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Ed Newbold | End fecklessness in energy policy
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End fecklessness in energy policy

End fecklessness in energy policy

Posted Oct. 6, 2014 from Seattle WA.

Seattle Wildlife Artist Ed Newbold is calling for a complete revamping of our approach to energy policy and climate forcing.  An ad that will appear in the Seattle Times October 7, 2014 recommends some of the changes Newbold thinks should happen immediately.

 

Seattle times ad Newbold for Oct 7 use this delete other

 

Ed Newbold believes that our current approach–which is largely to mandate massive investments into certain anointed industries such as ethanol and wind energy while leaving in place subsidies for fossil fuel and continuing to allow fossil fuel energy to avoid paying for the costs it externalizes to the greater market– is like “pushing a string” to reduce climate-forcing gases.  “Actually it’s worse than pushing a string, it’s guaranteed to fail,” he says.

The ad asks the country and state to abandon the mandates that force investment in wind and ethanol.  Both industries make very little contribution toward reducing climate-forcing and both are particularly—virulently– harmful to birds and wildlife.

The ad then goes on to ask us to address the externality issue of fossil fuels and calls for an easy logical first step in this process:  “Tax the fuel  trains!”   In other words, let’s place a tax, or more accurately an externality fee, on the fuel trains going through the state (or the country).  There is a tax in existence on these trains already but it has either expired or is vanishingly small or both.  It should be maximally increased to pay for  1) the direct costs associated with the transport of this fuel currently borne by the taxpayers; 2)  the risks imposed to the citizens and the economy; and ideally 3) for external costs imposed on the world market when the fuel is burned. 

This is a Mountain Bluebird from the Taneum drainage of the Cascades, a shot I took in 2013, for relief from this blog post

This is a Mountain Bluebird from the Taneum drainage of the Cascades, a shot I took in 2013, for relief from this blog post

The ad notes that politicians from our state have already proposed this tax in one form or another:  McDermott, Congressional rep (D Seattle) introduced a bill that would implement such a tax in 2012 and Republican State Senator Baumgartner proposed expanding the existing tax in WA state in 2013.  The ad intentionally left out the fact that Senator Erickson also co-sponsored that bill as Newbold did not want to appear to take sides (in the ad) in Erickson’s upcoming re-election fight, and to save space, always important.

Ed is hoping people will see the ad and consider the points.  He’d love to see a strong “tax the train” movement in this state and he would be delighted to see the door slammed  shut on wind and ethanol giveaways.  But realistically he’ll just be happy to get any notice, and he assumes many who read the ad from the point of view of either the conservative right or the environmental left will disagree with some, most, or all of it.  Therefore the remainder of this blog will be devoted to four first-person mini-essays defending four of the points made:

Table of Contents

  1.  Why do I think our current approach is “guaranteed to fail.”
  2. Why attack wind?
  3. Why attack ethanol?
  4. What do I mean “first step is an externality fee on trains, i.e. what are the next steps and how evil are they going to be?

 

Why our current approach is guaranteed to fail

When we, through our government, make a political decision regarding what source or form of energy production will be appropriate in the future, we are essentially trying to do something that it is not humanly possible to do.  It’s precisely like asking a specific human or the government to predict which stock price will go through the roof next year–it simply can’t be done.

What was predicted and what was predictable is that we have chosen some very impractical forms of energy production, for instance wind and ethanol, and we have essentially forced the economy to ramp them up.  This soaks up Capital that could be used to innovate new better solutions at the same time it soaks up the political capital needed to attempt to solve the problem in the first place.  Notice that in Denmark, the most wind–centric country in the world, there is now a huge and growing backlash against wind.  Will these Danes become so aggravated that they simply say: “Let’s just go back to the status quo ante.”  (No they’ll say something in Danish).

Our approach is guaranteed to fail to address climate forcing particularly, because the false low prices of fossil fuel will be there always to lure people away from any innovative energy solutions.  Fossil  Fuels are the poster–industry for economies of scale and for the benefits of cumulative past technological innovations: in short, oil companies are good at what they do.  As long as they can also foist the internal and external costs of their product onto groups other than their paying customers, they will be in the catbird’s seat. 

Now here is an incomplete list of the ways the internal and external costs of fossil fuels are foisted on to non-users groups.

1 they pass the cost of shipping on to Texas ranchers and Nebraska farmers who are forced by the governmental gift of eminent domain to the pipeline companies to sell their land at below willing-seller rates,

2 Oil producers hey are given special depletion and depreciation tax rates.  Coal produced on federal land, such as the Powder River Basin, pays virtually no royalty fees, and the situation is pretty much the same in the Tar Sands region.

3 Road building and maintenance is not paid, in many instance by the user fee of the gas tax but by property taxes and general fund expenditures. (One might rebut that everyone wants roads to their house but if roads were only used by walkers they’d be really cheap to maintain.)

4 Drivers, one of their big customers, are not paying sales tax in WA (the gas tax is not a sales tax but  user-fee so in a real sense drivers are being encouraged to drive at above-market rates by a sales tax loophole on driving.)

5 Policing of drivers on roadways is not paid for by user fees but from general taxation in most instances.

6 Health effects from pollution by fossil fuel users and others are not paid by user fees but are instead borne by government or individuals through insurance, etc.

7 Perhaps largest, and certainly this is controversial but is it getting less so (?) is the cost effects of climate-forcing are not being borne by fossil fuel producers or consumers.   This cost is treated much too glibly by all of us.  It must be considered that in the future when the dust, and I mean dust, has settled the climate-change “victims” who have lost things like their homelands will be able to sue those of us who have blithely used fossil fuels for trillions of dollars.  What is so admittedly controversial-seeming now may look quite clear to people in hindsight and the moral imperative could be there to enforce these judgments.

 The future downside of climate change is usually listed as things like decreased agricultural output, droughts, hurricane damage, inundated land, etc.  Don’t think that way: the really big future cost of climate change could be the tort-claims of the enraged people of the world who were not responsible for what happened but who have lost something priceless.  The young people growing up in that world may not have the same sympathy for ourselves as we do.

 

If all the subsidies listed above and the ones I’ve forgotten to include are all removed, the market could very quickly develop innovative solutions to the twin problems of the production of and more efficient use of energy.  Even with the horribly distorted market we have, we are seeing some of that happening slowly with things like rooftop solar, Leafs, Volts and Teslas.  We then won’t need to “anoint” any one approach to the problem, and then we’ll see real declines in the output of climate-forcing gases.

 

Why attack wind?

I’m going to get lazy here and attempt to lift in it’s entirety an article that is on American Bird Conservancy’s website and which I agree with completely.  Here is the link: 

 http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/collisions/toptenwindenergymyths.html

And here is the article, with a deep thank you to American Bird Conservancy of which I am a member of and contributor.

 

Every now and then it helps to “hit the reset button” on  bird conservation issues. That makes it easier to find and fix false statements  and misleading assumptions that can make these issues more contentious than  they need to be. Take wind power, for example. Is it always “green?” Does it  kill a lot of birds? If it does, is that the price the nation needs to pay for  clean energy?

 

Dr. Michael Hutchins, National Coordinator for ABC’s Bird  Smart Wind Energy Campaign, says those are some of the wrongheaded notions  now embedded in the national debate about the potential threats that poorly  sited and poorly operated wind facilities pose to North American birds. In an  effort to move past them, Hutchins has identified the Top Ten Myths involving  wind power and birds. Here they are, in reverse order.

 

Myth #10: There Are  No Good Estimates of Bird Kill Numbers in the United States.

 

True, if by “good” you mean “definitive,” but false if you  are trying to imply that there’s no evidence that the nation’s wind power  facilities are killing significant numbers of birds. And, even more incorrect  if you’re trying to imply that there there’s no reason to believe that these  numbers will not skyrocket in the near future.

 

In 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) estimated  that 440,000 birds were being killed each year at the nation’s wind facilities.  Four years later, a peer-reviewed  study in the Wildlife Society Bulletin raised that estimate by 30 percent, to 573,000 bird fatalities a year at 2012  build-out levels.

 

The author of the study noted that his estimates may be low.  In particular, research has suggested that the carcasses of birds killed by  wind turbines may be carried off by scavengers much more rapidly than has been  supposed. In addition, different observers may detect carcasses at different  rates, introducing observer bias. Such estimates also do not include the birds  killed by collisions or electrocutions at associated transmission lines.

 

There is an urgent need to develop bird kill estimates that  are more precise and credible. This could be done by making it easier for  independent researchers to gain access to wind power facilities and by  requiring that a standard research protocol be used. New technologies involving  a combination of auditory cues and thermal video could be a game-changer  because they automatically record bird strikes at both wind turbines and  transmission lines in real time and are relatively inexpensive.

 

The number of  birds killed by wind energy is expected to balloon to 1.4 million If the wind  power industry meets ambitious production goals developed by the U.S. Department  of Energy and the Obama White House. That expansion effort could require a  ten-fold increase in the number of U.S. wind turbines in the next 15 years.

 

Myth # 9: Wind Power  Companies that Violate Bird Protection Rules Are Routinely Punished.

 

Since the 1980s, only one wind facility has been  successfully prosecuted for violating federal rules and permitting guidelines  designed to limit bird kills at the nation’s wind power complexes. The wind  company in question was a Wyoming facility owned by Duke Energy, which also  produces oil and gas. The Justice Department accused Duke of violating several  bird protection rules between 2009 and 2013, after the discovery of 14 Golden Eagles  and 149 other protected birds at the “Campbell Hill” and “Top of the World”  wind energy plants in Converse Country, Wyoming. As part of a settlement  announced last fall, Duke Energy agreed to pay a total of $1 million in  assorted fines and mitigation. That’s a tiny of fraction of $3 billion in  profits reported by the company in 2013.   There are thousands of wind power facilities in the United  States. Many of them have been accused repeatedly of violating federal bird  protection laws. But it’s not clear whether any of those investigations will  lead to prosecutions linked to bird mortality. In addition, I know of no cases  where a particularly lethal facility, such as the notorious Altamont site in  California or the Criterion  site in Maryland, has been shut down following an abysmal record of bird  and/or bat kills.

 

Representatives of the wind power industry sometimes argue  that this dearth of prosecutions shows that the nation’s wind facilities are  remarkably bird-friendly, but at ABC we disagree. What these numbers really  show is that the nation’s largely voluntary bird protection regulations are  embarrassingly weak and ineffective. Currently, most of these regulations only  take effect when wind power companies “self-report” potential violations of bird  safety laws.

 

We suspect that those self-reporting rules have encouraged  many companies to keep potentially troublesome bird kill numbers to themselves.  It’s worth noting that if the Duke Energy facilities had not volunteered their  bird kill data to federal regulators, the number of bird safety prosecutions  linked to U.S. wind plants could still stand at zero.

 

Myth #8: The Potential Impacts of New Wind Plants Are  Always Studied in Advance.

 

Recently, a 300-foot-tall wind turbine was put up at the Lake Erie  Business Park near Clinton, Ohio, and another lies on the ground waiting to  be erected. Four more turbines are proposed, and all of them are near important  migratory flyways. Being on private land, the owners of these turbines  were not required to study the potential impacts of this project on native  birds for federal or state regulators.

 

The fact that wind plants on private lands do not require  federal approval is disturbing. Native birds are not the private property of  the for-profit wind industry, especially when they are building turbines that  kill birds. Native birds are public treasures, owned by the American  public and held in trust for current and future generations.

 

Myth #7. Conservationists  Have Stunted the Growth of the Wind Power Industry.

 

The amount of energy generated by the nation’s wind power  facilities has risen dramatically in recent years, from a total of 2,539  megawatts in 2001 to more than 60,000 megawatts in 2012. In the fourth quarter  of 2012 alone more than 8,000 megawatts worth of turbines were constructed in  this country.  Generally speaking, this  is not an industry whose growth has been stunted by environmental concerns.

 

There’s no doubt that local bird conservation groups have  helped draw national attention to the threats that badly sited wind facilities  pose to native birds. A few poorly sited proposed facilities have been abandoned  after questions were raised by local citizens groups, often with help from ABC.  But many more facilities have been approved and an enormous number of projects  are now being planned, even in the most sensitive of bird habitats and  migratory routes.

 

Myth #6: Bald and  Golden Eagles Use Their Incredible Eyes to See Wind Turbines Coming and Avoid  Them.

 

Theoretically, the nation’s Bald and Golden eagles are  extremely well protected: According to federal regulations, wind power  companies cannot kill a single one of these birds unless they have been granted  an “incidental take permit” authorized by FWS. Those permits allow specific  wind plants to “accidentally” kill the protected birds while generating power. Recently  the FWS triggered a storm of controversy by extending the maximum length of  these take permits to as many as 30 years from the old limit of five, after  heavy lobbying by representatives of  the  wind power industry.

 

ABC recently announced that it will be suing the  Department of the Interior over the ill-conceived regulation, citing  violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act,  and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

 

Some supporters of this rule change argue that because  eagles have remarkable eyes they’re able to avoid the turbines. And there is no  doubt that eagles have amazing vision. For example, it’s likely that Golden  Eagles can see rabbits hiding in the brush while soaring a mile above the  ground. But the notion that these birds see turbines and avoid them is unproven  at best: since the 1980s, the turbines at California’s Altamont facilities  alone have killed more than 2,000 eagles, and there are good reasons to suspect  that this that this kill estimate is low.   Eagles hunt while soaring, often well within the range of long,  thin turbine blades that can rotate at as many as 170 miles an hour. Many eagle  experts say it’s likely that these birds keep their eyes locked on the ground  (where the prey is) while soaring. If true, then eagles may be even more  vulnerable to collisions than we know, especially when the wind turbines  putting them at risk are built in or near important raptor hunting grounds,  densely populated with ground squirrels or other small prey, as is the case in  Altamont.

 

Myth #5: Everything  about Wind Power is “Green.”

 

Wind power facilities are “green” in the sense that they do  not produce air pollution. But it’s been clear for decades that when these  facilities are built near migratory pathways, breeding areas, and other  bird-rich locations, they pose very real threats to federally protected birds  and bats. Those facilities are not “green” unless birds and bats do not count.  They do.

 

As referenced in #6, the country’s most notorious example of  how “bird-unfriendly” badly sited wind facilities can be is the 5,400-turbine  complex built in 1981 near Altamont, California, in an area known at the time  as both a migratory corridor and as a hunting ground for Golden Eagles. Upward  of 2,000 Golden Eagles and thousands of other birds have been killed by the  blades of these turbines.

 

Spokesmen for the wind power industry say they’ve learned  how to steer clear of important bird habitats. Those claims have been called into  question in Somerset  County, Maryland, where plans are being laid to build 26 turbines near a  major nesting area for Bald Eagles.

 

In central Wyoming, the owners of the  proposed Chokecherry-Sierra  Madre complex want to raise as many as 1,000 turbines in an area important  to Golden Eagles and Greater Sage-Grouse. And a major wind facility may soon be  constructed in the middle of a migratory route in Kansas used by the world’s  only remaining population of wild Whooping Cranes.

 

We could probably add scores of other controversial wind  power proposals to this list and still have some to spare.

 

Myth #4: Modern Wind  Facilities Use New Technologies to Minimize Bird Kills.

 

This is often represented as a fact by spokesmen for the  wind power industry, who suggest that modern wind facilities come equipped with  sophisticated bird-tracking radar systems and other technological “bells and  whistles” that help limit bird kills. Some of these technologies are  potentially helpful, but none of the important ones have been independently  tested for effectiveness.

 

For example, there’s no solid evidence that high-tech  radar systems will be able to accurately detect oncoming flocks of protected  birds, or to do that quickly enough to close down turbine complexes in time to  avoid bird deaths. No more than a handful of wind power facilities are even  experimenting with these systems. To my knowledge, few wind facilities are  currently planning to install these technologies, as they are expensive.

 

Another version of this myth holds that taller, more  efficient “monopole” turbines are easier on birds than the less efficient older  “lattice” turbines in places such as Altamont. Recently, this argument was  undercut by a study of  American bird kills linked specifically to monopole turbines. That report  concluded that the newer, taller monopole turbines may actually be more  dangerous, primarily because bird kills were found to be greater at taller  turbines.   In the last 10 years alone, the average height of turbines  used at U.S. wind facilities has increased by 50 percent, and this trend is  almost certain to continue. The blades on the world’s largest wind turbine, now  being tested in Denmark, are a staggering 718 feet tall.

 

Myth #3: Offshore  Wind Facilities Kill Fewer Birds.

 

At the moment it’s extremely difficult to estimate the  potential impact of offshore wind facilities on birds. For example, how does  one develop site-specific estimates of bird collisions when carcasses land in  open water and either sink, get carried off by tides and currents, or are eaten  by predators? And if there are no carcasses, how can wildlife protection laws  be effectively enforced?

 

Bird experts don’t know the answers to those questions yet.  But it’s fair to say that nothing they have learned so far suggests that  offshore wind facilities are always better for birds. In other words, there’s  some reason to believe that offshore facilities built in migratory pathways may  be just as deadly as badly sited onshore plants.

 

For example, in recent years,  the claim that offshore wind facilities will kill fewer birds has been used to  support a series of proposals to build facilities off the southern coast of  Texas in particular, even though vast numbers of declining bird species fly  through those waters twice a year, while migrating back and forth between  breeding grounds in North America and wintering grounds in the Caribbean and  Central and South America.

 

Projects such as these should be moved to the back burner  until we’ve learned more about the potential threats that offshore wind  facilities pose to birds, and much more about how to keep offshore bird kills  to a minimum through proper siting and mitigation. There’s no reason to repeat  the same mistakes we’ve made with land-based wind plants.

 

Myth #2. Wind Power  Facilities Can’t Hide Bird Kill Numbers from the Public.

 

Since the 1980s, federal “Right to Know” laws have been used  to drive pollution levels down at many of the nation’s factories and chemical  facilities, even when those emissions were within federal guidelines. Basically  those rules mandated that regular pollution readings taken by government  regulators or independent experts be made easily available to anyone who wanted  to see them. Nonprofit watchdog groups have used this information to “shame”  factories with high pollution levels into finding cleaner ways to make their  products. Some of these same companies have also been punished in the  marketplace by competing businesses that made it known that their facilities  were “cleaner.”

 

Sadly, very different rules are now being used to govern bird  kills at our nation’s wind facilities. The current rules allow contracted  employees of wind facilities to collect and report potentially embarrassing  bird kill data. This self-reporting of bird fatalities also makes it easier for  wind power companies to hide their findings or consciously deceive the public  and regulators, covering up potential violations of federal laws including the  Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Bald and Golden  Eagle Protection Act.

 

In addition, data sent to regulators at FWS is often treated  as “proprietary information”—an industry catch phrase that implies that the  public has no right to see it; ridiculous, yet true. We should add that in  2011, ABC asked FWS to release some bird kill data that had not been made  available to the public, under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act  (FOIA). Three years later, we’re still waiting. ABC was  forced to take legal action in an attempt to obtain the data we requested  because the public has a right to know.

 

Defenders of these business-friendly rules and regulations  sometimes say they are the only way to stop competing businesses from using  bird kill data to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace, but that’s  exactly what for-profit businesses should be doing. The voluntary and secretive  nature of existing bird protection rules makes it impossible to know whether  bird kill data gathered at specific wind plants is accurate or credible, if it  is gathered at all. These rules are highly problematic.

 

Indeed, the nation’s native birds are not the property of  for-profit wind companies, but are a collective resource of the American people  and held in trust for current and future generations.

 

Myth #1: Bird Kills  Linked to Wind Power Are the Price We Have to Pay to Combat Global Climate  Change.

 

If just one myth is dispelled, I hope it is this one, partly  because it has been endorsed by the leaders of some of the country’s  better-known environmental groups. Though they might not say so for the record,  these good people seem convinced that massive bird deaths linked to turbines  will be one of the inevitable side effects of a successful effort to reduce  emissions of fossil-fuel pollutants linked to global climate change.

 

However, ABC is convinced that better siting regulations and  tougher bird protection rules would make it much easier for wind power  companies to build Bird Smart facilities. Fully tested, mandatory permitting  regulations leading to proper siting of new facilities and appropriate,  effective mitigation would make them much better for birds—and in the long run,  for people, since many birds play key roles in the ecosystems on which people  depend.

 

We’ve written a letter to Interior Department Secretary  Sally Jewell, encouraging her to conduct a national  programmatic wind Environmental Impact Statement. The results could help  identify, once and for all, locations that the industry should avoid completely  and others where the risk to public trust resources, including native birds, is  low. ABC’s Wind  Development Bird Risk Map could be useful in this regard, but there are  many other considerations, including impacts on other wildlife species.

 

Let us not forget that one of the most pressing problems  linked to climate change is the loss of precious plants and animals, including  many irreplaceable and ecologically vital birds. A rapid, headlong, and  irresponsible expansion of the nation’s wind facilities could result in further  declines in our nation’s bird populations in the very near future, especially  when the damage done by badly sited wind plants is combined with the damage  done by habitat loss and other human-caused threats such as window collisions  and predation by outdoor cats.

 

Finally, if our use of fossil fuel is not decreased  proportionally with the growth of renewable energy—which is not currently  happening—we still won’t solve the climate change problem, and thus far, the  wind energy build-out has not decreased our use of fossil fuels. Our use of  coal, for example, has actually increased.

 

We can do better than that.

 

ABC’s efforts to  establish Bird Smart wind energy in the U.S. are made possible in part by  the generous support of the Leon Levy Foundation.Michael  Hutchins earned his Ph.D. in animal behavior at the University of Washington in  Seattle. Prior to coming to ABC, Michael served as Director, Department of  Conservation and Science, at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and  Executive Director/CEO at The Wildlife Society. He has authored over 220  articles and books.

 

 

Why attack ethanol?

If we removed any reference to ethanol in the laws of our country and states, some very good people might conceivably be hurt financially.

On the broader subject of biofuel, there are naturally-limited markets where biofuels made of such things as used cooking grease makes wonderful environmental and economic sense.

Other than those two statements, our ag-ethanol program is nothing but proof we are a nation of zombies.  Ethanol’s overall stats are horrible, as of last memory ethanol uses up between 40% and half of our nation’s humongous corn crop and replaces only 6 to 8 percent of our motor transport fuel usage.   Scalability or lack of it always tells you something, and like wind, ethanol is spectacularly not scalable–we are already out of ag land except for what’s left in the conservation reserve program, which ethanol has already done violence to.

And speaking of scalable.  I was just back in beautiful NW Ohio watching Warblers at the Magee Marsh on the Maumee River.  But when I got back I had to read in the papers about how the people of Toledo had to buy bottled water, of course because of all the fertilizer dumped on corn to grow fuel to burn in the tanks of automobiles.

It’s a mistake to think Ethanol is here because of a subsidy. It’s not. It takes much more than a subsidy to prop up such a useless technology, it’s here because of the state and mostly federal mandate that it be added to gasoline at the gas-pump.  If you are a conscientious objector to ethanol, and such organizations as Oxfam have come out strongly against it as well as European bio-diesel because they raise the cost of food to the world’s poor, you cannot choose to boycott it in the market if you drive a gas-powered car.  That’s the power of mandates to circumvent free choice and morality.

 What do I mean “First step”?

We tend to tax things by historical accident, and what we tax often boils down to what and who is the easiest thing to collect on.

Property Tax is a great example.  It makes no economic sense necessarily to tax property and indeed, property taxes in America can trace their origin to a tax that did make sense: a wealth tax.  But over the years tax assessors found they had great difficulty and ran into too much blowback trying to figure out how much wealth people owned, but they could look at the house from the road and see the property lines on a map and voila:  we have property taxes all over America.  And what a regressive distorting tax it is, but not always the most unpopular in the suite of taxes.  Renters don’t ever see the bill, even though they often pay the most as a percentage of their income, so sometimes the dislike is not as visceral as the poor gas-tax that rolls up bills before our eyes weekly.

One thing “tax the trains” shares with a property tax is that it is one externality tax that may have natural political advantages.  This is not an economic or even a righteous argument, it’s a political one.  No one is all that sympathetic with overseas customers who want to burn dirty coal or crude, that’s just the real world.  We’d all rather see them dig deeper in their pockets rather than us have to dig deeper ourselves, and strangely, that would create a virtuous circle for us and them, where they would use fossil fuel more efficiently and therefore experience less of its external costs, and so would we.  Tax the Trains!!!! 

But I got distracted–Tax the Trains!  To go on,  property, like payroll, income and sales, are things that aren’t really bad and that we’re not really trying to reduce.  Externalities aren’t in that category.  We do and should want to reduce all negative externalities.  Externalities are things that you receive but did not agree to buy or pay for.  When a helicopter flies low over your house and makes a loud noise so you can’t hear your guest talking, that’s an externalized cost of the helicopter flight.  When a drone crashes into your yard and kills your child, that’s an externality that is not a market transaction.  When the people of the Marshal Islands are flooded out of their country and home and forced to give up their own national identity because of fossil fuel use, again, they did not buy that, they did not agree to anything in the global marketplace.  That is an externality.

In general, society should be moving away from taxes and toward externality and user fees.  In fact, we are not doing this, we are moving the other way, the wrong way.   In the case of Depts. Of Transportations, we are seeing a concerted propaganda effort by most of them to undermine people’s faith in the most perfect user-fee–the gas- tax–that we have.  DoTs are trying to soften people’s natural resistance to irrational, complicated  taxes and revenue-raising schemes like tolls and congestion-pricing in the hope that they can raise more money for pet projects.  Perhaps the world’s worst such scheme was a proposal by the now-imprisoned Gov. Bill  McDonnell in Virginia to abolish the gas-tax in Virginia and pay for roads with a new sales tax.  This would have removed the virtuous cycle that the gas-tax creates, where the users pay the cost of the roads so in turn use them more wisely.

cedar waxwing stillwater

This is a Cedar Waxwing I photographed at Stillwater Wildlife Management Unit in the Snoqualmie Valley, WA, inserted here just to break up this blog

If the Virginia scheme is seen as the completely wrong way to go, the path ahead is fairly clear.  Revoke the extra-Constitutional gifting of eminent domain to private pipeline companies.  Zero out the expenditures on roads by local state and federal governments that is not paid for by gas taxes specifically.   Fight to make sure that when fossil fuels are mined on public land that a market-rate royalty fee is paid to the owners of that land.  Understand that when the WA Constitution says the gas tax should only pay for the cost of roads, the word costs includes a fair profit—not a monopoly profit, a fair profit to the roads owners.  In capitalism, cost always includes a profit and always should. 

Finally, we should institute a revenue-neutral Carbon tax.  Cap and Trade sounds so much better than a Carbon tax.  It sounds so market-friendly and forward- thinking compared to any “tax.”

The reality is the reverse.  Cap and trade systems vary but their salient feature in complicated systems (they worked ok in the simple market for chlorofluorocarbons) is their ability to be gamed and corrupted.  They naturally tend to fail completely, as they are doing in Europe, because every time the government wants to lower the cap (assuming it even does) there is a huge political fight to be had that is as tiring as it is infuriating.   They fail naturally because unless the rights to pollute are sold at a very high price at the outset, which is politically unfeasible, they are a giveaway of something very tangible—the right to pollute—to the already rich entities that are currently polluting.  Once these entities are in possession of these rights, they have the long term potential of defending them against being taken away from them by the government that gave them to them, so cap and trade can be a self-immobilizing system.

British Columbia may not be the beacon when it comes to allowing trains and tankers to come and go unfettered and untaxed,  (Tax the Trains!) but in the case of a revenue-neutral carbon tax they may be pointing the way forward.  I fear Inslee will soon propose a cap and trade system and I fear also that it will not be dissected carefully enough by the press and the public.   I fear that it will include highly gameable “Carbon offsets” for biofuel-promoting corporations looking to steal land from poor people in the third world (see the book The Tyranny of Experts by William Easterly).

 But I’m trying to keep an open mind.

 

I am delighted to get  comments on these posts regardless of their content as long as they aren’t spam. I  have to leave the comments turned off because of spam however.  Sorry about that.  I will check comments, promise, on Tuesday night Oct 7 and again on Wed Oct 8 2014 and will turn on your comments.

 

 

 

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