Topic: Energy and Environment

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.

The Start of Interstate Carbon Tariffs?

Not content with waiting for federal legislation on the matter, it seems that Minnesota has introduced a “carbon fee” of $4-$34 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions on energy produced –mainly using coal – in North Dakota.  The fee is scheduled to go into effect in 2012. (see here)

North Dakota plans to challenge the new tax, which it rightly says will discourage the purchase of North Dakota power (that is, indeed, the whole point of the tariff). I’m no constitutional scholar, but Article 1, section 10 of the Constitution says that “No State shall, without the consent of the Congress, lay any Imposts or Duties on Imports or Exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing its inspection laws…” so the Minnesota tariff appears to be unconstitutional (for whatever that’s worth these days…), at least unless and until Congress gives its consent for it. 

On the one hand, the current political make-up of Congress would suggest that such consent might, disappointingly, be given. On the other, the cap-and-trade bill has stalled in Congress despite the wishes of the majority leadership and the administration, suggesting that the desire to regulate energy and greenhouse gas emissions is lacking crucial support.

In related news, another body supportive of carbon tariffs, the French government, has seen its plans thwarted recently after the Constitutional Court there struck down the proposed carbon tax as unconstitutional.  President Sarkozy had intented to extend the carbon tax EU-wide so as to prevent adverse competitiveness effects on French industry, thus giving the EU the incentive to apply a trade bloc-wide tariff on imports from less regulated countries. So the setback in France is good news for those of us concerned about the damage that carbon tariffs would do.

HT: Scott Lincicome

Is Environmentalism a Religion?

Is environmentalism a religion? At NPR it isyet again. I thought the latest story started off oddly – talking about “the uneasy relationship between religion and science” and saying that lefty novelist Margaret Atwood thinks that ”in the future we could see a religion that combines religion and science.” But it’s not the case that all religions have problems with all science, is it? So I was dubious about the premise of the story.

And then – what new kind of religion does Margaret Atwood envision? Well, you could write it yourself:

KLEFFEL: Armstrong sees the role of religion as a guiding force for ethical behavior. Margaret Atwood brings that notion to life in her newest novel, “The Year of the Flood.” It’s set in a dystopian near future where genetic engineering has ravaged much of the planet. The survivors have created a new religion.

Ms. ATWOOD: This group, which is called God’s Gardeners, has taken it possibly to an extreme that not everybody will be able to do. They live on rooftops in slums on which they have vegetable gardens. And they keep bees. And they are strictly vegetarian, unless you get really, really hungry, in which case you have to start at the bottom of the food chain and work up. And they make everything out of recycled castoffs and junk. So they’re quite strict.

KLEFFEL: Atwood points out that the beginnings of her religion of the future have already appeared in the present.

Ms. ATWOOD: Indeed, we now have the Green Bible among us, which I did not know when I was writing this book, which has tasteful linen covers, ecologically correct paper, the green parts in green. Introduction by Archbishop Tutu. And a list at the end of useful things you can do to be a more worthy green person.

KLEFFEL: Atwood created a new pantheon of saints, including Rachel Carson, Al Gore and Dian Fossey, the murdered conservationist, as well as hymns, which have been brought to life by Orville Stoeber.

(Soundbite of song, “Today We Praise Our St. Dian”)

Mr. ORVILLE STOEBER (Singer): (Singing) Today we praise our Saint Dian, whose blood for bounteous life was spilled. Although she interposed her faith, one species more was killed.

Novelist Michael Crichton said that environmentalism had all the trappings of a religion: “Eden, the fall of man, the loss of grace, the coming doomsday.” Atwood is filling it out with saints and hymns.

I Am Not Making This Up

Dec. 17 (Bloomberg) – World leaders flying into Copenhagen today to discuss a solution to global warming will first face freezing weather as a blizzard dumped 10 centimeters (4 inches) of snow on the Danish capital overnight.

Copenhagen (CNN) –- In a strange twist, a Washington snowstorm is forcing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, to make an early departure from a global warming summit here in Denmark.

Pelosi told CNN that military officials leading her Congressional delegation have urged the 21 lawmakers to leave Copenhagen several hours earlier than scheduled on Saturday.

The Speaker said she has agreed to the new travel plan so that lawmakers can get back to Washington before much of the expected storm wallops the nation’s capital.

Washington Post: Before long, we will be buried by several times that amount making this a record breaking December storm. Double digit accumulations have already been reported to our south in central Virginia. This is a dangerous, severe storm with the worst still to come.

True enough, as President Obama’s courtiers at Media Matters remind us, one day’s weather doesn’t change the climate. Indeed, they quote Pat Michaels making that point last year in the New York Times:

Patrick J. Michaels, a climatologist and commentator with the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, has long chided environmentalists and the media for overstating connections between extreme weather and human-caused warming. (He is on the program at the skeptics’ conference.)

But Dr. Michaels said that those now trumpeting global cooling should beware of doing the same thing, saying that the ”predictable distortion” of extreme weather ”goes in both directions.”

Still, I think we know that if it were unseasonably warm this week, there’d be people pointing that out on television from Copenhagen.