Topic: Energy and Environment

EPA on Guard against Spills

Well, at least of the dairy kind:

New Environmental Protection Agency regulations treat spilled milk like oil, requiring farmers to build extra storage tanks and form emergency spill plans….

The EPA regulations state that “milk typically contains a percentage of animal fat, which is a non-petroleum oil. Thus, containers storing milk are subject to the Oil Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure Program rule when they meet the applicability criteria.”

Peter Daining of the Holland Sentinel (Holland, MI) has a report, including predictions that smaller dairy producers could be driven out of business by the cost of the containment rules.

Meet the New Minerals Management Service

In a move reminiscent of the George W. Bush administration, the Obama administration is cracking down on the Minerals Management Service…by changing the agency’s name.

The MMS has fallen into disrepute because, well, as E&ENews PM put it, “employees accepted gifts from oil and gas companies, participated in ‘a culture of substance abuse and promiscuity,’ and considered themselves exempt from federal ethics rules.”  The “drug and sex abuse [occurred] both inside the program and ‘in consort with industry.’ “  The New York Times reports that MMS employees “viewed pornography at work and even considered themselves part of industry.”  Yet this government agency somehow failed to prevent the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

So the Obama administration is giving MMS a makeover.  The agency formerly known as the Minerals Management Service will hereafter be known as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement.

That’s exactly how the Bush administration dealt with the unpopularity of the Health Care Financing Administration, the agency responsible for Medicare and Medicaid: by changing its name to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.  With candor and humor – two scarce commodities in such circles – Bush’s HCFA/CMS administrator Tom Scully explained the rationale:

The health care market … is extremely muted and extremely screwed up and it’s largely because of my agency. For those of you who don’t follow CMS, which used to be called HCFA, we changed the name because it was so well loved. I always say it’s kind of like when Enron comes out of bankruptcy, they’ll probably change their name. So, HCFA—Secretary Thompson and I decided to confuse everybody. We changed the name to CMS for a couple of years so people wouldn’t realize we’re actually HCFA. So far, it’s worked reasonably well.

For more on the pervasive cozy relationship between big business and big government, read Tim Carney’s Obamanomics.

For even more candor and humor concerning Medicare, read David Hyman’s Medicare Meets Mephistopheles.

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.