Topic: Energy and Environment

Red Team, Blue Team, and Gas Prices

The Washington Post puts public opinion on gas prices in stark red and blue:

Pretty clear Red Team/Blue Team answers. Republicans in 2006 accepted that there wasn’t much the president could do to reduce gas prices, but most of them think Obama could. Democrats show an even sharper shift; they overwhelmingly said that Bush could bring prices down, but few expect Obama to do so. I hope the fact that both Independents and Americans as a whole are 12-13 points less likely to think that presidents set gas prices is a sign of improvement in general economic understanding.

Back around 2003 or 2004 a colleague was escorted through the hallways of CNN by a junior staffer or intern, who asked him, “Do you think Bush is raising gas prices now so he can lower them before the election?” With perceptions like that among budding journalists, is there any hope for better public understanding of economics?

For examples of informed and nonpartisan analysis of gas prices, check out

DOT Moves to Support Even More Wasteful Transit Projects

The Department of Transportation (DOT) is proposing new rules that would allow it to fund exceedingly wasteful rail transit projects that do nothing to relieve congestion. While the existing rules require transit agencies to demonstrate that proposed new rail lines are at least minimally cost effective, the proposed rules focus instead on such vague criteria as “livability” and “environmental justice.”

This rule goes back to 1991, when Congress created the “New Starts” fund to provide grants to transit agencies that want to build new rail lines or other fixed transit lines (such as busways). There were no limits on how much transit agencies could ask for, and the agencies quickly discovered that cities that proposed the most expensive projects got the most money. This sent the cost of rail projects soaring.

For example, in 1986–before New Starts–Portland completed a 17-mile light-rail line that cost about $200 million. In 1998, after New Starts, it completed a 13-mile light-rail line that cost $950 million. Both received the same percentage of federal matching funds, but the second line was “gold plated” as part of Portland’s effort to capture “its share” of the New-Starts pot. Predictably, the city is now working on a 7-mile line that will cost $1.5 billion.

In an effort to put a cap on this wasteful spending, the Bush administration passed a rule in 2005 requiring that New Starts projects meet a minimum test of cost effectiveness. That test required that projects cost no more than $24 for every hour of time that the transit project saved travelers, including both transit riders and highway travelers who enjoyed congestion relief from the project. Even $24 an hour is pretty wasteful considering that most bus improvements save time at a cost of only $1 to $6 an hour, but the rule did put a damper on some excessively wasteful rail proposals.

Also in 2005, Portland Congressman Earl Blumenauer persuaded Congress to create a “Small Starts” program for streetcars and similar projects costing less than $100 million. Blumenauer and others were angered when the Bush administration wrote a rule requiring transit agencies to prove that streetcars were cost effective relative to improved bus service. Since a single streetcar costs ten times as much as a bus, there is no way streetcars can be more cost effective than buses, so no streetcar projects were funded out of Small Starts.

Unlike the Bush administration, the Obama administration has drunk the Kool-Aid of streetcars and rail transit. In 2010, Secretary of Transportation–or, as I prefer to call him, Secretary of Immobility–Ray LaHood announced that he was changing the rules so that he could fund streetcars and other wasteful projects out of Small Starts and New Starts. (Funds for the streetcar grants that LaHood provided to Atlanta, Cincinnati, Dallas, Tucson, and other cities came out of stimulus monies, not Small Starts.) LaHood has freely admitted that his goal is to “coerce people out of their cars.”

Ironically, soon after LaHood’s announcement, the head of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), Peter Rogoff, gave a speech castigating transit agencies for seeking funds for new rail projects when existing rail transit lines suffer from a $60 billion maintenance backlog. “Paint is cheap, trains are expensive,” Rogoff said, observing that agencies that paint buses a special color and call them a special bus often gain as many new riders as agencies that build expensive rail line. The DOT soon removed Rogoff’s speech from its web site, but copies have been preserved here.

Cato’s 2010 comments on LaHood’s proposal pointed out that a true cost-effectiveness analysis, which is required by law, requires transit agencies to compare rail proposals with a full range of alternatives. The draft rules that the FTA released in January, 2012, however, only require agencies to compare the cost effectiveness of rail against doing nothing.

Moreover, instead of measuring cost effectiveness by the number of hours of time the projects save travelers, the proposed rules would measure it by the number of new transit riders the project is projected to gain. This means that projects that increase congestion (by, for example, building streetcar lines in streets or running frequent trains across grade crossings), wasting most people’s time, will actually score higher because planning models assume congestion leads more people to ride transit.

Cato’s comments on the proposed rules also point out that the law requires the FTA to account for the effect of projects on congestion and mobility. However, the law does not allow the FTA to consider livability, environmental justice, or the other new criteria proposed in the rules. The draft rules therefore violate the law in several places.

Comments on the proposed rules are due March 26 and can be submitted on line. While it is uncertain whether LaHood will pay any attention to your comments, what is clear is that the Obama administration is more interested in imposing its utopian view of how people should live on American cities than it is in increasing people’s freedom and mobility.

This One’s a True Porker

The Senate passed a transportation bill this week to replace a House bill that was killed by fiscal conservatives for being filled with “pork and special interest projects.” Not surprisingly, the Senate bill is far worse.

Where the House bill authorized deficit spending to the tune of about $10 billion a year, the Senate bill would deficit-spend about $15 billion a year. Where the House bill had no earmarks and few big-government expansions, the Senate bill has several earmarks, discourages the states from leasing roads to private partners, and expands federal regulation of public and private transit and intercity bus systems.

Fiscal conservatives pinned their hopes on an amendment that would allow states to opt out of federal funding by raising their gas taxes by the 18.4 cents that the federal government collects, thus cutting out the feds as middle man. The Senate predictably and decisively rejected this amendment by 68 to 30. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D, Calif.) argued that the amendment would “devolve” the highway fund, which of course was the whole point.

I’ve long argued that the only way to devolve federal transportation spending to the states is to first take the pork out of the gas tax. The House bill did this by rededicating gas taxes to roads (making them once again a true user fee), distributing gas taxes using formulas (preventing Congress from earmarking), and paying for transit out of other funds. Once the pork was gone, Congress would lose interest and let the states take over. The Senate bill, of course, does none of these things, and in particular continues to dedicate a share of gas taxes to transit, which will make it a lot harder to devolve gas taxes to the states.

The only good news is that the Senate bill is just a two-year bill, which means the whole debate can begin again in 2014 if not 2013. But the House has just two weeks to accept or reject the bill, as the current law expires on March 31. If they can’t reach an agreement by March 31, they are likely to simply extend the current law, which is not a whole lot different from approving the Senate bill.

If the House had been able to pass its bill, it would have been in a much stronger position to negotiate some improvements to the Senate bill. As it is, it now has a choice between the bad law now on the books or the slightly worse bill passed by the Senate. Fiscal conservatives should encourage the House to reject the Senate bill and start the debate over.

You Keep Using the Word ‘Affordable.’ I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.

The federal government gave a $10 million “affordability” prize to a giant corporation for manufacturing a $50 lightbulb. The Washington Post:

The U.S. government last year announced a $10 million award…for any manufacturer that could create a “green” but affordable light bulb.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the prize would spur industry to offer the costly bulbs…at prices “affordable for American families.”…

Now the winning bulb is on the market.

The price is $50.

Retailers said the bulb, made by Philips, is likely to be too pricey to have broad appeal. Similar LED bulbs are less than half the cost.

This is the same federal government that refers to ObamaCare, which costs more than $6 trillion, as the “Affordable Care Act.”

Obama: Running on Empty

Last week’s energy speech was vintage Obama: repeating the same bad ideas that he has advocated since his pre-2008 election campaign and misrepresenting both his actions and the opposition.

To be sure, he is correct that the Republicans are overstating what can be done immediately to alleviate oil price spikes.  However, he falls into the same trap as the Republicans in believing that a sensible policy exists to avoid the inevitable fluctuations in world oil prices. These fluctuations are more tolerable than the possible alternatives.

His selective statement of his policies ignores at a minimum its general anti-fossil fuel thrust with slowdowns in oil and gas leasing on federal land, the temporizing on the Keystone XL pipeline, and the massive anti-coal regulations promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency. He continues on the paths of dictating fuel-efficiency standards and pursuing dubious alternative energy incentives. Moreover, Republican criticisms of these actions belie the assertion of exclusive concern with drilling.  There may be no silver bullet, but there are more sensible policies than Obama’s.

Otherwise the speech differs in no substantial respect from his prior efforts. Every key point from the America-can-do-it pep talk to his misleading argument about tax benefits to the oil industry was critiqued in my Cato Policy Analysis: “The Gulf Oil Spill: Lessons for Public Policy.”

Nancy Pelosi on Gasoline Prices

The congresswomen’s comments are so cartoonish, I don’t even have to comment on them. But I thought Cato readers would like to know what the minority leader of the U.S. House is saying about rising gas prices. From a Nancy Pelosi press release today:

Independent reports confirm that speculators are driving up the cost of oil, hurting consumers and potentially damaging the economic recovery. Wall Street profiteering, not oil shortages, is the cause of the price spike.

We need to take strong action to protect consumers from this speculation. Unfortunately, Republicans have chosen to protect the interests of Wall Street speculators and oil companies instead of the interests of working Americans by obstructing the agencies with the responsibility of enforcing consumer protection laws.

We call on the Republican leadership to act on behalf of American consumers and join our efforts to crack down on speculators who care more about their profits than the price at the pump even if these spikes harm the American consumer and our economy.

For a rational discussion on energy policy, see Downsizing the Department of Energy.

Franken to Chu: Doggone It, Like My State’s Company

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing last week on the Department of Energy’s budget request for fiscal 2013. Chris Edwards tipped me off to a particularly galling exchange between Energy secretary Steven Chu and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN). Sen. Franken uses his allotted time to badger Chu about a federal loan that Energy conditionally committed to a Minnesota company in 2010 that apparently has yet to be approved.

The exchange begins around the 61 minute mark here. Our trusty interns, Devon Sanchez and Stephen Wooten, transcribed the exchange, which I’ll share a portion of:

Sen. Franken:

One such project is from a company in Minnesota called SAGE Electrochromics. I know you are aware of that. Sage has developed energy efficient windows that are cutting edge, better than anything in the world and uses photo-voltaic cells to control the window how dark it gets during the summer to block out UV light and lower air conditioning costs and to let it all in, lower heating costs in the summer. And it’s really…I’ve been there and it’s just an amazing tech. In the Spring of 2010, the DoE promised the company it would receive a $72 million loan guarantee under the 1703 Program to build a new manufacturing facility that would create 160 manufacturing jobs and 200 construction jobs in southern Minnesota. It’s now been two years since SAGE has been notified that it will receive a loan guarantee and the deal has not yet been closed. While the Department of Energy prolongs closing the deal, time and money are running out for SAGE. There are high-tech manufacturing construction jobs at stake here. It’s been going forward with the project assuming they get this loan guarantee but they’re running out of time and they may have to sell themselves to a French company. My first question is that the SAGE loan guarantee was going to be submitted to the credit committee on August 23rd, but it was stopped. Why is the Department of Energy continuing to delay closing and executing the SAGE loan guarantee?

Secretary Chu tells Sen. Franken that he can’t discuss the details and advises the senator to speak with SAGE. A frustrated Sen. Franken takes another crack at getting Chu to explain the holdup, but doesn’t get anywhere and his speaking time runs out. Anyhow, the exchange is sad commentary on the state of affairs in Washington. Sen. Franken sitting there singing the virtues of handing out other people’s money to commercial interests in general would have been problem enough. That he instead used his time to grovel for a handout to a company in his state just goes to show that too many policymakers see the federal government as a favor dispenser.

If this company is producing such “amazing tech,” then perhaps Sen. Franken should lend SAGE some of his money? (Maybe he could use the royalties he receives from DVD sales of “Stuart Saves His Family” to help the company.) Wisecracks aside, a quick Google search shows that SAGE has already received private capital. If this company is so great then it should have no trouble finding additional investors to lend it the money it needs. Then again, Franken says that it’s running out of money so perhaps it isn’t so great. But that’s the way Washington works: taxpayers get the losses while private companies get the profits…and arrogant senators get to pat themselves on the back for “creating jobs.”

See here for more on downsizing the Department of Energy.