Topic: Energy and Environment

Events This Week at Cato

Thursday, March 12

Climate of Extremes

12:00 PM (Luncheon to Follow)

climateBOOK FORUM: Cato senior fellow in environmental studies Patrick J. Michaels will discuss his new book, Climate of Extremes: Global Warming Science They Don’t Want You to Know with David Legates, Delaware state climatologist and director of the Delaware Environmental Observing System.

The book illustrates the crucial unreported news about climate change: that changes in hurricanes will be small, that global warming is likely to be modest, and that contrary to daily headlines, there is no apocalypse on the horizon.

Free registration for this event is now open, and it will be simulcast live on Cato’s Web site.

Transportation Reauthorization: Looking Beyond the Recession

1:30 PM (Refreshments Provided)

CAPITOL HILL BRIEFING: Randal O’Toole, Cato senior fellow and author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future, will join Robert Poole, director of Transportation Studies at the Reason Foundation for a discussion on transportation reform during the recession.

Register here for this free event.

Friday, March 13

Can the Pentagon Be Fixed?

12:00 PM (Luncheon to Follow)

Most defense analysts agree: the Pentagon is in serious need of reform. Acquisition programs run above cost and behind schedule. The U.S. defense budget is higher than at any point during the Cold War, but capability has not kept pace. We field fewer ships, aircraft, and tanks than we did in the days of lower procurement spending. And our defense spending prepares us better for the conventional wars we imagine than the unconventional conflicts we fight.

Featuring Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information; Colonel Douglas Macgregor, U.S. Army (Retired), Straus Military Reform Project adviser; Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight; Thomas Ricks, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and special military correspondent for the Washington Post; and Benjamin Friedman, research fellow in defense and homeland security at the Cato Institute.

Please register for this free event or  watch live online.

Obama Administration Agrees with Cato on Auto Fuel Efficiency

Well, sort of.  The Obama administration signaled last week their belief that it would be better to have one national fuel efficiency standard than a multiplicity of different state fuel efficiency standards.  Now, we have long maintained that fuel efficiency standards — federal or state — are a bad idea.  Consumers should be free to buy whatever sort of car they want without government economic coercion.  But if we must do violence to consumer sovereignty, better to do so via one national standard rather than via a hodge-podge of differing state standards.

This is the very argument I made late in January over at The New York Times when asked about California’s petition to establish its own fuel efficiency standard as a means of addressing greenhouse gas emissions.  Alas, I was pilloried on the NYT comments board at that time for all sorts of sins against man and nature.  Now it appears that President Obama has come over to the dark side.  Welcome to my world, Mr. President.

FutureGen: Economic and Political Decisions

People who support expanded federal intervention into areas such as energy and health care naively assume that policymakers can make economically rational and efficient decisions to allocate resources. They cannot, as a Washington Post story today on FutureGen illustrates.

The story describes the political battle over the location of a $1.8 billion ”clean coal” plant. I don’t know where the most efficient place to site such a plant is, or  if such a plant makes any sense in the first place. But the story illustrates that as soon as such decisions are moved from the private sector to the political arena, millions of dollars are spent to lobby the decisionmakers, and members of Congress are hopelessly biased in favor of home-state spending regardless of what might be best for the national economy as a whole.

President Obama has promised to ramp up spending on such green projects. So get ready for some huge political fights over the big-dollar spoils, and get ready for some monsterous energy boondoggles.

New Podcast: ‘Climate of Extremes’

With a polarized debate among the scientific community over climate change, what about experts who admit that climate change is real, but don’t think it’s the end of the world?

In today’s Cato Daily Podcast, Cato Senior Fellow in Environmental Studies Patrick J. Michaels explains the problem with the global warming debate.

Either it seems you think the world is coming to an end from climate change, and pronto, or you say there is no such thing as climate change.…Now it’s gotten to the point where if you say climate change is real, but it’s not the end of the world, both poles of the debate get angry at you.…But, in fact, that is the truth: climate change is real; it’s modest. It’s proceeding at a rate that is below the statistical rates predicted by the climate models; in other words, those models are in the process of failing.

Crédit Mobilier as a Model for High-Speed Rail

“History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas,” President Obama told Congress on February 24. “In the midst of civil war, we laid railroad tracks from one coast to another that spurred commerce and industry.”

Obama, who wants to make the construction of a national high-speed rail network his “signature issue,” no doubt sees this as a model. It was a poor choice.

Aside from the simple factual issue that most of the first transcontinental railroad was built after, not during, the war, most of Obama’s audience would have forgotten that its construction caused for one of the first and biggest financial swindles of the nineteenth century. That scandal was the result of a simple fact: such a railroad made no economic sense in the late 1860s.

To entice someone to build it, the federal government offered subsidies in the form of land grants and loans of $16,000 to $48,000 per mile (depending on terrain) for the actual cost of construction. Politics, not economics, determined the route, so most of the land for hundreds of miles was worthless (and remained so for a century after the railroad was complete). The loans were valuable only to the contractors who built the rail line, as the railroad itself would have a difficult time generating enough business to ever repay them.

So the directors of the Union Pacific Railroad came up with a scheme to profit from construction. They created a separate company, called Crédit Mobilier (cleverly named after a similar scandal in France). Run by the same people who nominally owned the railroad, this company was given the contracts to build the line. To take full advantage of the government loans, they overcharged for construction up to the limit of the loans, earning enormous profits for the company directors.

To keep the scheme going, the company freely used shares to bribe members of Congress who must have been fully aware of the plot. After the rail line was complete, the Union Pacific conveniently went bankrupt, thus avoiding the need to repay the loans. (Supposedly, the reorganized company eventually repaid the loans, though probably not the interest.)

Two decades later, James J. Hill proved that the way to build a transcontinental railroad was in stages, not all at once, with the profits from each stage paying for construction of the next. Hill’s Great Northern Railway was the first transcontinental in North America to be built without subsidies and the only one (except the Southern Pacific) never to go bankrupt. It helped that, unlike the Union Pacific’s line, most of the GN’s route was across fertile farm or forest land.

So now Obama wants to build a new rail empire. Like the Union Pacific, this one will require huge subsidies. Like Crédit Mobilier, contractors will make huge contributions to Congressional campaigns to keep the money flowing. The rail lines will never cover their operating costs, much less capital costs, and so will either go bankrupt or be forever subsidized by taxpayers. And just as the economic benefits of the Union Pacific were invisible for several decades, the environmental benefits of high-speed rail will be negligible or negative.

One difference: while transcontinental railroads eventually did make economic sense, high-speed rail never will.

China in Africa

Tom Ricks used to cover the Pentagon for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. He wrote terrific books about the Marines and the war in Iraq. Now among other gigs, he is a blogger for Foreign Policy. It’s great when top-notch reporters write for blogs, even when they are overly enthusiastic about counterinsurgency warfare. That is an issue we will take up with Ricks when he visits Cato on March 13 for a forum on military reform.

I have a smaller bone to pick now. Ricks, like many Pentagon types, is worried about Chinese activities in Africa. He links to a story about a bridge-building project in Mali and suggests that the Chinese are doing something clever that we will someday realize has harmed us.

I hear variants of this all the time — China is doing stuff in Africa, so we must imitate them. It doesn’t make sense. Even if you think the United States has a zero-sum relationship with China where their gain is our loss (I don’t), you should worry about something else. There is little that China can do in Africa to make it stronger or to damage U.S. interests.

There are basically three things Americans worry about China doing in Africa: gaining influence from aid and diplomacy that it will use against us, gaining wealth from investments that it will use against us, or somehow screwing up our access to oil.

On the first concern, you have to ask what influence in Africa gets you, other than a happy feeling. Traditionally, as in World War II or the start of the Cold War, we worried about hostile states gaining industrial might by conquest that they could harness against us in a war. Whether or not that was a valid concern is open to academic debate, but there was never much reason to worry about Soviet efforts to buy support in poor countries during the Cold War. There was little to gain there in a geopolitical sense, outside of raw materials rare enough that they might be blocked from the market in a war. It makes even less sense to worry about China gaining influence in Africa now. If Mali likes China because it builds bridges there, so what? We are not poorer or less safe for it.

What about investments? Chinese investments in Mali are more useful to Mali and China than government aid, assuming the investments are sensible ones. If they are wise investments, however, U.S. companies won’t be far behind, and our national income will rise as a result. If they are not economically sensible, they will not enhance Chinese power, and we should not imitate them.

The biggest worry is that China is locking up energy supply in Africa. This concern is born of a failure to understand that oil is a global commodity. If the Chinese tap more of it, American consumers pay less too. If they own production facilities, that matters not at all if the oil is going to market. If the Chinese have a mercantilist energy policy, that is their problem. For more on energy alarmism, see here, here and here.

There is nothing sinister or clever about Chinese activity in Africa. Americans shouldn’t worry about it.

While we’re talking about Foreign Policy bloggers and developing countries, be sure to check Stephen Walt’s attack on his employers’ vacuous cover story: “The Axis of Upheaval.” Great stuff.

Oil Price Collapse — Bad News?

In the Washington Post today, staff writer Steven Mufson gets space on the front page to tell us about how the oil price collapse is playing out for oil producers, rival energy generators, and, ultimately, for consumers. Much of what follows is obvious — prices are declining because the economic collapse is hammering demand — but other aspects of the narrative offered by Mufson are on shakier ground.

Ed Morse — managing director and chief economist of LCM Research and a favorite “go-to” guy for print reporters — says, “The last five years saw the rebirth of the use of oil as a critical instrument of foreign policy by key resource countries, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela in particular. With oil and natural gas prices having collapsed, the power of their weapons has been waning rapidly…” Really? When, exactly, have oil-producing states used oil as a weapon in foreign policy over the course of the 2004-2008 price spiral? Have there been embargoes I’ve missed? Strategic production cutbacks tied to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank? Or substantive threats about the same that have been used as an effective lever in international relations? Not that I know of.

The only example I am aware of that Morse might cite to back up his claim is Russia’s ongoing dispute with Ukraine over natural gas prices. But gas producers have leverage in markets that oil producers don’t have, given the much higher transaction costs associated with changing buyer-seller relationships.

In short, Morse’s first claim — that oil producers have been using oil as an effective foreign policy weapon during the boom — is utterly without foundation. His second claim conflates natural gas with oil markets in a manner that muddies the issue. Belief in the “oil weapon” is like belief in UFOs; lots of people claim to have seen such things — and some continue to fear such things — but every attempt at verifying existence has come up empty. The reality is that embargoes can’t deny oil to consuming states given the fungible nature of the international oil market and severe production cutbacks will do far more harm to producers than consumers — which is why we never see those sustained production cutbacks play out.

Next, Mufson implies that energy secretary Steven Chu made some sort of gaffe when he told reporters on Tuesday that OPEC was “not in my domain.” Now, it may be correct that, politically speaking, OPEC is in his “domain,” but the reality is that American pressure on OPEC never has and probably never will have an effect on decisions made by the cartel. OPEC’s aim, after all, is to maximize revenue. Can the U.S. talk OPEC into decisions that will cost OPEC money? Chu’s right to suggest that no mere U.S. energy secretary is capable of such a thing and probably shouldn’t waste much time laboring for such an unlikely end. Bully for Chu — for a few moments at least, he had the courage to say what almost no energy secretary before him has ever dared to say.

Unfortunately, Chu quickly spends his intellectual capital with me in the very next paragraph when he warns that oil prices will likely rise over time. Well, they may, but there is no statistically significant trend toward higher oil prices if we examine quarterly data from 1970 forward. Oil prices move around a lot, but they have always migrated back toward an equilibrium price in the inflation-adjusted mid-$20 range. The belief that oil prices march ever higher over time is widely shared, but has no historical basis.

Chu’s worries about higher prices dovetail with the related warning (this time, from OPEC president Chakib Khelil) that the price respite is only temporary. Soon enough (two years, Khelil says), demand will pick up again and then where will we be? Low oil prices mean cuts in upstream investment which means that, down the road, we’ll get even higher prices than we would have had, had the price collapse never occurred.

Now, it is true that the oil market always has and probably always will move in boom and bust cycles with price spirals and price collapses feeding off one another. But historically, those cycles take a lot longer to play out than a couple of years. We heard the same warning against complacency in 1986 when oil prices went through their last bust cycle — but it wasn’t until 18 years later (2004) that prices recovered and moved into boom cycle once again. And that experience is fairly typical. The time between peaks and valleys in global oil prices run about 20 years apart and have been doing so for over 100 years.

Producers love to warn against low oil prices because, well, they hate them. But the idea that low prices are bad for consumers is one of those things that is so obviously at odds with the reality that one should take such warnings with a heavy block of salt. Domestically, those warnings have been used to justify producer subsidies that fail to pass any reasonable economic test.

Do low oil prices “make it harder for more expensive wind and solar projects to compete,” as Mufson asserts? No. Wind and solar energy does not compete with oil because only a tiny amount of electricity is generated by oil in the United States. Low coal and natural gas prices make it hard for wind and solar to compete. True, fossil fuel prices tend to move roughly in tandem over time, but precision is everything here. Low oil prices do not “cause” natural gas and coal prices to fall and thus do not directly undercut wind and solar.

Finally, what about the dog that’s not barking — that is, what about the claim heard ad infinitum from people like Thomas Friedman and James Woolsey that oil profits are military steroids for Islamic terrorists and that eliminating the same would cut Islamic terrorism off at the knees? So far, we find little evidence that al Qaeda or related groups have been particularly harmed by low oil prices. That shouldn’t surprise — there is no historical correlation between oil prices and Islamic terrorism — whether we’re looking at number of terrorist attacks or fatalities from the same.

[Cross-posted at NRO’s The Corner]