Topic: Energy and Environment

Fake News Harms Our Economy

Democrats complain that fake news stories from web sites supposedly linked to Russia undermined the electoral process. The Antiplanner has been concerned with a related issue for some time, which is fake news stories inspired by Russia that undermine our economy. Here are a few of those stories that I hope Democrats will disavow.

Fake News Item #1: Urban sprawl is paving over all of our farms

This is an old one that has been used to justify central planning similar to that done in the Soviet Union. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the contiguous 48 states have 900 million acres of agricultural land, of which we use only about 40 percent for growing crops. The acres used for crop production have been declining, not because they are getting paved over, but because per-acre yields of most crops are growing faster than our population.

Meanwhile, the department also says that just 84 million acres have been urbanized. This is a little less than the Census Bureau’s estimate of 106 million acres, but either way, as the Department of Agriculture says, urbanization is “not considered a threat to the Nation’s food production.”

Fake News Item #2: Suburbs make people fat

This fake story came out when a fake-news group did a study that found a “small” correlation between suburbs and obesity, then loudly proclaimed that they had proven that suburbs make people fat. They ignored the truth that correlation does not prove causation, and later studies found that, if people in suburbs weigh slightly more than people in cities, it is because overweight people choose to live in the suburbs. Thus, the real story is that overweight people helped to make the suburbs, not the other way around.

Fake News Item #3: Urban transit saves energy

This fake story has been retold so often that people take it for granted. In fact, as the Department of Energy’s Transportation Energy Data Book reveals, the average car used about 3,122 BTUs per passenger mile in 2014 while the average transit bus used 3,829.

While some rail transit lines (notably the New York subway) used less energy than cars, calculations based on the National Transit Database reveal that, on average, transit used 3,141 BTUs per passenger mile in 2014. Moreover, of the 50 largest urban areas, just five have transit systems that use less energy per passenger mile than driving. Most transit also produces more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than the average car.

You Ought to Have a Look: Climate Fretting and Why It’s Unjustified

You Ought to Have a Look is a regular feature from the Center for the Study of Science. While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic. Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

While “climate fretting” has become a pastime for some—even more so now with President-elect Trump’s plans to disassemble much of President Obama’s “I’ve Got a Pen and I’ve Got a Phone”-based Climate Action Plan—climate reality tells a much different story.

For example, a new analysis by Manhattan Institute’s (and YOTHAL favorite) Oren Cass looks into the comparative costs of climate changevs. climate action. His report, “Climate Costs in Context” is concise and to-the-point, and finds that while climate change will impart an economic cost, it is manageable and small in comparison to the price of actively trying to mitigate it. Here’s Oren’s abstract:

There is a consensus among climate scientists that human activity is contributing to climate change. However, claims that rising temperatures pose an existential threat to the human race or modern civilization are not well supported by climate science or economics; to the contrary, they are every bit as far from the mainstream as claims that climate change is not occurring or that it will be beneficial. Analyses consistently show that the costs of climate change are real but manageable. For instance, the prosperity that the world might achieve in 2100 without climate change may instead be delayed until 2102. [emphasis added]

In other words, the economic impacts of climate change aren’t something worth fretting over.

Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao

President-elect Trump’s pick for Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, may provide some clues about his infrastructure policies. High-speed rail advocates have hoped that Trump will support their boondoggles, and his big talk about infrastructure spending as an economic stimulus has done nothing to dim those hopes. Chao may be leaning in that direction as well.

Chao was previously Secretary of Labor under George W. Bush, and prior to that served as Deputy Secretary of Transportation under George H.W. Bush. Born in Taiwan in 1953, Chao’s father was captain of a merchant marine vessal. In 1961, the family moved to the United States where her father started the Foremost Shipping Company, which now owns at least 15 ships. 

Chao received a degree in economics from Mount Holyoke College in 1973 and an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1979. Just seven years later, she was made Deputy Administrator of the Maritime Administration in the Department of Transportation. Two years after that, she became chair of the Federal Maritime Commission, and Deputy Transportation Secretary a year after that. In 1993, she married Mitch McConnell.

As deputy transportation secretary, she let it be known that she thinks the United States has built about enough highways, and she has the respect of the heavily subsidized passenger rail industry. Thus, she may be inclined to support light rail, high-speed rail, and other transportation projects that many (including this writer) consider to be obsolete in today’s world.

Digging a hole in the ground, lining it with concrete, and filling it up could be considered “infrastructure,” but it won’t contribute much to the national economy. Transportation infrastructure adds to the nation’s gross domestic product only if it increases passenger travel and/or freight shipments. Rail projects aimed at getting people out of cars, buses, and planes will actually reduce the nation’s GDP because they cost more than the forms of travel they are supposed to replace.

Meanwhile, much of the Interstate Highway System is at the end of its service life. Washington Metro recently announced it needs to spend $25 billion on “capital needs” (maintenance) over the next ten years to keep its trains going. The New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francsico, and Atlanta transit systems have similar needs and similar budget shortfalls. 

Trump and Chao will have to decide if America should rebuild its existing infrastructure or let that infrastructure fall apart as it builds brand-new infrastructure that it won’t be able to afford to maintain. Even with the tax breaks proposed in Trump’s infrastructure plan, the country won’t be able to do both. While Chao may turn out to be Trump’s least controversial nomination, the actions she takes as secretary will be heavily debated.

Dispelling the Myth of the Ravenous Fisherwoman

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is considering whether the Environmental Protection Agency acted unreasonably when it issued regulations of hazardous air pollutants from coal and oil power plants under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act, regulations that provide far less than a penny in benefits for each of the nearly $10 billion in costs it imposes on the U.S. economy.

If this question sounds familiar, it’s because EPA tried this gambit before—and lost. In Michigan v. EPA (2015)—in which Cato also filed a brief—the Supreme Court rebuffed the agency for its failure to consider the costs of very the same regulations. On remand, EPA doubled down by issuing a supplemental finding that did no more than pay lip service to the Court’s admonition that rules whose benefits are greatly outweighed by their costs are irrational.

In light of the agency’s grudging concession that it could quantify only $4 to $6 million in statutorily-defined benefits to “women of child-bearing age in subsistence fishing populations who consume freshwater fish that they or their family caught” in enormous quantities, EPA attempted to justify its $10 billon rule by pointing to other non-statutory benefits, which it euphemistically calls “co-benefits.”

As we argue in our new brief, the D.C. Circuit should reject EPA’s end run around the Supreme Court’s decision and statutory limits on its regulatory authority. EPA’s failure to identify anything more than de minimis benefits for an action that will impose billions of dollars of costs is the height of arbitrariness. If EPA cannot justify the regulations forthrightly, it should withdraw them—not re-write the statute to target industries that it disfavors. 

Amtrak’s World-Class Losses

Amtrak issued its F.Y. 2016 unaudited financial results last week with a glowing press release claiming a “new ridership record and lowest operating loss ever.” Noting that “ticket sales and other revenues” covered 94 percent of Amtrak’s operating costs, Amtrak media relations called this “a world-class performance for a passenger carrying railroad.” The reality is quite a bit more dismal.

Many new high-tech firms attract investors despite losing money, but a 45-year-old company operating an 80-year-old technology shouldn’t really brag about having its “lowest loss ever.” The “world-class performance” claim is based on the assumption that passenger trains all over the world lose money, which is far from true: most passenger trains in Britain and Japan make money, partly because they are at least semi-privatized.

Moreover, a close look at the unaudited report reveals that Amtrak left a lot of things out of its press release: passenger miles carried by Amtrak declined; ticket revenues declined; and the average length of trip taken by an Amtrak passenger declined. The main reasons for Amtrak’s positive results were an increase in state subsidies (which Amtrak counts as passenger revenue) and a decrease in fuel and other costs.

Ridership grew by 1.3 percent, but passenger miles fell because the average length of trips fell by 3.1 percent. One of the biggest drops in trip lengths was on the New York-Savannah Palmetto. Starting at the beginning of F.Y. 2016, Amtrak added stops at Metropark, New Brunswick, Princeton Junction, and Baltimore-Washington Airport, effectively turning the supposedly long-distance train into a Northeast Corridor train. In 2015, the train’s average trip length was 396 miles, but in 2016 that dropped to 257 miles.

A decline in passenger miles means more empty seats. In 2015, Amtrak filled 51.4 percent of its seat-miles; in 2016, this fell to 50.0 percent. In other words, the average Amtrak train is half full; when was the last time you were on a half-full airliner? The biggest declines were on the Washington-Richmond state-supported train, the Seattle-Los Angeles Coast Starlight, and the Auto Train.

Some trains did show an increase in passenger miles. One of the biggest increases was the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State, which saw an 11 percent increase in passenger miles and a 16 percent increase in revenues. This train is supported by Indiana, which got fed up with Amtrak service and contracted it out to another operator, Iowa Pacific. Amtrak is a “partner” because it allows people to make reservations on the train from its web site. But the lesson may be that privatization (or semi-privatization) can result in bigger ridership gains than Amtrak.

You Ought to Have a Look: How to Start Afresh with Climate and Energy Policy

You Ought to Have a Look is a regular feature from the Center for the Study of Science.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

 

Last week in this space, we highlighted a couple of areas where burdensome carbon dioxide policies exist that we hoped were not being overlooked by the Trump transition and planning teams in their push to reverse the more prominent Obama Administration actions like the Paris Climate Accord and the Clean Power Plan.

We want to draw a bit more attention to one of these—overturning federal regulations that were handed down on greenhouse gas regulations offered by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the EPA.

Wayne Crews, vice president for policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute has a couple of great articles (see here and here) describing how this can be done through elements of the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which was passed in 1996. The beauty of using the CRA is that it only requires a simple majority vote (i.e., no worries of a filibuster) in Congress. To date, the CRA has been pretty ineffective at overturning “midnight rules” (in this case rules finalized since about mid-May) because the incoming president would veto them. But with Trump’s ascendency, this should not be the case. Crews has compiled, and is maintaining, a running list that is currently 140+ items strong (and growing) of “Significant Federal Rules Containing Potential Candidates for Trump Administration Congressional Review Act Resolutions of Disapproval.” There are many among them that either directly regulate greenhouse gas emissions or include (improperly in our estimate) the so-called “social cost of carbon” on the benefits side of the cost/benefit analyses that are used to support greenhouse gas reductions. These misguided and ill-informed should be prime targets for Congressional undoing.

We also want to highlight a couple of other pieces that get into the technical (or legal) details of how Trump may go about disassembling elements of Obama’s Climate Action Plan. These include analysis by:

Andrew Grossman: (Cato podcast) “Undoing Executive Action in a Trump Presidency

David Bookbinder and David Bailey: “Does Trump Spell Climate Doom?”

Greenwire’s Amanda Reilly: “Clean Power Plan: Rule’s demise looms, but how Trump will ax it remains unclear

Climatewire’s Jean Chemnick: “Paris Agreement: Here’s what could happen under Trump

And a good overview by Greenwire’s Robin Bravender: “Can Trump deliver and immense energy, climate promises?

It worth reading through these if you want to familiarize yourself with the myriad ways that the Trump Administration may clearing the climate policy slate.

And finally, the hard environmental left continues to fret about what is going to come to pass under the new Trump Administration. Much of the fretting is about whether or not Trump decides that “turnabout is fair play” when it comes to matters like research funding, research direction, respect of opposing views, personal attacks on scientists, etc. The new Administration’s approach, in fact, may offer refreshing new directions in both science and policy that were actively oppressed under the Obama Administration. A couple of commentaries over the past week cautiously embrace such possibilities. While we may not agree with everything that is being expressed in these articles, we highlight them because their authors were not afraid to offer at least a glimmer of (cautious) optimism for opportunity. They include essays by:

Dan Sarowitz: “Science and innovation policies for Donald Trump

Pat Michaels: “Trump Should Shine Spotlight on Shrouded Climate ‘Science’

And those ideas expressed by Judy Curry in this article “Climate scientists brace for funding battles under Trump

You ought to have a look!

A Non-Polarizing Secretary of the Interior

In 1993, Bill Clinton swept into office with a Democratic majority in both the House and Senate. His attempt to pass a controversial health-care bill failed but generated enough of a backlash that the Republicans took over both houses of Congress in 1995.

In 2001, George H.W. Bush entered the White House with Republicans in control of both houses. The events of 9/11 muted criticism of Bush for a time, but by 2007 Democrats had taken over Congress.

In 2009, Barack Obama became president and Democrats held both houses of Congress. He succeeded where Clinton failed in passing a health-care bill, but Republicans took over the House in 2011 and the Senate in 2015.

Pundits say that Americans like to have different parties controlling the White House and Congress. However, Americans are often angry at the gridlock that results. So why do they vote that way?

The answer is that the party that takes over both branches often overreaches, which has the effect of polarizing the other side. The party in power would be better off taking small steps that lead to genuine results rather than try to take large steps that either can’t be achieved (Hillarycare) or that create more problems than they solve (Obamacare).

A case in point is the Department of the Interior, a highly visible agency that has proven to be a lightning rod for both sides. Ronald Reagan’s appointment of James Watt as Secretary of the Interior helped build the environmental movement in the 1980s because environmental groups used Watt as their leading fundraising tool. They in turn used those funds to stymie just about everything Watt wanted to do with the public lands.

Now rumor has it that Trump is considering Sarah Palin for Secretary of the Interior, though an oil company executive named Forrest Lucas seems a bit more likely (Lucas contributed $50,000 to Mike Pence’s gubernatorial campaigns). What a great way for environmental groups to rebuild their memberships!

As Secretary, either Palin or Lucas would be likely to try to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration and extraction. Bush tried this in 2001 and the environmentalists successfully prevented it. Instead of going after the most controversial piece of ground in the nation, Bush should have–and Trump should–start with opening less controversial areas to show that oil development is compatible with wildlife and other resources.

In the same way, instead of controversial figures like Palin or Lucas, Trump could ask Gary Johnson to be Secretary of the Interior. As a former western governor, Johnson is more familiar with public lands than Lucas. As a dedicated free marketeer, Johnson won’t be committed to one resource over all others; instead, he will try to find ways to maximize the value of all of them together.

Johnson’s Libertarian candidacy shouldn’t make him unacceptable, but if it does, how about current Arizona Governor Doug Ducey? As former CEO of Cold Stone Creamery, Ducey isn’t identified with one natural resource or another. As a fiscally conservative Republican, Ducey should fit right in with Trump’s agenda.

Whoever is picked should focus on maximizing the value of public lands, partly by maximizing returns they produce for the Treasury. This will mean convincing Congress to give public land agencies, including the Forest Service, the authority to charge more user fees. It will mean more oil & gas drilling, but instead of focusing on controversial areas, the new secretary should start with some demonstration projects to show it can make resource extraction compatible with conservation. If Audubon allows oil wells on one of its wildlife refuges and the Nature Conservancy allows timber cutting on its conservation lands, the United States should be able to do similar demonstration projects on public lands.