Topic: Energy and Environment

Grasping for Rationales, Feeding Conspiracy Theories

On June 13, the New York Times reported that America “just discovered” a trillion dollars worth of mineral resources in Afghanistan (HT to Katie Drummond over at Danger Room for offering some enlightened skepticism on the topic).

Of course, the U.S. Geological Survey has known about Afghanistan’s “large quantities of iron and copper” since 2007. The Los Angeles Times reported that geologist Bonita Chamberlain, who has spent 25 years working in Afghanistan, “identified 91 minerals, metals and gems at 1,407 potential mining sites” as far back as 2001. Chamberlain was even contacted by the Pentagon to write a report on the subject just weeks after 9/11 (possibly to expound upon the findings of her co-authored book, “Gemstones in Afghanistan,” published in 1996.)

Given the recent failure of Marjah, which Gen. McChrystal recently called “a bleeding ulcer,” this new “discovery” could offer Western leaders a new way to convince their war-weary publics that Afghanistan is worth the fight. Government officials are already touting this new “discovery” as yet another “decisive moment” or “corner turned” in the Afghan campaign.

In the NYT article, head of Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, said, “There is stunning potential here. There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”

Afghanistan epitomizes the fate of countries too dependent on foreign patronage, which over time has weakened its security by undermining their leaders’ allegiance to the state. In the long run, $1 trillion worth of mineral deposits could eventually help Afghanistan stand on its own two feet. However, two problems emerge. First, there is little assurance that revenue from mineral resources (which will take years of capital investment to extract) will actually reach the Afghan people and not be siphoned off by Karzai and his corrupt cronies–like much of the international community’s investment does now.

Second, in the short-term, this discovery may feed conspiracy theories that already exist in the region. Though unwise to generalize personal meetings to an entire population, some conspiracy theories that I heard while I was recently in Afghanistan should give U.S. officials pause before announcing that America can help extract the country’s mineral deposits. Some of the wildest conspiracy theories I heard were that the United States wants to occupy Afghanistan in order to take its resources; the Taliban is the United States; the United States is using helicopters to ferry Taliban around northern Afghanistan (courtesy of Afghan President Hamid Karzai); America is at war in order to weaken Islam; and the list goes on.

This “discovery” may force more people in the region to ask: what are America’s real reasons for building permanent bases in Central Asia?

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post on June 15, 2010.

Recusal Rules Impact Environmental (and Other) Litigation

Two weeks ago I blogged about the dismissal of the Katrina-related global warming case because half the judges on the Fifth Circuit were recused for having financial interests in the energy companies and utilities (which the plaintiffs chose specifically to gain recusals but mis-timed their strategy).  Well, now it seems that many judges on the Gulf Coast are recusing themselves from the nascent (and future) oil spill suits, again because they own shares of BP, Transocean, and the other companies involved.  Indeed, over half the federal district judges in the affected states – Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida – will not be participating in these cases, leading to calls to appoint judges from elsewhere in the country to handle them.

That’s ridiculous!  Owning a few hundred or thousand dollars worth of shares of stock is not enough to change the way a judge will behave, particularly when the public knows which judge owns which stock.  If we cannot agree that such purported “conflicts” don’t really show an appearance of impropriety – if we really doubt the integrity of our judiciary to such an extent – then we might as well throw out the ethics rules, throw up our hands, and declare the country ungovernable.  (I’m reminded of the Carrie Underwood song, “Jesus Take the Wheel.”)

Moreover, the financial conflict rules are murky.  As this AP story discusses, ”a judge does not have to step aside if the investments are part of a mutual fund over which they have no management control. Mere ties to companies or entities in the same industry, no matter how extensive, also don’t require disqualification.”  So here we’re valuing form over substance.

Look, maybe this is just a pet peeve of mine – it’s not an ideological issue one way or the other – but I think you just have to apply the “reasonable skeptic” standard.  Every judge is human and has his various biases.  It’s one thing to recuse if counsel for one of the parties is the judge’s spouse or child, or if half the judge’s wealth is invested in one of the parties.  But dinky little “abundance of caution” recusals cost the justice system more in administrative hassle, sunk attorney fees, and other wastes of time and money than they benefit it in increased integrity.

As for the oil spill litigation, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation – which looks at complex cases on similar issues brought in disparate venues – meets July 29 in Boise, Idaho (of all places), to hear arguments on consolidation.  In light of the aforementioned recusals, the Louisiana cases may well be sent to Alabama, Mississippi, or South Florida – or a federal courthouse near you!

Driverless Cars — You Heard It Here First

Not five months after Randal O’Toole discussed the idea of safe, efficient, driverless cars in his book Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do about It and in this full-page Wall Street Journal essay – but 71 years after Norman Bel Geddes first imagined the idea at the New York World’s Fair of 1939 – the Washington Post (in an article picked up from the New Scientist) and Scripps-Howard columnist Dale McFeatters (in the New York Post and elsewhere) are writing about the benefits of such advanced technology. As the Post puts it,

Yet according to Jonas Ekmark, a researcher at Volvo headquarters near Gothenburg, Sweden, this is just the start. He says we are entering an era in which vehicles will also gather real-time information about the weather and highway hazards, using this to improve fuel efficiency and make life less stressful for the driver and safer for all road users. “Our long-term goal is the collision-free traffic system,” says Ekmark.

Or as O’Toole had put it in the Wall Street Journal,

Driverless vehicles offer huge advantages over current autos. Because computer reaction times are faster, driverless cars can safely operate more closely together, potentially tripling highway throughput. This will virtually eliminate congestion and reduce the need for new road construction….

Driverless cars and trucks will be safer. They will also be greener, first by significantly reducing congestion, and eventually because vehicles will be lighter in weight due to reduced collision risks.

Stay tuned to the Cato Institute for more ahead-of-the-curve ideas.

Global Warming Plaintiffs Hoisted on Their Own Petard

We have reached a denouement of sorts in the “blame XYZ companies for causing global warming which caused Hurricane Katrina which damaged my property” lawsuit that I’ve previously discussed and in which Cato filed an amicus brief.  When last I blogged about this, the Fifth Circuit had apparently lost its en banc quorum – a late judicial recusal left only 8 of 16 judges available to hear the appeal – and was figuring out what to do. 

Well, on Thursday the court issued an order determining that it lacked a quorum, but that the panel opinion – the one that allowed the tendentious causation claims to proceed – remained vacated.  The money quote: “In sum, a court without a quorum cannot conduct judicial business… .  Because neither this en banc court, nor the panel, can conduct further judicial business in this appeal, the Clerk is directed to dismiss the appeal.”  This means that the district court opinion dismissing the suit stands, though plaintiffs are free to seek Supreme Court review.  Not surprisingly, the three judges on the panel dissented from this order (which means that the order was decided by a 5-3 vote).

The upshot of all this is that the plaintiffs ended up botching their strategy of suing companies whose shares are owned by Fifth Circuit judges.  This clever legerdemain successfully removed seven judges, but that left a quorum of nine.  Of course, had the late-recusing eighth, Jennifer Elrod – who would’ve been expected to rule against the plaintiffs – recused when the first seven did, the court could not have vacated the panel opinion in the first place.  We’ll never know what happened after the court’s prior decision to grant rehearing that caused Judge Elrod to recuse, but at least we’re left with the second-best result: no strong decision from an important federal appellate court, but the reinstatment of the correct decision below.

‘Do Something, Superpresident!’

Amid the din of James Carville’s screeching, you may have missed a couple of reasonable voices taking issue with the “do something, Superpresident!” approach that’s dominating the discussion of the Gulf Spill. (They both mention Cato work, which is a bonus).

In the Daily Beast, Tunku Varadarajan writes that this isn’t

“Obama’s oil spill,” if by saying so we mean to ascribe culpability to the president. He didn’t run the rigs, or oversee the plans, or grant the licenses to drill, or write the rules that govern the granting of those licenses. He was just president when the bloody thing happened.

(Varadarajan links to this piece by Peter Van Doren and Jerry Taylor on what the spill says about “the profound intellectual poverty animating our public conversation about energy policy.”)

Over on the New York Times’ website, Glenn Greenwald cites my book, The Cult of the Presidency, to worry about a political culture dominated by

the mythology that presidents are paternal, virtually omnipotent figures who will protect us from harm and, in the broadest sense, ensure that justice is done.  Americans, in turn, crave protection from a messianic commander-in-chief, and are willing to vest him with great latitude and power in exchange for that protection.

This mystical conception of the presidency–and the power-concentrating dynamic it leads to–is the major theme of my book, especially Chapter 7, “Omnipotence and Impotence”:

In the BBC production of Robert Graves’ “I Claudius,” Emperor Augustus tells his wife Livia that the Senate had voted to make him a god in the Syrian city of Palmyra, and the people there had put a statue of him in the temple, to which they’d bring offerings in the hopes that the emperor would grant rain or cure their ailments. “Tell me Livia,” Augustus says, “If I’m a god, even in Palmyra, how do I cure gout?”

Augustus’s frustration is all-too-familiar to the modern president. He can no more “manage” the economy or provide seamless protection from all manner of hazards than Augustus could bring rain or cure gout.

Neither Varadarajan nor Greenwald is particularly ready to feel sorry for a president who’s done everything he can to stoke irrational public expectations for presidential salvation in virtually every public policy area.  Nor am I.  It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, as they say.

But it’s not entirely clear what Carville, Palin et al actually want done.  A government takeover of the spill site?  That’s a stupid idea.  Better regulation (retroactively?)?  There’s plenty of blame to go around, but color me unsurprised that incompetence and regulatory capture characterize the Minerals Management Service, and that a president who sits atop an 2-million-employee executive branch, pretending to run it, didn’t  ”fix” those problems beforehand.

President Bush Surveys the Scene in His Superplane

If the story LA Gov. Bobby Jindal is telling is true (I don’t know enough to say), then he has a legitimate beef with the federal government for standing in the way of state mitigation efforts. But most of the complaints dominating the airwaves are far vaguer: centering on the atavistic notion that just by Obama traveling to the site, the magical force of Presidential Concern might cause the slick to recede.   Yesterday, Drudge linked to Obama’s schedule thusly:

Things Obama Is Doing Instead of Going to Gulf: Duke Photo, Lunch with Bill, Vacation...

Schadenfreude is fun, but it’s worth worrying about the consequences of this view of the presidency.  When the public views the president as the man responsible for curing everything that ails us–from bad weather, to private-sector negligence–presidents are going to seek powers to match those superheroic responsibilities.  With Great Responsibility Comes Great Power (to torture one superhero slogan).

That was what happened in Katrina’s aftermath, as I explain here–and don’t be surprised if it’s the upshot of the public and the pols’ current cries for presidential rescue.

In yesterday’s Post, E.J. Dionne complained that we’ve “handed vast responsibilities over to a private sector that will never see protecting the public interest as its primary task.”  But as far as incentives go, the spill is all downside for BP, which is hemorrhaging market value along with oil.  In contrast, the federal government and the president may well emerge from the spill with less popularity, but more power. That’s the logical consequence of the public’s boundless conception of presidential responsibility.

If only we could “Top Kill” the Cult.

FTA Chief: Paint Is Cheaper Than Trains

In March, Cato published my review of every rail transit system in America (as of 2008), showing that in nearly every case buses would have been more cost-effective at moving people. This same view was expressed last week by a surprising source: Peter Rogoff, the Obama administration’s appointee in charge of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

Appropriately, Rogoff spoke before the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, whose transit system, he pointed out, is in a “grim” state. Nationwide, he noted, America’s transit industry suffers from $78 billion worth of deferred maintenance – most of which is due to rail transit lines that cities cannot afford to keep in shape. Rogoff was disturbed that cities were asking for federal grants to build more rail lines when they can’t keep the existing trains in a state of good repair.

Rogoff says he has been telling transit managers, “if you can’t afford to operate the system you have, why does it make sense for us to partner in your expansion?” Cities that build “shiny new rails now … need to be mindful of the costs they are teeing up for future generations.”

“Let’s start with honesty,” he said: “Paint is cheap, rails systems are extremely expensive.” He suggested that, instead of expensive trains, many cities can attract just as many riders onto transit by painting buses on specific routes in distinctive colors (as Boulder, CO has done).

Part of the problem, Rogoff knows, is that Congress has given cities incentives to build high-cost transit projects. To address this issue, the last transportation bill, in 2005, included a section requiring the Federal Transit Administration to evaluate the incentives created by federal funding.

Unfortunately, the FTA dropped the ball: the resulting report said nothing about existing incentives and addressed only the question of whether new incentives could be created to encourage agencies to bring their properties up to a state of good repair. While that is a laudable goal, it is an input, not an output.

According to historic data published by the American Public Transportation Association, the productivity of public transit – outputs per unit of input – has declined dramatically since the federal government began funding transit in 1964. From 1964 through 2008, the inflation-adjusted cost of operating transit increased by more than 360 percent, while transit ridership grew by a mere 24 percent and fares by 62 percent.

Ultimately, transit should be privatized, but in the meantime Congress or the administration can adopt a race-to-the-top program similar to the one the administration is using to improve education. Rogoff should direct his agency to rewrite its incentive report before Congress takes up transportation again in 2011.