Saturday, January 29, 2011

Newt Gingrich Proposes Abolishing the EPA

Politico reports that Newt Gingrich wants to can the EPA:
Former House speaker and possible 2012 candidate Newt Gingrich called for the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency in a Tuesday speech in Iowa

In an address at the Renewable Fuels Summit, Gingrich told attendees, including Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a key figure in the state’s first-in-nation Republican presidential caucuses, that the EPA should be replaced with a new “Environmental Solutions Agency.”

The replacement agency “would encourage innovation, incentivize success and emphasize sound science and new technology over bureaucracy, regulation, litigation and restrictions on American energy,” according to materials provided by Gingrich aide Rick Tyler.
Gingrich's website has more:
The EPA should be replaced with a new and improved Environmental Solutions Agency (ESA) complete with a new and improved charter and mission. The new ESA will be a successor agency to the EPA, incorporating the statutory responsibilities of the old EPA while making necessary statutory changes that will eliminate the job-killing regulatory abuses and power grabs of the old EPA.

The new ESA will focus on developing actual solutions to environmental challenges rather than simply trying to litigate them into existence. The ESA will work with industry instead of dictating to industry and incentivize the use of newer technologies instead of punishing current businesses.
The EPA exists for a reason. Certain industries have a habit of creating really big messes, which they won't clean up unless required to by the force of law. But in Gingrich's pristine 21st century, we don't have to deal with any of that mess left over from the 20th century. If we could just "work with industry instead of dictating" we can have our space age future we all read about as kids.

The hard truth is that some polluters have to be forced to clean up after themselves. I don't know whether Gingrich is too naive to recognize this simple truth about human nature, or cynical enough to think that some might actually fall for his vague talk about incentivizing industry to behave. I like the idea of working with business to create a cleaner future, but that can't be done if older, dirtier industries are given a free pass to go on polluting.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Balanced budgets as far as the eye can see"

Ezra Klein points out that most State of the Union speeches mostly do not produce a noticeable bump in a president's Gallup Poll numbers, with a few exceptions, most notably Bill Clinton's 1998 address, which generated a ten point increase in his approval rating.

So what made this one so exceptional? It was the first time most of us had ever heard a president announce that the federal government had balanced its budget:
Tonight, I come before you to announce that the Federal deficit, once so incomprehensibly large that it had 11 zeros, will be simply zero.
I will submit to Congress for 1999 the first balanced budget in 30 years. And if we hold fast to fiscal discipline, we may balance the budget this year, 4 years ahead of schedule. You can all be proud of that because turning a sea of red ink into black is no miracle. It is the product of hard work by the American people and of two visionary actions in Congress: the courageous vote in 1993 that led to a cut in the deficit of 90 percent and the truly historic bipartisan balanced budget agreement passed by this Congress.
Here is the really good news. If we maintain our resolve, we will produce balanced budgets as far as the eye can see.
The last Republican president to manage this feat was Dwight Eisenhower. Budget deficits under Reagan ranged from 2.78 percent to 5.88 percent of GDP.

Clinton went on to set one top priority for using the budget surplus:
Now, if we balance the budget for next year, it is projected that we will then have a sizable surplus in the years that immediately follow. What should we do with this projected surplus? I have a simple, four-word answer: save Social Security first.
The singular achievement was matched by a singular focus from a president who had been known for weighing down his speeches with endless litanies of policy proposal.

The speech came just a few days after the Lewinsky scandal had broken. Clinton was forced to deny the allegations the day before his address to Congress. The juxtaposition of the tawdry scandal with the achievement of a balanced budget may have contributed to the bump in the polls.

Congress of course never took up Clinton's challenge to strengthen Social Security, instead impeaching him in December of 1988. We know the rest of the story. The scandal probably dragged down Al Gore in the 2000 election. George W. Bush used the surplus for tax cuts, which lurched the federal government back into deficit spending and produced zero net jobs for the decade. Happily, Bush's proposal to privatize Social Security went nowhere. The Bush budgets left the U.S. with a dangerous budget deficit when the need for fiscal stimulus was most urgent.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Apple's 7 Billion Dollar Man

Just how much is Steve Jobs worth? The announcement that he was taking another medical leave has prompted considerable speculation about the future of Apple. The value of most CEOs is probably marginal, but Jobs has led Apple from triumph to triumph at a stunning pace.

We can use the stock market to measure Jobs's worth to the company. Apple's stock fell 2.25 percent on Tuesday, which translates to a drop in market capitalization of $7.2 billion in one day. Not to worry, Apple is still valued at more than $312 billion. And as the New York Times reports,
Apple has plenty of managerial talent, including ground breaking engineers, marketing managers and industrial designers.

Financial analysis provide a more precise measure called abnormal return that compares the movement of a particular stock price to the market as a whole. The difference can be used to estimate the effect a particular news event has on a stock price. The S&P 500 was up 0.14 percent Tuesday, which would put Jobs's market valuation at $7.6 billion. If we use the NASDAQ index (up 0.38 percent Tuesday) as a benchmark, Jobs' market valuation would be $8.4 billion.

But Tuesday's loss could be made up quickly following Apple's announcement of a truly astonishing quarter announced after the market closed. The company posted revenue gains of $7.8 billion (70 percent) compared to the same quarter last year, which translated into increased net income of $6 billion, a 78 percent increase. Earnings per share climbed to $6.43, more than a dollar higher than analysts' expectations. Has such a large company ever displayed such stunning growth?

Monday, January 17, 2011

The CRI's Latest Scary (and Meaningless) Number

The Caesar Rodney Institute weighed in on what Governor Jack Markell should say in his state of the state address this week, and once again offered a scary estimate of the cost of renewable energy:
The "green" premium for regional cap and trade, offshore wind and solar power is poised to double the penalty we pay for electricity.
The sentence is lamentably imprecise. What is meant by the "penalty" we pay for electricity? Is it the total amount a customer spends? Some portion of the customer's bill? The so called green premium mentioned at the beginning of the sentence? A review of the Institute's recent output on energy does not answer these questions.

How can an organization that publishes such mush be taken seriously as a think tank? Previously the CRI has offered scary estimates of what renewable energy would cost, without showing how such numbers are calculated. The CRI declared just two weeks ago that "if all the legislated policies were in effect now, residential customers would be paying an extra $1000 a year," without specifying just just how this drastic hike in energy costs would come about.

Now we have an assertion that Delaware's renewable energy policies will double, well, something. If the CRI wants to inform the public and policymakers on energy policy, writing meaningful sentences would be a useful start. Then we could get back to critiquing the math.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Pat Todd's Environmental Advocacy

I'm pleased to see that the News Journal has recognized Pat Todd for her advocacy for recycling and renewable energy. Pat was a driving force behind the bottle bill that was adopted in 1982. More recently, she was instrumental in making statewide recycling a reality in Delaware. She was a part of a delegation of environmentalists who made the case to Jack Markell that he should veto the Un-Bottle Bill passed in 2008, and use the opportunity to push for a statewide curbside recycling. She helped forge a deal that ended the old container deposit system to pass the new law, which she is working to implement as a member of the Recycling Public Advisory Committee.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the old deposit law might never have passed were it not for her dogged determination thirty years ago. And when the time came to push for statewide recycling, Pat did all she could (which is quite a lot) to build a consensus for the new law. Her leadership and moral authority on the issue were critical to success on the issue.

Pat helped make the Delaware League of Women Voters an effective and omnipresent voice for sound environmental and energy policy in Legislative Hall. And she is part of an ongoing effort to foster closer collaboration among environmental advocates in Delaware. She has this knowing smile that lets you know she has seen it all before, but has never, and would never, let cynicism get in the way of her efforts to make Delaware a safer and cleaner place to live.

Friday, January 14, 2011

EPA Revokes a Mountaintop Removal Permit

Mountaintop removal is mining by brute force. Entire mountains are blasted out of existence and the refuse dumped into what used to be creeks and rivers. Under the Bush administration, the practice was given a free pass on the water pollution it created.

Yesterday, as the New York Times reports, the EPA said no:
WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency revoked the permit for one of the nation’s largest mountaintop-removal coal mining projects on Thursday, saying the mine would have done unacceptable damage to rivers, wildlife and communities in West Virginia. It was the first time the agency had rescinded a valid clean water permit for a coal mine.
The scale of the damage is difficult to comprehend:
The project would have involved dynamiting the tops off mountains over an area of 2,278 acres to get at the rich coal deposits beneath. The resulting rubble, known as spoil, would be dumped into nearby valleys, as well as the Pigeonroost Branch, the Oldhouse Branch and their tributaries, killing fish, salamanders and other wildlife. The agency said that disposal of the mining material would also pollute the streams and endanger human health and the environment downstream.
This is the first time the EPA has revoked a permit for a coal mine. Arch Coal, the mining company that had requested the permit, promises to challenge the decision in court.

Coal provides cheap power, if we ignore the cost of damage to the earth, polluted streams, toxic air emissions and climate change. If all these costs were factored in, coal power would be much more expensive.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Living Up to Our Children's Expectations

President Obama did what he does best in his speech last night. He called on us to lift our sights above the pettiness that pollutes our politics:
But what we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.
Calls for civility after the shooting on Saturday were degenerating into complaints about others not being civil enough. Civility was becoming another club to beat your political opponents with.

Obama finished with a plea to see our country through the eyes of Christina Taylor Green, who was born on September 11th, and was killed in the shooting on Saturday:
She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.
It was like chastising the rude parents at a little league game for behaving worse than the kids. President Obama used the example of a little girl to urge us all to behave more like grownups.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Chancery Court Upholds Delaware's Recycling Law

The Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) announced Friday that Chancery Court had dismissed a challenge to the state's new recycling law by the Positive Growth Alliance (PGA).

The central point to the suit was the question of whether the General Assembly had properly enacted the four cent bottle fee. The plaintiffs asserted that the fee was a tax, and thus SB 234 should have originated in the House and required a 3/4 majority. The Court found that the law was enacted properly.

But beyond that particular question, the PGA had raised broader questions about the new law. The suit asserts that "the passage of SB 234 represents an unwarranted expansion and abuse of the police powers of the State of Delaware."

The law itself does not mention any police powers, and there are no penalties for residents that don't separate their recycling from the rest of their trash. As the News Journal reports,
PGA director Rich Collins is not letting up on his rhetoric:

"It is a clear warning, as the years go by and the precedents build up and the assumption that the state always has the benefit of the doubt, that it's inevitable that the Constitution and the ability to enforce it will get weaker and weaker," Collins said.

I just can't see how enacting statewide recycling threatens our constitutional form of government. The law was passed in accordance with the democratic institutions established under the state constitution, and upheld by the respected Chancery Court.

The state has regulated trash collection for decades, and requires municipal solid waste to be delivered to the Delaware Solid Waste Authority. There is good reason for this: unregulated landfills pose a clear risk to public health. The recycling law doesn't mandate a new "marginally related service," as the suit asserts.
As I said in September, the only difference that I can see is that the same trucks will deliver material to a recycling facility on Tuesday and to a landfill on Friday.

Governor Jack Markell stressed the practical economic and environmental benefits of statewide recycling:

"A broad and bipartisan coalition of businesses, community groups and individuals came together to turn the possibility of statewide recycling into a reality. We're pleased with the decision," said Delaware Governor Jack Markell. "The effort reduces waste, reduces the need for costly landfill expansions in the future and makes recycling easier for most and more available across the state."

Given that the state has already regulated trash disposal for decades, it seems to me a prudent step to slow the accumulation of trash in expensive landfills by diverting recyclable materials.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Born on the Eleventh of September

Yesterday, Gabrielle Giffords, a member of Congress, was shot and gravely wounded. Six others, including John M. Roll, a federal judge, were killed. The New York Times reports that the dead included a nine year old girl, Christina Taylor Green, who was born on September 11, 2001 in nearby West Grove, Pennsylvania:
She was special from birth because she was born on Sept. 11, 2001, and she was proud of it, her mother said, because it lent a grace note of hope to that terrible day.

“It was an emotional time for everyone in the family, but Christina’s birth was a happy event and made the day bittersweet,” her mother said in a telephone interview from their Tucson home.

Indeed, Christina, who was born when the family was living in West Grove, Pennsylvania, was one of the 50 “Faces of Hope” representing babies from 50 states who were born on 9/11. Their images were printed in a book, with some of the proceeds used to raise money for a 9/11 charity.
The girl, who was on her school's student council, was shot through the chest.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The CRI and Environmental Issues

David Stevenson of the Caesar Rodney Institute has put out three more installments in his effort to spark a backlash against renewable energy in Delaware. I'm too busy to go through them point by point just now, so I thought I would refer back to the CRI's history on environmental issues.

Last spring the CRI offered an analysis of SB 234, which establishes statewide curbside recycling in Delaware,
which I found fatally flawed:
I have found three fundamental flaws in his work, and conclude that it is his analysis that doesn’t add up.
Mr. Stevenson’s analysis uses participation rates and cost estimates of older and far less efficient programs to project the success and cost of universal curbside recycling. He compounds these errors by offering a lowball estimate of the cost of landfilling. These three errors each amount to about an order of magnitude, and together render his conclusions almost completely unreliable.
Stevenson followed up in August with a critique of Bluewater Wind proposal that asserted (without much basis) that offshore wind would cost 60 percent more than conventional power, an assertion repeated earlier this week. At the time, I encouraged the staff at CRI to do their homework, but I have not seen much improvement in the quality of their work.

We've seen this time and again: The opponents of renewable energy will maximize the costs and minimize the benefits. The Caesar Rodney Institute's efforts to portray the opponents of renewable energy as the hard-headed realists in the debate would be more convincing if the organization were better at hard-headed analysis.

Monday, January 03, 2011

The CRI's Wild Math on Delaware's Energy Policy

The Caesar Rodney Institute (CRI) has launched a new series of articles which author David Stevenson promises will challenge the “flawed assumptions” he says underlie Delaware’s energy policies. Stevenson asserts that “if all the legislated policies were in effect now, residential customers would be paying an extra $1000 a year,” without (as yet) providing any basis for the projection.

It’s a tactic that will seem all too familiar to those who remember the fight over offshore wind power, when opponents offered scary estimates of the cost of the Bluewater Wind project as high as $75 per month for residential customers.

Of course, these estimates were not anchored to any disinterested analysis, such as that by the Public Service Commission consultant, which finally projected the levelized cost of the Bluewater Wind contract to be 70 cents per MWh (0.07 cents/kWh) over the 25 year life of the deal. Based on average electricity use, this would come to 65 cents per month or $7.82 per year. (This figure could go up or down a few dollars depending on the trajectory of fossil fuel prices over the next three decades.) Happily, the overwhelming majority of Delawareans who voiced their opinion on wind power didn’t believe the scary numbers.

Since the CRI hasn’t yet shared the basis for its figure of $1,000 a year, I thought I would help out by calculating some benchmarks on residential energy use in Delaware.

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), residential electricity sales in Delaware totaled 4,428 thousand MWh (1,000 kWh) in 2008. When divided among Delaware’s 396,222 households in 2009 (U.S. Census Bureau), that comes to 11,175 kWh per home, which multiplied by the EIA’s average residential price for Delaware of 14.18 cents/kWh, comes to an annual bill of $1,585 per household.

Put another way, the CRI is telling us that Delaware's legislated energy policies will lead to an eye-popping 63 percent increase for the average household electricity bill. If we take the the PSC’s projected cost of the Bluewater Wind project of $7.82 per year as a starting point, we are left with a further $992.18 a year that Delaware's energy policies would cost the average household, according to the CRI. Stay tuned.