Washington. For varying reasons—and with varying levels of controversy—they’re re-asserting state authority over a state prerogative: driver licensing policy.

That’s good federalism. It’s good for road safety. And it’s especially good for keeping motor vehicle bureaucrats from being TSA agents and vice versa.

Spin Cycle: Is Climate Change Already Taking Lives in New England?

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 fewer cycles meaning less spin. For a more in-depth description, visit the inaugural edition.

The headline from a CBS News story read “Study: Climate change may be costing lives in the U.S.” The tone is in perfect keeping with the White House wanting the media to focus on the (negative) health impacts from climate change to help drive home the “moral imperative” of administration’s greenhouse gas emissions regulations.

There is one key problem: the findings from the “study” do nothing to shed light on whether “climate change” is taking lives in New England (the region that the study focused on) or anywhere else in the United States. In fact, taking the literature as a whole (including the results of the new study), the more appropriate headline would have been “Studies: Climate change may be saving lives in the U.S.”

The new study in question appears in the journal Nature Climate Change written by a research team headed by Liuhua Shi from the Harvard School of Public Health. Shi and colleagues examined how temperature and temperature variability during the summer and winter seasons impacts the annual mortality of Medicare recipients (i.e., a population aged 65+) residing in New England.

In general, Shi and colleagues found that warmer summers slightly increased mortality while warmer winters slightly lowered it. They also found that more variable temperature (in either winter or summer) led to increases in overall mortality.

Aside from the very real possibility that the statistical significance of these findings was inflated by the mythological design (over inflation of the number of independent data points), the most obvious flaw is that the study didn’t look for any trends in their results. This means, of course, that they aren’t very applicable when it comes to trying to ascertain future behavior (under climate change or not).

Iran and the Global Oil Glut

Today’s Iran deal is a victory for U.S. nonproliferation efforts, and while it may not be perfect, it goes a long way towards ensuring that Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons, and that the IAEA will regain crucial oversight access to Iran’s nuclear facilities. But though it is fundamentally an arms control agreement, some of the biggest impacts may in fact be felt in global oil and gas markets, as easing sanctions allow Iran’s hydrocarbon sector to reopen to the world.

Much of the text of the deal focuses on the sanctions which will be lifted in exchange for Iranian concessions on nuclear enrichment and processing. These include agreement by both the U.S. and EU to permit the import of oil and gas, as well as lifting asset freezes and bans on the export to Iran of technology and equipment for oil and gas extraction. More importantly, bans on investment, financing and service provision in the industry will be lifted, paving the way for European and American firms to provide technical services and invest in the country.

Oil prices have been volatile since the deal was announced, falling almost two percent before recovering. The initial price drop reflects the expectation that Iran may release some of its approximately thirty million reserve barrels of oil onto the market as soon as it is able. Iran also has the potential to impact oil prices in the long-term, holding the world’s fourth-largest reserves of crude oil, and second-largest gas reserves. Production has been depressed by sanctions, but once they are lifted, it is plausible that Iran could increase production to its pre-sanctions levels (2-3 million barrels a day) within several years.

Science Revives “The Hiatus”

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

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Just five weeks after Science magazine prominently featured a paper proclaiming that the multidecadal slowdown in the rate of the earth’s average temperature rise—aka, the “pause” or “hiatus”—was but a figment of bad data, comes a new paper in Science magazine explaining the physical mechanisms that have led to the slowdown.

Wait, what?

You read it right. What Science laid to rest but a month ago, Science has now resurrected. Science (with a capital “S”), and those dedicated to it, should not be amused.

But such is the nature of the game. Science the magazine is more interested in generating publicity for itself than in best serving Science the field—a point being increasingly raised by prominent scientific figures.

The new paper, whose title even contains the dreaded H-word (“Recent hiatus caused by decadal shift in Indo-Pacific heating”), is authored by Veronica Nieves and colleagues from the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL). The paper itself is rather technical look at how the hiatus has manifested itself in various compilations of measurements (and models) of the ocean’s temperatures at depth.

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.