Topic: Energy and Environment

Return of the Neo-Malthusians

This Earth Day we heard various commentators bemoan the growth in population, consumption, and carbon emissions driven by fossil fueled technologies. Once again we are told that this is unsustainable, that we are running out of resources, prices are inevitably headed up, and, worse, such consumption reduces  both environmetal and human well-being. In this worldview, industrialization and economic development were fashioned in the Devil’s crucible, and that de-industrialization and de-development will be our saviour.

I have started a series of posts at Master Resources that compares the above Neo-Malthusian view of industrialization, economic growth, and technological change against empirical data on human well-being from the age of industrialization.  The first post revisits the bet made in 1980 by Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich on the direction of commodity prices, and examines long term trends in the prices and affordability of various commodities.  Specifically,  for metals, I look at trends going back to 1800, while for food I examine trends from 1900 onward. Parts II and III will compare long term trends in population, consumption, economic development, and carbon emissions against trends in human well-being for the world (from 1750 onward) and the United States (from 1900 onward). Finally, Part IV will provide an explanation as to why empirical data is at odds with the Neo-Malthusian worldview.

Part I, which examines the Simon-Ehrlich Bet in the context of long term trends in the prices and affordability of various commodities, is here.

Oil Import Make Believe

A conversation with documentarian Robert Stone regarding Earth Day is featured today in The New York Times’s “Dot Earth” online column.  In the course of his conversation with the Times’s Andrew Revkin, Mr. Stone – who is quite alarmed about our reliance on foreign oil – asks:  “How many Americans know that we send about $800 billion to the Middle East every year for oil?”

Hopefully, not many. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. spent $95.4 billion on crude oil imports from OPEC sources in 2009.  But not all OPEC members are from the Middle East.  That $95.4 billion includes dollars spent on oil originating from Algeria ($6.3 billion), Angola ($9 billion), Ecuador ($3.4 billion), Nigeria ($17.7 billion), and Venezuela ($23.4 billion) – none of which are in the Middle East.  Subtract out that oil and we arrive at $35.6 billion spent on Middle Eastern crude oil (a figure rounded from the original nominal counts.  I have used the customs value – that is, the estimated value – of the oil being imported rather than the figures that include additional costs for insurance and transportation because money being spent on insurance and shipping goes to third parties that are not for the most part located in the Middle East.  But if one wants to use those slightly higher figures, it won’t change the numbers very much at all).

For what it’s worth, the total amount of dollars Americans sent abroad for crude oil from all sources was $188.5 billion last year.

Even if the figure were $800 billion, so what?  No one is forcing refineries to buy crude oil from foreign suppliers.  They presumably believe that the oil at issue is more valuable than the money that must be offered to secure said oil and that oil from other sources is more expensive than oil from the Middle East. Hence, they buy. This is by definition a wealth creating transaction for American business enterprises. Foreign trade, Mr. Stone, is a good thing.

The implicit claim, of course, is that there are negative externalities associated with foreign oil consumption. This, however, is faith masquerading as fact (an argument also well made by Cato adjunct scholar Richard Gordon).

Regardless, Mr. Stone overstates the alleged problem by orders of magnitude.

Earth Day Links

Today is the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, a time to highlight and discuss ways to work toward a cleaner planet. Cato’s energy and environment research promotes policies that would help protect the environment without sacrificing economic liberty, goals that are mutually supporting, not mutually exclusive.

  • Why we should thank capitalism for environmental gains: “It is businessmen — not bureaucrats or environmental activists — who deserve most of the credit for the environmental gains over the past century and who represent the best hope for a Greener tomorrow.”
  • Finding the right balance: “Today, America’s environment is cleaner—and Earth Day has indeed helped ensure that. …We should renew our promise to keep the environment clean—without adding to human misery or stalling improvements in the human condition.”

Ten Protectionist Senators Pay Lip-Service to International Trade Rules

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D, OH), along with eight other “usual suspects,” yesterday sent a letter to Senators John Kerry (D, MA), Joe Lieberman (I, CT) and Lindsey Graham (R, SC), outlining what’s necessary for their support of the latter’s climate green jobs bill (there seems to be some confusion about the precise purpose). The math, assuming that Republicans vote as a block to defeat the bill, requires that these senators’ demands be met if the Democrats are to overcome a filibuster and pass the bill.

So what exactly do they want? The main thrust of their demands seems to be for U.S. manufacturing’s competitiveness to be “addressed,” including by asking for the bill to “invest” (don’t you just love the way that word is used in the public policy context?) in retooling, R&D, and “support [for] American manufacturers of clean energy technology,” among other requirements.

Of course, no letter from these folks* would be complete without the obligatory  calls for a “level playing field.” Their wish-list therefore also includes provisions to ”apply border measures to prevent carbon leakage”. That, my friends, is a clear reference to carbon tariffs. The senators explain their concerns as follows:

An automatically triggered border measure is necessary to promote comparable action from other countries and prevent carbon leakage. To avoid undermining the environmental objective of the climate legislation, a WTO-consistent border adjustment measure, which the WTO has recognized as a usable tool in combating climate change, should apply to imports from countries that do not have in place comparable greenhouse gas emissions reduction requirements to those adopted by the United States. A border adjustment measure is critical to ensuring that climate change legislation will be trade neutral and environmentally effective.

Much of these sentiments are familiar. Indeed, I have combatted some of the myths implicit in the statement, including why “carbon leakage” might be a bit of a red herring, in my paper from September 2009, “A Harsh Climate for Trade,” and at a Hill brief I gave on this topic last year.

There are a couple of new and interesting things here, though. First, the  almost convincing attempt by these senators to cloak their protectionism in green-speak about the need to ensure that climate legislation is environmentally effective. They will have to keep that up, too, if they are to stay on the right side of WTO law, which says there must be a clear link between a trade measure and an environmental purpose if the measure is to be at least prima facie legitimate.  Imposing border measures to address adverse competitiveness effects of domestic environmental regulations, in other words, probably won’t cut it. (“A Harsh Climate” has more on why unilateral border actions may in and of themselves be inconsistent with WTO obligations.)

Second, and related to the issue of WTO legitimacy,  is the reference to the WTO “recogniz[ing]” border adjustment measures as “a useable tool in combating climate change.” This is disengenuous and possibly misleading rhetoric from the senators, because the WTO has done no such thing. There has been no formal ruling on this issue from any WTO judicial body, because no such cases have come before it. The WTO members as a group have not issued a proclaimation on it, either. I suspect the senators are referring to a joint WTO/United Nations Environment Programme report that came out last year, but as I said in my paper, that report “merely summarizes the relevant provisions, precedents and existing literature on the question on WTO consistency–without reaching any prescriptive conclusion at all.” And the demand that this tool be “automatically triggered” may put it at odds with jurisprudence that says that certain administrative procedures–including the right for a WTO member to review and appeal any decisions made–must be followed (reference for the trade wonks reading this: I am referring to Shrimp-Turtle). 

In sum, while the senators are at least trying to appear as if they give two straws about international obligations (and for small mercies we should be grateful, I guess), I’m not convinced they fully understand the implications of their proposal. Shocking, I know.

* The first letter sent by the group let by Sherrod Brown was signed by Senators Russ Feingold (D, WI), Jay Rockefeller (D, WV), and Al Franken (D, MN). Those senators did not sign the latest letter, and were “replaced” by substitute protectionists Claire McCaskill (D, MO), Kay Hagan (D, NC), and Mark Warner (D, VA).

Atomic Dreams

Last week I was on John Stossel’s (most excellent) new show on Fox Business News to discuss energy policy – in particular, popular myths that Republicans have about energy markets.  One of the topics I touched upon was nuclear power.  My argument was the same that I have offered in print: Nuclear power is a swell technology but, given the high construction costs associated with building nuclear reactors, it’s a technology that cannot compete in free markets without a massive amount of government support.  If one believes in free markets, then one should look askance at such policies. 

As expected, the atomic cult has taken offense. 

Now, it is reasonable to argue that excessive regulatory oversight has driven up the cost of nuclear power and that a “better” regulatory regime would reduce costs.  Perhaps.  But I have yet to see any concrete accounting of exactly which regulations are “bad” along with associated price tags for the same.  If anyone out there in Internet-land has access to a good, credible accounting like that, please, send it my way.  But until I see something tangible, what we have here is assertion masquerading as fact.

Most of those who consider themselves “pro-nuke” are unaware of the fact that the current federal regulatory regime was thoroughly reformed in the late 1990s to comport with the industry’s model of what a “good” federal regulatory regime would look like.  As Oliver Kingsley Jr., the President of Exelon Nuclear, put it in Senate testimony back in 2001:

The current regulatory environment has become more stable, timely, and predictable, and is an important contributor to improved performance of nuclear plants in the United States.  This means that operators can focus more on achieving operational efficiencies and regulators can focus more on issues of safety significance.  It is important to note that safety is being maintained and, in fact enhanced, as these benefits of regulatory reform are being realized.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission – and this Subcommittee – can claim a number of successes in their efforts to improve the nuclear regulatory environment.  These include successful implementation of the NRC Reactor Oversight Process, the timely extension of operating licenses at Calvert Cliffs and Oconee, the establishment of a one-step licensing process for advanced reactors, the streamlining of the license transfer process, and the increased efficiency in processing licensing actions.

It’s certainly possible that the industry left some desirable reforms undone, but it seems relevant to me that the Nuclear Energy Institute – the trade association for the nuclear energy industry and a fervent supporter of all these government assistance programs – does not complain that they’re being unfairly hammered by costly red-tape.

For the most part, however, the push-back against the arguments I offered last week has little to do with this.  It has to do with bias.  According to a post by Rod Adams over at “Atomic Insights Blog,” I am guilty of ignoring subsidies doled-out to nuclear’s biggest competitor – natural gas – and because Cato gets money from Koch Industries, it’s clear that my convenient neglect of that matter is part of a corporate-funded attack on nuclear power.  Indeed, Mr. Adams claims that he has unearthed a “smoking gun” with this observation.

Normally, I would ignore attacks like this.  This particular post, however, offers the proverbial “teachable moment” that should not be allowed to go to waste.

First, let’s look at the substance of the argument.  Did I “give natural gas a pass” as Mr. Adams contends? Well, yes and no; the show was about the cost of nuclear power, not the cost of natural gas.  I did note that natural gas-fired electricity was more attractive in this economic environment than nuclear power, something that happens to be true.  Had John Stossel asked me about whether gas’ economic advantage was due to subsidy, I would have told him that I am against natural gas subsidies as well – a position I have staked-out time and time again in other venues (while there are plenty of examples, this piece I co-authored with Daniel Becker – then of the Sierra Club – for The Los Angeles Times represents my thinking on energy subsidies across the board.  A blog post a while back about the Democratic assault on oil and gas subsidies found me arguing that the D’s should actually go further!  Dozens of other similar arguments against fossil fuel subsidies can be found on my publications page).  So let’s dispose of Mr. Adams’ implicit suggestion that I am some sort of tool for the oil and gas industry, arguing against subsidies here but not against subsidies there.

Second, let’s consider the implicit assertion that Mr. Adams makes – that natural gas-fired electricity is more attractive than nuclear power primarily because of subsidy.  The most recent and thorough assessment of this matter comes from Prof. Gilbert Metcalf, an economist at Tufts University.  Prof. Metcalf agrees with a 2004 report from the Energy Information Administration which contended that preferences for natural gas production in the tax code do little to increase natural gas production and thus do little to make natural gas less expensive than it might otherwise be.  They are wealth transfers for sure, but they do not do much to change natural gas supply or demand curves and thus do not affect consumer prices.  Prof. Metcalf argues that if we had truly level regulatory playing field without any tax distortions, natural gas-fired electricity would actually go down, not up!  Government intervention in energy markets does indeed distort gas-fired electricity prices.  It makes those prices higher than they otherwise would be!

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) identified five natural gas subsidies in 2007 that were relevant to the electricity sector (table 5).  Only two are of particular consequence.  They are:

  • Expensing of Exploration and Development Costs – Gas producers are allowed to expense exploration and development expenditures rather than capitalize and depreciate those costs over time.  Oil and gas producers (combined) took advantage of this tax break to the tune of $860 million per year.  How much goes to gas production rather than to oil production is unclear.
  • Excess of Percentage over Cost Depletion Deferral – Under cost depletion, producers are allowed to make an annual deduction equal to the non-recovered cost of acquisition and development of the resource times the proportion of the resource removed that year.  Under percentage depletion, producers deduct a percentage of gross income from resource production.  Oil and gas producers (combined) take advantage of this tax break to the tune of $790 million per year.  How much goes to gas production rather than to oil production is unclear. 

Even if we put aside the fact that these subsidies don’t impact final consumer prices in any significant manner, it’s useful to keep in mind the fact that the subsidy per unit of gas-fired electricity production – as calculated by EIA – works out to 25 cents per megawatt hour (table 35).  Subsidy per unit of nuclear-fired electricity production works out to $1.59 per megawatt hour.  Hence, the argument that nuclear subsidies are relatively small in comparison with natural gas subsidies is simply incorrect.

Some would argue that the Foreign Tax Credit – a generally applicable credit available to corporations doing business overseas that allows firms to treat royalty payments to foreign governments as a tax that can be deducted from domestic corporate income taxes – should likewise be on the subsidy list.  The Environmental Law Institute calculates that this credit saves the fossil fuel industry an additional $15.3 billion.  There is room for debate about the wisdom of that credit, but regardless, it doesn’t appear as if the Foreign Tax Credit affects domestic U.S. prices for gas-fired electricity.     

The bigger point is that without government help, few doubt that the natural gas industry would still be humming and electricity would still be produced in large quantities from gas-fired generators.  But without government production subsidies, without loan guarantees, and without liability protection via the Price-Anderson Act, even the nuclear power industry concedes that they would disappear.

Now, to be fair, Prof. Metcalf reports that nuclear power is cheaper than gas-fired power under both current law and under a no-subsidy, no-tax regime.  His calculations, however, were made at a time when natural gas prices were at near historic highs that were thought to be the new norm in energy markets and were governed by fairly optimistic assumptions about nuclear power plant construction costs.  Those assumptions have not held-up well with time.  For a more recent assessment, see my review of this issue in Reasonalong with this study from MIT, which warns that if more government help isn’t forthcoming, “nuclear power will diminish as a practical and timely option for deployment at a scale that would constitute a material contribution to climate change risk mitigation.”

Third, Mr. Adams argues that federal nuclear loan guarantee program is a self-evidently good deal and implies that only an anti-industry agitprop specialist (like me) could possibly refuse to see that.  “That program, with its carefully designed and implemented due diligence requirements for project viability, should actually produce revenue for the government.”  Funny, but when private investors perform those due diligence exercises, they come to a very different conclusion … which is why we have a federal loan guarantee program in the first place. 

Who do you trust to watch over your money – investment bankers or Uncle Sam?  The former don’t have the best track record in the world these days, but note that the popular indictment of that crowd is that investment banks weren’t tight fisted enough when it came to lending.  If even these guys were saying no to nuclear power – and at a time when money was flowing free and easy – what makes Mr. Adams think that a bunch of politicians are right about the glorious promise of nuclear power, particularly given the “too cheap to meter” rhetoric we’ve heard from the political world now for the better part of five decades? 

Anyway, for what it’s worth, the Congressional Budget Office has taken a close look at this alleged bonanza for the taxpayer and judged the risk of default on these loan guarantees to be around 50 percent.  They may be wrong of course, but the risks are there, something Moody’s acknowledged last year in a published analysis warning that they were likely to downgrade the credit-worthiness of nuclear power plant construction loans.

Fourth and finally, Mr. Adams cites Cato’s skepticism about “end-is-near” climate alarmism as yet more evidence that we are on the take from the fossil fuels industry.  I don’t know if Mr. Adams has been following current events lately, but I would think that we’re looking pretty good right now on that front.  Der Spiegel – no hot-bed of “Big Oil” agitprop – sums up the state of the debate rather nicely in the wake of the ongoing collapse of IPCC credibility.  Matt Ridley – another former devotee of climate alarmism – likewise sifts through the rubble that is now the infamous Michael Mann “hockey stick” analysis (which allegedly demonstrated an unprecedented degree of warming in the 20th Century) and finds thorough and total rot at the heart of the alarmist argument.  Mr. Adams is perhaps unaware that our own Pat Michaels has been making these arguments for years and Cato has no apologies to make on that score. 

Regardless, ad hominem is the sign of a man running out of arguments.  There aren’t many here to rebut, but the form of the complaints offered by Mr. Adams speaks volumes about how little the pro-nuclear camp has to offer right now in defense of nuclear power subsidies.

I have no animus towards nuclear power per se.  If nuclear power could compete without government help, I would be as happy as Mr. Adams or the next MIT nuclear engineer.  But I am no more “pro” nuclear power than I am “pro” any power.  It is not for me to pick winners in the market place.  That’s the invisible hand’s job.  If there is bad regulation out there harming the industry, then by all means, let’s see a list of said bad regulations and amend them accordingly.  But once those regulations are amended (if there are indeed any that need amending), nuclear power should still be subject to an unbiased market test.  Unlike Mr. Adams, I don’t want to see that test rigged.

Obama Knows the Drill

President Obama should be credited—albeit cautiously—for his announcement yesterday that he will open some U.S. coastal waters to offshore oil drilling.  The fact that this is an interesting political reversal on Obama’s part has been treated extensively elsewhere.  But what of the substance of the president’s drilling proposal?

I and other free-market advocates have spoken for years of the potential energy benefits of allowing this drilling, so I won’t devote too much space to repeating myself.  The best encapsulation of my own thinking on the subject is this piece I wrote for the LA Times in 2008.

A few points worth adding:

Obama’s press conference at Andrews Air Force Base yesterday did indicate a welcome new direction for U.S. energy policy.  But in an absolutely perfect world, the government would not be in the business of allocating scarce resources—in this case, the offshore oil fields—to competing user groups. The market would play that role.

Hence, the best policy would be to divest this land via auction and allow environmentalists, recreationalists and preservationists to compete with oil and gas companies for the rights to those resources.

It is not at all inconceivable to me that those opposed to drilling, whatever their reasons, might well out-bid extraction industries for rights to some of these fields. Unfortunately, there seems to be limited political support for privatization, so President Obama’s initiative is probably better than the status quo.

We need to remember, however, that if governments could intelligently allocate scarce resources across the economy without recourse to market information or institutions, then the North Korean economy would work swimmingly.

Celebrate Human Achievement Tonight

Environmentalist groups and celebrities are celebrating “Earth Hour” tonight. They ask that you turn your lights out for an hour, to call attention to global warming.  Folks at the Competitive Enterprise Institute suggest that “this sends the wrong message – to plunge us all into darkness as a rejection of technology and human achievement.” In fact, they point out that it’s Earth Hour every night in North Korea, where people lack basic freedoms, as well as affordable, reliable access to many human achievements, such as electricity. Check out this famous photo of environmentally conscious North Koreans observing Earth Hour all night, every night.

CEI rejects the rejection of technology. They have declared the hour between 8:30 and 9:30 tonight to be “Human Achievement Hour.” To join the celebration, just turn your lights on tonight and enjoy the human achievement of light when we want it. And watch CEI’s short video history of human achievement here.