Topic: Energy and Environment

The President’s New Cars

I had an op-ed yesterday in USA Today about President Obama’s proposed new fuel-economy standards. Don’t like ‘em. Unfortunately, an editing snafu over at the newspaper inadvertently left out the fact that there are four models at present that meet the proposed new standard — the 2010 Honda Insight (41 mpg) and the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid (39 mpg) were left off the list.

Space prohibited me from making an additional point. Even if there is no rebound effect, my colleague Pat Michaels finds that global temperatures will only be reduced by 0.005 degrees Celsius by 2050 and 0.0078 degrees Celsius by 2100 once you plug those emissions reductions into the computer models used by the IPCC. Of course, proponents contend that U.S. action on fuel efficiency will lead to like action abroad. Well, good luck with that. But even if all of the signatories to the Kyoto Protocol adopted Obama’s proposed fuel-economy standards, global temperatures would be reduced by only 0.038 degrees Celsius by 2050 and 0.071 degrees Celsius by 2100. If you tried to monetarize those benefits, you would be hard pressed to come up with an defensible number of consequence.

So what should be done instead? Nothing. At the risk of sounding politically irrelevant, there is no good case for the government to reduce U.S. gasoline consumption via fuel economy standards or fuel taxes; an argument I made at length in a study I co-authored almost two years ago with my colleague Peter Van Doren.

[Cross-posted at The Corner]

Obama’s Fuel-Economy Standards

If you like driving a big car or SUV, the good news about Obama’s new fuel-economy standards is that they won’t dictate what kind of car you will be able to buy in the future. If you want to buy a 15-mpg SUV, Detroit (or Aichi or Wolfsburg) will be free to make and sell you one.

The bad news is that the standards may make your car more expensive. Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards are actually calculated as the mean of gallons per mile, not miles per gallon. So, as of 2016, for every 15-mpg model made by an auto maker, that company will have to make five models of cars that can go 50 mpg in order for its fleet to meet Obama’s new target. Since bringing each new model to market can cost billions of dollars, if there are not enough people who want to buy those fuel-efficient cars to cover their design costs, the company will have to add a share of those costs to your SUV.

If you want to save energy, the good news is that Obama’s standards are more stringent than those in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 – but not by much. While the 2007 law required new car fleets to average 35 mpg by 2020, Obama’s standard requires fleets to average 35.5 mpg by 2016.

The bad news is that nothing in Obama’s standard guarantees that they will actually save energy. The rule only requires that the mean fuel economy of all models, not all cars, made by a manufacturer meet the 35.5 mpg standard. Not much energy will be saved if gas guzzlers sell well and hybrids don’t.

If gas prices go up, people will buy the fuel-efficient models that auto makers are forced to make – but that would have happened anyway. If gas stays cheap, people will continue to buy fuel-inefficient cars (tempered only by having to pay extra to cover the start-up costs of models no one wants). If you believe that saving energy or reducing dependence on foreign oil is important, then you should prefer a stronger form incentive over this mandate.

The worst-cast scenario is that the new standards increase the cost of buying new cars but don’t save any energy (except to the extent that a few people can’t afford to own a car at all). The best-case scenario is that Obama’s standards result in future auto fleets that are not much different from what a free market would have produced. Considering that Honda and Toyota are now in a price war over their Insight vs. the third-generation Prius, that may be closer to the actual outcome.

The good news is that auto makers readily acquiesced to this standard, partly because they feared something worse but partly because they didn’t think it would cost much. The Obama administration estimates that the added cost of the new standard will be $1,300 per car, but that (if gasoline remains $3 per gallon) it will save drivers $500 per year. That means it could pay for itself in the long run – but only if people actually do buy more fuel-efficient cars.

The debate over the standard reminds me of the debate after Congress gave the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate air quality in 1970. One faction favored of technical solutions to pollution, such as catalytic converters. The other faction argued for behavioral tools aimed at getting people to drive less.

Today, we know the behavioral solutions were a complete failure. Although many cities imposed urban-growth boundaries, built light rail, and implemented various disincentives to driving, not one can say they have reduced per-capita driving by even 1 percent.

On the other hand, the technical solutions were highly successful. Though we drive nearly three times as many miles as in 1970, total automotive air pollution has declined more than 50 percent.

There was a third faction in 1970 whose voice was almost inaudible: economists who argued that incentives would clean the air better than mandates. The mandates that were put in place only acted on new cars, and it took more than a decade (and now takes almost two decades) to turn over the American auto fleet. Properly designed incentives could have acted on all cars and cleaned the air much faster (by, for example, giving people a choice between retrofitting their cars or paying a pollution fee that was dedicated to cleaning up pollution elsewhere).

The lesson libertarians take from this is that incentives are better than mandates. But the point I like to make is that, though incentives might work better than mandates, technical solutions work far better than behavioral ones.

Despite the past failure of behavioral tools, there is a strong movement in the administration and Congress today for more behavioral controls aimed at reducing driving to save energy and greenhouse gas emissions. These behavioral tools will be expensive, they will have costly unintended consequences, and in the end they will do little to protect the environment.

I remain unpersuaded that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But if there is a political need to do so, we should at least do it in ways that cost little and provide other benefits that will help cover those costs. McKinsey & Company estimates that the United States can meet the most stringent greenhouse gas targets by investing in programs that cost no more than $50 per ton of greenhouse gas abatements. More fuel-efficient cars meet this test, says McKinsey, and will also reduce the emissions of other pollutants such as nitrogen oxides.

Meanwhile, light rail, growth boundaries, and other behavioral tools, if they save energy and reduce greenhouse gases at all, will only do so at costs of tens of thousands of dollars per ton. Though I am far from thrilled about Obama’s new policy, at least it reminds us that, for a relatively low cost, we can significantly reduce energy consumption and various pollution emissions without trying to socially engineer American lifestyles.

Simultaneously Destroying and Subsidizing the Auto Industry

The Obama Administration has announced new fuel-economy regulations and emissions rules that will boost the cost of new car by at least $1300. This is probably another nail in the coffin of the American automobile industry, but Jerry Taylor is the guy to provide thoughtful analysis. When I read about the new White House scheme, the first thing that came to my mind was this extremely clever video (yes, I am envious that my videos are not this creative) about the type of car we will all be driving if politicians continue to run amok:

Energy Mismanagment

Try as they might, supporters of big government spending cannot make federal programs work very well. The Department of Energy, for example, has been plagued by mismanagement, cost overruns, and scandals for decades.

Today, the Washington Post reports on the poor performance of DoE’s environmental clean-up programs. As I reviewed in the linked essay, these enormously costly programs have been plagued by mismanagement for at least 25 years. Last week, Lou Dobbs lambasted DOE’s National Ignition Facility in California for its huge cost overruns (Hat Tip: Harrison Moar).

I summarize these costly projects and other DoE boondoggles here. With bipartisan support for increases to energy subsidies, we can expect a raft of bipartisan boondoggles developing over coming months and years.

Obama the Planner

New Republic editor John Judis has a couple of insights about the Obama administration’s economic and social goals. He points out that, for more than a century, Progressive and free-market forces have gone through cycles of “reform and reaction.”

The Progressives — who my friend John Baden calls the “American counterrevolutionaries” — have repeatedly sought to increase the size and scope of government: railroad regulation, public land agencies, and the income tax in the 1900s; Social Security, low-interest home loans, and government ownership of power plants in the 1930s; Medicare, the war on poverty, and environmental laws in the 1960s.

In between, friends of free markets tried to roll back those reforms, but were never completely successful. Thus, each successive reform era has further increased government power and reduced free markets.

This reminds me of the basic strategy used by the wilderness movement (in which I was active from about 1975 through 1993). Wilderness activists basically considered land that had already been preserved as wilderness or some other classification to be “theirs,” while all remaining land was “potentially theirs.” Successive congressional land-use bills or presidential decrees would put more land in “their” category, but no matter how much they got, it was never enough.

At the time, I called this the “scorched earth policy,” meaning wilderness advocates embedded so many poison pills in the protected lands that no one would ever try to declassify them. This isn’t necessarily a deliberate strategy, just an effect of our political system.

Judis goes on to outline the ways in which Obama wants to build on past reforms. First, he wants to use “the budget to shift the locus of industrial production toward ‘green’ jobs and products.” He also wants to “make dramatic changes in transportation with [government’s] intervention in the auto industry and in its funding of high-speed rail.” Finally, he wants to institute a form of “national planning” in order to “reverse existing trends” towards “suburban housing [and shopping] malls.”

People who are attracted to such policies tend to judge them based on their intent rather than their results. In fact, these interventions have nearly all either backfired or had huge unintended consequences.

Railroad regulation was imposed just as trucks appeared on the scene in 1907, leaving railroads helpless against growing competition. “Progressive” income taxes ended up with so many loopholes that they weren’t really progressive. The federal loan companies, such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, played a key role in the current crisis when they succumbed to political pressure to buy increasingly risky loans.

Social Security is a giant Ponzi scheme that is also one of the most regressive taxes on the books, not to mention that it has provided billions of dollars of surpluses for Congress to borrow with little hope of ever paying it back. Medicare is an even bigger Ponzi scheme, while the war on poverty created a semi-permanent underclass that has been all but forgotten by the liberals who claim to care most about them.

Environmental laws produced many benefits when they focused on technical solutions, but they failed miserably when they attempted to change people’s behavior. As transportation expert Alan Pisarski recently told the Institute of Transportation Engineers, technical solutions to air pollution are responsible for 95 to 105 percent of the improvements in air quality in the past 40 years, while behavior solutions produced only minus 5 to 5 percent of the improvements — minus 5 meaning some behavioral solutions made pollution worse.

Unfortunately, Obama’s plans are all about changing behavior. This means two things: they will be expensive — especially when counting the unintended consequences — and they won’t work. High-speed rail and urban revitalization, for example, are all about redesigning the country for yuppy elites, not ordinary Americans. The question for free-market advocates is: how can we minimize the damage now and roll back the reforms later?

I Swear I’m Not Making This Up

From today’s Washington Post:

In another sign that the Department of Agriculture is embracing sustainable food, the agency today will unveil expanded plans for a People’s Garden that will include the entire six-acre grounds of the Whitten Building, the department’s neoclassic marble headquarters on the Mall.

The plans, to be announced at the agency’s Earth Day celebrations, include a 1,300-square-foot organic vegetable garden – slightly larger than the one at the White House – as well as ornamental flower gardens and bioswales, or mini-wetlands designed to reduce pollution and surface water runoff.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to find out exactly what a “bioswale” is, and why I should pay for one in our new “People’s Garden.”

Obama’s Recycled Moderate-Speed Rail Plan

The Obama administration believes in recycling, as shown by the so-called high-speed rail plan it announced last week. Below is a map of the plan, and below that is a map of the Federal Railroad Administration’s 2005 high-speed rail plan. As you can see, the proposed routes are identical. (The grey lines on the first map represent conventional Amtrak routes.)

map of the plan

2005 map

Of course, this is a time-honored practice. Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System was really the Bureau of Public Roads’ Interregional Highway System. There is no doubt that the Federal Railroad Administration is thrilled that Obama has adopted its plan.

Yet there are several problems with Obama’s plan. First, it is important to understand that most of Obama’s plan is not bullet trains or TGVs. Instead, it is conventional Amtrak Diesel-powered trains running a little faster – up to 110 mph, but averaging only 60 to 70 mph – than Amtrak runs today. Based on this, here are my most important objections to Obama’s moderate-speed rail plan.

1. Less than 1 percent will ride, more than 99 percent will pay

More than 4 percent of federal transportation spending goes to Amtrak, yet Amtrak carries only 0.1 percent of passenger travel. Moderate- and high-speed trains will significantly increase the subsidies but have little effect on the total travel. Why is it fair for 99.8 percent of people to pay for the rides enjoyed by the other 0.2 percent?

Even with subsidies, high-speed rail fares will be about 50 percent higher than ordinary Amtrak fares. For example, passengers pay $69 to ride conventional trains from New York to Washington, and $99 to ride high-speed train. (By comparison, an unsubsidized bus is $20 and unsubsidized airfares are $99.) This means only the wealthy and those whose employers pay the fare will ride high-speed rail. All taxpayers will end up paying for rides of bankers, bureaucrats, and lobbyists.

2. Moderate-speed rail is dirty

Obama’s claims that trains are better for the environment are pure speculation. Amtrak today is only a little more energy-efficient than cars and planes. While cars and planes are expected to get far more energy-efficient in the future, running trains at higher speeds will make them less energy-efficient.

True high-speed rail, which generally powered by electricity, is dirty too. Even if the electricity comes from renewable resources, the energy and environmental cost of construction will be enormous. It will take decades for the trivial annual savings to pay back that cost.

3. It doesn’t work in Europe

High-speed trains in Europe are convenient for tourists, but the average European rarely uses them. Even in France, which has more high-speed trains than any other European country, the average resident rides heavily subsidized high-speed trains just 400 miles per year. Despite punitive fuel taxes, they drive 7,600 miles per year, a number that is increasing faster than high-speed rail travel.

4. It doesn’t work in Japan

The Japanese drive less than French or Americans, but they don’t ride high-speed rail more than the French. The average resident of Japan drives 4,000 miles per year and rides high-speed trains 400 miles per year. The Japanese ride trains more than the residents of any other country – nearly 1,900 miles per year including subways and other urban rail – but due to premium fares, nearly 80 percent of train riding is on conventional trains.

5. Every car off the road means more new trucks on the road

Obama’s moderate-speed trains will run on the same tracks as existing freight trains. Since many of America’s rail lines are near capacity today, there is a real danger that moderate-speed trains will push freight onto the highways.

Europe’s rail network carries 6 percent of passenger travel, while ours carries only 0.1 percent. But European trains carry less than 17 percent of freight, while 73 percent goes by highway. By comparison, American trains carry 40 percent of our freight, while only 28 percent goes on the highway. In other words, to get 6 percent of passengers out of their cars, Europe put nearly three times as many trucks on the road.

Personally, I love trains. But Obama’s plan is bad for taxpayers and bad for the environment. We would be better off ending all subsidies to transportation than piling on subsidy after subsidy for transport that is supposedly environmentally friendly but in fact hardly anyone will use.