Topic: Energy and Environment

Irene Wasn’t All That

Hurricane Irene (which seemed more like Tropical Storm Irene from Virginia Beach to New York City) has prompted the usual rhetoric from the usual suspects about global warming making these storms worse.  Too bad there is no evidence for this whatsoever on a global scale.

Ryan Maue, at Florida State University, tracks global tropical cyclone energy back to 1970, which is the time at which adequate data on hurricane winds became available. His “Accumulated Cyclone Energy” (ACE) index peaked in the mid 1990’s and in recent years has been at or near the lowest point ever recorded. His most recent refereed paper, in press at Geophysical Research Letters, is called “Recent Historically Low Global Tropical Cyclone Activity.”  Enough said?

However, there is an interesting trend in Atlantic hurricane activity. The Department of Commerce’s National Hurricane Center (NHC) is naming tropical storms that they clearly would have ignored in previous years.  This year we have had ten (the latest is “Jose”, which currently looks weak in satellite imagery), and I doubt that seven of these would have made the grade years ago.  In fact, I have written to NHC’s Chris Landsea (with whom I have authored refereed papers on hurricanes) about this, and he agrees that NHC is naming systems that they would have previously ignored or missed.  Frankly, some of our recent “tropical storms” have pitiful presentations, looking more like small clusters of thunderstorms than the familiar pinwheels of nascent hurricanes.  A recent paper in Journal of Geophysical Research, by Princeton’s Gabriele Villarini, noted the contamination of the Atlantic hurricane data by what he called “shorties.”

Why NHC is doing this, and why they kept Hurricane Irene’s “category” (one through five) high despite  acknowledging that hurricane hunter aircraft were having trouble finding enough wind, has more to do with risk aversion than any putative conspiracy to toe the politically correct line on global warming. The result is that ships at sea are “warned” of brisk winds and high seas that might have previously surprised them, and that politicians and emergency management officials can justify massive evacuation orders. This used to be known as covering one’s posterior.  Now NHC sometimes calls it “the course of least regret.”

It is also a dangerous practice. People who endure the endless torture of a hurricane evacuation from barrier islands like the North Carolina Outer Banks from storms that cause little damage may be reluctant to leave when the next – big and real – one shows up.

Consumers and the ‘Smart Grid’

The drive to let consumer-level electricity prices float as prices do in innumerable other markets has been stunted by complaints about so-called “smart meters” that would give consumers the ability to respond to fluctuations in the realtime price of electricity.

When the California Energy Commission attempted to put these kinds of meters into new buildings, the knee-jerk reaction consisted largely of complaints about the government “taking over” consumers’ electricity consumption in the case of a looming blackout. For more on why these concerns lacked some essential context, listen to the podcast with Peter Van Doren on the case of the CEC.

As I discussed with economist Lynne Kiesling at Cato University, consumer-side responses to varying electricity prices could take many forms, from smarter appliances plugged into the same pricing information to battery technology to take advantage of times of low electricity demand. What’s more, dynamic pricing could someday let consumers turn the product of electricity into the service of electricity by allowing consumers to pay a premium for costlier but “greener” methods of electricity generation.

Here’s more from Kiesling on smart meters.

2,000 Deaths per Year … for the Environment

Something as simple as the concept of tradeoffs can cause cognitive dissonance to good-hearted people who want too hard to drive the society toward their perception of the good.

A nice illustration of that is the cost in lives of making cars that use less gasoline. How can doing good for the environment possibly be harmful? Oh, it can be deadly.

Nicely illustrated by CEI’s Sam Kazman on John Stossel’s show.

America 2050: Forget the Forgotten Mode

Half truths, innuendo, and pseudo-science form the basis of a response to my recent Cato paper, Intercity Buses: The Forgotten Mode. The response is produced by America 2050, a project of the Regional Plan Association, a New York City–area regional planning organization. The response’s basic thesis of the response is that intercity buses have a role to play in a “balanced transportation system,” but they are “no replacement for high-speed rail.”

Of course, my report never argued that buses were a replacement for true high-speed rail. But it did show that existing bus schedules in many corridors are faster, more frequent, and charge far lower fares than Amtrak in the same corridors. Of course, there is a “replacement” for high-speed rail: it is called “air travel” and it is far faster and costs about a fifth as much per passenger mile as Amtrak’s Acela.

In any case, America 2050 says my report ignored “one of the most powerful arguments for rail: providing an alternative to highway congestion.” I didn’t address that argument in the paper on buses because, as I’ve shown in other papers, it’s a bad argument. Highways move about 85 percent of all passenger travel and more than a quarter of all ton-miles of freight in this country. If they are congested, maybe we should relieve that congestion rather than spending hundreds of billions of dollars on an elitist rail network that won’t relieve congestion and won’t carry more than a tiny fraction of the number of people (and none of the freight) moved on the highways.

But we can’t fix highway congestion, says America 2050: “providing additional road space does not solve congestion; in fact it creates additional demand for driving.” That’s another bad argument, for four reasons. First, my bus paper never advocated building new roads, and if asked, I would have suggested relieving congestion using congestion pricing of roads before building new capacity.

Second, the idea that building roads creates demand is totally absurd. As my friend, Wendell Cox, says, it is akin to saying that building maternity wards leads people to have more babies.

Third, those who argue that we shouldn’t build roads because people will drive on them are effectively arguing that government shouldn’t provide anything that people will use; only what they won’t use (such as high-speed trains). If that’s the case, government should just get out of the transportation business entirely and leave it to the private sector.

Finally, most congestion is in cities, not between them, so building rail lines between cities isn’t going to help much. Of course, planners don’t want to relieve congestion anywhere because they hope congestion will persuade a few people to stop driving.

America 2050 goes on to say that “one railway with a single track in each direction has the capacity to transport as many people per hour as sixteen lanes of highway.” While I could dispute that number, even if true, capacity doesn’t matter unless people actually use that capacity. Amtrak has 6 percent of the passenger market between Boston and Washington; highways, mainly Interstate 95, have 80 percent. Interstate 95 and parallel roads probably have less than 16 lanes, yet they carry 13 times as many passenger miles.

“High-speed trains allow passengers to bypass this congestion,” America 2050 goes on to say, “bringing passengers directly into center cities.” Yes, but who wants to go directly into center cities? Less than 8 percent of American jobs and less than 1 percent of America’s population lives in city centers (which is why I call high-speed rail “elitist”). In many, if not most, urban areas, more people and more jobs are located near airports than near train stations, and virtually everyone is near a highway.

America 2050 then challenges some of my numbers that it says are “flatly incorrect.” “To count passenger miles,” says the article, “O’Toole uses the American Bus Association’s 2005 Motorcoach Census, which counts passenger-miles logged by intracity airport shuttles, sightseeing tours, and private commuter buses, amongst other categories that are not making cross country or intercity trips.” America 2050 clearly did not read my paper carefully: first, I used the 2007 Motorcoach Census, but, more important, I counted only those passenger miles (about a quarter of the total) attributable to scheduled intercity buses.

When comparing bus to rail safey, “O’Toole counts passenger miles only for Amtrak trains, while counting fatalities for all passenger trains, including commuter rail,” says America 2050. Again, America 2050 did not read carefully. National Transportation Statistics reports that commuter trains suffered about 20 to 60 fatalities per year over the past two decades; the fatalities I reported ranged from 3 to 24 per year (except in 1993 when there were 58), which obviously does not include the commuter rail fatalities. That 1993 number may have skewed my data upwards; but rail fatalities are nevertheless higher than bus fatalities per billion passenger miles.

America 2050 then goes into the topic of subsidies, noting there are large subsidies to highways. “Recently, the Highway Trust Fund has received bailouts of $8 billion in 2008, $7 billion in 2009, and $20 billion in 2010.” As I’ve noted elsewhere, those bailouts were not subsidies to highways; they were subsidies to pork barrel. If Congress had not diverted a third of gas tax revenues to non-highway projects, and then mandated spending on those projects even if gas tax revenues fell short, the bailouts would not have been necessary.

Admittedly, there are highway subsidies, mainly at the local level. But when compared with highway usage, which is on the order of 4 trillion passenger miles and 1 trillion ton miles of freight per year, the subsidies are trivial: about a penny per passenger mile at most. Since intercity buses operate with about twice the occupancy rates of other vehicles, subsidies to them are probably much lower (and were taken into account in the numbers my paper cited). By comparison, subsidies to Amtrak are close to 30 cents a passenger mile and subsidies to most high-speed rail lines will be much more.

America 2050 concludes by saying, “Intercity buses provide a valuable service and are an important part of a complete and balanced transportation system.” Who can argue with “balanced”? With respect to buses, America 2050 would give the high-use transport corridors—the cream of any transport service—to subsidized rail, leaving the dregs to buses (which would then require subsidies to serve those dregs).

The question is: How do you measure “balanced”? Apparently, America 2050’s answer is “balanced means taking the fees you pay to drive and spending them on my favored mode of transport while you sit stuck in traffic.” By contrast, my answer is: if it can be done without subsidies, it is balanced. Let’s just end the subsidies to all modes of transportation and see what happens.

How’s that Big-Government Environmentalism Workin’ For Ya’?

I don’t know what conclusion the correspondent who sent me this pair of articles meant for me to draw, but I think they nicely illustrate how centralizing power with the federal government fails to advance environmental values, while eroding others.

First, there’s the AP story showing deep and extensive ties between offshore oil and gas companies and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Enforcement and Regulation. That’s the renamed Minerals Management Service, the agency that was supposed to prevent things like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last summer.

Everyone dreams of a “real regulator” that will clean up industry, protect public values, and smartly manage economic activity. What you routinely end up with is a pro-industry self-dealing agency that fails to protect the values it was assigned while mismanaging productive activity. Case in point.

Next, woe be it to the environmental activist who goes monkey-wrenching government-industry plans. Tim DeChristopher has been sentenced to two years in prison and fined $10,000 for derailing a government auction of oil and gas leases near two national parks in Utah. DeChristopher ran up bids on 13 parcels totaling more than 22,000 acres near Arches and Canyonlands national parks, then failed to make good on his bids.

I suspect I would find DeChristopher’s environmentalism at least overwrought, but when did it become a criminal offense to default on an auction bid? When the government got into the business, that’s when. Instead of, say, pre-qualifying bidders, it evidently just uses its monopoly on coercion to lock up people who mess around with its action.

Command-and-control is probably the simplest way to advance environmental values, but it has failed so dramatically so many times, and it fosters a punitive state that jails its citizens. The simplest way to advance environmental goals may not be the best.

If you prioritize the environment, and if you’ve read this far in this post, I suspect you might be willing to consider more harmonious ways of pushing for a greener planet, ways that respect and use private property rights and that don’t put people in jail. Free-market environmentalism exists, though it’s a ways off from here.

New Light on Paternalism

Yesterday Mario Rizzo pointed out a couple of new studies on the unexpected results of paternalist policies designed to “nudge” Americans into making what their betters consider smart decisions. In today’s Wall Street Journal, Energy Secretary Steven Chu sums up the paternalist view very concisely. Opposing a House bill to repeal the 2007 federal law that effectively outlaws incandescent light bulbs, Chu says:

We are taking away a choice that continues to let people waste their own money.

Exactly. The government wants to take away our choice. It wants to take away our right to make our own decision. It doesn’t trust us to make our own choices. And why should it? Secretary Chu won the Nobel prize in physics. He’s obviously smarter than we are.

Sure, some people just don’t like fluorescent light. Some people don’t like the way the new bulbs come on slowly. Some people don’t like the curlicue look. Some find that they don’t in fact last longer than incandescent bulbs. Some are skeptical about promises of long-term savings, or simply prefer to spend less now.

But none of that matters to Secretary Chu and other paternalists. They know that these bulbs are best for us, and so they “are taking away a choice” that they don’t think people should make. That’s the difference between the libertarian and paternalist views in a nutshell.

EPA Gives Millions to Enviro Groups That Sue it

It’s all a happy circle of funding, as John Merline reports at Investor’s Business Daily: the Environmental Protection Agency gives millions in grants to green organizations that perennially sue it demanding that it regulate more things. When the EPA settles or loses those suits, it then awards the groups millions more in attorneys’ fees under the federal Equal Access to Justice Act and other “one-way” attorney’s fee provisions (called “one-way” because they allow winning plaintiffs to collect fees from defendants, but not vice versa).

“The EPA isn’t harmed by these suits,” said Jeffrey Holmstead, who was an EPA official during the Bush administration. “Often the suits involve things the EPA wants to do anyway. By inviting a lawsuit and then signing a consent decree, the agency gets legal cover from political heat.”

Holmstead called this kind of litigation “sweetheart suits.”

As blogger Coyote puts it, “Our rulers are pretty good at finding tricky ways to expand their power.”

I go into much more detail on collusive public-sector litigation in chapter 8 of my new book Schools for Misrule. Other government agencies, much like the EPA, use settlements of pressure-group lawsuits as a way to go along with desired expansions of power; corrections and foster-care systems commit to step up program offerings and (no! anything but that!) seek higher funding to accomplish their missions; union-allied public-sector managers give away the store on employee benefits disputes, and so forth (scroll to “Consent of the Governors”). From New York to Alabama, state education departments have covertly or even openly assisted lawsuits against themselves intended to force spending expansion. And once sweetheart negotiations result in an adverse consent decree, with little or no formal input from taxpayers, parents, or other affected constituencies, the locked-in big-government policies can be nearly impossible to unlock later on, should voters’ moods change.

With a few exceptions, as with Prof. Ross Sandler and David Schoenbrod’s superb critique Democracy by Decree, these methods of agency governance are virtually uncontroversial and indeed highly popular in legal academia — and no wonder, since they transfer much power over public policy to a corps of “public-interest” litigation professionals who tend to be products of the finer law schools. But others, particularly Western land activists and Republicans in Congress, are skeptical. Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) points out that since a rules revamp in 1995 the federal government no longer even tracks EAJA fee payouts in any organized manner, which makes it harder to catch double payments as well as suggestive patterns in which (critics have charged) certain environmental groups have filed hundreds of suits, assembly-line style, and cashed them in for fees. Lummis and home-state colleague Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) have introduced a bill called the Government Litigation Savings Act that would, among other provisions, reinstitute data collection regarding EAJA outlays, limit the size of awards to $200,000 per case and the number of annual awards to a given group to three, and cap hourly attorneys’ fee awards at an inflation-indexed $175/hour. (Sen. Orrin Hatch, another co-sponsor, summarizes the provisions here.) Whatever the merits of individual details, the bill furnishes a jumping-off point for a public debate that’s long overdue.