Topic: Regulatory Studies

EPA: Fracking Doesn’t Affect Groundwater

Last week the Environmental Protection Agency released a study that concluded that hydraulic fracturing, so-called “fracking” of oil and natural gas wells, does not contaminate drinking water, except in extremely unusual cases involving improper drilling techniques. The study should reduce the concerns of some of the technique’s vocal critics whose fears have led to restrictions on its use.

The EPA study reviewed the results from thousands of wells and found few faults with the drilling technique. When problems occurred, they stemmed from improperly sealed wells, which can affect any oil or gas well and not just those that utilize hydraulic fracturing.

Free Market Recycling

Environmentalists often assume that free markets work against their goals. But the market is the best friend of the natural world because it generates constant pressure to innovate, to cut costs, and to use resources efficiently. The price system prompts consumers and businesses to minimize consumption of dwindling resources. To ease California’s water problems, for example, we need markets not regulatory controls.

The Wall Street Journal today has a pair of stories on scrap metal recycling:

Waste has long been a major U.S. export, providing material to be melted in foreign steel mills or made into new paper products. But the strength of the dollar has made American waste pricier abroad, cutting demand…

… That has been hard on the network of waste dealers and scrap gatherers who are the backbone of the industry. Bob Hooper, who goes by Hoop, finds discarded metal on curbs and in dumpsters around Pittsburgh and carries it to scrapyards in a rusting Chevy pickup with a bungee cord to keep the driver’s door shut.

… On a recent day, he hauled in more than 1,000 pounds of scrap, including two discarded refrigerators, a water heater and a broken microwave buried in egg shells and other moist trash. After gasoline expenses, he netted about $80.

From a related story in today’s Journal:

Wherever he goes in his Chevy pickup, Bob “Hoop” Hooper scans for discarded metal—a mangled bike, a broken microwave, even a beer can. “That’s like the No. 1 rule of scrapping,” Mr. Hooper, 48 years old, explained recently. “Don’t pass up metal.”

Scrapping—gathering metal and selling it to scrap dealers—is a tough job, involving excavations inside dumpsters, forays into dangerous neighborhoods and, lately, falling metal prices.

… Most mornings he hits the road around 9 a.m., and by late afternoon has filled the back of his pickup and earned anywhere from $40 to several hundred dollars at scrapyards. In the evening, he dismantles appliances and sorts valuable metals like copper and brass into plastic buckets. “It gives me something to do while I’m watching TV,” he said.

One regular stop is a housing complex with 31 dumpsters. On a recent morning, he found an umbrella and a mop in one. “It don’t seem like much, but as long as you’re getting something from every stop, it piles up,” he said.

Green groups often confer awards on politicians who press for more control over markets. But they should instead champion people like Bob Hooper. He is devoting his career to recycling, which is helping to reduce landfill waste. His work also boosts the economy, which we know because he is earning a net return in the marketplace.

Bob Hooper has a dirty job, but he is creating a cleaner environment the market-based way.

Illinois Uses Racial Preferences for No Good Reason

Since before the Declaration of Independence, equality under the law has been a central feature of American identity. The Fourteenth Amendment expanded that constitutional precept to actions by states, not just the federal government. For example, if a state government wants to use race as a factor in pursuing a certain policy, it must do so in the furtherance of a compelling reason—like preventing prison riots—and it must do so in as narrowly tailored a way as possible.

This means, among other things, that race-neutral solutions must be considered and used as much as possible. So if a state were to, say, set race-based quotas for who receives its construction contracts and then claim that no race-neutral alternatives will suffice—without showing why—that would fall far short of the high bar our laws set for race-conscious government action.

Yet that is precisely what Illinois has done.

Illinois’s Department of Transportation and the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority have implemented the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Disadvantaged Business Entity (“DBE”) program, which aims to remedy past discrimination against minority and women contractors by granting competitive benefits to those groups. While there may be a valid government interest in remedying past discrimination, Illinois’s implementation of the program blows through strict constitutional requirements and bases its broad use of racial preferences on studies that either employ highly dubious methodology or are so patently outdated that they provide no legal basis on which to conclude, as constitutionally required, that there remains ongoing, systemic, widespread racial (or gender) discrimination in the public-construction-contracting industry that only the DBE program can rectify.

The Folly of Centralized Spending

I’ve argued that the centralization of government spending in Washington over the past century has severely undermined good governance. Citizens get worse outcomes when funding and decisionmaking for education, infrastructure, and other things are made by the central government rather than state and local governments and the private sector. The problem is the same in the European Union, as a new article in Bloomberg on the funding of Polish airports illustrates:

Local authorities are spending some 205 million zloty ($58 million), including more than $44 million in EU subsidies, to build runways and a new terminal that could accommodate more than 1 million passengers a year. The Olsztyn Mazury Airport is scheduled to open next January, but traffic and revenue forecasts developed by the project’s backers are “very far from reality,” says Jacek Krawczyk, a former chairman of LOT Polish airlines who advises the EU on aviation policy through its European Economic and Social Committee.

Szymany adds to a burgeoning supply of costly new airports across Poland. Since 2007, the EU has spent more than €600 million ($666 million) to build or renovate a dozen Polish airports.

… Mostly, though, Poland’s new airports have been a financial bust. A report in December by the European Court of Auditors found that EU-subsidized airport projects in Poland, as well as others in Estonia, Greece, Italy, and Spain, had “produced poor value for money.” Traffic at most airports fell far short of projections, and there was little evidence of broader economic benefits, such as job creation, the report found.  

With respect to U.S. infrastructure, there is ongoing pressure to increase federal investment, despite decades of experience on the inefficiency of it. Politicians and lobby groups constantly complain that America does not spend enough on infrastructure. But they rarely discuss how to ensure efficiency in spending, or cite any advantages of federal spending over state, local, and private spending.

I’ve discussed the many downsides to federal aid for infrastructure and other local activities here and here. But I was alerted to an additional argument against aid from this Regulation article by William Fischel and this book by James Bennett. Federal aid encourages local governments to expropriate private property, often for dubious purposes.

The article and book discuss the expropriation of Detroit homes for the benefit of General Motors in the 1980s. The “Poletown” project would not have happened without $200 million in federal and state loans and grants to the city. So Fischel makes the point that (abusive) government uses of eminent domain—such as the Kelo case in New London, Connecticut—are encouraged by the flow of federal and state funds to cities. That is, money for “economic development” and the like.

State and local governments would make better decisions if they were responsible for their own funding of programs and projects. The annual flow of more than $600 billion in federal aid to state and local governments should be phased out over time and eliminated.

The Lax Kw’alaams and Why Property Rights Matter

The New York Times recently reported that the Lax Kw’alaams Band, an indigenous tribe in a remote part of British Columbia, has rejected a $1 billion offer for their consent to the construction of a natural gas processing facility that would service a nearby liquefied natural gas terminal. The group, which has about 3,600 members, would have received the equivalent of about $277,000 per person to allow the plant. The leader of the group explained their decision by saying, “Hopefully, the public will recognize that unanimous consensus in communities (and where unanimity is the exception) against a project where those communities are offered in excess of a billion dollars, sends an unequivocal message this is not a money issue: this is environmental and cultural.”

In normal market transactions, resources flow to those who value them the most regardless of who owns them initially. In this case, that would imply the decision to build the facility (whether now or in the future) does not depend on whether the Lax Kw’alaams Band or the gas company owns the land. Ownership simply determines who has to pay whom in order to develop the land or leave it undeveloped. If the gas company owned the land, they would not have to pay the tribe in order to develop the plant, but the tribe could purchase the land (or, at least, an anti-development easement) from the gas company in order to keep it undeveloped. If the tribe owns the land, the gas company would have to pay or the land would stay undeveloped. In both cases, development would occur if the gas company values the land more than the tribe.

That’s the general theory, but in this particular case the facts suggest that initial property rights do matter. In the case of the Lax Kw’alaams, the group places great value on keeping the land from being despoiled by a natural gas plant. A decade or so ago, the Canadian Supreme Court determined that tribes like the Lax Kw’alaams must be consulted and accommodated if projects cross their land. The tribe clearly has strong preferences for a pristine environment, and has made the choice to forgo a windfall to maintain it.

But what would have happened if the property rights belonged to someone else? If the party given the right had weaker environmental preferences, the terminal would likely be built; it’s doubtful the Lax Kw’alaams would win (or perhaps even enter) a bidding war with the gas company over control of the land. Because participants in environmental policy disputes “know” that property rights matter in this way, they fight politically over who has the current property rights rather than allow rights to exist and be traded.

Maryland Passes Tesla Bill

This week, people in Maryland got the news of Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature of HB 235, the so-called “Tesla Bill.” The law allows, for the first time, makers of electric cars to sell directly to consumers, bypassing traditional auto dealerships.

During the last few years, a number of states have prevented Tesla Motors from selling cars directly to consumers.  They have enforced laws that require the use of independent dealers to complete sales.

In the Summer 2014 issue of Regulation professor Daniel Crane explained that these laws are a legacy of past battles between dealers and legacy automakers like GM and Ford over the distribution of wealth losses during recessions and the number of dealerships whose fixed costs must be supported relative to Toyota and Honda.

This history has little to do with niche manufacturers like Tesla that do not want to use dealers.  But dealers do not want the possibility of non-dealer sales to spread to traditional manufacturers.     HB 235 codifies this sentiment. It allows Tesla and other electric car makers to sell directly to consumers.  But it preserves the status quo for all other traditional cars and trucks, whose dealers understood that not allowing a Tesla exception would focus undue attention on their regulatory protection and perhaps cause voters to demand more fundamental reform.

A Spurned Vendor — And a Tip To the FTC

In 2010, the Federal Trade Commission approached an Atlanta-based medical testing company, LabMD, with accusations that it had wrongfully left its customer data insecure and vulnerable to hackers. LabMD’s owner denied that the company was at fault and a giant legal battle ensued. To quote my post last year at Overlawyered:

…according to owner Michael Daugherty, allegations of data insecurity at LabMD emanated from a private firm that held a Homeland Security contract to roam the web sniffing out data privacy gaps at businesses, even as it simultaneously offered those same businesses high-priced services to plug the complained-of gaps.

Last week, finally, after five years, the case reached an administrative hearing at the FTC, which heard “bombshell” testimony given under immunity by former Tiversa employee Richard Wallace:

After LabMD CEO Michael Daugherty refused to buy Tiversa’s services, Tiversa reported false information to the FTC about an alleged security incident involving LabMD’s data, Wallace claimed in his testimony.

CNN headlined its story “Whistleblower accuses cybersecurity company of extorting clients” – that is, by threatening to turn them in to the feds if they spurned its vendor services.

To be sure, allegations are merely allegations, and we haven’t heard Tiversa’s side of the story, except for a statement from its CEO Bob Boback: “This is an overblown case of a terminated employee seeking revenge. Tiversa has received multiple awards from law enforcement for our continued efforts to help support them in cyber activities.” The advisory board of the Pittsburgh-based security services company includes former four-star Army general and former Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark.