Topic: Energy and Environment

Risking Taxpayer Dollars on DOE Loan Guarantees

In February, I highlighted the Department of Energy’s issuance of a $6.5 billion loan guarantee to build a nuclear power facility in Georgia. At the time, the project was behind schedule with cost overruns, and the project’s owners had already secured private financing. Yet DOE issued the loan guarantee anyway.

Now we’ve learned that DOE’s actions were even more foolish than previously thought. DOE waived the credit fees charged to the company—which are meant to offset the risk to taxpayers—when it issued the loan.

According to the Washington Examiner:

“Developers of a Georgia nuclear project didn’t have to pay millions of dollars in fees designed to prevent risk for taxpayers when it secured $6.5 billion in loan guarantees from the Energy Department in February, the agency confirmed Tuesday to the Washington Examiner.

The DOE calculated a zero dollar “credit subsidy fee,” which protects taxpayers if developers default, for electric utility Georgia Power – a subsidiary of Southern Co. – and Oglethorpe Power Corp. to spur completion of two large, next-generation nuclear reactors at the Vogtle power plant in Waynesboro, Ga.”

This isn’t the first time that DOE has been criticized for the handling of its loan guarantee programs, and thus risking losses to taxpayers. In 2012, the Government Accountability Office said, “if DOE underestimates these costs [credit subsidies], taxpayers will ultimately bear the cost of default.” GAO said that DOE did not follow its own processes for handling applications “potentially increasing the taxpayer’s exposure to financial risk from an applicant’s default.”

Energy loan guarantee programs should be eliminated, but closing them doesn’t seem likely under the current administration. But you would think that even this administration would favor DOE following sound lending practices to try and minimize taxpayer losses.

BLM vs. the Nevada Rancher

The battle between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) might be viewed as an overly aggressive federal bureaucracy enforcing misguided environmental regulations vs. an oppressed individual and his overly enthusiastic supporters with guns.

However, like the ongoing battles in California between farmers and environmentalists over water, the Nevada story is more complex than that. The issues are not divided neatly along left-right political lines. In both cases, the property rights issues are complicated, and the federal government has long subsidized the use of land and water resources in the West. The first step toward a permanent solution in both cases is to revive federalism. That is, to transfer federal assets to state governments and the private sector.

To understand the Nevada situation, it is useful to consider the history of federal land ownership in the West. From an essay by Randal O’Toole and myself:

“From the founding of the nation, the federal government began accumulating large tracts of land … As the federal government was accumulating land, it was also trying to unload it. The government’s general policy for more than a century was to sell or transfer its western lands to settlers, railroad companies, and state governments … With the rise of the Progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century, federal policy began to change toward land retention and land additions. Progressives believed that federal agencies would manage western lands better than states, businesses, or individuals.”

It turned out that the Progressives were dead wrong. In his book Public Lands and Private Rights, Robert H. Nelson describes how the Progressive ideas of scientific management and federal land planning have failed repeatedly. The last century of federal land management has been “filled with laws that had lofty purposes and achieved dismal results,” he concludes. He also notes that “federal ownership of vast areas of western land is an anomaly in the American system of private enterprise and decentralized government authority.” Federal policymakers should start fixing that anomaly.

The BLM faces a complex task in juggling all the competing uses of its timberlands, rangelands, minerals, watersheds, wildlife, water, and other resources located across a huge area. Livestock grazing, timber cutting, and mineral extraction all potentially conflict with wildlife habitat, watershed protection, and outdoor recreation.

The situation is made worse by BLM officials operating in a nonmarket environment. Essentially, they run a giant socialist enterprise in trying to centrally plan vast lands and resources. The decisions the agency makes are often infuriating to Westerners because they are made by unaccountable officials on the other side of the country.

The solution is to transfer most federal lands in Nevada to the State of Nevada. Charges for the use of the land—such as grazing fees—should be set in the marketplace. Where feasible, environmentally significant land should be owned and managed by private non-profit land trusts, as discussed here. But these sorts of decisions should be made by the Nevada legislature. Politicians in Washington lack the knowledge to make the crucial land-use decisions that affect the lives of people such as Cliven Bundy, and they are far too distracted with all the other issues on the federal agenda.

California Shouldn’t Be Able to Impose Regulations on Businesses Outside of California

One of the several failures of the Articles of Confederation was the incapacity of the central government to deal with trade disputes among the states. The Constitution resolved this problem by empowering the federal government to regulate interstate commerce. It has since become a basic principle of American federalism that a state may not regulate actions in other states or impede the interstate flow of goods based on out-of-state conduct (rather than on the features of the goods themselves).

That principle was axiomatic until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld one particular extra-territorial California regulation. California recently established a Low Carbon Fuel Standard (“LCFS”) that attempts to rate the “carbon intensity” of liquid fuels, so that carbon emissions can be reduced in the Golden State. California considers not only the carbon emissions from the fuel itself being burnt, however, but also the entire “lifetime” of the fuel, including its manufacture and transportation.

This has led to complaints from Midwestern ethanol producers, whose product—which is in all other ways identical to California-produced ethanol—being severely disadvantaged in California’s liquid fuel markets, simply because it comes from further away. Groups representing farmers and fuel manufacturers sued, arguing that the LCFS constitutes a clear violation of the Commerce Clause (the Article I federal power to regulate interstate commerce) by discriminating against interstate commerce and allowing California to regulate conduct occurring wholly outside of its borders. The Ninth Circuit recently upheld the LCFS, finding the regulation permissible because its purpose was primarily environmental and not economic protectionism (although judges dissenting from the court’s denial of rehearing pointed out that this is the wrong standard to apply).

The farmers and fuel manufacturer groups have now submitted a petition to have their case heard by the Supreme Court. Cato has joined the Pacific Legal Foundation, National Federation of Independent Business, Reason Foundation, California Manufacturers & Technology Association, and the Energy & Environmental Legal Institute on an amicus brief supporting the petition.

We argue that the lower court’s ruling provides a template for other states to follow should they want to evade Supreme Court precedents barring obstruction of interstate commerce and extraterritorial regulation. As the Founders fully recognized, ensuring the free flow of commerce among the states is vital to the wellbeing of the nation, and California’s actions—and the Ninth Circuit’s endorsement of them—threaten to clog up that flow. Not only does the appellate ruling allow California to throw national fuel markets into disarray, it invites other states to destabilize interstate markets and incite domestic trade disputes—precisely the type of uncooperative behavior the Constitution was designed to prevent.

The Supreme Court will likely decide whether to take Rocky Mountain Farmers Union v. Corey before it recesses for the summer. For more on the case, see this blogpost by PLF’s Tony Francois.

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Julio Colomba.

Your Freedom Is Someone Else’s Hell

Yonah Freemark, a writer over at Atlantic Cities–which normally loves any transit boondoggle–somewhat sheepishly admits that light rail hasn’t lived up to all of its expectations. Despite its popularity among transit agencies seeking federal grants, light rail “neither rescued the center cities of their respective regions nor resulted in higher transit use.”

Not to worry, however; Atlantic Cities still hates automobiles, or at least individually owned automobiles. Another article by writer Robin Chase suggests that driverless cars will create a “world of hell” if people are allowed to own their own cars. Instead, driverless cars should be welcomed only if they are collectively owned and shared.

The hell that would result from individually owned driverless cars would happen because people would soon discover they could send their cars places without anyone in them. As Chase says, “If single-occupancy vehicles are the bane of our congested highways and cities right now, imagine the congestion when we pour in unfettered zero-occupancy vehicles.” Never mind the fact that driverless cars will greatly reduce congestion by tripling roadway capacities and avoid congestion by consulting on-line congestion reports.

Close the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Program

The Government Accountability Office’s annual duplication report is out. This year, the report highlights 30 ways that the federal government can save money. One way is to terminate the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing (ATVM) program, which provides government-subsidized loans to companies that make fuel-efficient cars. The program has been a failure, and it has cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Established by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, ATVM was authorized to provide a total of $25 billion in loans for projects that “support the production of fuel-efficient, advanced technology vehicles and components in the United States.” Companies that participated in the program could borrow funds directly from the government with very little out-of-pocket expenses—participants only had to pay some upfront borrowing costs. But Congress made the program even more lucrative in 2009 by provided $7.5 billion to help offset those borrowing costs.

The Department of Energy (DOE) has issued five ATVM loans totaling $8.4 billion so far—with an additional $3.3 billion in borrowing costs. In its promotional material for the program, DOE highlights three of the recipients: Ford Motor Company, Nissan North America, and Tesla Motors.

However, these DOE materials don’t mention loans to two other companies, Fisker Automotive and Vehicle Production Group (VPG). I think I know why: taxpayers lost almost $200 million on those two loans.

Fisker Automotive borrowed $529 million from the federal government to produce its luxury car, Karma. The loan was touted by the administration, including by Vice President Biden. Biden said “the story of Fisker is a story of ingenuity of an American company, a commitment to innovation by the U.S. government and the perseverance of the American auto industry.”

The car was a flop from the beginning. It was recalled, and it received poor performance ratings. Fisker lost an estimated $35,000 on each vehicle sold. A year after issuing the loan, DOE halted Fisker’s borrowing authority after the company had already borrowed $192 million. Fisker filed for bankruptcy shortly thereafter. Only $50 million of the $192 million has been recovered for taxpayers.

Vehicle Production Group had financial and production problems as well. In addition, its loan was questioned due to the political connection between its adviser and the White House. The adviser was a fundraiser for the White House and “headed Obama’s vice presidential selection committee in 2008.” The company quietly folded costing taxpayers the full $50 million loan.

The taxpayer losses from Fisker and VPG were in addition to the losses from other federal energy loans to companies such as Solyndra and Abound Solar. After all the bad press from these failed energy subsidies, demand for the loans dried up. According to a March 2013 report from GAO, DOE was no longer considering applications for the remaining $16.6 billion in loan authority and $4.2 billion in borrowing cost subsidies. Auto companies told GAO that the “costs of participating outweigh the benefits.”

However, Congress still has not rescinded ATVM’s loan authority. DOE could start reissuing loans under the failed program at any point, and it is re-launching its promotional efforts. Closing the program would not only save taxpayers money, it would reduce government interventions in the energy and automobile markets. For reformers in Congress, this change should be a no-brainer.

Social Cost of Carbon Inflated by Extreme Sea Level Rise Projections

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

As we mentioned in our last post, the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is in the process of reviewing how the Obama administration calculates and uses the social cost of carbon (SCC). The SCC is a loosey-goosey computer model result that attempts to determine the present value of future damages that result from climate change caused by pernicious economic activity. Basically, it can be gamed to give any result you want.

We have filed a series of comments with the OMB outlining what is wrong with the current federal determination of the SCC used as the excuse for more carbon dioxide restrictions. There is so much wrong with the feds’ SCC, that we concluded that rather than just update it, the OMB ought to just chuck the whole concept of the social cost of carbon out the window and quickly close and lock it.

We have discussed many of the problems with the SCC before, and in our last post we described how the feds have turned the idea of a “social cost” on its head. In this installment, we describe a particularly egregious fault that exists in at least one of the prominent models used by the federal government to determine the SCC: The projections of future sea-level rise (a leading driver of future climate change-related damages) from the model are much higher than even the worst-case mainstream scientific thinking on the matter. This necessarily results in an SCC determination that is higher than the best science could possibly allow.

The text below, describing our finding, is adapted from our most recent set of comments to the OMB.

The Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy (DICE) model, developed by Yale economist William Nordhaus (2010a), is what is termed an “integrated assessment model” or, IAM. An IAM is computer model which combines economics, climate change and feedbacks between the two to project how future societies are impacted by projected climate change and ultimately to determine the social cost of carbon (i.e., how much future damage, in today’s monetary terms, occurs for each unit emission of carbon (dioxide)).

The Current Wisdom: The Administration’s Social Cost of Carbon Turns “Social Cost” on Its Head

This Current Wisdom takes an in-depth look at how politics can masquerade as science.

                      “A pack of foma,” Bokonon said

                                                Paraphrased from Cat’s Cradle (1963), Kurt Vonnegut

In his 1963 classic, Cat’s Cradle, iconic writer Kurt Vonnegut described the sleepy little Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, where the populace was mesmerized by the prophet Bokonon, who created his own religion and his own vocabulary. Bokonon communicated his religion through simple verses he called “calypsos.” “Foma” are half-truths that conveniently serve the religion, and the paraphrase above is an apt description of the Administration’s novel approach to determining the “social cost of carbon” (dioxide). 

Because of a pack of withering criticism, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is now in the process of reviewing how the Obama Administration calculates and uses the social cost of carbon (SCC).  We have filed a series of Comments with the OMB outlining what is wrong with the current SCC determination. Regular readers of this blog are familiar with some of the problems that we have identified, but our continuing analysis of the Administration’s SCC has yielded a few more nuggets.

We describe a particularly rich one here—that the government wants us to pay more today to offset a modest climate change experienced by a wealthy future society than to help alleviate a lot of climate change impacting a less well-off future world.