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The new deregulation?

March 30, 2011

Maybe I’ve been obsessing about regulations for too long (I was reminded recently that long before law school entered my mind, I did an undergraduate history paper on regulatory rollback in the Reagan administration), but I continue to be surprised that Republicans think that throwing cost-benefit analysis at an already-regulated policy problem counts as “deregulation.”

Anyways, we study history because history repeats itself: earlier this month, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) introduced the “Clearing Unnecessary Regulatory Burdens Act” (S. 602). RegBlog has a great, informative rundown on the bill. The “CURB Act” attempts to work some regulatory reform by imposing on agencies additional procedural requirements when issuing guidances. Collins has apparently also introduced this as an amendment to the currently-debated small business bill (the very one that is loaded down with riders seeking to spell out the death of the Clean Air Act).

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like creating more bureaucratic red tape. How’s a smaller government supposed to come out of this? The whole Republican attack on agency guidance just seems ill-informed. Are they just completely unaware of the entire body of administrative law?

What’s more, the political rhetoric against regulation is (unsurprisingly) willfully ahistorical and context-free. Republicans might like you to believe that agencies are running amok, rolling out regulations left and right without a care in the world, and that only some sober cost-benefit analysis will save our economy. But in fact, agencies already conduct a lot of thorough economic impact analyses at various levels in the rulemaking process. As Regblog points out, Collins’ bill basically codifies Executive Order 12866 – a Presidential directive that requires agencies to conduct CBAs on all major proposed regulations. EO 12866, of course, was issued by Clinton, and reaffirmed in a new order by Obama – both Democrats.

I can see how Republicans can score political points on this kind of demagoguery, but that won’t stop me from harping on the GOP’s freedom from ideology or consistency on the role of government and its constituent branches.

Like China, Europe is eating our lunch.

March 16, 2011

The EC GHG reduction roadmap.

Way back last week, before Japan’s earthquake, tsunami, and continuing nuclear crisis, the European Commission released its “roadmap for moving to a low carbon economy in 2050.” It’s an impressively ambitious policy, with a goal of reducing GHGs by at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Of course, this nearly complete decarbonization of the energy sector will necessarily entail huge changes and investments in low-carbon electricity generation, which would mean more wind, solar, biomass, hydro, and nuclear. At Columbia Law School’s Climate Law Blog, Daniel Firger provides a great, detailed breakdown of the roadmap and notes that the roadmap’s reliance on unproven technology (carbon capture and sequestration) and unstable situations (the much-hypothesized North African PV solar farm) means that Europe’s decarbonization goal will be difficult to achieve.

Much has been made of the news that Germany and other European countries are scrutinizing their nuclear energy sectors, particularly Germany’s temporary shutdown of seven nuclear reactors. Even the ravenously-growing China has temporarily halted its nuclear plans. Meanwhile, a lively debate has cropped up on the future of nuclear energy policy in the U.S., even in the otherwise distracted halls of Congress. The Obama Administration is apparently holding its line on new nuclear, as Energy Secretary Chu testified today that their position on the budget request for new plants hasn’t changed. In contrast, Craig Severance at Climate Progress argues that new nuclear fails the “practical and affordable” test. In laying out a new clean energy plan meeting President Obama’s goal of 80% clean electricity generation by 2035, Severance points out that new nuclear is an “unproven cost” – a significant one, at that:

If we tried to build all new nuclear plants to fill this same generation need, the total bill to replace just those retiring coal plants would likely exceed $1.2 trillion dollars.

Energy experts like the Union of Concerned Scientists and Climate Progress have been arguing for years that nuclear power in the U.S. is unsafe and under-regulated – and would put American taxpayers on the hook if a safety lapse were to occur. Writing at the Times, UCS nuclear engineer David Lochbaum notes:

We know that earthquakes can cause fires at nuclear reactors, and U.S. reactor safety studies conclude that fire can be a dominant risk for reactor core damage by disabling primary and back-up emergency systems. Yet dozens of nuclear reactors in the U.S. have operated for years in violation of federal fire protection regulations with no plans to address these safety risks anytime soon.

How will the Japanese crisis and its consequent refocusing on nuclear power affect Europe’s roadmap? Well, as Firger put it, European leaders will have to “reexamine their assumptions” about nuclear. Adding more (and apparently needed) safety measures to nuclear plants will only increase the cost of this already expensive type of electricity generation, which might make alternative sources more feasible. In the shorter term, the situation in Japan means major disruptions in supply chains, especially in the high-tech industry, suggesting that things might also get bumpy for high-tech, low-carbon renewable energy sources.

Manchin on political theater.

March 8, 2011

Congress has been engaged in “political theater,” Manchin will say in prepared remarks provided to POLITICO. “Why are we voting on partisan proposals that we know will fail, that we all know don’t balance our nation’s priorities with the need to get our fiscal house in order?”

via Freshman Democrat Joe Manchin: Obama has failed to lead on budget – Jennifer Epstein and Scott Wong – POLITICO.com.

Sen. Manchin hails from West Virginia, home to the prolifically destructive, health-endangering, and economically-extractive coal mining industry. Manchin is also one of 43 cosponsors of Sen. Inhofe’s “Energy Tax Prevention Act” (S. 482). The bill repudiates the Supreme Court’s holding in Massachusetts v. EPA by repealing the EPA’s endangerment finding for greenhouse gases and amending the Clean Air Act definition of “air pollution” to exclude greenhouse gases. It also seeks to repeal EPA’s authority to grant California’s waiver permitting the state to regulate tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases for new motor vehicles.

The new agriculture.

March 6, 2011

To leave the dreary politics of climate change for a minute, let’s take a look at the far more optimistic world of agricultural politics. The New York Times has an article this weekend about young farmers. It’s a movement I totally support, although I (unfortunately) don’t see myself making that career change, at least in the immediate future. In the meantime, I read the Greenhorns’ blog, imagine myself as a cheesemaker, and try to buy produce from local farmers as much as I can.

One of the reasons the young farmers’ movement is looking so much more promising than other environmental movements right now is that the federal government is actually providing  budget support in this field. As the NYT article points out:

the 2008 Farm Bill included a program for new farmers and ranchers. Last year, the department distributed $18 million to educate young growers across the country.

— which is not to say that that is necessarily the optimal support level. But it’s better than the situation in other environmental areas. Because so many of the USDA’s programs are considered mandatory spending, meaning that they are provided for in the Farm Bill as opposed to in annual appropriations acts, they are not as vulnerable to the budget-cutting massacre that the Republicans are currently trying to wreak on the EPA, Energy Department, and ARPA-E, among other important agencies and programs. Nevertheless, Congress is still going after Ag programs that are critical to promoting effective conservation practices. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has a great, informative post about the current budget situation.

Of course, the last Farm Bill was far from perfect, and the next one, projected to move through Congress in 2012, will likely retain a lot of the same, historically-ingrained bad policy; Mark Bittman had a great piece last week about the continuing need for subsidy reform. I generally agree with Bittman’s recommendations – especially that “specialty” crops like fruits and vegetables need far more subsidy support than commodities like corn and soybeans. I also think he’s right about the idea that to properly reform the food system in a more sustainable model, we need more farms – which will necessarily be smaller – throughout the country.  But I’d also like to see subsidy reform that incentivizes conservation practices – not only those that protect water quality (which are already supported by various USDA programs) but also those that address climate change adaptation and even mitigation, as in the case of farming practices that sequester or reduce GHG emissions.

Perfecting information.

March 3, 2011

In domestic climate change wonkery, the big news this week is from EPA, who released a study finding that the Clean Air Act’s 20-year stint of regulating air pollutants like smog and soot will pay back with annual benefits of $2 trillion by 2020. The benefit estimates are based on prevented deaths, cases of heart disease and asthma flare-ups, and associated missed work and school days. The study should strengthen the agency’s position as it’s poised to regulate greenhouse gases, and you can’t regulate properly without knowing the costs and the (perpetually ignored) benefits.  (On the other hand, the Republican budgetary assault against the EPA continues apace, such that Pew Center on Global Climate Change President Eileen Claussen speculates that Obama might sign a delay provision on greenhouse gas rules.)

Of course, it’s not like we all have perfect information about environmental costs. That’s why I’m glad to see that Transparency International has reported on the corruption and disclosure policies of 44 oil companies (the report itself is available here). The data itself is (ironically, disappointingly) pretty opaque, but it underscores the important point that states should require sufficient disclosure from the companies that enjoy the privileges of operating in their borders so that regulators can properly assess the costs and benefits of their operations. On the international level, there are costs and benefits that affect foreign relations, as the Guardian article suggests. On the domestic level, we’ll hopefully see some strong disclosure rules to implement the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act section targeting oil, gas, and mining companies.

As to the more pedestrian, everyday matter of clothes-shopping, the New York Times reported on a new effort to provide “sustainability scores” for items of clothing. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition looks particularly promising because of its broad reach: members include heavyweights like Wal-Mart, Target, and H&M, as well as more traditionally eco-minded brands like Patagonia and Timberland. The group aims to work first on cleaning up supply chains before next targeting the harder problem of life cycle assessments.

The coalition’s tool is meant to be a database of scores assigned to all the players in the life cycle of a garment — cotton growers, synthetic fabric makers, dye suppliers, textile mill owners, as well as packagers, shippers, retailers and consumers — based on a variety of social and environmental measures like water and land use, energy efficiency, waste production, chemical use, greenhouse gases and labor practices.

Already, some of the participants – H&M and Levi’s, along with several other brands – have collaborated with the International Textile Garment & Leather Workers’ Federation to stop sandblasting jeans. The sandblasting process is harmful to workers: 40 garment workers in Turkey have died of silicosis since 2005. I think it’s great that these companies are voluntarily doing their part to improve the market with more transparent supply chains and effective collective bargaining. You know, since apparently it’s not the role of government to do stuff like that.

Perverse pride in plasticware.

March 3, 2011

You’ve probably heard by now about how the House Republicans, on sweeping into power, immediately put a halt to former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “Green the Capital” initiativean early and symbolic target of the new GOP majority. It seems that Republicans just can’t stand the compostable utensils and takeout containers that came in with the Democratic majorities of 2007. They’ve complained that the utensils were shoddy and the composting program was expensive, and of course, elections have consequences, so out it goes. So what’s with the gleeful tweeting about plastic?

Speaker John Boehner’s press secretary, Brendan Buck, tweeted on Monday: “The new majority – plasticware is back.”

I think Dan Farber Ann Carlson at Legal Planet is right when she says:

It’s a small statement but it’s part of a much, much larger problem:  not only is the House of Representatives unwilling to do anything about climate change but they’re proud of themselves for turning their backs on science.  And our future.

(Dan Farber also has a great post on the unconstitutionality of Michelle Bachman’s light bulb bill, the next step in the Republicans’ determined quest to do the opposite of everything that constitutes sound policy.)

If this tweet, and the end of the Green the Capital initiative, were an isolated incident, it would have a different meaning. But this is all happening in the context of Republicans doing everything they can to, against public opinion, de-fund the federal agencies that are trying to protect our health and environment, stop scientific research on clean energy and climate science, and throw every conceivable stumbling block in the way of progress towards a coordinated, international effort to address the effects of climate change.

And what is the point? What’s the Republican angle on filling up landfills with petrochemical-based plastics? Is it simply that they delight in filling the world up with toxic chemicals and trash? Do they have futures on sending garbage to outer space? Or are they simply so ill-informed and short-sighted that they can’t conceive of any possible downside to proliferating the world with disposable plastic?

I’m inclined to go with the former, since I think it’s the most charitable explanation for their motivation. Yet that doesn’t square with Speaker Boehner’s own rhetoric. According to a speech he made just the day before his flack’s exultations on Twitter, the morality of what we leave the next generations is very much on his mind:

Yes, this debt is a mortal threat to our country. It is also a moral threat.

It is immoral to bind our children to as leeching and destructive a force as debt. It is immoral to rob our children’s future and make them beholden to China.

No society is worthy that treats its children so shabbily.

‘A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children,’ Proverbs reminds us. For too long, Washington has been ignoring this time-honored principle.

He even was so good as to up and Twitter-ize that for those of us following from our mobile devices:

It’s striking to me how blindered he must be to not see how these exact arguments are just as applicable and forceful when it comes to climate change. Seriously: just do a Find and Replace on “debt” with “climate change” – wouldn’t it be great if  we could run that algorithm on the entire GOP?

Unflashy innovations in energy efficiency.

February 24, 2011

Energy efficiency is frequently described as the “low hanging fruit” of energy policy reforms, because you can relatively painlessly achieve very significant energy savings (and consequently emissions reductions) through various efforts to improve efficiency, especially at its end use. For example, an oft-cited 2009 McKinsey report stated that non-transportation energy consumption could be reduced by 23 percent, at a savings of $1.2 trillion, by adopting a comprehensive plan for energy efficiency.

It’s been well known for years that simple behavioral changes or consumer actions can save a lot of electricity; hopefully, you have already banished all incandescent light bulbs in your house in exchange for CFLs or LEDs, and have caulked your windows, etc. Unsurprisingly, these types of mundane tasks are not very sexy, and consequently, it’s difficult to motivate people to make these changes. And it’s not just a matter of changing behavior: it’s just as hard to get people excited about reforming building codes, or making other infrastructural decisions to increase energy efficiency.

So what do people get excited about? Technology,  money, and novelty come to mind. And yesterday, those three exciting characteristics were all present in the news that through its venture capital arm, Google (everybody loves Google!) and other investors like Kleiner Perkins had invested $38 million in capital in Transphorm, Inc., a Santa Barbara-based startup that aims to reduce the energy loss that occurs when electricity is converted. The company’s chief executive says that 10 percent of electricity is currently lost using conventional conversion technology. Transphorm’s schtick is that they use gallium nitride instead of silicon, apparently resulting in a 90 percent increase in energy efficiency.

Their technology is kind of ridiculously vaguely described in the news articles I’ve found, but my sense from googling around is that Transphorm has basically come up with a new way to make switch-mode power converters, using gallium nitride diodes instead of silicon. Gallium nitride has a faster switching frequency and is a relatively novel material (compared to silicon compounds — it’s been in industrial and commercial application for years, most notably in LEDs). It seems that Transphorm’s actual innovation is in synthesizing the material most efficiently for the application.

The New York Times Bits post notes that Transphorm will first target the data center market, a major and fast-growing source of energy consumption. Not to be left behind, Microsoft is also working on improving energy efficiency in data centers.

This year, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) estimates that $240 billion worldwide will be invested in clean energy, including energy efficiency. (UNEP also estimates that spending 2 percent of global GDP, or $1.3 trillion per year, is what’s needed to transition to a green economy with reduced water and energy demand, carbon emissions, and increased crop yield.) While Transphorm is still unproven, this kind of unflashy innovation, at all levels of society – not just energy resource extraction, but also the minutiae of maximizing the efficiency of electricity conversion – will be necessary parts of the transition to the new green economy. And while the efficiency of electricity conversion doesn’t sound super exciting, its applications in high tech areas like cloud computing are going to be important drivers of innovation.

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