Topic: Energy and Environment

Atomic Dreams

Last week I was on John Stossel’s (most excellent) new show on Fox Business News to discuss energy policy – in particular, popular myths that Republicans have about energy markets.  One of the topics I touched upon was nuclear power.  My argument was the same that I have offered in print: Nuclear power is a swell technology but, given the high construction costs associated with building nuclear reactors, it’s a technology that cannot compete in free markets without a massive amount of government support.  If one believes in free markets, then one should look askance at such policies. 

As expected, the atomic cult has taken offense. 

Now, it is reasonable to argue that excessive regulatory oversight has driven up the cost of nuclear power and that a “better” regulatory regime would reduce costs.  Perhaps.  But I have yet to see any concrete accounting of exactly which regulations are “bad” along with associated price tags for the same.  If anyone out there in Internet-land has access to a good, credible accounting like that, please, send it my way.  But until I see something tangible, what we have here is assertion masquerading as fact.

Most of those who consider themselves “pro-nuke” are unaware of the fact that the current federal regulatory regime was thoroughly reformed in the late 1990s to comport with the industry’s model of what a “good” federal regulatory regime would look like.  As Oliver Kingsley Jr., the President of Exelon Nuclear, put it in Senate testimony back in 2001:

The current regulatory environment has become more stable, timely, and predictable, and is an important contributor to improved performance of nuclear plants in the United States.  This means that operators can focus more on achieving operational efficiencies and regulators can focus more on issues of safety significance.  It is important to note that safety is being maintained and, in fact enhanced, as these benefits of regulatory reform are being realized.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission – and this Subcommittee – can claim a number of successes in their efforts to improve the nuclear regulatory environment.  These include successful implementation of the NRC Reactor Oversight Process, the timely extension of operating licenses at Calvert Cliffs and Oconee, the establishment of a one-step licensing process for advanced reactors, the streamlining of the license transfer process, and the increased efficiency in processing licensing actions.

It’s certainly possible that the industry left some desirable reforms undone, but it seems relevant to me that the Nuclear Energy Institute – the trade association for the nuclear energy industry and a fervent supporter of all these government assistance programs – does not complain that they’re being unfairly hammered by costly red-tape.

For the most part, however, the push-back against the arguments I offered last week has little to do with this.  It has to do with bias.  According to a post by Rod Adams over at “Atomic Insights Blog,” I am guilty of ignoring subsidies doled-out to nuclear’s biggest competitor – natural gas – and because Cato gets money from Koch Industries, it’s clear that my convenient neglect of that matter is part of a corporate-funded attack on nuclear power.  Indeed, Mr. Adams claims that he has unearthed a “smoking gun” with this observation.

Normally, I would ignore attacks like this.  This particular post, however, offers the proverbial “teachable moment” that should not be allowed to go to waste.

First, let’s look at the substance of the argument.  Did I “give natural gas a pass” as Mr. Adams contends? Well, yes and no; the show was about the cost of nuclear power, not the cost of natural gas.  I did note that natural gas-fired electricity was more attractive in this economic environment than nuclear power, something that happens to be true.  Had John Stossel asked me about whether gas’ economic advantage was due to subsidy, I would have told him that I am against natural gas subsidies as well – a position I have staked-out time and time again in other venues (while there are plenty of examples, this piece I co-authored with Daniel Becker – then of the Sierra Club – for The Los Angeles Times represents my thinking on energy subsidies across the board.  A blog post a while back about the Democratic assault on oil and gas subsidies found me arguing that the D’s should actually go further!  Dozens of other similar arguments against fossil fuel subsidies can be found on my publications page).  So let’s dispose of Mr. Adams’ implicit suggestion that I am some sort of tool for the oil and gas industry, arguing against subsidies here but not against subsidies there.

Second, let’s consider the implicit assertion that Mr. Adams makes – that natural gas-fired electricity is more attractive than nuclear power primarily because of subsidy.  The most recent and thorough assessment of this matter comes from Prof. Gilbert Metcalf, an economist at Tufts University.  Prof. Metcalf agrees with a 2004 report from the Energy Information Administration which contended that preferences for natural gas production in the tax code do little to increase natural gas production and thus do little to make natural gas less expensive than it might otherwise be.  They are wealth transfers for sure, but they do not do much to change natural gas supply or demand curves and thus do not affect consumer prices.  Prof. Metcalf argues that if we had truly level regulatory playing field without any tax distortions, natural gas-fired electricity would actually go down, not up!  Government intervention in energy markets does indeed distort gas-fired electricity prices.  It makes those prices higher than they otherwise would be!

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) identified five natural gas subsidies in 2007 that were relevant to the electricity sector (table 5).  Only two are of particular consequence.  They are:

  • Expensing of Exploration and Development Costs – Gas producers are allowed to expense exploration and development expenditures rather than capitalize and depreciate those costs over time.  Oil and gas producers (combined) took advantage of this tax break to the tune of $860 million per year.  How much goes to gas production rather than to oil production is unclear.
  • Excess of Percentage over Cost Depletion Deferral – Under cost depletion, producers are allowed to make an annual deduction equal to the non-recovered cost of acquisition and development of the resource times the proportion of the resource removed that year.  Under percentage depletion, producers deduct a percentage of gross income from resource production.  Oil and gas producers (combined) take advantage of this tax break to the tune of $790 million per year.  How much goes to gas production rather than to oil production is unclear. 

Even if we put aside the fact that these subsidies don’t impact final consumer prices in any significant manner, it’s useful to keep in mind the fact that the subsidy per unit of gas-fired electricity production – as calculated by EIA – works out to 25 cents per megawatt hour (table 35).  Subsidy per unit of nuclear-fired electricity production works out to $1.59 per megawatt hour.  Hence, the argument that nuclear subsidies are relatively small in comparison with natural gas subsidies is simply incorrect.

Some would argue that the Foreign Tax Credit – a generally applicable credit available to corporations doing business overseas that allows firms to treat royalty payments to foreign governments as a tax that can be deducted from domestic corporate income taxes – should likewise be on the subsidy list.  The Environmental Law Institute calculates that this credit saves the fossil fuel industry an additional $15.3 billion.  There is room for debate about the wisdom of that credit, but regardless, it doesn’t appear as if the Foreign Tax Credit affects domestic U.S. prices for gas-fired electricity.     

The bigger point is that without government help, few doubt that the natural gas industry would still be humming and electricity would still be produced in large quantities from gas-fired generators.  But without government production subsidies, without loan guarantees, and without liability protection via the Price-Anderson Act, even the nuclear power industry concedes that they would disappear.

Now, to be fair, Prof. Metcalf reports that nuclear power is cheaper than gas-fired power under both current law and under a no-subsidy, no-tax regime.  His calculations, however, were made at a time when natural gas prices were at near historic highs that were thought to be the new norm in energy markets and were governed by fairly optimistic assumptions about nuclear power plant construction costs.  Those assumptions have not held-up well with time.  For a more recent assessment, see my review of this issue in Reasonalong with this study from MIT, which warns that if more government help isn’t forthcoming, “nuclear power will diminish as a practical and timely option for deployment at a scale that would constitute a material contribution to climate change risk mitigation.”

Third, Mr. Adams argues that federal nuclear loan guarantee program is a self-evidently good deal and implies that only an anti-industry agitprop specialist (like me) could possibly refuse to see that.  “That program, with its carefully designed and implemented due diligence requirements for project viability, should actually produce revenue for the government.”  Funny, but when private investors perform those due diligence exercises, they come to a very different conclusion … which is why we have a federal loan guarantee program in the first place. 

Who do you trust to watch over your money – investment bankers or Uncle Sam?  The former don’t have the best track record in the world these days, but note that the popular indictment of that crowd is that investment banks weren’t tight fisted enough when it came to lending.  If even these guys were saying no to nuclear power – and at a time when money was flowing free and easy – what makes Mr. Adams think that a bunch of politicians are right about the glorious promise of nuclear power, particularly given the “too cheap to meter” rhetoric we’ve heard from the political world now for the better part of five decades? 

Anyway, for what it’s worth, the Congressional Budget Office has taken a close look at this alleged bonanza for the taxpayer and judged the risk of default on these loan guarantees to be around 50 percent.  They may be wrong of course, but the risks are there, something Moody’s acknowledged last year in a published analysis warning that they were likely to downgrade the credit-worthiness of nuclear power plant construction loans.

Fourth and finally, Mr. Adams cites Cato’s skepticism about “end-is-near” climate alarmism as yet more evidence that we are on the take from the fossil fuels industry.  I don’t know if Mr. Adams has been following current events lately, but I would think that we’re looking pretty good right now on that front.  Der Spiegel – no hot-bed of “Big Oil” agitprop – sums up the state of the debate rather nicely in the wake of the ongoing collapse of IPCC credibility.  Matt Ridley – another former devotee of climate alarmism – likewise sifts through the rubble that is now the infamous Michael Mann “hockey stick” analysis (which allegedly demonstrated an unprecedented degree of warming in the 20th Century) and finds thorough and total rot at the heart of the alarmist argument.  Mr. Adams is perhaps unaware that our own Pat Michaels has been making these arguments for years and Cato has no apologies to make on that score. 

Regardless, ad hominem is the sign of a man running out of arguments.  There aren’t many here to rebut, but the form of the complaints offered by Mr. Adams speaks volumes about how little the pro-nuclear camp has to offer right now in defense of nuclear power subsidies.

I have no animus towards nuclear power per se.  If nuclear power could compete without government help, I would be as happy as Mr. Adams or the next MIT nuclear engineer.  But I am no more “pro” nuclear power than I am “pro” any power.  It is not for me to pick winners in the market place.  That’s the invisible hand’s job.  If there is bad regulation out there harming the industry, then by all means, let’s see a list of said bad regulations and amend them accordingly.  But once those regulations are amended (if there are indeed any that need amending), nuclear power should still be subject to an unbiased market test.  Unlike Mr. Adams, I don’t want to see that test rigged.

Obama Knows the Drill

President Obama should be credited—albeit cautiously—for his announcement yesterday that he will open some U.S. coastal waters to offshore oil drilling.  The fact that this is an interesting political reversal on Obama’s part has been treated extensively elsewhere.  But what of the substance of the president’s drilling proposal?

I and other free-market advocates have spoken for years of the potential energy benefits of allowing this drilling, so I won’t devote too much space to repeating myself.  The best encapsulation of my own thinking on the subject is this piece I wrote for the LA Times in 2008.

A few points worth adding:

Obama’s press conference at Andrews Air Force Base yesterday did indicate a welcome new direction for U.S. energy policy.  But in an absolutely perfect world, the government would not be in the business of allocating scarce resources—in this case, the offshore oil fields—to competing user groups. The market would play that role.

Hence, the best policy would be to divest this land via auction and allow environmentalists, recreationalists and preservationists to compete with oil and gas companies for the rights to those resources.

It is not at all inconceivable to me that those opposed to drilling, whatever their reasons, might well out-bid extraction industries for rights to some of these fields. Unfortunately, there seems to be limited political support for privatization, so President Obama’s initiative is probably better than the status quo.

We need to remember, however, that if governments could intelligently allocate scarce resources across the economy without recourse to market information or institutions, then the North Korean economy would work swimmingly.

Celebrate Human Achievement Tonight

Environmentalist groups and celebrities are celebrating “Earth Hour” tonight. They ask that you turn your lights out for an hour, to call attention to global warming.  Folks at the Competitive Enterprise Institute suggest that “this sends the wrong message – to plunge us all into darkness as a rejection of technology and human achievement.” In fact, they point out that it’s Earth Hour every night in North Korea, where people lack basic freedoms, as well as affordable, reliable access to many human achievements, such as electricity. Check out this famous photo of environmentally conscious North Koreans observing Earth Hour all night, every night.

CEI rejects the rejection of technology. They have declared the hour between 8:30 and 9:30 tonight to be “Human Achievement Hour.” To join the celebration, just turn your lights on tonight and enjoy the human achievement of light when we want it. And watch CEI’s short video history of human achievement here.

Yglesias Is Baffled

Progressive blogger Matthew Yglesias says he is baffled by my previous post here about whether urban sprawl is the result of individual choice or government regulation. Ben Adler, a Newsweek blogger, weighs in as well.

You can read my detailed response to Yglesias on the Antiplanner blog. In a nutshell, Yglesias claims that my argument is a “complicated counterfactual hypothetical about whether or not most people would still prefer to live in large single-family homes even in the absence of regulatory restrictions.” In fact, my argument is that the government regulation that he claims forces people to live in urban sprawl does not even exist.

As near as I can tell, Yglesias has lived his entire life in New York City, Massachusetts, and the DC area, all of which have had highly prescriptive land-use regulation during most of Yglesias’ life. So he might be excused for thinking everywhere else is just like that. In fact, most of the country has never had such regulation. Instead, what regulation exists, in the form of zoning, has been entirely responsive to the market.

As a libertarian, I have repeatedly challenged progressives like Yglesias to join me in supporting the abolition of all zoning codes and other forms of government land-use regulation. Instead of accepting my invitation, Yglesias and Adler would rather pretend I am a hypocrite for supporting such regulation.

A Libertarian View of Urban Sprawl

On Thursday, March 18, John Stossel’s show on the Fox Business News network will feature a discussion of how taxes and regulation have prevented urban areas like Cleveland from recovering from the decline of the industries that once supported those regions.

While the “stars” of the show were Drew Carey and Reason Magazine’s Nick Gillespie, Stossel spent a few minutes on zoning and land-use regulation. When searching for someone to advocate such land-use regulation, they happened to ask James Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere, a critique of suburbia.

Kunstler’s response was emphatic. First, he called one of Stossel’s other guests (okay, it was me) “a shill for the sprawl-builders.” Then he added, “Please tell Stoessel [sic] he can kiss my ass.” He was so proud of this response that he posted it on his blog (look for it in the archive if it has disappeared from his home page).

Kunstler is biased against mobility and low-density housing, but he must be a good writer because he has lots of fans. As soon as he posted his rude reply, the blogosphere lit up with arguments from progressive, conservative, and even libertarian writers claiming that sprawl is the result of central planning and zoning and therefore libertarians such as Stossel and Cato should support smart-growth policies aimed at containing sprawl.

Sprawl is “mandated by a vast and seemingly intractable network of government regulations, from zoning laws and building codes to street design regulations,” claims conservative Austin Bramwell. As a result, “government planning makes sprawl ubiquitous.”

Anarcho-libertarian Kevin Carson quotes The Geography of Nowhere as the authority for how planners like Robert Moses forced people to live in sprawl. “Local governments have been almost universally dominated by an unholy alliance of real estate developers and other commercial interests” that insisted on urban sprawl, says Carson.

Progressive Matthew Yglesias describes sprawl as “centrally planned suburbia” and accuses libertarians of being hypocrites because they don’t oppose zoning codes that mandate sprawl. He adds that “People sometimes cite Houston as an example of a libertarian-style ‘no zoning’ city, but this is mostly a myth” (citing a paper that finds that Houston “regulates land use almost as intricately as cities with zoning”).

This is all balderdash and poppycock. People who believe it should get their noses out of Kunstler’s biased diatribes and look at some real data and see how zoning actually worked before it was hijacked by authoritarian urban planners. It doesn’t take much to show that areas without any zoning or regulation will – if developed today – end up as what planners call “sprawl.” Until recently, all that zoning has done has been to affirm the kind of development that people want.

Contrary to Carson’s claim, zoning was not invented by developers trying to impose their lifestyle preferences on unsuspecting Americans. The idea that realtors and developers could somehow force people to buy houses they didn’t want is refuted by hundreds or thousands of real-estate developments that failed financially because they did not offer what people wanted. Unlike planners who write prescriptive zoning codes, developers who risk their own money are going to make every effort to build things that people want because if they don’t, the developers themselves will be the losers.

Instead, zoning was invented by homeowners in existing developments who wanted to insure that their neighborhoods would maintain some degree of stability. When zoning was first applied, it was used almost exclusively in areas that were already developed. Those original zones merely reaffirmed the development that was already there. Single-family neighborhoods were zoned for single-family homes; apartments for multi-family; industrial for industry; and so forth.

Single-family homes in Euclid, Ohio.

The Supreme Court’s 1926 Euclid decision was not over vacant land but an existing neighborhood of single-family homes. A realtor wanted the option of building an apartment building in this neighborhood. The court realized that an apartment building could attract higher rents if it were located in a stable neighborhood of single-family homes, but conversely it could reduce the value of the nearby homes. Rightly or wrongly, the court decided that the rights of homeowners to maintain their property values exceeded the right of one property owner seeking to boost the value of his property at everyone else’s expense.

After the Euclid decision, most American cities zoned their neighborhoods. Planners criticize “Euclidian zoning” because most zones separate housing from other uses. But such separation was the prevailing standard in developments after about 1900, and zoning merely affirmed that standard because most of the land that was zoned was already developed.

Most vacant land in a metropolitan area is outside of city limits under the jurisdiction of county governments, and until the 1960s and 1970s most states did not give counties the authority to zone (some still don’t). As Robert Nelson pointed out in his book, Zoning and Property Rights, when cities or counties did zone vacant land, they generally put it in a “holding zone,” meaning that it was zoned for a low density until some developer saw a market for something else. The developer would then ask the city or county to rezone for the market, and the city or county almost always complied.

People look at these low-density holding zones and charge that they force sprawl. It would be true if the zones were inflexible, but in fact the cities and counties were responsive to market demand: when a landowner or developer came forth with a proposal, the city or county generally reclassified the land into an appropriate zone. NIMBYs who expected that the low-density zones would remain forever were doomed to disappointment, and they often accused city/county commissioners of somehow being in the thrall of the developers. But the developers themselves were just reflecting market demand and city officials did not consider it their job to dictate what kind of homes or other buildings people should build and buy.

To his credit, Matthew Yglesias actually looks at some real data, namely the zoning code for Maricopa County, Arizona. But he misreads the code – or misleads his readers – when he implies that the densest zoning allowed is duplexes. In fact, chapter 7 of the code provides for multi-family housing with as many as 43 units per acre. An even bigger omission is the “planned area of development” (elsewhere called planned unit developments) zone in chapter 10, which allows for high-density, mixed-use developments. Every zoning code I have ever seen has included such a zoning option.

Whatever the code says, just reading it offers no idea of how flexible it is. If a significant chunk of vacant land is in one zone, but a developer thinks there is a market for another zone, most cities that haven’t yet fallen into the smart-growth fad will cheerfully change the zone or allow a variance. Obviously, this wouldn’t happen to a single vacant lot in the middle of an otherwise developed area, but would frequently happen to pieces of land that were, say, 100 acres or more. Maricopa’s PAD zone, for example, allows anyone with 160 acres to build a classic New Urban (mixed-use, high-density) development.

These homes were built in a suburb of Houston that has no zoning and no land-use regulation, so – according to sprawl critics – this must not be sprawl.

As noted, Yglesias also points to land-use regulation in Houston, which supposedly enforces sprawl. It is true that Houston regulates such things as setbacks and building heights. But it does not regulate uses: you can build a 7-Eleven in the middle of single-family homes or an apartment building in an industrial district. To the extent that Houston has a separation of uses, it is because that is what people want. Convenience stores want to locate on busy streets where they are visible to lots of potential customers, so they don’t often locate in the middle of neighborhoods of single-family homes. People don’t want to live in industrial districts, so you don’t see too many apartments in them.

If you don’t believe Houston is unregulated, just step across the city line into Harris County or any of the eight counties adjacent to Harris County. Texas counties aren’t allowed to zone, so there you will find virtually no regulation (other than building codes), yet you still find developments with the classic separation of uses and low-density development that planners derisively call sprawl.

This subdivision is in Germany. Does that mean that German laws are also forcing people to live in sprawl?

And if you don’t believe that, take a look at Wendell Cox’s rental car tours of European (and other) cities. Few would argue that Europe has forced people to sprawl, yet Cox shows that European cities are rapidly spreading out with low-density developments that (as Peter Hall says on page 873 of his massive tome, Cities in Civilization) are “almost indistinguishable from [their] counterparts in California and Texas.” (In a more recent article, Cox also refutes the completely undocumented claim that Americans are deserting the suburbs to move back to central cities.)

American cities sprawl because Americans, like people all over the world, prefer to live in single-family homes and like to have a little land they can call their own for gardening, entertainment, and play areas. The automobile made it possible for almost everyone to achieve this dream, where before the auto only the upper classes could do so. As John Stossel noted back in 2006 (when Kunstler had accepted his invitation to be on his show), restrictions on sprawl will destroy “the lives of poor people” because they basically tell “low-income people who want back yards that they can’t have one” (to which Kunstler supposedly replied, “you can’t have everything”).

So which is the appropriate libertarian view? To tell low-income people that they have to live in multi-family housing because social policy has made single-family homes artificially expensive? Or to simply eliminate zoning codes (which, contrary to Yglesias’ claims, every libertarian I know advocates) and let people do what they want (including, if they want, living in high-density developments or low-density developments with deed restrictions providing the stability that zoning once offered)?

Sprawl is not the result of central planning and libertarians need not hesitate in their opposition to smart growth. The real hypocrites are the so-called progressives like Yglesias who claim to care about low-income and disadvantaged people yet support policies that will prevent most such people from ever owning single-family homes.


Tufts Academic Gives Two Thumbs Down to Cheap Food

I suspect I may be falling into a publicity trap here, but nonetheless I am unable to resist blogging about an email I received this morning from the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University.  The email contained this teaser:

How does cheap food contribute to global hunger?  GDAE’s Timothy A. Wise, in this recent article in Resurgence magazine, explains the contradictory nature of food and agriculture under globalization. He refers to globalization as “the cheapening of everything” and concludes:

“Some things just shouldn’t be cheapened. The market is very good at establishing the value of many things but it is not a good substitute for human values. Societies need to determine their own human values, not let the market do it for them. There are some essential things, such as our land and the life-sustaining foods it can produce, that should not be cheapened.”

This sort of stuff could only be written by someone on full academic tenure and who has never had to worry about feeding his family.

It would take many hours to rebut all of the idiocies contained in the full article, but for now I will just say: Yes, it is true that U.S. government subsidies for corn, for example, cause environmental damage in the Gulf of Mexico (Cato scholars have in fact covered this before as part of our ongoing campaign to eliminate farm subsidies). And yes, poor farmers abroad have suffered because of government intervention in food markets. But those are problems stemming from government intervention, not the free market.

Do You or Do You Not Hate America?

Sen. John Kerry (D, MA) made an, er, interesting rhetorical case yesterday (as reported on E2 Wire, The Hill’s Energy and Environment blog) that borrows heavily from the Bush playbook: your patriotism hinges on voting for his favored policy — in this case, a climate change bill. Not that the bill is really about climate change, of course. It’s about a list of goodies completely unrelated to the changing political winds:

What we are talking about is a jobs bill. It is not a climate bill. It is a jobs bill, and it is a clean air bill. It is a national security, energy independence bill,” he told reporters in the Capitol…

“And people are going to have to decide whether they are going to vote for America or against it,” he concluded.