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The Deepwater Oil Spill Exposes a Persistent Failure to Plan and Failure to Lead May 16, 2010

Posted by Michael Hoexter in Climate Policy, Efficiency/Conservation, Energy Policy, Green Transport, Renewable Energy.
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The 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill catalyzed the environmental movement in the US and inspired some important legislation but did not lead policymakers to take the next step and start the long process of weaning the US from its oil dependency (Photo: Unknown)

President Obama is facing with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon,  a “local” disaster that exposes a deeper, endemic crisis in US energy policy and the US economy as a whole.  As he has been in office for still just 16 months, Obama does not bear primary responsibility for this ongoing crisis but he has only recently, a couple weeks after the accident, publicly hinted at the “elephant in the room”:  the obvious connection between the undersea oil volcano and our equally obvious need to transition from using oil as our primary transport fuel.  Simple reference to the Kerry-Lieberman climate bill that encourages more offshore drilling does not constitute an answer to our oil dependence.

Unfortunately public rhetoric and policy discussions that hinge on the notion of a dependence on “foreign” oil play the role of a “shortstop” in keeping the discussion from going to the heart of the problem.  The idea that oil produced on American shores will somehow differentially serve American consumers overlooks the international nature of the oil business with total offshore oil reserves destined never to make much of a difference in the overall price and availability of oil.  Estimates put the total reserves of offshore oil in US waters at 18 billion barrels conventionally recoverable and an additional 58 billion barrels “technically recoverable”.   While this oil, if extracted, would just be sold on the world market, it equals the equivalent of 11 years of consumption for the US at our current oil consumption rate of 8 billion barrels/year.   Subtracting the huge costs of oil spill cleanups and damage, most of the economic benefit of offshore drilling would accrue to oil companies and secondarily to state and federal governments in harvesting royalties, however the latter are going to be left “holding the bag” for the really, really big costs.

To ground this discussion in reality for just a moment, the 2009 US DOE Transportation Energy Data Book attributes to the US 2% of the world’s oil reserves, 8% of production, and 24% of consumption while the rest of the non-OPEC world comes out just a little better at 29%, 48% and 67% respectively.  Conventional natural gas is not a much more promising energy source for the future with the US having 3% of the reserves, 18% of the production, and 21 % of the consumption.  In the US, transportation accounts for 70% of all petroleum use and 24% for industrial uses.  Consumption of petroleum for transportation in the US is 84% for road transportation with around 65% for cars and light trucks and 18% for medium and heavy trucks.  Airplanes use 9%, shipping 4.2%, and rail 2.0%.  Even if we consumed petroleum and natural gas in proportion to worldwide production, there are credible predictions that we are somewhere in the neighborhood of the worldwide peak in production whether today or in a decade’s time.  Even if there were two more decades until the peak and we looked away from oil’s climate and local pollution impacts, would it be justified for our generation to run through this exhaustible resource?

The ballooning US trade deficits are attributable in the last decade approximately 55-60% to outgoing payments for petroleum imports but with the 2008 price spike, oil’s proportion climbed to 65%.  With oil prices once again ascending the petroleum related component of the US trade deficit will continue to climb.  With the last US trade surplus in 1973, the total US trade deficit has since 2003 stayed in the range $500B to 800B per year.

Turning back to politics, the President, whether by his own inclination or badly counseled by his advisors, has since taking office had a tendency to let the issues be defined for him rather than shaping policy with original view of his own.  He has approached health care, financial reform, and climate and energy as though there was some pre-formed wisdom which he simply needs to allude to or tap into in order for the American people and Congress to understand.  Erring on the side of being too laid back, perhaps partaking of the Spirit of Aloha, has not always served him well:  to get health care across the line he had to shed the “cool customer” image to actually win the votes in Congress.

The apparent rationale for his laid-back approach to issues, so commentators say, comes from overlearning what is considered to be a mistake of the early Clinton White House.  Clinton’s hands-on approach to policy is supposed to have alienated Congress and doomed Clinton’s health care efforts.  Obama has taken the opposite tack and can claim at least passage of a health care bill, though it is not clear yet how positive an achievement this will be considered when it actually takes effect.

What is missing so far in the Obama Presidency is the President taking the role of educating and perhaps changing the public’s views on important issues, which have been heavily colored by a very strong and organized counter-reform messaging machine.  The President has shied away from using the “bully pulpit” and allows Congress, which is considered by the public at the moment to be corrupt and untrustworthy, to shape the terms of the debate.

With the approach to a climate and energy bill this year, post-health care, the President opened up with a tactic rather than with a strategic plan for energy.  His announcement in March that he would lift the ban on offshore drilling in parts of the Gulf and the East Coast was a means of gaining support from Republicans for the ever more amorphous climate and energy package which is currently in the Senate.  Meanwhile, with so many issues and concerns, it is safe to say that energy is not top-most on most people’s minds in the Great Recession.

But the President has so far treated this as a case of another industrial accident for which liability can be assigned to the owner or commissioner of the oil rig, BP.   President Obama has not even advanced to the rhetorical level of George Bush’s 2006 State of Union where Bush declared America “Addicted to Oil”, despite Bush, in action, being responsible for gutting the regulatory agencies that may have prevented the spill.  While nominally a more “liberal” President and not from the oil patch, Obama has not presented a tangible vision of a post-oil society and, in combination with his preferred policies and speeches, the public is left mired in the oil-dependent present.

Discussions about who is to blame, who will pay, and what can be done in the Gulf to recover from the spill are important but are ultimately distractions from the most important question:

What will the US do to wean itself from its oil dependency?

In media accounts, the effort to make this a conventional tale of corporate or regulatory malfeasance is becoming the favorite of supposedly hard-hitting television journalists.  Yet these interviewers avoid looking into the frightening “maw” of our economy’s fatal dependence on oil.  The President is also looking away, focused as he is on technical and regulatory “fixes” for the offshore drilling disaster.

The upcoming climate bill in the Senate is being sold as an effort to reduce our dependency on oil and other dirty fuels but it contains few aggressive provisions to get us there.  The just released details of the bill, indicate that it’s mild cap and dividend provisions may slightly raise oil prices (starting in the area of $.10-$.20/gallon and increasing by 3-5% over inflation per year).  And offshore drilling provisions are in the current draft, offered now as an opt-out for states that wish to keep the ban in place.   As a whole, the bill postpones until the 2020’s any serious moves to cut emissions and focuses on the implementation of coal carbon capture and storage rather than more promising renewable technologies and grid enhancements.  Ironically, Senator Kerry has mentioned on TV, as if this were a sign of his seriousness, that he had been working with the oil industry on this bill.

If we assume the best intentions of the President and the Congressional leadership, one single legislative session or bill cannot undo 30 years of negligence and foolish disregard in the area of energy.  Whatever his ultimate goals and political commitments as President, Obama, if he endeavored to “do the right thing”, would have a number of hurdles (described below) to overcome.  However right now, he, his Administration and his Congressional allies are managing just a few cosmetic moves in the direction of change. On the issue of oil use and oil dependence, the bill and the Administration’s efforts are weak.

I am proposing here a stronger response that deals directly with America’s oil dependency.

A Strategic Energy Plan for Oil-Independence and Carbon Mitigation

A serious effort to get off oil will involve an equal emphasis on battery electric and grid-tied or grid-optional large vehicles like this trolleybus. The de-electrification of public transportation, while greeted by some as progress, now appears to have been a big mistake. (Photo: Adrian Corcoran)

The only solution to our oil dependency and the inevitable disasters that come from a mad rush to extract as much oil as possible from the earth is to create a strategic national energy plan that addresses both our oil dependence and our climate concerns.  A plan is required because changes in the transportation and energy system involve the coordination and arrangement in a sequence of certain key activities and infrastructure changes, for which market mechanisms, the current “default” preference for policymakers of both Left and Right, are ill-equipped.  Such a plan would also be the occasion for leaders of government to show and exercise leadership rather than look around for a lucky break or well-meaning private actors and companies to step into the breach.  Turning to planning is unfortunately now in America a politically fraught move but there is simply no alternative, if we want to have a sustainable economy, whether in the narrow economic sense or the broader ecological sense.

A growing chorus of corporate leaders and former government officials is calling for an electrified, oil-independent transportation system for national defense reasons as well as environmental ones.  Recently Bill Ford, chairman of Ford Motor Company made the connection between national security and oil, indicating that Ford’s product roadmap will focus on electric drive vehicles in the future.  James Woolsey, former CIA chief under Clinton, has been a long-time advocate of electrification for reasons of national defense.

Other nations are rapidly moving away from oil through plan-based efforts by governments in coordination with the private sector, even as almost every other country is starting from a position of less oil-dependence than the US.  The Chinese leadership, as is well-known, is very concerned about the effects of oil shortages and prices on China’s economic development.  China is in the process of building an extensive high-speed rail network (to Europe too)and is as well working on developing a lead in the area of battery powered vehicles.  President Obama mentioned in a recent speech China’s ambitious rail program as an analogue to his efforts in the US but I believe he knows that there is no comparison between the scale of their efforts and our much modest ones.  Japan and Switzerland have almost entirely electrified rail networks and France has the goal of electrifying its entire rail network by 2025.  Russia, despite its plentiful oil reserves, has electrified the Trans-Siberian and Murmansk lines of its railways in the last 10 years.  Denmark, Japan, France, and Israel all are executing plans to build widespread electric vehicle charge and battery-swap infrastructure.  By contrast, US freight and passenger transportation in all modes is almost totally dependent upon oil, leaving the US vulnerable to political and geological disruptions of supply and price spikes (see Alan Drake’s proposal for a comprehensive electrified train system for the US).

Two Pronged Strategy:  Efficient Use and Oil-Independent Infrastructure

There are two prongs to getting off oil which also share a common path.  One prong is increasing the efficiency of oil use in the US via increasing the person or freight miles traveled per unit petroleum consumed.  The other prong is building an oil-independent transport infrastructure and oil-independent vehicles.  Investment in routes on the path common to both should be favored over those that commit us interminably to oil.

The dream of a quick-fix, a “drop-in” technological solution that will simply replace oil has proved to be elusive and has so far found little basis in the science of energy.  So the proposed solution has a number of parts and involves tradeoffs and some large initial costs.  However, the invitation is there to any readers to find a better, presently available solution and publicize it.

Efficient Use:

  1. Levying a gas tax or price stabilization tax that insures that drivers can plan on a minimum gas price going forward on an ascending schedule.  Instead or in addition, a carbon tax or fee would disincentivize coal use as well, though might be supplemented by a gas tax to reduce gas use. (the Kerry Lieberman bill’s cap and dividend provisions will raise gasoline prices imperceptibly in the first few years).
  2. Enable full use of existing passenger rail and bus transportation infrastructure via adequate funding to increase schedules, keep current fare levels.  Determine via market surveys and statistics optimal service levels for each route.
  3. Encourage shared ride and shared vehicle programs and services using Internet and mobile phone resources to coordinate and develop ride-sharing social networks
  4. Mandating idle-stop systems (a.k.a. “mild hybrid”) on all new trucks and cars as of 2013.  Comprehensive idling reduction program at all truck stops, including incentivizing “shore power” electric hookups and retrofit kits. Mandate Cold ironing facilities at all shipping berths by 2015.
  5. Incentivize Transit Oriented Development via federal incentives for zoning changes at the local government level and developer and homeowner tax incentives.

While focusing on efficient use alone seems “pragmatic”, it actually does not have nearly the appeal and long-term economic stimulative effect of building an infrastructure that moves passenger/driver miles and freight ton-miles off of oil permanently.  To focus on efficient use without building for the long-term is an incomplete strategy.

Oil-Independent, Carbon-Independent Infrastructure:

See Drake et. al. for a slightly different more detailed proposal

  1. Double or multi-tracking the US rail system on all but low traffic lines enabling consistent speeds of 110 mph on non-high speed lines for freight and passenger trains.
  2. Stepwise electrification of rail infrastructure to 100% electric traction.
  3. Building on an accelerated basis dedicated high speed rail lines per the US HSR Association’s recommendation: http://www.ushsr.com/hsrnetwork.html
  4. Electrification of 80% of government vehicle fleets using a variety of battery charging technologies including trickle charge, rapid-charge and battery exchange technologies.
  5. Extended tax incentives for corporate vehicle  fleet conversion to battery power or for plug-in hybrids.
  6. Rapid build-out of a super-grid supportive of renewable energy development throughout the US.
  7. A robust regime of incentives for renewable energy development (advanced feed in tariffs based on cost recovery plus reasonable profit with descending incentives for projects in later years).
  8. Electrification of high traffic bus routes via either trolleybuses or streetcars.
  9. Build out of light rail and regional rail networks to interconnect high and medium density cities and suburbs.
  10. Corporate tax credits for build-out of tele-presence (e.g. Cisco’s product here) technologies and to encourage tele-commuting and tele-meeting

While technologies could evolve in the future that might alter the relative proportions in the above plan, these policy proposals and programs rely on technologies that are available today, some of them with a track-record of over a century.  However, the goal of getting off oil, let alone fossil fuels has not been a priority of US industrial development and government policy, so our rail and transport networks have remained dependent on the happenstance of oil extraction and the oil markets.

Substantial and Insubstantial Hurdles that Delay Us

If our country does not first slide into a state of permanent second or third-class status, it is inevitable that we in the US will move to a post-oil, post-carbon transport system incorporating most of the largely electric-drive technologies listed above.  However this should not lull our current leadership into complacency or half-measures, because sliding into a state of decay and dependency is a distinct possibility.  Will Obama be the President to lead us there, as Eisenhower was the President who built the Interstates?  Or will he be the President who excited hope, talked a good game but gave too much discretion to fossil fuel interests? We can be the last nation in the world to wean ourselves off oil, massively in debt, and always be in the position of borrowing know-how from others or we can start to move “on our own power” towards a position of leadership in this area.

The current Senate climate bill sees most of what is proposed above as distant pipe dreams rather than near future realities.  Most of the electric vehicle provisions in it are termed “pilot programs” with greater favor shown to natural gas vehicles and mild oversight for unconventional natural gas extraction.  Public transportation and rails are given little or no mention.

Leadership will be required to push ahead to the solutions based on what is already known about the physics and technology of transport and energy, instead of stopping at the half-way measures or the dead-end technologies that depend on fossil fuels.  True leadership involves anticipating and overcoming hurdles.  I have listed below the main hurdles which present themselves to whomever, I hope President Obama, decides to place the American economy on a sustainable energy basis.

Hurdle #1:  Market Idealization (Market Fundamentalism) Vs. Planning

One of the greatest hurdles is the ongoing influence of market idealization (or “market fundamentalism“) in Washington in general, on both sides of the aisle in Congress and in the White House.  In the era of market idealization over the last 30 years, planning, especially government planning, got a bad name as markets were supposed to constitute all of economic life as well as being perfect and complete economic institutions.  Through his sojourn at the University of Chicago, one of the centers of market idealization, President Obama was exposed to an environment that celebrated a view of markets as self-sufficient, self-regulating institutions which perhaps continues to color his view of planning and government’s role.

The use of “cap” legislation, carbon pricing, or emissions targets does not substitute for planning because such unspecified “plans” to achieve quantities of emissions reductions cannot substitute for the sequence of timed and specified actions that constitute a plan.  Emissions caps or targets suggest that the market will find its way without planning.  In some areas this works better than planning but in transportation and energy infrastructure, not so much.

Some major problems with markets are that they don’t price in future risks or distant future rewards very well in many sectors, including energy and transport, and, when unregulated, tend to focus market participants on their most immediate concerns.  Markets also do not produce all the conditions for their own survival and continued profitability.  Governments have historically stepped in to provide people and markets with structure for transactions that threaten to undermine trust between market actors.  Additionally, governments of most nations with complex economies provide public goods like infrastructure that enable longer term social and economic goals of both private and public actors to be achieved.  While market-like institutions can be imposed upon the “natural” monopolies of the electricity and the rail businesses, these market reforms do not generally orient these businesses to rapidly change their infrastructure but rather focus them on squeezing value out of existing assets.

Planning can originate from private and non-profit actors as well as from government though this does not release governments from the duty to initiate or help structure plans that effect diverse sets of stakeholders.  The Desertec Initiative is an example of a large-scale international energy plan that has originated in the private and non-profit sectors.  The Desertec Foundation and the Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII) are working on building a renewable energy supergrid that spans Europe, North Africa and the Middle East in order to provide renewable electrical power to the area, balancing wind and solar resources across the region.  Munich Re, a large re-insurance company based in Germany, concerned about environmental and climate risk in the future and along with a consortium of electrical utilities and technology companies, including Siemens, ABB, Abengoa, MAN Solar Millennium has created the DII.  Whether the impulse to plan has come from the private sector or from government, government needs to be involved in making sure that large scale energy and transportation plans serve national interests and are executed and financed in a transparent and fair manner.

As market idealization has been also a particularly fervent form of anti-Communism, government involvement in planning has been associated in the minds of US politicians and sections of the public over the past 30 years with centrally-planned Communist economies.  Due to these still largely unchallenged views of market idealists, politicians making the argument for planning will need to run the political gauntlet of being accused of being a Communist (or, as is common in the precincts of the Tea Party and Fox News, a fascist).  Unfortunately, academic economists too have also been lax in making the case for government planning beyond Left-Right ideology.  Republicans and Democratic Presidents and other government officials between 1940 and 1980 did not generally have to justify their use of planning but since 1980, planners and planning advocates have needed to keep a low profile.

So presenting a full-on Oil-Independence Plan from the side of government would present the President with either having to make a two-stage argument (first for a role for planning and then for the plan) or to compress the two together in one artful package.  The latter is not inconceivable but, our President, so far, has shown more interest in pointing out how much he has in common with the Republican Party that has been almost completely captured by market idealists.

On the other hand, almost everybody in contemporary American politics is for energy independence and national defense.  It is not a stretch to imagine our centrist to right-leaning Democratic President reaching across the aisle to push for a “Oil Independence Transportation Plan”.  This would require preparation, research and political leadership by the President, the Administration and Congress but is eminently do-able.  Thus a brilliant and principled politician, maybe even our current President, could present this plan as a combined act of patriotism and long-term economic good sense.

Hurdle #2:  Deficit Worries and Hysteria

Given that we are in an economic downturn and tax revenues will not be able to be boosted substantially, a post-oil transport infrastructure built in a timely manner will probably involve deficit spending.  Some parts of this system can be built and financed privately and paid back via user fees while others will have the status of public goods, like roads, that will need to paid for via taxes and or potentially inflationary deficit spending, i.e. printing money.

We have been facing a rise in public debt and budget deficits over the course of the Bush administration and the first part of the Obama Administration.  The current level of the public debt stands at approximately 60% of its maximum in relationship to GDP at the end of WWII (108%).  Misinformed politicians, pundits, and financiers take this as an occasion to stir hysteria that is stoked by a combination of fabrications and partial truths about the potential impact of budget deficits on the American economy.   Economists, such as Paul Krugman, Dean Baker and Joe Stiglitz, who have studied economic history and effects of deficit spending on jumpstarting the economy, have attempted to correct these misguided views of deficit spending in the context of a severe economic downturn.

This graph of the "gross" and not the usually cited public debt (now at 67%) indicates that excluding the first year of the Obama Administration the last four Democratic Presidents reduced the gross federal debt while the last four Republican Presidents increased it relative to GDP. In general, economic depressions and wars tend to increase the federal budget deficit.

Deficit hysteria seems to have a strong political component to it, as these fears remained largely dormant in the Republican Administrations that have run up large debts in the past.  As a preventative, those who are opposed to a strong government role in the domestic economy (though generally not to military adventures) have attempted to intimidate the President and others by warning of runaway budget deficits.  There are now some more severe budget problems in other countries (Greece for instance) and the differences between the US situation and these countries are played down to intimidate those who would want to spend deficits on building US domestic economic growth.

While those who stir deficit hysteria tend to be closed-lipped about their large-scale political and economic agenda, they generally are opponents of all government-provided social services and government-led economic initiatives preferring to reserve these functions for private enterprise.  Deficit hysteria implies the idealization of markets, though is a more sophisticated variety that acknowledges that there is “some” role for government, only to minimize that role in every proposal, due to fear of budget deficits.  Unfortunately President Obama has some vulnerability to deficit hysteria, in that he has not come out vigorously in defense of government’s role in the domestic economy, preferring instead to adopt an attitude of compromise and conciliation with people who talk as if there is no legitimate role for government social programs or in the domestic economy.

While budget deficits need to be monitored closely, the US has luckily somewhat more flexibility than many other countries to engage in deficit spending.  A very strong case can be made that deficit spending to help finance a post-oil transportation infrastructure is a very good use of public funds and also shows nations that hold our debt that we are spending in ways that will improve our overall competitiveness and resilience as a nation.  Deficit spending in this way actually works to reduce our trade deficit which is in most years larger than our budget deficit and largely attributable to oil imports.

Hurdle #3:  Balancing the Interests of Stakeholders, Mix of Private and Public Enterprise

The French SNCF is a public benefit corporation that runs and owns the French trains and stations. In order to open up the rails to competition the rails and rights of way are owned by another government-owned company, the RFF, enabling, theoretically, private train companies to compete with SNCF on the same tracks. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

An Oil- and Carbon-Independence Plan will require the participation of a number of stakeholders some of whom will be less than enthusiastic participants in this ambitious effort.  The railways in the US are ambivalent about the ambitious plans of advocates for either high-speed rail or electrification.  Like other large infrastructure-dependent businesses, these usually risk-averse corporations make money by squeezing value out of their existing infrastructure and sticking to decades-long incremental capital investment strategies.  Additionally, and ironically, railways, our cleanest and most efficient means of transporting freight even with diesel traction, haul the dirtiest fuel, coal, to power plants of the large coal-burning utilities; the largest source of revenue for railways is coal transport accounting for 21% of 2007 revenue with intermodal (container) being the fastest growing segment.

Left to themselves, the US freight railways would not be able to undertake nor necessarily see it in their short or medium-term interest to electrify their railroads nor embark on a massive program of track build-out.  The railways are in favor of tax incentives to help them continue capital improvements but these alone will probably be not enough to double and triple track mileage. The railways own their own rights of way and are currently entirely self-funding and compete largely on price and capacity with other freight modalities.  In order for massive public investment to be possible, the railways would have to develop an entirely different relationship with the federal government.

If they were intent on executing a Post-Oil transport plan, policymakers would need to lead the railways into a new relationship or perhaps buy some of them out, in part or in full. The massive level of public investment required to enable the railways to carry triple the freight plus 20 to 30 times the passenger volume would transform their capital base with largely public funds or public guarantees to be able to undertake the risk.  Such action would require a combination of vision, leadership and negotiation skills from the side of government.

As diesel locomotion (actually diesel-electric) is still a very efficient method of hauling freight and passengers relative to other modes of transportation, the transition to an Oil-Independent infrastructure could be achieved in two stages:  first railway track build-outs that are electricity-ready and then the electrification of those railroads as a separate project.

An alternate route towards oil-independent transport is possible that “deals in” the trucking industry but requires the adaptation of several existing technologies and an alteration to the interstate system: Using hybrid dual-mode trolley long-distance trucks on dedicated lanes of the interstate that also have a backup generator or battery pack that enable easy on and off and grid-detached travel.  There are no technological breakthroughs required to do this but it needs the backing of a government or government-funded research program that seriously studies electrification of lanes of interstates and the high speed attachment and detachment of trolley poles or pantographs to overhead lines.

Designing and executing an Oil- and Carbon-Independence Transport and Energy Plan would also not necessarily inspire the other large conservative infrastructure-based companies, the power utilities, to join in the spirit of the enterprise.  Similarly to the freight railways, utilities wring value from a decades-old infrastructure and generally adopt change very slowly.  Particularly challenging for many US utilities is a transition away from coal which accounts for approximately 50% of electricity generated in the US.  Selling electricity to railways may be an additional source of revenue but also would involve new infrastructure and might require new generation, which would need to be low- or zero-carbon.  A portion of the electricity demand from railways may be supplied by federal power generation facilities, perhaps by a newly founded Railways Power Administration, modeled on the Western Area Power Administration or similar.  Passenger railway power demand would require daytime generation which would coincide with solar but freight would add to baseload demand as it would operate around the clock.

A clear expression of purpose and demonstration of intent by government leaders to reduce oil demand in the US is a prerequisite for successful negotiation with stakeholders in shaping the post-oil future.  So far the President and Congressional leaders haven’t shown the guts and independence of mind to work this out with industry stakeholders.

Hurdle #4:  Many Americans’ Love of Expansive Resource Use (and Disregarding the Consequences)

Different cultures tend to have differing attitudes towards the material world and what is considered attractive or desirable in the use of resources.  In Japan, with one of the world’s highest population densities, cultural preferences include a focus on small, sometimes intricate objects.  Traditional agriculture in China is highly space- and resource-efficient.  In Europe, culture has emerged from similar resource constraints, for which it is much admired throughout the world.  In the US, we have through a large portion of our early history, not had to deal with as many resource constraints, including a belief that more abundance is always around the next bend.  Europeans came here in search of “El Dorado” and we have had the tendency to believe in “Virgin Land”, either physically or virtually, into which we could move if we “messed up” or wanted to leave our original physical context.

President Jimmy Carter wore a cardigan in some TV addresses to show that he was practicing energy conservation during the winter at the White House. Even though he was presenting Americans with a prudent message, in hindsight with the triumph of Reaganism and reactive resource- and energy-profligacy, our image-obsessed culture has held onto Carter's slight awkwardness, school-teacherly manner and absence of swaggering machismo rather than the content of his message.

The electoral defeat of Jimmy Carter in 1980 by Ronald Reagan and the subsequent growth of a culture of reactive anti-environmentalism has impressed politicians with the dangers of appearing to “wear the cardigan” rather than use resources “like you just don’t care”, yielding a culture of reactive or revived profligacy.  Contrarian anti-environmentalism both on the Right and in the apolitical Center has meant a return for many to the energy and material use patterns with which Americans grew up until the 1973 OPEC Oil embargo.  Because of the political defeat of Carter (for a number of reasons), the 1985-2001 return of cheap oil, and the 2001-2009 Bush Presidency, few politicians have attempted to experiment with what is possible in the way of communicating a stance that counsels wise use of resources while retaining a sense of American identity.

Obviously, we will need leaders to set an example and attempt once again to join the American spirit with an awareness of the earth’s limits and wise use of resources.  Expansive plans to create a post-oil infrastructure can be combined with measures that suggest that the America of the future will not lay waste to the earth.  The ability to break up the cultural “forced choice” between abstemiousness versus expansiveness will involve creativity on the part of political and cultural leaders. Whether the Obama Administration is up to the task and has the will to engage in this vital transition to a new kind of American identity remains to be seen.

Hurdle #5:  The Biofuels Distraction

A few years ago, using biofuels as an oil substitute were treated seriously by some environmentalists and became a big favorite of politically powerful agricultural lobbies.  Since then, it has dawned on most of the environmental movement plus more and more policymakers that biofuels are a poor source of fuel and environmentally may be under many conditions worse than using oil.  The net energy yield, plus land use, plus water use put into making ethanol or biodiesel from dedicated crops rather than waste products turns out to be a net negative for the environment and economically disruptive for food production.  To produce mechanical energy from sunlight it is far more advantageous to erect solar panels or use wind turbines in agriculturally marginal areas, which would occupy far less space, have far lower environmental impact, and produce far more energy.

Unfortunately, in the American heartland, it is difficult, in the absence of renewable electricity policy that is attractive to farmers and higher prices for food crops, to turn away from support for biofuels and the overproduction of corn for that purpose.  While perhaps research may turn up a more sustainable biofuel, a strategy based on biomass production for biofuels other than as a subsidy to farmers is unjustified.  There may in the future be niche uses for some future biofuel process but these will not serve the vast energy demand currently served by oil. A gradual shift to a sustainable agriculture policy that addresses the economic concerns of farmers without continuing our unsustainable corn policy would be the long-term solution.

As an immediate strategy, the policymakers would need simply to slowly back away from biofuel subsidies, while a compelling and well-explained alternative for farmers and farm-belt politicians is developed.

Hurdle #6:  Corporate Funding of and Influence in American Politics

A recurrent theme throughout the last year and half of reform attempts has been the notable influence of incumbent industries and their lobbyists in influencing politicians in Washington of both parties.  While there are many corporations that stand to benefit from an Oil- and Carbon-Independence Plan, these have not yet made common cause and many see their short-term interest in the energy and transport status quo.

The likelihood of formulation and implementation of a plan with the longer term interests of the US in mind, would be greater with corporate money taken out of politics to a very large degree, as then lobbyists would more likely to be seen as advisors and industry representatives rather than represent the co-“employers” of legislators.  This is not to say that there aren’t politicians who bravely stand up now for the long-term view of what is best for the overall American economy.  It can only be hoped that more politicians show this type of courage on a number of policy fronts and, as well, in the service of campaign finance reform.

Are There Any Other Options?

Those who read these recommendations with a jaundiced eye may say:  “You expect too much from government” or “this will never happen”.

My response:  Short of the United States slumping into further energy dependency, accelerated trade deficits, inflation due to spiraling oil prices and accelerated climate change worldwide, what are the other options?

If you have another workable option please share it with me or, better yet, the Administration and the world.

Standing on the side of the fishermen and the wildlife of the Gulf is not an act of excessive and unrealistic belief in human goodness, an underestimation of our energy demand, or an exaggeration of the sensitivity of natural systems.  It is simply the recognition of the unwinding of a model of economic and energy development that has run its course.


Just Published on Grist: Piece on “Bill Gates and Our Innovation Addiction” March 3, 2010

Posted by Michael Hoexter in Climate Policy, Energy Policy, Renewable Energy, Sustainable Thinking, Uncategorized.
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The environmental news site Grist, has just published a piece I wrote that is a response to Bill Gates’ recent entry into the climate and energy discussion.

Check it out at:


Enjoy and comment if you like!


My New Post/Article on Post-Copenhagen Ethics March 3, 2010

Posted by Michael Hoexter in Climate Policy, Efficiency/Conservation, Energy Policy, Green Activism, Renewable Energy, Sustainable Thinking.
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Frustrated with the state of climate action both here in the US and at the COP15 meeting in December, I have been focusing on how to distill thinking about climate action to some simple rules.  I came up with a longer piece that builds on the work of Donald Brown at the Climate Ethics Center at Penn State University.

Since this is a long piece I have posted it in my “Energy and Transport Policy” section as a three part post starting from this page :


I also have a PDF version here, which some may find easier to read or refer to.

Please read and comment!


Cap and Trade: An Unserious Policy Framework for Humanity’s Most Serious Challenge – Part 1 December 12, 2009

Posted by Michael Hoexter in Energy Policy, Sustainable Thinking.
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In a few days in Copenhagen, world leaders will debate and, we hope, agree upon aggressive targets for humanity’s greatest challenge to date:  to avert devastating man-made climate change by transforming our economies’ use of energy and of land while maintaining and improving social welfare for the world’s peoples.  We have in the past 250 years proceeded on a course of development which has used fossil energy to replace human and animal muscle power with mechanical energy.  Economic development has almost become defined by application of this “exosomatic” energy, 85% of which comes from fossil sources worldwide.  Emissions from fossil energy as well as changes in land use, have dramatically increased the concentration of warming gases in the atmosphere, leading to increases in average annual temperature.  Furthermore, preferences for eating meat, in particular beef and bovine products like milk, have contributed massive amounts of warming potential to the atmosphere.  Finally, combustion of biomass and many fossil fuels has produced black carbon which has contributed substantially to warming.  Balancing the living standards of human beings with the health of the planet has become an unenviably massive set of tasks.

The potential economic and ecological catastrophes from a warmer planet are starting to become clear to us.  The retreat and eventual disappearance of glaciers seems now highly likely, reducing fresh water supplies for billions of earth’s people.  Rising sea levels from the melting of polar ice caps will swamp hundreds of millions more who live in low-lying coastal areas.  Changes in temperature are already disrupting fragile ecosystems with, for instance in North America, the pine beetle now surviving what once were frigid winters and devastating the forests of the Western US and Canada.  Many of the species with which our species has co-evolved will die off in a warmer world.

However, when compared to the magnitude of the threat and the measures needed to meet or exceed intended targets, the instrument chosen during the 1990’s to transform our economies, cap and trade (also known as emissions trading), has proved to be marginally effective to ineffective and extremely cumbersome to implement.  It is as if you, with great fanfare and concern, pointed out that there was a drowning swimmer 100 feet away from you but chose to throw a rubber duck instead of a lifebuoy to save them.  With time running low, it would be a disaster if government ministers and world leaders lock themselves into the cap and trade instrument as the main means to achieve emissions reductions targets.  Cap and trade or emissions trading, has had unimpressive results when compared with more traditional “command and control” regulation in the area of acid-rain forming pollution (SOx) and seems to have been selected as a means to control greenhouse gases largely because it appeared at the time politically expedient to the then-Clinton Administration.  This was humanity’s “first go” at a climate policy and the instrument has shown more weakness than strength.

There was within the Clinton Administration, which has had an outsized influence upon the shape of our first climate policy framework, an openness and vulnerability to the anti-regulatory and anti-tax rhetoric issuing from the Republican Party post-Ronald Reagan, so cap and trade seemed like an elegant domestic political solution.  Clinton, with apparent enthusiasm, declared in 1996 that “the era of Big Government is over,” yet government action and government regulation of markets, as it turns out, are going to be the pivotal institutions in transforming our economies to radically cut emissions (and managing our way out of the Great Recession).  Furthermore the Clinton Administration had more generally a fascination with financial innovation via expanding the influence and reach of financial trading markets and loosening regulations upon them.

However, in its capacity of creating a politically acceptable alternative to direct government action in the economy or to the levying of Pigovian (“sin”) taxation on carbon emissions, the proposal to use cap and trade to regulate greenhouse gas emissions has been, in the United States, a miserable political failure.  Opponents of action on climate change have seen through or willfully misinterpreted cap and trade’s “soft” regulatory image.  They are reinforced in their belief that “government is bad” by the effort by their political opponents to hide or make indirect government’s role via cap and trade.  “Fancy footwork” was unfortunately a hallmark of the Clinton Administration’s major policy efforts and cap and trade’s application to global warming is no exception.

I have elsewhere outlined two policy frameworks that with greater certainty would cut emissions more rapidly, based on more robust, reality-based economic and social scientific principles.  Firstly, a carbon tax or fee will function as a much clearer, more consistent incentive to invest in mitigation because of its predictability and clearer price signal to investors and consumers.  If paired with a series of targeted incentives for clean energy (feed in tariffs or other performance-based clean energy incentives) and investment in energy and transport infrastructure (electric transmission, electrified rail, electric vehicle infrastructure), we will see measurable emissions reductions and the emergence of real market choices upon which carbon prices will act.  The combination of incentives, disincentives and public investment might be called a “Comprehensive Climate and Energy Policy”.  Alternatively, a series of 20 to 50 large scale regional and global emissions cutting projects can form the basis for determining what would be the unifying national and international policy instruments, most likely including a carbon tax of some form.  Projects would need to represent certain emissions reductions using existing or emerging technologies within a timeframe or directly enable emissions reductions (transmission to renewable energy zones, electrified rail).

An alternate “meta-economic” framework for effective climate policy is Keynesianism, which after 3 decades of disregard has once again been recognized as the vital guide to economic policy at times of crisis.  What I call “Climate Keynesianism” recognizes the key role of government in leading an economy in crisis, in this case one with both a traditional worldwide economic slump in combination with an ecological crisis of unprecedented proportions.  Most commentators calling for a WWII style mobilization to catalyze economic growth and a greening of our society (a “Green New Deal”) are working with assumptions based on the work of John Maynard Keynes, though not all acknowledge his contribution.  Within a Keynesian framework government planning can supplement and support markets rather than remain invisible in our guiding economic theory or remain foolishly dismissed, as it has been over the past 30 years.  I have recently ventured the hypothesis that most intentional emissions reductions or increases in the efficient use of polluting resources that have occurred in our history have been the product of the implementation of government programs inclusive of the design of tax policy.

Furthermore, as I have argued here, cap and trade shields polluters and government from the ethical pressure of concerned citizens and concerned scientists, which are, in the end, the prime motive forces of climate action.   The new property rights to pollute that are the basis of emissions trading are fairly non-transparent and insulate polluters from the need to maximize emissions cuts sooner rather than later.  Cap and trade, in its implementation rather than in the ideal terms in which some advocates discuss it, sends out “go slow” or inconsistent signals via its complexity, reliance on offsets of often poor quality, soft targets, introduction of non-essential players into the domain of emissions reductions, and the contract not to cut emissions to zero contained within a pollution permit.

Seriousness and Unseriousness

I have above sketched out in broad terms why cap and trade is ineffective and incommensurate to the task of carbon mitigation (elsewhere I have gone into more detail with supporting documentation about why cap and trade is ineffective and resists strengthening).  However these criticisms that I have made are not particularly arcane or difficult to arrive at…why is it that these views are not shared more widely?  If we leave aside self-interested calculation for the time being, I believe there is what might be described as a “reality-orientation” among policymakers and important economic actors, within which cap and trade appears to be a quite acceptable solution despite its “Rube Goldberg” nature and inappropriateness to the task.  This reality orientation shapes perceptions of what is the nature of the challenges facing us and what are acceptable solutions to those challenges.  I would contend that it is possible to judge with some accuracy that some solutions are “serious” and others “unserious”.

On its simplest level, seriousness is an orientation of mind, either temporary or longer term, where we clear away irrelevant facts, irrelevant emotional states, and irrelevant impulses from consideration because of the need to take action.  Seriousness means focusing on only the relevant information for a particular moment or challenge and allowing in new information that is also relevant.  Seriousness means being able to screen information based on its appropriateness to what needs to be done now or very soon; it means understanding the links between an action and its ultimate purpose.

Despite the immediacy-of-action requirement in serious situations, seriousness however might also involve engaging in long-term planning, considering many factors and facts, but nesting and ranking them as to their relative importance, even though first actions are very important.  The observation from the study of complex systems called “sensitivity to initial conditions” a.k.a.  “the Butterfly Effect” explains to some degree why first steps are important even though the road may be long.  The planning and building of large physical structures requires seriousness from the outset to the end of the building process and beyond.  Seriousness most often involves the use of rational thought processes to come to solutions based on the relevant information, though intuitive, “Blink” type, reactions in extremis may yield good results as well.

Another way to look at seriousness from a more biological perspective, is that it is the “fight or flight response” brought under the control of the prefrontal cortex, the center of our brains that is associated with impulse control, deliberation and planning.  The fight or flight response is our basic physical and emotional response to threats, which has analogues across multiple species and has evolved over hundreds of millions of years.  In serious states of mind, the anxieties and dangers that trigger that response are anticipated, and planning is initiated that will reduce the likelihood of our encountering those threatening situations.

Unseriousness by contrast is allowing extraneous concerns and facts into that emergency or near-emergency situation or relying largely on non-rational decision-making processes when time would allow for rational ones.  As seriousness is judged by context and we all have multiple commitments in our lives, some people argue over whether people are “truly” committed to the issue at hand or are using it to further their “other agenda” to which it is assumed they are more committed.   As an example, deniers of climate change or action on climate change are in effect accusing those who are concerned about climate change of unseriousness because they believe them to have invented climate change science  as part of a pre-existing political agenda.  For these people, the pre-existing political conflict (between Left and Right) is the serious part while the science, to them, is unserious.  In this dispute there is a disagreement about which here is the fundamental context upon which to establish true “seriousness”:  the physical world as observed by science or the political and subjective world of human beings.

As “unseriousness” carries with it a pejorative tone, it is not the same thing as “lack of seriousness” in most domains of life where humor and levity is highly valued.   To break up the repetition in this piece I will use “lack of seriousness” to mean “unseriousness” because of the context.  However “to fiddle while Rome burns” can rightfully be called unserious, with all pejorative meanings intended.

To judge someone or something as “serious” or “unserious” appears at first to be a subjective task.  What are extraneous or irrelevant concerns and impulses?  What are rational thought processes?  For instance, I could be deciding at this moment for personal reasons of my own to declare cap and trade to be “unserious” and carbon taxation, a Comprehensive Climate and Energy Policy, and Climate Keynesianism to be “serious”.  Or seriousness could just be a state of mind that comes and goes; I might have a personal preference for serious people or a mood of seriousness (as it turns out this is the not the case).  If one looks or sounds a certain way, one might think, one is or is not taken as “serious”.

However I believe that most readers will be able to agree that certain facts and events in the world are “serious” without reference to the accompanying facial expressions or tones of voice.  What do we mean by “serious” or when something “gets serious”?  When something is “serious” we realize that we have either very little or no choice in an important matter; when something “gets serious” options have been removed and, yet action on our part is required that will have substantial repercussions for us and/or for others.  What most people would consider “necessities of life” are almost by definition “serious” while wants are not necessarily “serious”.  Government is often though not always involved in “serious” life and death situations: fire departments, police departments, courts, national defense etc.  Climate change is one of those serious issues:  we cannot escape the world en masse and we are degrading the biosphere irreversibly through our activity.  I am not making up its seriousness nor am I exaggerating it:  it is matter of humanity being able to live decently or the potential for a much reduced existence for humans and coevolved species in the future.

Also, many people, though perhaps a lesser number, will be able to identify unseriousness in the response to a serious situation.  You might become impatient if you recognize a serious predicament but are being offered information or solutions that are in some way irrelevant to its resolution.  If we are led to believe that we are in an emergency, yet are then offered a solution that is not effective or seems to be an answer to a different question, we need some very strong reasons to pair “Question and Answer A” with “Question and Answer B”.  However, as noted above, in some serious matters there are disputes about what is the “ultimate ground” or context against which acts are judged as more or less relevant: are politics and human relations or is the biophysical world “the ultimate ground”?

Seriousness or unseriousness is also an orientation with regard to the representation of facts and ideas.  In science, only “seriousness” is appropriate in the actual communication of data and their interpretation; there is supposed to be no ambiguity with regard to what something means.  In business or culture, “unseriousness” has its place, as ambiguity is allowed or encouraged.  Given the science-dependent nature of climate and energy policy and the very late hour we are facing these issues, “seriousness” is the only appropriate means to deal with the basic outlines of policies that are supposed to “save the world”.

Unseriousness at the wrong time or in the wrong people can have very real and serious consequences.   Unserious leaders of governments and large corporations can do enormous damage to their organizations or the parts of society that are affected by their actions.

Cap and Trade for Greenhouse Gas Emissions is Unserious Policy

Cap and trade via its adoption in the Kyoto Protocol and elsewhere has morphed into a sizeable set of institutions and worldwide: there are tens of thousands whose work is fed or feeds into its framework; it already has had serious real impacts on some people’s lives.  However despite its institutional massiveness and the grave nature of the climate change challenge it remains at its heart an “unserious” policy.  The frivolousness at the heart of the policy is a frightening irony and potential tragedy given the consequences of failure involved, the seriousness of the work done by many workers in the field as well as the fact of their employ in instituting such a policy.  But unfortunately, we and they have been saddled with a policy that is at odds with its fundamental task as well as the personal intents of many though not all of its supporters and functionaries.

The lack of seriousness of cap and trade can, in part, be traced back to its overreliance on trading and market mechanisms.  Markets, while they have serious consequences in the world, function in part via the lack of commitment of actors within markets to each other or to the goals of society as a whole.  Markets, to function, have to represent a degree of non-compulsion; they are never entirely “free” as some ideologues would like us to believe, but they attempt to be non-deterministic in terms of the outcome of the “play” of relationships and transactions within the market space.

The non-deterministic bent of markets leaves room for participants, in particular participants with sufficient financial resources, to have multiple choices with regard to the satisfaction of their wants.  For some this area of choice becomes a type of game, where players attempt to receive more benefits for less sacrifice of resources.  Offers can be played off against other offers so the costs for items will become more affordable for the buyers, though not necessarily advantageous for the sellers.  In playing one offer off against another there often will be an element of unseriousness or deception, as false commitments or false show of disinterest may lead sellers to increase the favorability of their offer.  To approach markets with total seriousness is often to lose out on opportunities or to be taken advantage of.  Playing games well in markets then becomes for each individual actor a competitive advantage in claiming more of the overall benefit for themselves.

There has been a certain hagiography of markets that has emerged in the last 30 years which has portrayed this scenario of market actors moving fluidly between offers on a market as the sole paradigm of economic activity.  All economic activity has been supposed to strive to emulate markets with the idea being promoted that individual buyers choosing between multiple offers is the almost exclusive foundation of economic progress and efficiency.  However this view of markets is focused on the internals of market functioning and ignores the supporting institutions for the smooth functioning of markets as well as the externalities (the damages and benefits to those not involved in the transaction) they create.  A well-functioning market is a product of (a lot of) work by non-market actors like government officials as well as those who work in economic roles and sectors which do not necessarily function well in the ideal market format.  Furthermore there are a number of economic functions that do not lend themselves well to market functioning, many of which are “natural monopolies” or oligopolies like electricity and transportation infrastructure.

Markets tend to work better the more “discretionary” or flexible a given type of human wish is, as well as where buyers can accurately evaluate the value and likely results of a transaction with their own knowledge base.  We tend to see “ideal” market behavior in areas of life where we are dealing more with luxuries than necessities:  in health care, cosmetic surgeons and dentists can sell their services to a (wealthier) consumer market on an out of pocket basis while in the area of basic medical care there is more likely to be subsidies or public and private insurance schemes.  Thus the “playfulness” of markets fits with things we can literally “do without” or hold out for, i.e. demand is “elastic”.  In those areas of life where demand is high but relatively “inelastic” we tend to see more regulation and/or subsidies by government or the direct provision of goods and services by government.

In the era of the idealization of markets we were supposed to trim all economic activity to the Procrustean bed of a competitive, unregulated market.  As Adam Brandenburger and Barry Nalebuff pointed out in their book Coopetition, cooperative interaction in the business world has been under-theorized while competition has been over-theorized and over-celebrated.  Economic planning, both within firms and in society as a whole, became taboo, as competition through the market was supposed to do almost everything for everybody.  In practice this has meant that certain economic activities that we are now recognizing are crucial (energy and transport) were neglected or subject to a series of exercises in deregulation or “marketization” with mixed but sometimes disastrous outcomes.  This has left, especially in the United States which has been the epicenter of the idealization of markets, energy infrastructure and transportation projects at the margins of high-level economic policy discussions.

Formulated during a period of financial deregulation and a mushrooming of the financial services industry, cap and trade is an offspring of the idealization of markets, a baroque monument to a belief in the market mechanism and financial trading in particular as the self-sufficient and predominant function in economic life.  Cap and trade has a “double decker” market, with the carbon permit market, with its variable price outcomes, regulating the real market for global warming solutions.  It would have been easier and more effective to simply drive the, “lower” level of that stack of markets, the real market for global warming solutions, with a tax but the policy designers were swept up in their belief in competitive markets and feared the appearance of exercising governmental authority via either taxation or direct regulation.  That the Clinton Administration was unsuccessful in 1993 in instituting an non-greenhouse gas related energy tax has shaped international climate policy in measures far beyond the value of that historical moment.

Proponents of cap and trade tend to argue that emissions trading and taxation are equivalent in terms of their usefulness but these assertions are based on an inadequate confrontation with some basic weaknesses in the cap and trade system.  Beyond the problem of offsets and their quality, which is a very large problem, the two most problematic assertions about almost all configurations of cap and trade are:

Assertion #1 –  Cap and trade’s price signal is equivalent as that of a carbon tax” –  This is not true because auctioning and permit trading yield a variable price signal and investment uncertainty.  A variable price signal is much less useful to investors in emissions reducing measures because these investments will pay for themselves in most cases over a period of years.  The value of the investment is then in question with a variable signal.  The economic modeling of this issue ignores the multi-year perspective from the point of view of individual economic actors.  I call this cap and trade’s “faulty microeconomics”.  There are ways to patch this up with price floors and ceilings and a very narrow trading range but then the elaborate structure of cap and trade is no longer necessary.  Cap and trade then becomes a more cumbersome tax with permits and market games attached.

Assertion #2 – “Cap and trade delivers certainty about quantities of emissions reductions (while taxation gives you price certainty).” If “1” is false (which it is without losing many of its trading attributes) then this statement is unlikely to be the case because carbon reducing investments will be less likely under carbon price uncertainty.   The point of carbon pricing (cap and trade or tax) is to stimulate investment in carbon reducing technologies rather than issue fiat regulations that controls amounts of emissions.  However the uncertainty in the price signal will interfere with emissions reductions until the point where regulators will step in and “pull the plug” on either malevolent, ignorant or unlucky losers on the carbon permit markets.  So certainty will be achieved, with an ambitious cap, when regulators will step in with arbitrary-seeming harsh measures.  Neither instrument will give anyone total “certainty” of quantity without the use of direct regulation, though a carbon tax would be easier to calibrate to achieve approximate goals.  Advocates of cap and trade omit the simple fact that carbon price rates can be adjusted perhaps every 3 years to achieve an emissions goal (though not so frequently as to make price projections arbitrary and useless for businesses).  Even with these adjustments the carbon price signal will remain clearer than with cap and trade.

Besides these questionable assertions that are always treated as established fact, invisible in the discussions by cap and trade advocates is the introduction of what is essentially an extraneous element into the process of pricing carbon, the trading markets, which seems to serve no other purpose than to lay at the feet of the market abstraction that the last couple generations of economists have idealized, the most important policy instrument that the world has ever seen.

As individuals, the designers and advocates of cap and trade are sometimes believers in more general financial market reform yet refuse to see how carbon finance pulls financial markets away from reform and towards speculative excess once again, via the insertion of price variability and trading.  Other than personal corruption, which may be the case for some, I do not see how these otherwise smart people continue to exempt cap and trade from what they otherwise would apply to the trading, for instance, of bundled sub-prime mortgages or other shady securities.

If we turn to our definition of “serious” vs. “unserious”, we see in cap and trade the introduction of an extraneous institution (the permit markets), set of concerns (the profit motive via trading of paper and not via producing or financing emissions cuts), and stakeholders (powerful financial groups interested in expansion of derivatives).  These extraneous institutions do not simply remain “quiet” but end up co-steering the course of the policy and interfering with its purpose.  Political and economic favoritism as well as intellectual hobbyhorses are being served instead of the world’s most important set of tasks and investments.

If we accept that our relationship with the biophysical world is the “ultimate ground” of climate policy, introducing an over-elaborate set of political and economic ideas and interest groups that are inessential to the policy’s goals and divert energy and funds to their ends adds a lot of unnecessary risk to the carbon mitigation enterprise.  If we furthermore acknowledge that the state and rate of our degradation of the biophysical world is very serious and approaching dire, the risks are multiplied.

Therefore cap and trade is unserious policy.

Cap and Trade: A Tangled Web of Good Intentions and Bad Policy – Part 1 October 26, 2009

Posted by Michael Hoexter in Efficiency/Conservation, Energy Policy, Green Transport, Renewable Energy.
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I favor some of the more aggressive actions to avert climate catastrophe, actions which nevertheless do not compromise the continuity of human life and well-being. The climate which enabled our evolution as a species and the societies upon which we depend has almost no price attached to it. Averting this calamity, if we can, is the moral equivalent of war. As such it deserves the investment and political priorities that are accorded the military during a war, though the necessary moral and climate-science arguments for this level of investment have not been made clearly by leaders, especially in the US.   In our Great Recession, a forward-looking policy to counter climate change would have much needed economic benefits and lay the foundation of the new economy that we are supposed to be building.

Unfortunately, the mental “real estate” of climate activists and politicians has been captured by a monumentally bad idea, a misapplication of an environmental regulatory system that encourages delay and irresponsibility in climate action rather than changing the course of our society’s use of energy and land. Whatever urgency is felt popularly or by leaders, the institutions that will arise from the cap and trade policy framework have a good chance of actually blocking more effective action on climate (more straightforward system of rules, incentives, disincentives, and direct investment), which makes the work of exposing its flaws not simply the matter of my or someone else’s political or economic preferences but one of life and death for future generations and the ecosystems upon which we depend. An unquestioning herd mentality has taken over and encouraged even some of our best social scientific minds, including Nobelist Paul Krugman, to issue statements of support for a policy inspired by an outdated political and economic fashion of which Krugman is himself one of the leading critics.

Somehow a connection is not being made between the monumental collapse of our financial systems over 13 months ago and the design of the twenty-year-old policy instrument to which so much unearned credence has been given. Fundamental to cap and trade is the hand-off of key responsibilities and agency (the ability to act) for cutting carbon emissions to a carbon derivatives trading market, an unnecessary gift to the hyper-caffeinated and overgrown trading sector of finance. Just this week, critics of the Obama Administration’s earlier weaker financial regulatory efforts are now feeling somewhat vindicated in seeing that the Administration is now stepping up its efforts to rein in financial engineering and trading-dominated finance. It is utterly baffling that people who are intelligent enough to design or just understand an over-complicated policy instrument like cap-and-trade have not made the connection between the origins of cap and trade and the vagaries of our financial system. For them, the cap and trade instrument is still wrapped in the mystique of trading-based markets, which outside the climate community have lost much of their appeal.

It is an open secret among people who actually work now in cutting emissions by implementing energy efficiency and renewable energy projects that cap and trade is at best a holding pattern if not a monumental roadblock to pushing ahead with deployment, investment and research in emissions reductions themselves. These voices, generally excluded from the political discussion, contradict the “line” that, for instance, the upcoming legislation from the US Congress centered around cap and trade is a “clean energy jobs bill” and is the very heart of a green economy. While cap and trade is complex, these criticisms come not from a lack of economic or even political understanding but from a realistic appraisal of how actual lower-carbon technology implementation decisions get made, an elementary business process which seems to have escaped study by the policy’s designers. Cap and trade is not too stringent or too effective but not nearly effective enough.

The fundamental problem with cap and trade is that it placates government leaders and activists with manifest good intentions while undermining the effectiveness of the only instruments which could realize those good intentions. Cap and trade inserts a layer of obfuscation and indirection into governments’ ability to make rules, implement programs, build public works, and levy taxes in a fair and transparent manner.   On another level, it has a faulty microeconomics, inserting uncertainty about the value of emissions reductions to the businesses that will actually cut emissions via responding to the policy.  While working with ineffectual or superficially “P.C.” policy instruments might be acceptable in other matters, in climate policy the massive open-air experiment that has been cap and trade over the past 15 years is an unfolding catastrophe. It is not unlike the Trojan Horse, in that cap and trade appears as a gift, yet gives the vandals or just climate do-nothings command of the citadel. Tragically, the barrage of criticism and invective from the loony political Right or from professional contrarians who have lost a sense of proportion, distracts well-intentioned lawmakers and their supporters from seeing the flaws of their chosen policy.

Cap and Trade in Summary

Briefly, the cap and trade systems under discussion are permit trading systems that attempt to limit emissions of greenhouse gases by allowing polluters to emit greenhouse gases to the amount for which they possess permits. Permits are either given away or auctioned off up to the amount of a society-wide or economic sector-wide “cap” determined by regulators, which is supposed to be “tightened” (meaning reduced) over the years, leading to the decades long equivalent of a game of musical chairs. Regulators, as is planned, will in the future remove “chairs” by reducing the number of permits available to the point where by 2050 there would only be permits for 20% of 1990 greenhouse gas emissions. The “trade” part happens when companies have excess permits, because of having polluted less or owning unneeded permits. They can sell these excess permits for a profit to companies that pollute more than the amount of permits that they own. There have been various attempts to re-brand cap and trade with a name that sounds somewhat less shady, like “market-based cap” etc..

Derived from the speculations of the economists Ronald Coase (1960) and Martin Weitzman (1974), cap and trade, also called emissions trading, was invented in the US in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s during the first Bush Administration as a way to avoid issuing  so-called “command-and-control” environmental regulation by government (telling industry exactly what to do and monitoring it) or direct monetary penalties like pollution taxes. The original cap and trade system for acid rain pollution which is still in place in the US, has been declared responsible for reducing by 40% sulfur emissions (SOx) by coal-burning power plants in the period 1990-2004. However, during the same time period, European and Japanese regulators have been markedly more successful using traditional regulations in cutting the emissions of these same pollutants (65%) from power plants, revealing the cap and trade system to be the equivalent of a regulatory stunt: “See! Look Ma…no hands!”  In a 2007 review of  the results of emissions trading, Gar Lipow has led the way in calling into question the sales pitch for cap and trade.

As an example, the highly coal-dependent, heavily industrial Czech Republic went from in 1990 emitting two times the amount of SOx per capita as the US to in 2004 emitting approximately one-half the amount of SOx per capita as the US (UNECE report page 68).  While most post-Communist societies have decreased all types of emissions substantially due de-industrialization, economic hard times, or adoption of modern emissions controls, the Czech Republic had in 2006 twice as much industry as a percentage of GDP and uses as a percentage of total energy supply twice as much coal as the US, revealing the US to be far from a leader in reducing acid rain pollution.   Furthermore, the cap and trade system’s success has been aided in America by the accessibility of low-sulfur coal at an equivalent price to coal with higher sulfur content; Wyoming’s Powder River Basin coal deposits have been the “wind beneath the wings” of the US anti-acid rain program such as it is.   From the perspective of these results, holding out the SOx regulatory system of the US as the pivotal policy to save the planet stretches credulity.

Cap and Trade and Greenhouse Gases

The road to applying cap and trade to climate change had a number of twists and turns. Before implementing a climate policy, in 1993 the newly-formed Clinton Administration had attempted to institute a BTU energy tax as a means of raising revenue but was rebuffed by Congress. The Administration considered this experience along with its frustrated health care reform effort a major early defeat that shaped later thoughts on policy and political strategy; these fateful events 16 years ago unfortunately have had inordinate effect on US and world climate policy since then.

The Clinton Administration subsequently in the negotiations surrounding the Kyoto treaty to limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions favored “flexibility” and helped engineer a consensus in favor of cap and trade and cross-border emissions swaps.   While a “wonky” intellectual interest in emissions trading may have played a role, the Clinton Administration also thought that this policy would have domestic political benefits as a means to circumvent a policy that had the “tax” label or appeared to tell industry what exactly to do (direct regulation).   Using cap and trade also was an effort to “reach across the aisle” as the first cap and trade system had been implemented under the Presidency of the first George Bush.  In other areas of the economy, in tune with economic fashion of the 1980’s and 90’s, the Clinton Administration was as fascinated by markets as its Republican predecessors and, additionally, had a penchant for policy complexity, within which the notion of using a market to regulate other markets seemed almost commonsensical.

In 1998, despite pressing for cap and trade as the international GHG regulating instrument, the Clinton Administration compromised with an intransigent US Congress by not ratifying the Kyoto treaty, insisting that the developing world must be included in the regulation of greenhouse gases.  The elaborate political ploy in using cap and trade failed as far as US politics were concerned.  Other industrialized nations, most notably Europe and Japan, and the relevant UN bureaucracies continued developing the carbon market and cap and trade concept without direct US involvement during the later Clinton and Bush years.  The Protocol went into effect in most industrial countries in 2005 after a lengthy period of negotiation and set-up.

While emissions have been cut in some countries, the experience of the first four years of international carbon regulation via cap and trade have not shown the instrument to be particularly capable of effecting meaningful reductions in carbon emissions. In the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS), affiliated with Kyoto, the effects of the economic downturn or a future upturn are making any evaluation of the effect of cap and trade on emissions a near impossibility.   The use of carbon offsets originating in developing countries will further cloud the data.    In its initial 3 year period (2005-2007), GHG emissions in the EU ETS went up by 1.9% with wide nation by nation variation ranging from Sweden (-20%) to Finland (+28.5%).   Multiple reasons are possible for the wide span between countries and more generally many self-issued excuses are rampant because of the acknowledged complexity of the system; this was a “run-in period” etc.  In 2008 there is missing data but it appears that a combination of the economic downturn and high energy prices (not necessarily attributable to a carbon price) led to a fall of GHG emissions of 3% from 2007 in the EU, which the managers of the EU-ETS attributed to the carbon “price signal”  generated by the trading scheme.   In the same period (2007-2008) without a national GHG cap and trade system, US emissions fell 2.8% for similar reasons, contradicting the claims of EU ETS managers that cap and trade had an effect in 2008.   The net contribution of carbon trading to emissions reductions is still, 12 years after Kyoto, indistinguishable from “noise” in the data.

While it is universally agreed that “errors” were made in giving away too many permits in the initial round of Kyoto/EU-ETS, it is a strange repeat of these supposed errors that the now proposed US cap and trade system being debated in Congress will as of this writing also give away most of its permits for about the next decade. Furthermore the use of offsets, the (supposed) emissions cuts by others that are purchased on an international market because they are cheaper than internal investments, has been controversial both in design and in implementation.  Whatever one’s view on carbon arbitrage (shopping around for the cheapest reductions around the world), it is universally agreed that offsets reduce pressure on the biggest polluters to take action now in reducing their own emissions. The notion of cap and trade being a system of indulgences for fossil fueled economies is further reinforced by this disturbing propensity of real-existing, as opposed to theoretical-ideal, GHG cap and trade systems to undermine themselves or soften their impact on the biggest sources of emissions.

In Copenhagen in December at COP15, the successor to the Kyoto process (2005-2012) is to be designed and most of the climate community is moving towards a new cap and trade-based treaty that activists hope will be more vigorous than the previous one. Yet the trenchant criticisms of cap and trade systems that emerge from economists, most notably William Nordhaus, and concerned economic actors on the ground are brushed aside by those congregated at these events who seem to feel that their good intentions can substitute for conscientious analysis. For instance, almost every economist, including cap and trade supporter Sir Nicholas Stern, has had to agree at one point or another that carbon taxation is more efficient than the baroque emissions trading systems we have built.

Furthermore, we in the US are put in the difficult position of being a laggard in a process that is based upon our own bad idea, and upon which we really never followed through in its original form. In a way, the Obama Administration is, as it may be doing with its Afghanistan policy, put in the position of fighting the last Democratic President’s war rather than designing a more future-looking policy; having defined the political choice as cap and trade or, as the Republican opposition to Obama would have it, no strong action on climate change, the Democrats and Obama should instead be looking for the way to a more effective climate policy. The cap and trade framework, a product of some tortured political logic from the Bush and Clinton years, has “captured” the discussion, limiting thought and discourse on what are the available instruments to avert this catastrophe.

In its defense, permit trading may be appropriate as a distribution mechanism though not a magical cure-all in certain environmental arenas, most particularly the regulation of fisheries. In many nations now “catch-shares” are allocated to fishers who can trade these shares with other fishers. However, the ultimate success of even this appropriate use is achieved by the government setting limits on the fishing industry, not by yielding to some invisible hand of a fabricated market: the total amount of the permits allowed would need to be determined beforehand with reference to study of the fishery by biologists unaffiliated with industry and fishing limits would need to be enforced by government regulators, albeit according to the number of permits that the fisher owns. The appropriateness of permit trading as a distributional mechanism in this instance is that

  1. one is trying to calibrate exploitation of a natural resource at a particular level rather than reduce it in one direction (lower is almost always going to be better with GHG emissions for the foreseeable future.
  2. The permit trading is a just a new layer inside an existing historical market for fish which have an intrinsic positive economic value for people but are not arbitrarily created by people (it’s “inelastic”).  Pollution permits are on the other hand entirely an arbitrary creation of government(s), so the determination of a pollution price via the market is similar to playing a game of “guess what’s on my mind.”
  3. A simple intuitive equation can be made by all fishing market participants between a permit and a tradable object of recognized economic value, i.e. the fish.

All types of permit trading, whether of emissions or other, have provoked ethical controversy with regard to the selling of ownership shares to a public or natural common good. Despite these reservations, in the case of fisheries, fishers already have a longstanding tradition of claiming ownership of what they catch so permit trading represents not much of an innovation in resource ownership in fishing.

Why Cap and Trade is Bad News for Our Climate’s Future

There are a number of fundamental problems with cap and trade systems that are deeply embedded within the policy or its likely implementations, which suggest that working towards alternatives, even if they too are imperfect, is preferable. Remember, we do not have as many shots as we would like to deal with this problem, perhaps only one or one and a half, so a decades-long experiment with third-best policies is a foolish game. As Bill McKibben points out in a recent article, we cannot negotiate with non-human nature, unlike some other areas of policy.  So we need to put in policies that are either “right” or that do not install roadblocks that would stand in the way of better solutions.

  1. Cap and trade puts a newly formed financial derivatives market (the carbon permit market) with all its potential for boom and bust cycles and manipulation by powerful and unaccountable players, in a position to distort the real market for low-carbon technology and land-use changes; the stimulation of this real market is the reason for its existence in the first place. Within the fabricated permit market, the profit-seeking activities of permit traders from the financial markets and industry will be able to exert a substantial amount of unintentional control over the real technology choices and solutions implemented to curb our emission and sequester carbon. These traders, as do all traders, have a vested interest in opacity, price variability, and information asymmetries that would enable them to achieve the highest profit levels for their firms. Permit trading may offer some of the highest returns on investment in a cap and trade-dominated climate action world, so financial players will defend these profit streams with all the considerable means at their disposal. These are the most likely candidates for the “Greek raiding party” in the belly of the Trojan Horse, though climate activists and bureaucrats wedded to cap-and-trade are co-responsible for opening up the “citadel”.
  2. As trading looks to be one of the more profitable areas of the carbon business but in itself does not cut emissions, the incentives in the policy are misaligned: the most profitable business within a carbon policy framework should be those lines of business that cut the most emissions either through selling new technologies or processes or implementing them. An unfortunate echo of the go-go 90’s in which it was conceived, activity of trading is given a role far beyond any real value it offers.  On the level of businesses with real polluting assets, cap and trade will also reward those economic actors who are better permit-buying “game-payers” rather than those companies that invest most in emissions reductions.  This type of reward structure has no place in climate policy.
  3. Non-cap-and-trade policies that determine a fixed price for carbon have the advantage of having as an “output” an acknowledged decision-making tool (a monetary amount) that is already historically integrated into every economic transaction.  In permit trading, permit prices are only applicable to large economic actors and have only a “reflected” (and variable) monetary price after the net costs of the cap and trade outcome for that economic actor have been integrated into the pricing of their goods and services.
  4. A variable, uncertain carbon price that arises from market fluctuations and artifacts of the permit auctioning and trading system is not a clear, easily quantifiable incentive for firms and other real economic actors to make the long-term investments in capital equipment required to cut carbon emissions. A predictable carbon price (in the form of a tax or fee) over the long-term, albeit steeply increasing, would provide a much better incentive to make long-term investments that pay off over years. The “net present value” calculations that are the bedrock of investment decision-making depend on the projection of costs and benefits out into the future, which is nearly impossible using the rapid fluctuations and uncertainties of a carbon market.
  5. The salespeople of cap-and-trade claim falsely that the system gives policymakers “certainty” in terms of the amount emitted as compared to a price instrument like a tax/fee.  As the study of  existing cap and trade systems shows this certainty is illusory and gives leaders a false sense of security.  To get this type of certainty in a cap and trade system, regulators would have to engage in some very harsh and disruptive administrative actions, like shutting down a power plant during the last 3 months of a year if its owners ran out of permits.  Alternatively, the owners of the power plant could “borrow” permits from the next year’s allotment, only to create a direr threat for the next year, but the cap for the current year would have been broken.  Again this is punishing players for not playing the permit “game” as smartly as others though not necessarily being the gravest offenders in terms of carbon-inefficiency or overall emissions.
  6. Buying permits from other firms at a higher cost will impose an undue burden on companies or organizations that need to scale up their operations and increase their emissions in the middle of a year in response to an increased demand for their products.  A carbon tax will have no such punitive effects for unplanned growth as its cost will remain constant throughout the year and per unit produced.
  7. The carbon market does not differentiate between upstream and downstream emissions mitigation. “Upstream” means at the source of emissions, while “downstream” means either increasing efficiency of carbon-emitting energy use or absorbing emissions via land use changes. The efforts to make carbon emissions reductions appear as cheap as possible have tended to emphasize downstream solutions or projects in developing countries. However ultimately the main solution to slowing global warming is to eliminate emissions upstream which is currently more expensive, though downstream mitigation is always going to be necessary as well. A carbon policy that addresses upstream emissions immediately is preferable to one that waves a hand of resignation at business as usual in power generation and transport fuels because of initial cost issues.
  8. Cap and trade, because of its complexity, indirection and somewhat mystical faith in markets, has become the lingua franca of the climate action community and in so doing has shut down that community’s ability to critically examine the instrument itself or alternative, more effective instruments. The collective mental bandwidth that this instrument occupies has helped it to “suck in” many of the good intentions and attentions of politicians and activists, drawing their efforts away from other measures.
  9. Cap and trade obscures the vital role of government leadership, responsibility, regulation and direct investment from the public, the climate action community, and the leaders of government themselves. The successes of cap and trade systems such as they are, depend on either external factors independent of policy (economic downturns, low-sulfur coal deposits) or governmental actors setting stringent targets, operating the permit auction and trading system, and enforcing emissions goals. Yet, cap and trade’s sponsors and advocates continue to promote the fallacy that government is only playing an indirect role in its workings, as if this were a strength of the program. According to most of the expectations that have developed about government over the past millennium or so, there’s nothing wrong with governments taking a leading role in averting one of the greatest calamities we have ever faced. Government is the only institution that can represent and press for the realization of our society’s intention to save itself and the climate via implementation of low-carbon technologies and abstaining as a society from using up fossil fuels all at once. Attempts to hide the role of government paradoxically reinforce the position of advocates of a smaller government who can then point to the attempt soft-pedal as supporting evidence for their claims that government, especially “Big Government”, is “bad”. An honest assumption of responsibility by government would enable clearer, more transparent and more decisive policy moves and educational efforts about the dangers and opportunities for taking a sustainable path to economic development associated with climate change
  10. Instituting a cap and trade system because we, pro forma, must put a policy called a climate policy in place now or by December’s Copenhagen climate conference is worse than delaying a few months or a year to put in a better policy once our leaders have examined the alternatives with a more complete understanding of where they are going. The cap and trade systems now and soon to be developed already create considerable institutional and bureaucratic inertia and their own set of interest groups which are not so much incentivized to cut carbon emissions but to manage and justify the cumbersome system.

Any policy will have its strengths and weaknesses but cap and trade creates an economic, social scientific and political lattice-work at a distance from or interfering with the actual climate tasks ahead of us while blocking the way to better climate policy.

[In part 2 I will highlight what I think is the “fundamental challenge” of climate and energy politics and policy, look at the generic tasks that climate and energy policy is supposed to accomplish and suggest alternate route(s) that are more practical and will be infinitely more effective than cap and trade]