Thursday, 18 September 2014

Solving Climate Change Will Cost Nothing, Sort Of

On Tuesday the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate launched its report, Better Growth, Better Climate, in which it makes the bold-sounding pronouncement that major steps can be taken to address climate change that cost nothing. Over the next 15 years we will spend some $90 trillion in infrastructure investment. "Our argument is that it would be smart to invest the $90 trillion in a good way," said Jeremy Oppenheim on APM Marketplace on Tuesday.

In a way, we have always known this. The question has always been, can you measure and quantify the risks and the known harms from climate change? Even if there remain uncertainties, it is increasingly incredible to deny that the balance of climate risks and mitigation costs tilts in favor of deep emissions reductions. So why do we still debate it? Why does it still seem as though reducing emissions is costly?

The answer goes back to my previous post, in which we do not explicitly grapple with the "losers" from climate policy, coal-related industries and states, petroleum industries, states, and countries, and all of the related industries. There is a lot of capital, physical, human, and social wrapped up in a lot of industries and places, and they may not be able to do much other than what they're doing, which is to continue to service a greenhouse gas-intensive economy. In theory, we could buy them out with the cost savings of avoiding all those climate harms. But in practice, we just don't have the money.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Wind and Sun Conquerors of Fossil Fuels and Fossil

The New York Times ran an article Sunday about how Germany is rapidly expanding its wind energy capacity, and realizing unexpectedly lower costs because of economies of scale never before seen in any non-hydro renewable energy industry. Large demand from Germany, Denmark, and a hanful of climate-conscious countries has helped induce the entry into the sector from Chinese businesses, which of course benefit from government support.

The question that hangs over environmentally-focused groups is why don't American utilities seem to be so intransigently wedded to fossil generation? This article seemed to point to the unease of utility executives. My theory is that in addition to a lot of physical capital in the industry, there is a lot of human capital tied up on fossil fuel extraction, transmission, and combustion. Economist and former Enron official John Palmisano used to talk about how he went around the country talking to utility executives, and made what he thought was a pretty strong case for switching to natural gas away from coal. The objection that seemed most heartfelt was that "[Utility Company X] was a company that is the coal-burning business, not the natural gas-burning business. Assuming we could retrofit coal plants to accept natural gas, what would do with all the people that know how to handle coal but not gas?" Add to that the infrastructure demands (gas pipelines, e.g.), it starts to look very difficult to switch from coal to natrual gas, or anything else. If it is that hard to get utility execs to think hard about another fossil alternative, it becomes even harder to think about non-hydro renewable energy sources. But it is not narrow-mindedness per se; it is form of capital that is specific to one way of doing things, and is not easily transferable to another way of doing things. That difficulty may be illusory, but it at least appears to those embedded in the fossil industries as very difficult.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Formality and Informality in Cost-Benefit Analysis

Professor Amy Sinden at Temple has posted a paper titled Formality and Informality in Cost-Benefit Analysis. This is an important paper that seeks to transcend a debate about cost-benefit analysis that has gotten intellectually (though not politically) stale in recent years. Professor Sinden points out that there are many levels of cost-benefit analysis, formal and informal, precise and imprecise, analyzing many alternatives and few. The mistake that is made according to Professor Sinden, (who is a critic of how CBA is used in environmental law and related fields) is that the case for CBA is often made by appealing to the intuitive usefulness of informal CBAs, while the formal but falsely precise formal CBAs actually bend public policy. I wonder if this is just a variant of the "false formalism" critique of CBA, but even if it is, it deserves some attention because of the nuance with which it treats different CBAs. Here is the abstract:

Cost-benefit analysis (CBA) is usually treated as a monolith. In fact, the term can refer to a broad variety of decision-making practices, ranging from a qualitative comparison of pros and cons to a highly formalized and technical method grounded in economic theory that monetizes both costs and benefits, discounts to present net value, and locates the point at which the marginal benefits curve crosses the marginal costs curve. This article develops a typology that helps to conceptualize and analyze the multiple varieties of CBA along the formality-informality spectrum. It then uses this typology to analyze the treatment of CBA by the academic community and the three branches of the federal government. In academic and policy circles, the formal end of this spectrum generates far more controversy than the informal end. Additionally, the law (federal environmental statutes and federal case law) seems to favor informal over formal varieties of CBA. Nonetheless, the executive branch appears to be moving toward the formal end of the spectrum. Executive Orders and guidance documents direct agencies to conduct a highly formal mode of CBA. And anecdotal evidence suggests that agencies often go out of their way to give their CBAs the trappings of formality, sometimes in ways that lead to irrational results. I argue that 1) failing to distinguish between formal and informal CBA, and the many varieties in between, has led to muddled thinking and to misuses of CBA; and 2) the trend toward formality in the executive branch is a bad development, in part because it can, and often does, lead to what I call "failed formalism" — a corruption of CBA that can occur when agencies fail to clearly and consistently define where on the formality-informality spectrum a particular CBA falls.

Friday, 29 August 2014

The Role of Law in Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century

There is not a lot of law discussed in Thomas Piketty's book Capital in the Twenty-first Century. Piketty drops a few hints here and there about what laws he thinks likely contributes to widening wealth inequality (the advent of dynastic trusts, the lowering of marginal rates for the highest personal income tax brackets, which contribute to executive "super-salaries"), but his basic policy prescription is a small global wealth tax.

I would not oppose such a tax. There is something elegant about such a tax, if the international tax haven problem can be solved. But in my review of the book, I suggest that some examination of the legal order is in order. Legal rules and institutions contribute to wealth inequality indirectly. In Piketty's world, wealth inequality increases when the rate of return on private capital is greater than the rate of economic growth, or r > g in his vernacular. My review examines several areas of law in which legal rules and institutions drive up rates of return on private capital (r in Piketty-speak) without doing much to increase overall economic growth. These areas are financial regulation, antitrust law, oil and gas tax policy, electric utilities regulation, and the generic practice of grandfathering. In my view, a rather simplistic faith in trickle-down economics has caused policy-makers to support any policy in which Δg > 0, however speculatively, and if Δr >> 0, well then, God Bless. Of course, Δg is very often not greater than zero.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Regulating Greenhouse Gases Under the Clean Air Act, Version 0.0

There has been so much clamor about the Environmental Protection Agency's introduction of a proposed rule for regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, it's hard to shout above it all. And yet, not much has really been added to the conversation from a policy point of view, and not much can be said. The rule sets an emissions reduction target for each state, but is very vague (or, in EPA's words, "flexible") about how states can achieve those targets. There has been so much sky-is-falling nonsense that one loses sight of the fact that the rule doesn't actually do all that much. The rule provides neither much guidance nor much admonition. Under this part of the Clean Air Act, states will be required to submit for EPA approval State Implementation Plans that set out a regulatory scheme by which they intend to carry out the broader mandates set out by EPA. The required emissions reductions are the product of complicated formulas, but have their ultimate root in emissions rate standards for coal-fired power plants, which were then adjusted for a number of political factors, like individual state efforts to reduce emissions before this rule. The vagueness is intentional. Former EPA general counsel Roger Martella characterizes EPA's posture towards states as "any way you want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we'll find a way to make it work." EPA is bending over backwards to let states do whatever they want to do, at the price of perhaps accomplishing too little. Charles Komanoff of the Carbon Tax Center estimates that the implicit price of emitting carbon dioxide under these targets is about $2.15 a ton. That's trivial.

My friends at Element IV, a consulting group founded by a former oil executive and a former Sierra Club lobbyist (!), are not optimistic about the survival about this much-ado-about-not-much rule. They cite legal challenges that were filed within moments of the publication of the rule. 

Despite the disappointment with the ambition of the rule, this rule is important for several reasons. Although Bailey and Bookbinder minimize the significance of what this rule can accomplish -- "give the President something concrete to say at the Paris climate talks next year," and "claim a political legacy beyond that" -- there is real game-theoretic significance to being able to say something "concrete." I noted a few years ago that international climate negotiations are extremely fragile, and that signals of cooperation were very important in preventing the unraveling of agreements. This greenhouse gas rule does allow leaders from other countries, if they are so inclined, to be able to say to skeptical constituents that the United States has done something. Not much, but something. So the facile dismissal that we should do nothing because anything we do will be canceled out by the fact that "China" -- whatever they mean about a nation of 1.3 billion people -- will do nothing, is far too simplistic. Like it or not, the nature of climate negotiations is going to have to be the taking of unilateral steps that are necessary, but not sufficient conditions for international agreement to take place. 

I would like to see a carbon tax, too, but little steps will have to do for now.

Monday, 23 June 2014

The Canadian Government Approves the Northern Gateway Pipeline

Last week, the Canadian government approved the construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline that is intended to ship crude oil produced from the oil sands of Northern Alberta to Kitimat, a small port city on the West Coast in British Columbia. The approval comes with 209 conditions, an unusually high number for the legally parsimonious Canadians, but this is a very controversial project. The Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper is from Alberta, and is desperate to make sure Canadian oil sands crude has an export outlet. Harper is many things, but he is not stupid; he wants to sell oil before greenhouse gas regulations start to gain currency worldwide and the demand for crude starts to ebb. An outlet to the West, and a shipping lane to China, a country that is likely to be one of the last to embrace fossil fuel curtailment, would be a great alternative to Keystone XL, or even the patched-together pipeline route to the East. 

However, Northern Gateway faces intense opposition from the 70 some-odd distinct aboriginal groups in the pipeline's path. The 209 conditions are not likely to be a big deal as far as the federal government is involved, as long as Stephen Harper is Prime Minister. The question is whether the Canadian Supreme Court will uphold aboriginal challenges to the pipeline that are almost certain to arise from at least some of the groups. What must be very alarming, from the perspective of the pipeline proponent, Enbridge, is that aboriginal groups in British Columbia have already accepted a natural gas pipeline that will pass through much of the same territory. In particular, the Haisla Nation, which holds territorial rights around Kitimat, accepts the gas pipeline but vigorously opposed the crude oil pipeline. This suggests that aboriginal groups such as the Haisla are fine with natural gas, but not oil. It will be hard to characterize that legally as unreasonable, as oil pipelines always pose the risk of spills, while gas pipelines are much less onerous to keep clean. I have always found it hard to guess at what the Canadian Supreme Court will do, but past cases such as Haida v. BC Ministry of Forests signal that the Court will expect some pretty sincere efforts to accommodate aboriginal claims and interests.

There is a larger economic question for the whole country of Canada. In the past, large parts of the Canadian economy have centered upon timber, fish, and minerals, and Canada's possession of the second-largest reserve of oil in the world seems to consign Canada to staying that way for a while. I do not believe that crude imposes a traditional resource curse on Canadian exports -- there are many other political factors that render Canada uncompetitive other than a strong petroloonie -- but I do worry that the political economy of Canada will tether Canada's education and commerce infrastructure towards resource extraction. A 2012 paper by Elena Suslova and Natalya Volchikova suggests that a second kind of resource curse is the diversion of public monies towards resource development rather than the development of a more diverse base of human capital, like say, high technology. The pipeline really could create some path-dependencies for the Canadian economy. In that sense, the natural gas pipeline really may not be much better than the Northern Gateway oil pipeline.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Farms Versus Developers

The New York Times ran an article a couple of weeks ago on a new kind of retirement community: not just a sprawling collection houses only for old people, but mixed-use and mixed-age communities with special resources for older people. The visionary developer credited with leading the way of this new, more enlightened model of retirement living was Del E. Webb, whose first retirement community was Sun City, near Phoenix. First-year law students should remember that name. Del Webb developed Sun City, which grew and grew and grew, towards a feedlot owned by Spur Industries, a cattle feedlot. The feedlot had been there since 1956, farming in the area since 1911, and Sun City since 1960. Sun City literally grew toward the feedlot, and when Webb started having trouble selling houses, he sued Spur on the grounds that the feedlot was a nuisance. Most students think it wrong that the late-comer Webb should be able to sue the feedlot, which was already there. The chutzpah!

But as we learn in Property class, why should there be a first-in-time, first-in-right rule? Why should a feedlot essentially foreclose residential development by virtue of being there first? Back when Phoenix was a growing city and residential development was a valuable activity (let's not talk about the water usage for now), why should a feedlot stay there just because it was there? The Arizona court held in Spur Industries v. Del E. Webb that it shouldn't, and sided with Del Webb -- to an extent. Spur had to move its feedlot, but Webb had to pay the move. My students generally like that result, as land moves to its most valuable use (let's not talk about the water usage for now), and the feedlot is made whole. The "coming to the nuisance" defense is not an absolute defense, but merely a factor.

But that case did not sit well with farmers. In every single state plus Puerto Rico, some form of a "Right-to-Farm" law was passed. RTF statutes provide farms with a defense to nuisance claims by plaintiffs that migrate toward (or "come to") any allegedly nuisance-creating farm. RTF statutes commonly set out some definition of the agricultural operations that can raise the defense, a list of permitted operational changes that can be undertaken without losing the defense, and some time limit that serves as an effective statute of limitations on any claims of nuisance against a farm.

So now the coming to the nuisance defense *is* (to varying degrees and subject to lots of qualifications) an absolute defense. Are we happy?

The usual justification of Right-to-farm laws of protecting farms from encroaching residential development rings hollow in light of modern developments in agricultural operations. For example, in Parker v. Obert's Legacy Dairy, an Indiana court upheld a fairly long-standing interpretation of Indiana's Right-to-Farm law as protecting a farm that expanded operations from about 100 cows to almost 1000, holding that such a change was not a "significant change" in the type of agricultural operation, and could therefore not be the subject of a nuisance lawsuit brought by neighbors.

But this is not about the right to farm anymore. The plaintiff's property in Parker was also a farm, albeit a small-scale farm. As between the plaintiff's farm and the defendant's farm, the Right-to-Farm law acts as a subsidy for the defendant's large-scale farm. While economies of scale accrue to larger, more intensive agricultural operations, a variety of environmental and land use laws provide a check on the uncontrolled growth of such farms, ensuring that the negative externalities of such farms are at least commensurate with the economic benefits of efficient large-scale farming. Right-to-Farm laws upset this balance, providing incentives to intensify agricultural operations and enlarge capital investments. The result is a skewing of the distribution of farms toward the larger, the more intensive, and the greater polluting operations.