Topic: Energy and Environment

India Explicitly Rejects Bringing Environmental Issues Into WTO

An article today in BRIDGES Weekly Trade News Digest (What? You don’t subscribe??) contains an explicit rejection by India’s trade minister of the idea that carbon border tax adjustments belong in the WTO’s agenda.  Border tax adjustments in this context refers to de facto tariffs that would “level the playing field” for domestic producers competing with foreign producers not subject to climate change policies of an equivalent rigour, also called “border carbon adjustments” or variations on that theme.

While Minister Khullar predicts that these sorts of measures will be in place in 2-3 years time, he rejects that the WTO is the forum to deal with environmental issues.

Furthermore, countries introducing such measures can expect litigation:

India and other developing countries will undoubtedly challenge the true impetus behind the [border carbon adjustment] measures.

“Such measures imposing restrictions on imports on the grounds of providing a ‘level playing field’, or maintaining the ‘competitiveness’ of the domestic industry, etc are likely to be viewed as mere protectionist measures by the developed world to block the exports of the poorer nations,” [a recent report from an Indian think-tank closely connected with the Indian government] reads. “This is because there is little empirical evidence that companies relocate to take advantage of lax pollution controls.”

The [report] argues that such unilateral trade measures will inevitably lead to tit-for-tat trade retaliation that could spiral into an all-out trade war. Such warnings have also been raised by China and several think tanks following the issue.

I’ve written before on the dangers of introducing climate change issues into the WTO (and Dan Griswold has written more broadly on why labor and environmental standards don’t mix well with the aim of freeing trade) but this is yet another firm, unequivocal warning to developed countries that their proposals (and they are still just proposals at this stage) will have consequences. Developed country politicians who insist on forcing rich-world standards on the poor world should listen carefully.

Radioactive Corporate Welfare

A good default proposition regarding the government’s role in the economy would state that the government should not loan money to an enterprise if the enterprise in question cannot find one single market actor anywhere in the universe to loan said enterprise a single red cent.  It might suggest – I don’t know – that the investment is rather … dubious.

Alas, like all good propositions regarding the government’s role in the economy, this one is being left by the roadside by the Obama administration.  Unfortunately, the only complaint being made by a not insubstantial segment of the political Right – frequently, the political crowd that is busy decrying “Bailout Nation” – is that the loan guarantees are not fat enough.

I write, of course, about the $8.3 billion federal loan guarantee announced by President Obama this week for Southern Company to build two new nuclear power plants.  The money will be used to guarantee the loans being made by the federal government (via the Federal Financing Bank) to partially cover the cost of Southern’s projected $14 billion nuclear construction project at their Vogtle plant near Waynesboro, Georgia.  The loan guarantees were authorized by Congress in the 2005 Energy Policy Act and, we are told, are the first installment on a total package of $54 billion that the President would like to hand out to facilitate the construction of 7-10 new nuclear power plants (Congress, however, has only authorized $18.5 billion to this point).

The claim being made by some – that the loan guarantees are necessary to jump-start investor interest in new nuclear power plant construction – is not quite correct.  Even these lavish loan guarantees aren’t enough to do that.  In a letter to the U.S. Department of Energy dated July 2, 2007, six of Wall Street’s s then-largest investment banks – Citigroup, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley – informed the administration that, contrary to the government’s expectations, anything short of a 100 percent unconditional guarantee would be insufficient to induce private lending.

Why is it risky to build nuclear power plants?  Because new nuclear projects tie up more capital for longer periods of time than its main competitor, natural-gas fired generation.  Nuclear power makes economic sense only if natural gas prices are very high.  Then, over time, the high initial costs of nuclear power would be offset by nuclear power’s lower fuel costs.  Moreover, as noted by Moody’s in an analysis published in July of last year, there is uncertainty associated with construction costs, regulatory oversight, technological developments that might reduce the cost of rival facilities, and the ability of utilities to recover costs and make a profit over the lifetime of the plant – a risk tied up in the economic prospects of the region being served by the plant.  And those risks have been increasing, not decreasing, as time has gone on.

In short, even during the go-go days prior to the September 2008 crash – a time when Wall Street was allegedly throwing around money left and right to all sorts of dubious borrowers – the banks that stand accused of recklessly endangering their shareholders on other fronts were telling utility companies that they would not loan them anything for new nuclear power plant construction unless the feds unconditionally guaranteed every last penny of those loans.  That’s how risky market actors think it is to build nuclear power plants.

And it’s not as if the federal government disagrees completely.  The Congressional Budget Office pegs the chance of default (program-wide) at 50 percent or better and the Government Accountability Office likewise thinks that default risks are quite high.  Energy Secretary Stephen Chu says that he thinks the chance of default is much lower.  We can only speculate about who’s right given that no one has tried to build a nuclear power plant in the United States for over 30 years.

Regardless of what the risk actually is, the loan guarantees do not reduce that risk.  They simply transfer the risk from the bank to taxpayer.  In this particular case, however, the loan guarantee transfers risk from one arm of the state to the other, so it doesn’t really count.  But if such loan guarantees  ever were to induce actual private lending for plant construction, that’s how it would work.

Plenty of arguments have been offered to justify these loan guarantees.  Most of them are flimsy on their face.

For instance, we’re often told that we “need” new power plants.  But with electricity demand declining over the past couple of years, it is unclear when that need might arise.

Regardless, when the market “needs” more electricity, that need will be manifested in price signals that will carry with them profit opportunities.  Profit-hungry investors will be willing and able to meet that need without the help of government.  Of course, if market conditions don’t radically change, those needs will be met with gas-fired power plants, but hey, if that bothers you, take it up with someone else.

Others argue that we need the jobs that will be produced by new nuclear power plants.  Well, building big new reactors will certainly employ a lot of (largely unionized) construction workers.  But that’s one reason why building a nuclear power plant is not very economic compared to building gas-fired generators.  If creating jobs is the idea whether the project makes any economic sense or not, then let’s just ban food imports and farm equipment and put everyone to work with hand plows and scythes.

Two somewhat more serious arguments have been offered to justify these loan guarantees.  Neither of them stands up to much scrutiny either.

The first argument – the argument most often heard from the nuclear power industry and some segments of the political Left – is that we need nuclear power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Of course, the best (that is, most efficient) way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to internalize the cost of greenhouse gas emissions in the retail price of electricity and then allow market actors to adjust their production and consumption decisions accordingly.  That price internalization exercise, however (whether directly through a carbon tax or indirectly through a cap-and-trade program), does not appear to be in the cards in the foreseeable future.  Hence, the loan guarantees are advanced as a “second-best” solution, one that will get us the technology and economic efficiency that would be delivered by a properly crafted carbon tax or cap-and-trade program without the retail price increases associated with either.

One of several problems with this argument is that it would take one hell of a carbon tax – or one hell of an onerous cap-and-trade program – to get anyone interested in building nuclear power plants.  If natural gas prices remained roughly where they are at present (that is, if they were to remain at historical norms) then it would take a $90 per ton carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program that delivered carbon emission credits at $90 per ton on the open market to induce investment in nuclear power plants.  Few economists who study climate policy believe that a carbon tax of that size is defensible given what we know about climate change.

And that’s if construction costs are as low as advertised.  Were they to double (as they did from 2003 to 2009) – either because of endogenous increases in the cost of capital, labor, or construction-related resources or because of cost overruns – then it would take at least a $150 per ton carbon tax (or a cap-and-trade program that delivered $150 carbon credits to the market) to induce investment.

You might ask yourself what the historical relationship is between final (inflation-adjusted) nuclear power plant construction costs in the United States and construction costs as projected at the onset of the project.  Happily, the CBO has done your homework for you.  They found that final construction costs averaged 207 percent of projected costs.  Hence, a doubling of construction costs is probably more likely than not once a project is underway … if past is prologue.

The upshot is that there are many more efficient ways to respond to greenhouse gas emission constraints than to go on a nuclear power bender.  This observation is heresy on the Right, but almost every credible analysis of the matter backs up that observation.

The second argument one hears to justify federal loan guarantees is that they are necessary to counter-balance the excessive regulatory costs associated with new plant construction.  Now, put aside the fact that the Nuclear Energy Institute – the trade association of the nuclear power industry – has often expressed near-total satisfaction with the current federal regulatory regime.  If the regulatory regime is truly “bad” and, accordingly, is imposing steep and unnecessary costs on the industry, then the correct remedy is to improve said regulatory regime, not to subsidize the industry.

The counter-complaint that positive regulatory reforms are impossible is difficult to swallow.  After all, if there is sufficient political will to bestow tens of billions of dollars worth of tax money on this industry, then surely there is enough political will to reform the bad and unnecessarily costly regulations allegedly bedeviling the object of those very same legislative affections.

I will confess to being skeptical about the argument that high construction costs are largely the fault of regulators.  Building a light water breeder reactor is a technologically challenging and costly undertaking whether regulators are on the scene or not.  Moreover, it is not obvious to me that the regulations that are in place are a priori objectionable from a libertarian perspective.

One rarely, if ever, hears of particulars in this bill of complaint offered about nuclear regulation.  But if a persuasive bill of complaints is ever presented, then the appropriate response is regulatory reform and then to leave the decision to build or not to build to markets.

In the course of announcing these loan guarantees, President Obama said this week that “The fact is, changing the ways we produce and use energy requires us to think anew. It requires us to act anew.”  Well, there’s nothing new about throwing subsidies at nuclear power.  Economist Douglas Koplow calculates that federal nuclear subsidies have totaled $178 billion from 1947-1999.  The promise of a nuclear economy with rates too cheap to meter has been made for over half a century.  What would be new would be a policy of “just saying no” to industries with their hands out in Washington.

[Cross-posted at MasterResource]

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.