Topic: Energy and Environment

UN Climate Official Steps In It, Then Aside

There are numerous possible reasons for UN climate chief Yvo de Boer’s decision to resign—from his inability to cobble together a new climate treaty last December in Copenhagen (where he wept on the podium), to recent revelations of his agency’s mishandling of climate change data.

What the climate science community and the public should focus on now are the ramifications of de Boer’s resignation.  For one thing, it signals that hope is dead for a UN-brokered global treaty that would have any meaningful effect on global temperatures.  It also means that the UN intends to keep its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pretty much intact under the leadership of the scientifically compromised Rajenda Pauchari, who should have resigned along with de Boer.

This development guarantees that the Obama administration will have an unmitigated mess on its hands when signatories to the Framework Convention sit down in Mexico City this November in yet another meeting intended to produce a climate treaty.  The Mexico City meeting convenes six days after U.S. midterm elections, in which American voters are fully expected to rebuke Obama for policies including economy-crippling proposals to combat climate change.

In short, Mexico City is about as likely to produce substantive policy decisions as the TV show ‘The View.’  Backers of radical climate change measures are now paying the price for over two decades of telling the public—in this case literally—that the sky is falling.

“Smart Growth” from a Dumb Agency

The same federal agency that brought us monumental failures like public housing wants to play a bigger role in fostering so-called regional “smart growth.” HUD secretary Shaun Donovan recently traveled to Portland, Oregon to announce the Obama administration’s new Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities.

This new bureaucracy will distribute $140 million in grants for regional “smart growth” planning:

With OSHC’s grant programs, HUD will provide funding to a wide variety of multi-jurisdictional and multi-sector partnerships and consortia, from Metropolitan Planning Organizations and State governments, to non-profit and philanthropic organizations. These grants will be designed to encourage regions to build their capacity to integrate economic development, land use, transportation, and water infrastructure investments, and to integrate workforce development with transit-oriented development. Accordingly, OSHC’s grants will be coordinated closely with the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Donovan told a Portland State University crowd that “We at HUD are big admirers of what you’re doing here.” However, Randal O’Toole’s dismantling of the Portland planning utopia myth in a Cato Policy Analysis shows that the city is nothing to be emulated. That is unless other cities want less affordable housing, more congestion, higher taxes, and businesses relocating elsewhere.

Donovan then met up with his EPA and DOT colleagues in Seattle at smart growth conference. HUD isn’t the only one opening up the taxpayer’s wallet:

And the Department of Transportation is proposing $527 million to promote “livable communities” through grants to states and cities. Transportation secretary Ray LaHood says those grants, too, must meet the goals of his partner agencies.

LaHood: “It supports any new initiatives we develop on our own like expanding transit in low–income neighborhoods, or what our friends at HUD and EPA are working on in collaboration.”

Local coalitions are already forming to seek those federal dollars.

Let the rent-seeking begin.

The merits of Portland’s urban planning can be debated all day. But it stands federalism on its head when the federal government takes a particular city’s policies and then tries to shove it down the throats of the rest of the country. Based on what I know of Portland’s planning, I certainly wouldn’t want it where I live. Other cities, like Houston, have reached the same conclusion. But, I guess if Shaun Donovan likes it, then damnit, we’re all going to like it.

Senate Health Bill May Violate First Amendment

Today, the Cato Institute released “Scientific Misconduct: The Manipulation of Evidence for Political Advocacy in Health Care and Climate Policy,” by George Avery of Purdue University.

Avery points to a troubling provision of the Senate-passed health care bill that Democrats are trying to get through the House:

In a section creating a new Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute to conduct comparative-effectiveness research, the bill allows the withholding of funding to any institution where a researcher publishes findings not “within the bounds of and entirely consistent with the evidence,” a vague authorization that creates a tremendous tool that can be used to ensure self-censorship and conformity with bureaucratic preferences….As AcademyHealth notes, “Such language to restrict scientific freedom is unprecedented and likely unconstitutional.”

He warns that government bureaucrats aren’t likely to let that power go unused.

In July 2007, AcademyHealth, a professional association of health services and health policy researchers, published results of a study of sponsor restrictions on the publication of research results. Surprisingly, the results revealed that more than three times as many researchers had experienced problems with government funders related to prior review, editing, approval, and dissemination of research results. In addition, a higher percentage of respondents had turned down government sponsorship opportunities due to restrictions than had done the same with industrial funding. Much of the problem was linked to an “increasing government custom and culture of controlling the flow of even non-classified information.”

Avery observes that such power enables bureaucrats to engage in “data manipulation to cover inconvenient findings,” much as the scientists at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia appear to have done.  Indeed, he points to evidence of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials suppressing an, ahem, inconvenient internal debate.

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?

LaHood Eliminates Cost-Efficiency Rules

Last week, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced that federal transit grants would now focus on “livability.” Buried beneath this rhetoric is LaHood’s decision to eliminate the only efforts anyone ever made to make sure transit money isn’t wasted on urban monuments that contribute little to transportation.

Back in 2005, then-Transportation Secretary Mary Peters stunned the transit world when she adopted a “cost-effictiveness” rule for federal transit grants to new rail projects. In order to qualify, transit agencies had to receive a “medium” cost-effectiveness rating from the FTA, meaning they had to cost less than about $24 for every hour they would save transportation users (either by providing faster service to transit riders or by reducing congestion to auto drivers). This wasn’t much of a requirement: a true cost-efficiency calculation would rank projects, but under Peters’ a project that cost $0.50 per hour saved would be ranked the same as one that cost $23.50 per hour. But any projects that went over the $24 threshold (which was indexed to inflation – by 2009 it was up to $24.50) were ruled out.

After unsuccessfully protesting this rule, transit agencies responded in one of four ways. Those close to the $24 threshold cooked their books to either slightly reduce the cost or slightly increase the amount of time the project was supposed to save. Those that were hopelessly far away from the $24 threshold, but had powerful representatives in Congress, obtained exemptions from the rule. These included BART to San Jose, the Dulles rail line, and Portland’s WES commuter train. Those that didn’t have the political clout either shelved their projects or, in a few cases such as the Albuquerque Rail Runner commuter train, tried to fund them without federal support.

In 2007, when Congress created a fund for “small starts,” Peters imposed another rule that transit agencies would have to show that streetcars were more cost-effective than buses. This led to further protests because the the money was “supposed to be for streetcars” – the provision had been written by Earl Blumenauer, who represents Portland, the city that started the modern streetcar movement. But everyone knew streetcars would never be as cost-efficient as buses. This meant that, except for Portland, virtually every agency that had wanted to waste federal money on streetcars shelved their plans.

Until now. LaHood’s announcement means that cost is no longer an issue. If your project promotes “livability” (which almost by definition means anything that isn’t a new road) or “economic development” (meaning it will be accompanied by subsidies to transit-oriented developments), LaHood will consider funding it, no matter how much money it wastes.

Many transit agencies are elated. Cities from Boise to Minneapolis to Houston now see that their wacko projects that defy common sense now have a chance of getting funded.

The bad news for transit agencies is that this doesn’t mean there will be any more money for transit. Instead, there will be more competition for the same pot of money. Not to worry: House Democrats plan to open the floodgates to more transit spending as soon as they can get federal transportation funding reauthorized. This means taxpayers can expect to see more of their money wasted and commuters can expect congestion to get worse as more of their gas taxes are funneled into inane rail projects.

Someone in Europe Is Talking Sense on Carbon Tariffs

The nominee for EU Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht has taken the brave step of opposing carbon tariffs, called for by many European politicians (including, notably, French President Nicolas Sarkozy).

In the first day of his confirmation hearings, Mr. de Gucht expressed concern that carbon tariffs were a possible first step in a “trade war” and implied that they were in any event inconsistent with current trade law. (I agree.) He also called for abolishing tariffs on goods beneficial to the environment as a trade-friendly way to reduce greenhouse gases, and expressed support for the Doha round of multilateral trade talks. (More here.) While the Trade Commissioner’s influence over actual trade policy in the EU is arguably limited, it is good to have someone in the post who is instinctively suspicious of green protectionism and friendly towards the WTO.

The European Parliament is due to vote on the European Commission nominees (en masse) on January 26.