Topic: Energy and Environment

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]

Department of Energy Boondoggles

The Wall Street Journal recently looked at the trouble the Department of Energy will have efficiently spending all the extra cash allocated to it under the stimulus bill. The article noted: “The Energy Department has had limited experience pulling off big, transformative energy projects.”

Actually, the department has undertaken big projects many times, but the Journal is correct that it sure as heck hasn’t pulled them off. Indeed, the history of big federal energy projects is one of boondoggle, boondoggle, boondoggle.

Unless President Obama has a magic formula that fundamentally changes the nature of government management, Americans can expect a horribly wasteful energy spending spree in coming years.

The Looming Horror of Global Cooling

George Will reminds us of the global disaster that faced us back in the 1970s:

In the 1970s, “a major cooling of the planet” was “widely considered inevitable” because it was “well established” that the Northern Hemisphere’s climate “has been getting cooler since about 1950” (New York Times, May 21, 1975). Although some disputed that the “cooling trend” could result in “a return to another ice age” (the Times, Sept. 14, 1975), others anticipated “a full-blown 10,000-year ice age” involving “extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation” (Science News, March 1, 1975, and Science magazine, Dec. 10, 1976, respectively). The “continued rapid cooling of the Earth” (Global Ecology, 1971) meant that “a new ice age must now stand alongside nuclear war as a likely source of wholesale death and misery” (International Wildlife, July 1975). “The world’s climatologists are agreed” that we must “prepare for the next ice age” (Science Digest, February 1973). Because of “ominous signs” that “the Earth’s climate seems to be cooling down,” meteorologists were “almost unanimous” that “the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century,” perhaps triggering catastrophic famines (Newsweek cover story, “The Cooling World,” April 28, 1975). Armadillos were fleeing south from Nebraska, heat-seeking snails were retreating from Central European forests, the North Atlantic was “cooling down about as fast as an ocean can cool,” glaciers had “begun to advance” and “growing seasons in England and Scandinavia are getting shorter” (Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 27, 1974).

Will George Will or his successor do a similar column around 2039 about the hysteria over global warming?

High-Speed Stimulus

Over the past two decades, U.S. cities have wasted close to $200 billion on high-cost, low-performance rail transit projects. But that will nothing compared to the plans rail nuts have for high-speed intercity rail.

Last November, 52 percent of California voters approved $9 billion in funding for a San Francisco-to-Los Angeles high-speed rail plan. The total cost of the plan is expected to exceed $45 billion, and California expects Uncle Sam to pick up at least half the tab. If it does, Florida, Illinois, Texas, and a few dozen other states will all want federal funding for their own high-speed rail plans.

The House version of the stimulus package included no money for high-speed rail. The senate version included $2 billion. Thanks to Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), who wants a Las Vegas-to-Los Angeles high-speed rail line, the final version of the bill included $8 billion. (Conservatives have attempted to portray this as an earmark, but Reid says the $8 billion will be distributed through competitive grants.)

Earmark or not, $8 billion won’t even cover the down payment on a high-speed rail network. Based on the projected costs of California’s system and the length of high-speed rail proposals in the rest of the U.S., I estimate that a national high-speed rail network will cost the U.S. well over $500 billion. By comparison, the Interstate Highway System, adjusted for inflation to today’s dollars, cost $450 billion.

What will high-speed rail do? As my Cato policy analysis reveals, studies in California and real-life examples in Europe shows that its main effect will be to put profitable airlines out of business. It will only take about 3 or 4 percent of cars of the roads in rail corridors. Though costing more than interstate highways, a national high-speed rail network will never carry even a fifth as many people as the interstates, and virtually 0 percent of the freight. High-speed rail operations might save a little energy, but the energy cost of construction will more than wipe out any long-term operational savings.

Adding $8 billion to the stimulus bill will do nothing to stimulate the economy, as there are no shovel-ready high-speed rail projects in the country. But it does put us one more step down the path of wasting another half trillion or so dollars on an obsolete form of transportation.

FutureGen Boondoggle

The Senate stimulus bill apparently contains $2 billion for “FutureGen.” Here is what my assistant, Harrison Moar, found out about this project:

FutureGen was launched in 2003 by President Bush as a public-private partnership to build a low-emission coal-fueled power plant and demonstrate technologies to capture carbon dioxide. The government was to share the cost of the project with 12 private energy companies. The project was originally estimated to cost $1 billion, but by 2008 the estimate had ballooned to $1.8 billion. By mid-2008, $176 million had been spent.

In 2007, the Department of Energy chose a single site for the project in Mattoon, Illinois. But after the project’s estimated cost started soaring, the department changed direction in 2008 and cancelled the Mattoon project. That was a good decision, but the government had still flushed $176 million down the drain. The department’s new idea was to focus on developing other clean coal projects in different locations at an estimated taxpayer cost of $1.3 billion.

FutureGen has involved pork barrel politics since the beginning. As the department originally considered various project sites in Illinois and Texas, the state governments in those states deployed aggressive lobbying to woo federal officials. Upon news of possible cancellation of the Mattoon project in 2008, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois swung into action using all his tools as the second-ranking senator to continue the funding to his state. He even threatened to block appointments to the Department of Energy unless it reversed its cancellation decision.

Meanwhile, a House committee considered issuing subpoenas to the Department of Energy to get the details of the decision to change course on the project. Illinois Republicans and Democrats alike have sought to use various legislative means to continue funding for the Mattoon facility.

The FutureGen project illustrates the near impossibility of making rational economic decisions with government subsidy projects. Even if a government agency were well-managed and made decisions based on sound cost-benefit analyses, projects become incredibly politicized. Now, with the stimulus bill, it looks like the Mattoon boondoggle has another lease on life.