Thursday, December 30, 2010

Back to Court for the EPA and Greenhouse Gas Regulations?

The Post Carbon blog at the Washington Post reports that Fred Upton, the incoming chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, doesn't want the EPA to implement regulations to control greenhouse gas emissions. Upton and Tim Phillips of the industry group Americans for Prosperity published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (which is behind a firewall). They seem to think the issue needs to be litigated further:
Upton and Phillips complain that EPA -- despite the regulatory power given to it in 2007 under a Supreme Court interpretation of the Clean Air Act -- should await the outcome of further litigation about the way EPA is going about exercising that regulatory authority.
To recap, the Supreme Court handed down a decision that the EPA was required to act on GHG emissions based on a law passed by Congress, the Clean Air Act. The Bush administration argued the case and lost. Meanwhile the planet continues to heat up, as Dave Leonhardt writes in his New York Times blog:
2010 remains on pace to be the hottest or second-hottest year ever recorded, according to NASA.
The chart, which represents thousands of measurements, shows a clear upward trend in the last 30 years.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Why the Opposition to Michelle Obama on Child Obesity?

Writing in the Washington Post, Fred Hiatt laments the opposition to Michelle Obama's efforts to reduce child obesity:
The obesity epidemic is a genuine public health emergency, with vast implications for the nation's well-being, economy and even national security. And yet, could anyone really be against children eating healthier food and getting more exercise? Could anyone really object to White House assistant chef Sam Kass trying to interest Elmo in a vegetable-laden burrito?

Well, yes, if Michelle Obama is for it, someone will be against it. Someone like Glenn Beck, for example,
who was moved to rail against carrot sticks, or Sarah Palin, who warned that Obama wants to deprive us all of dessert.
And as Hiatt points out, the First Lady isn't pushing for more government programs:
Insinuations from her critics notwithstanding, Obama has not endorsed nanny-state or controversial remedies such as ending sugar subsidies, imposing soda-pop taxes or zoning McDonald's out of certain neighborhoods. Instead, she is pushing for positive, voluntary change: more recess and physical activity, more playgrounds, more vegetable gardens, fresher food in schools and grocery stores, better education on the issue for parents and children.

All of this makes total sense, and historians will marvel (much as they will at climate-change deniers) that anyone could doubt it.
This report from has plenty of alarming statistics on childhood obesity:
More than two-thirds of states (38) now have adult obesity rates above 25 percent. Eight states have rates above 30 percent – Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and West Virginia. In 1991, no state had an obesity rate above 20 percent. In 1980, the national average of obese adults was 15 percent.
Of course obesity creates serious lifelong health problems for children. According to the report, obese children are twice as likely to die before age 55 compared to healthy weight children. More than 80 million Americans now have type 2 diabetes or a pre-diabetic condition.

Were this any other condition, we would be hearing a lot more about a public health crisis. And yet, when Michelle Obama raises the issue, she gets ridiculed by Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Marx Brothers and Christmas

What would Christmas be without the Marx Brothers and a long legal document?
From the movie, A Night at the Opera:
CHICO: Hey, wait, wait. What does this say here, this thing here?
GROUCHO: Oh, that? Oh, that's the usual clause, that's in every contract. That just says, uh, it says, uh, if any of the parties participating in this contract are shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.
CHICO: Well, I don't know...
GROUCHO: It's all right. That's, that's in every contract. That's, that's what they call a sanity clause.
CHICO: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can't fool me. There ain't no Sanity Clause!
YouTube has the scene.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

More on Sarah Palin, Michelle Obama and Food

I'm not alone in criticizing Sarah Palin's snide criticism of Michelle Obama's efforts to improve child nutrition. The Huffington Post reports that Mike Huckabee, who could compete with Palin for the Republican presidential nomination, took exception with Palin's comments:
"With all due respect to my colleague and friend Sarah Palin, I think she's misunderstood what Michelle Obama is trying to do," Huckabee said Tuesday during a radio appearance the "Curtis Sliwa Show."
"Michelle Obama's not trying to tell people what to eat or not trying to force the government's desires on people," Huckabee said. "She's stating the obvious, that we do have an obesity problem in this country."
The Huffington Post article cites these alarming statistics from the Centers for Disease Control:
Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. The prevalence of obesity among children aged 6 to 11 years increased from 6.5% in 1980 to 19.6% in 2008. The prevalence of obesity among adolescents aged 12 to 19 years increased from 5.0% to 18.1%.
Closer to home, Dave Burris also noted the difference between coercion and encouragment and offered a national security argument:
Tom -- I agree. It's a childish approach, especially considering they misrepresented what Michelle Obama said.

Not only that, but there are some who would argue that
childhood obesity is a national security issue.

I'd be the first one to stand up against the government dictating what we can and can't eat, but I'll also be one who stands and applauds an effort to encourage parents and kids to make better choices.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Michelle Obama, Sarah Palin and Vegetables

Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin stopped me cold with her first sentence in this recent piece:
First Lady Michelle Obama's fondness for food hectoring is annoying in two respects.
Apparently Rubin takes exception with the First Lady’s advocacy for healthy eating, and shows her dislike with the use of the verb hectoring, as though Michelle Obama were right there at the dinner table wagging her finger at the kids.

I learned in ninth grade social studies to watch out for loaded words in political rhetoric—a lesson that Rubin, a recent addition to the venerable paper's lineup of columnists, may have missed. Call me old-fashioned, but I was taught that an effective political communicator should persuade, instead of simply venting. But for far too many professional communicators, snide is the new clever.

After catching my breath, I finished the column and discovered that Rubin thinks child nutrition is "trivial stuff." Tell that to the growing number of young Americans entering adulthood with decades of diabetes ahead of them.

Rubin’s space at the Post, which is called Right Turn, seems to me designed to replicate the tone of the cable news rantings I do my best to avoid. Perhaps the Post has found a place for such dreck in an attempt to seem relevant to the D.C. political class that keeps the boob tube on all day to ensure they don’t miss even a moment of incivility.

Rubin is joined in her disdain for food policy by another Post columnist, Alexandra Petri, who lets go with this soul-satisfying tirade:
Like most of America, I am functionally a six year-old child, and I will eat whatever I want to eat. Michelle wants me to move and eat greens? She can take those greens and shove them! Sarah's making me s'mores!
I'll get to Sarah Palin in a moment. But first: Who turned the opinion pages of one of the country’s great newspapers over to functional six year-olds? As for Palin, she did indeed take a swipe at the First Lady on her television show:
"Where are the s'mores ingredients? This is in honor of Michelle Obama, who said the other day we should not have dessert."
For the record, I have not heard the First Lady lead the charge to banish dessert from the dinner table. But back to Petri:
"Eat your vegetables!" President Obama says, metaphorically, pointing to a complicated series of graphs about health-care reform. Eat your vegetables! The New START Treaty needs to pass! Eat your vegetables! The deficit needs to be reduced, somehow! Eat your vegetables!
Enough of this serious policy, already. I want dessert! Who wants to actually govern the country, when we can all just chat about the latest bit of sarcasm from Sarah Palin? Rubin and Petri (or Palin for that matter) may not have the patience for the hard work it takes to make kids healthier, make the country safer or reduce the deficit. But for me at least, and for millions of voters, these are the reasons we have a national government. (Jonathon Capehart, one of the grinds at the Post who does policy, asks if this flippancy has anything to do with Palin's unfavorable ratings in the polls.) The grownup work of actually governing can’t be made any easier by the grade school snickering from the back of the class.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Justice Department Sues BP

The Guardian's opinion website, Comment is free, has my quick take on the Justice Department's civil lawsuit against BP and other companies involved in the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill:
A disaster as large as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico cannot be remediated through the courts – but we can still sue the bastards. This is America, after all.
While the suit may take years to wind its way through the courts, it has already had an effect on BP:
BP's shares fell 3% on the news of the lawsuit. With luck, the oil and gas companies' risk managers will look at the numbers and tell the engineers to tighten up on their safety procedures.
Three percent is a big drop in one day. Maybe the smart money will notice and force oil and gas companies to be more careful.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

TommyWonk to Speak at RPAC Meeting

Just because I have been quiet recently, it doesn't mean I have been idle. I have been working hard to keep up with my various committees, task forces and work groups.

Next up for me is the Recycling Public Advisory Committee (RPAC) meeting tomorrow. I have been invited to make a presentation on the economics of recycling. (You can go to some old posts for more on the economics of landfill diversion and single stream collection and processing.)

RPAC meets tomorrow, Wednesday, Dec. 15, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., at the Brandywine Hundred Public Library, 1300 Foulk Road, Wilmington.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

NRG's Use of Tax Exempt Bonds

As I pointed out last week, the expected reductions from NRG's Indian River Power Plant will result in Delaware's air emissions being reduced by roughly one half in the next three years. So who pays for the cleaner air?

The short answer is NRG and its shareholders. But what about the tax exempt bonds NRG will use to finance the $366 in new controls it is installing? What is the cost to taxpayers of the $57 million in recovery bonds and $190 in state sponsored revenue bonds?

The recovery bonds were created by ARRA, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed last year. Because the bonds are tax exempt, there is some loss of federal tax revenue from investors. But if the recovery bonds create financing where none previously existed, the loss is hypothetical. Remember, investment was down drastically two years ago, and has still not fully recovered. You can't tax nonexistent investment activity.

What about the state revenue bonds, which are also tax exempt? The state is not on the hook to investors, though there is lost tax revenue involved. The state is limited in the amount of revenue bonds it can issue, so the key question in allocating the bonds is a question of judgement: What would be the best use of the bonds? Allocating bonds to one business precludes the availability of financing to another.

Leah Hoenen, writing in the Cape Gazette, caught an important detail in the deal. The Delaware Economic Development Office (DEDO) is charging NRG $950,000 for use of the revenue bonds. Its a good deal for NRG, which gets a hefty chunk of low cost financing, and for DEDO, which gets cash back to replenish its coffers for use on the next economic development agreement.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Air Emissions Reductions: Where's the Cost?

Opponents of clean energy, and of environmental benefits in general, often object to the economic cost of reducing pollution. Wednesday, I reported that Delaware's air emissions from industrial sources are on course to fall by 60 percent in the next three years.

Here's what I'm wondering: Where's the economic harm? How will Delaware's economy suffer? In what ways will our standard of living be affected?

A 60 percent reduction in emissions is a big deal. According to the standard objections, a reduction of this magnitude should come with a big economic cost. And yet I don't see it. You might think of it as the dog that didn't bark in the night.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Coming Reductions in Delaware's Air Emissions

Delaware is poised to see a radical reduction in air emissions over the next three years. Recently reported developments at Delaware's dirtiest power plants promise to reduce the state's total air emissions from industrial sources by more than half by 2013.

Earlier this year, the Texas based energy firm Calpine
bought the Edge Moor Energy Center from Pepco Holdings, Inc. Two weeks ago, the News Journal reported that Calpine has already converted the plant from coal power to natural gas.

News Journal reports that NRG has been authorized to issue $57 million in tax exempt recovery bonds by Sussex County as part of the firm's plans to invest $366 million in emissions controls in its Indian River Power Plant. The state had already authorized the issuance of $190 million in revenue bonds for the project. These bonds will be backed by NRG, and will not incur any state or local government liability.

NRG has already committed to shutting down the three older units at the plant, with the last to go off line by 2013, and estimates air emissions will be reduced by as much as 93 percent. The
News Journal reports that Bill Zak of Citizens for Clean Power is delighted with NRG's plans: "On balance, it's a marvelous development. It's going to be fantastically cleaner."

Zak is not exaggerating the significance of the plan. According to Delaware's
2009 Toxic Release Inventory, the Indian River Power Plant accounted for 55.2 percent of total industrial air emissions in the state. The two power plants together accounted for 72.8 percent of total air emissions.

If NRG meets its projection for reductions at Indian River, Delaware's total air emissions would be cut by 51.3 percent by 2013. I don't have data from Calpine on expected reductions at Hay Road, but if emissions there were cut in half, Delaware's total emissions would be cut by 60 percent in the next three years. Calpine's total emissions may not be cut as sharply, as the company plans to add a gas powered unit designed to come on line as needed to meet demand.