Reid to climate: drop dead. Can we afford inaction?

Ross Douthat admits Global Warming is a problem, but argues for inaction.

Today, in the New York Times, Paul Krugman and Conservative wunderkind Ross Douthat present competing theories on why climate change legislation is dead this year.  Douthat, surprisingly, admits that Global Warming is a genuine problem:

“…Conservatives who treat global warming as just another scare story are almost certainly mistaken.  Rising temperatures won’t “destroy” the planet, as fear mongers and celebrities like to say. But the evidence that carbon emissions are altering the planet’s ecology is too convincing to ignore. Conservatives who dismiss climate change as a hoax are making a spectacle of their ignorance.”

Douthat blames the demise of legislation on conservatives; in his words there is “seemingly an unbridgeable gulf between the conservative movement and the environmentalist cause.”  Of course, that framing of Global Warming is purposeful.  In Douthat’s mind, Global Warming is a problem for bird watchers to worry about.  In fact, Douthat provides the argument for inaction by making a dangerous assumption:

“…The assumption that a warmer world will also be a richer world — and that economic development is likely to do more for the wretched of the earth than a growth-slowing regulatory regime. But it’s also grounded in skepticism that such a regime is possible. Any attempt to legislate our way to a cooler earth, the argument goes, will inevitably resemble the package of cap-and-trade emission restrictions that passed the House last year: a Rube Goldberg contraption whose buy-offs and giveaways swamped its original purpose… Not every danger has a regulatory solution, and sometimes it makes sense to wait, get richer, and then try to muddle through.”

Douthat does not discuss the concept of externalities, and this is key.  An externality is the result of a transaction that is borne by neither the buyer nor seller directly, but rather by a third party.  In the case of our fossil fuel supplies, the externalities are only growing.  In addition to greenhouse gasses, you have pollution from coal plants that has measurable health impacts on communities surrounding them, and you have the ghastly side effects of hydraulic fracturing of shale for natural gas.  Of course, don’t forget about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  The scary thing?  We subsidize these fossil fuels.  Douthat, however, just wants to rely on unending growth to solve all of our problems.  Unfortunately, the Earth will not support unending growth.  Douthat would be wise to read Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth.

Paul Krugman, on the other hand, points the blame for the demise of climate legislation in a more

Krugman advises us to follow the money.

believable and useful direction.  In Krugman’s mind, we need to just follow the money:

“The economy as a whole wouldn’t be significantly hurt if we put a price on carbon, but certain industries — above all, the coal and oil industries — would. And those industries have mounted a huge disinformation campaign to protect their bottom lines.  Look at the scientists who question the consensus on climate change; look at the organizations pushing fake scandals; look at the think tanks claiming that any effort to limit emissions would cripple the economy. Again and again, you’ll find that they’re on the receiving end of a pipeline of funding that starts with big energy companies, like Exxon Mobil, which has spent tens of millions of dollars promoting climate-change denial, or Koch Industries, which has been sponsoring anti-environmental organizations for two decades.  Or look at the politicians who have been most vociferously opposed to climate action. Where do they get much of their campaign money? You already know the answer.”

That is the key of course.  Producers of fossil fuels do not want to have to account for externalities of their products.  They would rather society at large bear those costs.  We are slaves to growth and slaves to consumption, unable to see the forest for the trees.  As Krugman points out, 2010 is the hottest year on record.  Inevitably we will need to place a cap on carbon emissions; the longer we wait, the more difficult it will be.

Ross Douthat should read this book.

How do we solve these problems?  Herman Daly, an ecological economist, offers some viable prescriptions.  I will highlight one of the most important ones, which you will not see any politician advocate: ecological tax reform.  Right now labor and capital (the value added) is taxed; ecological tax reform would end value added taxes and instead tax that to which value is added: the throughput of resources extracted from nature (depletion) and returned to nature (pollution).  Ecological tax reform would reward entrepreneurs who are able to add value and innovation efficiently.  We want to encourage value added, and discourage depletion and pollution.  It sounds simple, but it goes against the neo-classical devotion to unending growth.  As such, Douthat and his fellow conservative denizens continue to believe in Business as Usual.

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Are evangelicals becoming liberals?

Don’t look now, but the Southern Baptist Convention is turning into a bunch of liberals.  At least that is how hyper-partisans like Glen Beck and Sarah Palin would describe them.  Recently, the SBC has come out in favor of environmental regulation and comprehensive immigration reform, two issues that put them at odds with conventional right-wing ideology.

First of all the SBC passed the following resolution in the wake of the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico:

“The Convention called on the government “to act determinatively and with undeterred resolve to end this crisis … to ensure full corporate accountability for damages, clean-up and restoration … and to ensure that government and private industry are not again caught without planning for such possibilities.”

Dr. Russell Moore, the dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and preacher at Highview Baptist Church near Louisville, Ky., helped pass the resolution.  He believes that conservatives should not, as Milton Friedman preached, have a lassez-faire view of government regulation:

“We, as Christians, believe in sin. That means if people are sinful, if all of us are sinful, then all of us have to have accountability — and that includes corporations.  Simply trusting corporations to go about their business without polluting the water streams and without destroying ecosystems is really a naive and utopian view of human nature. It’s not a Christian view of human nature… Human flourishing means a healthy natural environment, and it simply isn’t good for ourselves or for our neighbors to live in a world that is completely paved over and in which every piece of green land is replaced with a Bed, Bath, and Beyond,” he says. “That’s not how God designed human beings to live.”

In addition to that resolution, leaders in the SBC are coming out in favor of comprehensive immigration reform that includes both border security and a path to citizenship for undocumented workers.  Richard Land, head of SBC’s Public Policy Arm, is trying to convince Conservatives that compromise makes political sense:

“I’ve had some of them appeal to me. They say, ‘Richard, you’re going to divide the conservative coalition.’ And I said, ‘Well, I may divide the old conservative coalition, but I’m not going to divide the new one.’ If the new conservative coalition is going to be a governing coalition, it’s going to have to have a significant number of Hispanics in it, that’s dictated by demographics, and you don’t get large numbers of Hispanics to support you when you’re engaged in anti-Hispanic immigration rhetoric.”

Land believes that the fight over the Hispanic vote is being won by the Democrats, which could put Republicans in a bind for years to come:

“The people who have been anti-immigration have lost every one of these arguments,” he says. “They lost it with the Irish in the 1830s and ’40s and turned them into Democrats for three generations. They lost it with the Italians in the 1890s and the early part of the 20th century and turned the Italians into Democrats for three generations. I mean, you know, do they want to do it with the Hispanics too?”

It is surprising for me to discover that I agree with the Southern Baptist Convention on two major issues.  It would be a big coup if Conservatives could make the shift the SBC is advocating.  I am confident, however, that Sarah Palin’s opposition to environmental regulation will win the day.  I am also confident that Republicans will continue to look only at the short term on immigration, as their base gets older and older.  In other words, despite their best efforts, I don’t think the SBC will be able to save the Republican Party.


Live coverage of Energy and Commerce Questioning of BP CEO Tony Hayward

Rep. Henry Waxman chairs the committee grilling BP CEO Tony Hayward

Here is live video of the hearing.

Rep. Henry Waxman expressed his exasperation in his opening statement:

“BP repeatedly took shortcuts that cost lives and increased the risk of catastrophic blowouts… There is not a single e-mail that indicates that you understood the danger… We are seeing in the oil industry the same corporate indifference to risk that we saw in the collapse on Wall Street.”

Rep. Bart Stupak scores this zinger:

“You owe it to all Americans, we are not small people, but we deserve to get out lives back… Mr. Hayward, I am sure that you will get your life back, with a golden parachute to boot.“

Republican Rep. Joe Barton called the $20 Billion compensation fund a “slush fund” and a “shakedown.”  I suppose he trusts BP to settle quickly, unlike Exxon, which only recently finished its legal case on the Exxon Valdez spill, and paid limited settlements.  I suppose he forgets that Dow Chemical only recently completed its legal settlement after the 1984 Bophal catastrophe, where approximately 15,000 Indian people died after a chemical leak.

Rep. Mike Ross, Democrat of Arkansas, pointed out the obvious: “Mr. Hayward, since this hearing began one hour ago, 112,846 gallons have spilled into the Gulf… It seems apparent that BP put profit before safety.”

Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont artfully described the numerous accidents and safety failures that BP operations produced in the last decade, and concluded: “We’ve heard time and time again from BP that this is an aberration… for BP, regrettably this is business as usual.  This is déjà vu, again, and again, and again.”

The opening statements are over, and Tony Hayward already is slumped. Now he is ready to testify. After Mr. Hayward was sworn in, and was about to begin his opening statement, a woman in the back screamed that Mr. Hayward needed to go to jail.

Tony Hayward’s opened with this: “The explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon and the resulting oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico never should  have happened, and I am deeply sorry that it did.  When I learned that 11 men lost their lives, I was personally devastated. Three weeks ago I attended a memorial service for those men, and it was a shattering moment… I can only begin to imagine their [friends and families’] sorrow.”

I understand how serious the situation is.  It is a tragedy.  I want to speak directly to the people who live and work in the Gulf region.  I know that this incident has had a profound impact on your lives, and caused great turmoil and I deeply regret that.  I also deeply reget the impact the spill has had on the environment, the wildlife, and the ecosystem of the Gulf.  I want to acknowledge the questions that you and the public are rightly asking.  How could this happen?  How damaging is the spill to the environment? Why is it taking so long to stop the flow of oil and gas into the Gulf?  We don’t yet have all the answers to these important questions.  But I hear and understand the concerns, frustrations, and anger being voiced across the country, and I know that these sentiments will continue until the leak is stopped and until we prove through our actions that we are doing the right thing.”

Well, Tony Hayward and BP may not have all the answers, but the House committee will try to get them.

Tony continues: “I’ve been to the Gulf Coast.  I’ve met with fishermen, business owners, and families.  I understand what they are going through, and I promise them as I am promising you, that we will make this right. After yesterday’s announcement (of the $20 Billion fund) I hope that they feel we’re on the right track.  I’m here today because I have a responsibility to the American people to do my best to explain what BP has done, is doing, and will do in the future to respond to this terrible accident.”

Tony Hayward certainly claims to understand everyone’s troubles.  It reminds me of Bill Clinton, he used that language a lot.

“To sum up, I understand the seriousness of the situation, and the concerns frustrations and fears that have been and will continue to be voiced.  I know that only actions and results, not mere words, ultimately can give you the confidence you seek.  I give my pledge as the leader of BP that we will not rest until we make this right.  We’re a strong company, and no resources will be spared.  We, and the entire industry will learn from this event, and emergy stronger, smarter, and safer.”

OK, I give in, Tony Hayward really understands.  While stock prices rose yesterday after the establishment of the $20 Billion fund, I am not sure BP is, or will remain a strong company.  Words may not hurt Tony Hayward, and words will not give confidence, but Tony will be under fire shortly, and will have to provide some tough answers.

Mr. Hayward is tapdancing early.  He was asked the following questions by Rep. Stupak, which is gave the identical non-answer:

Should there be a ban on companies with miserable safety records drilling off our coast? … Who are we going to hold accountable?  … Do you expect to be CEO of BP much longer?

Tony’s response to all: “Since I’ve become CEO, safe reliable operations have been our first priority.”

Rep. Michael Burgess, (R-TX) is, like his colleague Joe Barton, most concerned with the $20 Billion fund, and not the CEO right in front of him.

Rep. Waxman asked if BP made a fundamental mistake in the selection of the casing?  Tony responded: “I wasn’t involved in that decision.”  Tony is not taking responsibility for the decisions and actions of his company.

Rep. Waxman and Tony Hayward had this remarkable interchange:

Rep Waxman: “Don’t you feel any sense of responsibility for these decisions?

Tony Hayward: “I feel a great sense of responsibility for this accident.”

Rep. Waxman: “What about the decisions?”

Tony Hayward: “I can’t pass judgement on those decisions.”


Was BP acting in the best interest of British pensioners?

BP CEO Tony Hayward will appear before the House Energy & Commerce Committee Thursday

On Thursday, Tony Hayward will appear before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and offer testimony about BP’s failures on the Deepwater Horizon Rig.  These documents, released by the Committee in advance of the hearing, make it clear that BP cut corners.  This e-mail, between BP engineers a week before the blowout, discusses BP’s choice of a faster, less expensive, and less protective casing for the well:

From: Morel, Brian P

Sent: Wednesday, April 14, 2010 1:31 PM

To: Miller, Richard A

Cc: Hafle, Mark E

Subject: Macondo APB

Rich,

There is a chance we could run a production liner on Macondo instead of the planned long string. As this does not change much for APB based on the original design assumptions of a trapped annular, I don’t see any major effects, but wanted to confirm I am not missing something. Attached is the proposed schematic, please let me know if you have any questions. We could be running it in 2-3 days, so need a relative quick response. Sorry for the late notice, this has been nightmare well which has everyone all over the place.

Thanks

Of course, among the documents are also approval e-mails from the Minerals Management Service.  There are also e-mails from Halliburton, showing that BP went against the Halliburton recommendation for the number of centralizers, devices to keep the casing centered on the well while the cement was poured and set.  Halliburton recommended 21, but BP went with only six, because the well was behind schedule.

BP and the British Government, are fighting American efforts to force BP to set up an escrow account to ensure claims settlement, and to cease payment of dividends.  Of course, in Britain, BP dividends account for a large portion of retirement income:

‘BP’s position at the top of the London Stock Exchange and its previous reliability have made it a bedrock
of almost every pension fund in the country, meaning its value is crucial to millions of workers. The firm’s dividend payments, which amount to more than £7 billion a year, account for £1 in every £6 paid out in dividends to British pension pots. BP is so concerned about Mr Obama’s power to affect share value that it has urged David Cameron to appeal to the White House on its behalf. Downing Street, however, has refused to get involved. “We need to ensure that BP is not unfairly treated – it is not some bloodless corporation,” said one of Britain’s top fund managers. “Hit BP and a lot of people get hit. UK pension money becomes a donation to the US government and the lawyers at the expense of Mrs Jones and other pension funds.”’

Now, did BP have British pensioners in mind when it opted for cheaper casing, and fewer centralizers?  No, it opted for risky cost-cutting instead of safe, secure profit that pensioners would expect. Will blaming the President help the pensioners?  Not quite.  The pensioners are simply learning the same lesson that stockholders of Enron and Worldcom learned, that many corporations incentivize short term earnings without an eye to the long term.


BP Spills Coffee

This is brilliant.


The Nuclear Option

As the crisis in the Gulf proceeds, and impressive sounding technology like diamond-tipped saws failed to stop the leak, some people suggested the nuclear option.  It would be difficult to complete at the depth of the wellhead.  However, this propoganda film from the USSR shows how the Soviets pulled it off at a surface gas well.

The Containment Cap apparently captured 441,000 gallons on Friday, but an estimated 500,000-1,000,000 is leaking daily into the Gulf.  Tony Hayward is optimistic:

‘BP chief executive Tony Hayward told the BBC on Sunday that he believed the cap was likely to capture “the majority, probably the vast majority” of the oil gushing from the well. The gradual increase in the amount being captured is deliberate, in an effort to prevent water from getting inside and forming a frozen slush that foiled a previous containment attempt.’

However, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen is pessimistic:

‘[Allen] said on CBS’ Face the Nation that the spill, which is ravaging beaches and wildlife, will not be contained until the leak is fully plugged and that even afterward “there will be oil out there for months to come. The disaster, which began with an oil rig explosion in mid-April, will persist “well into the fall,” Allen said.’

Hopefully the Containment Cap works like Tony says it will.  However, given how many failures were faced along the way, and how difficult it is to work at these depths with current technology, it is no wonder people continue to bring up the nuclear option.  With oil likely to leak through the fall, the question I have is this: if BP was so eager to drill at a depth of 5000 feet, why weren’t they prepared to deal with all possible outcomes of that effort?  When remote operated submarines and diamond tipped saws don’t work, and that is the best that BP has, you have to ask how much effort BP and TransOcean put into contingencies.

As oil becomes more difficult to obtain, and the costs of extraction increase, we will only go to greater and greater lengths to get more oil.  I hope that in the future, instead of subsidizing the oil, and leaving the externalities out, that the externalities get factored into the cost of oil, and that the subsidies are made clear, so that consumers really know how much a gallon of gas costs.  That will allow consumers to make an educated decision about their energy use.


Regulatory capture and the question of government

Today it is very fashionable in some circles to blame the federal government for all of our ills.  In that line of thinking, free markets would thrive if we could only loosen the grip of federal and state interference.  Freed from the grasp of interference, Adam Smith’s invisible hand would encourage the good and punish the bad actors, and create a utopian market based society.  Unfortunately, in today’s globalized world, where mega-corporations exercise more power than most states, that view is also naïve.

Critics would say that the government should only do what they claim it is good at, law enforcement and highway paving, and leave all other activities to the free market.  Unfortunately, these fundamentalist capitalists do not understand the true power of mega corporations today.  It is not simply a question of whether a corporation is a person, as the Supreme Court reaffirmed in the Citizens United decision.  It is a matter of super agency.  A close look at the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is very illuminating, although the recent bank crisis also offers a raft of evidence to spark concern about unchecked power.

A report today in the Sunday Times shows just how far regulatory capture penetrated the various federal agencies responsible for oversight of offshore oil drilling.  Now, just to be clear, critics of the federal government claim that the federal government, if it would only abstain from providing education, regulating health insurance, and other tasks which they deem it to be inefficient, would as a result become outstanding guardians of offshore drilling.  The outstanding reporting of the Times shows otherwise.  It shows that British Petroleum, and the other oil companies, in a market that is not free, but rather amounts to an oligopoly, flexed their political and economic power to write the laws and staff the agencies which would regulate it:

‘“The pace of technology has definitely outrun the regulations,” Lt. Cmdr. Michael Odom of the Coast Guard, at a hearing last month… As a result, deepwater rigs operate under an ad hoc system of exceptions. The deeper the water, the further the exceptions stretch, not just from federal guidelines but also often from company policy.’

When BP set its sights on Mississippi Canyon Block 252, they asked for relaxations from numerous federal regulations, knowing they would receive approval.  They received exemption from a federally mandated environmental review, and from the federal requirement for the blowout preventer valve to be tested at a mandated pressure.  They used equipment that violated even company policy, because the rig was 45 days behind schedule, and BP was paying an expensive lease to TransOcean throughout the delays.  Why did the Minerals Management Service go along with this egregious behavior?  Interior Secretary Ken Salazar knows:

‘The Minerals Management Service, which regulates offshore drilling, went along with these requests partly because the agency has for years had a dual role of both fostering and policing the industry — collecting royalty payments from the drilling companies while also levying fines on them for violations of law.  Its safety inspections usually consist of helicopter visits to offshore rigs to sift through company reports of self-administered tests.  Even Ken Salazar, the interior secretary, who oversees the minerals agency, has said that oil companies have a history of “running the show” at the agency, a problem he has vowed to correct.’

Now that Salazar, and the residents of Louisiana and Florida can plainly see the regulatory capture at work and at fault, will they be able to correct it?  Turning to the banking industry, with all of the influence that Citibank and Goldman Sachs wield, did you think that the impending banking regulation would truly go against their wishes, even after the collapse of the global economy?  What about the tragic explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia?  Sure, America has already largely forgotten that disaster, in which 29 miners died.  Unfortunately, as Arianna Huffington points out, the Mine Safety and Health Administration was similarly captured by Massey Energy and Big Coal:

‘Former Massey COO Stanley Suboleski was appointed to be a commissioner of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission in 2003 and four years later he was nominated to run the Office of Fossil Energy in the Energy Department. Today, he’s back on Massey’s board. And Massey exec Richard Stickler was made the head of MSHA by President Bush in 2006. Talk about hiring the foxes to guard the hen house.  Massey has also mastered the D.C. art of buying friends in high places. Back in 2000, Massey was responsible for a coal slurry spill in Kentucky that was three times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill. The company very successfully limited the damage — not to the environment, but to its bottom line. Once Elaine Chao, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell’s wife, became Secretary of Labor, which oversees the MSHA, she, according to Jack Spadaro, an MSHA engineer investigating the spill, put on the brakes. Two years later, Massey was assessed a slap-on-the-wrist $5,600 fine. The same year, Massey’s PAC donated $100,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which was chaired by McConnell. And Massey’s CEO Don Blankenship has personally donated millions to the campaigns of judges and politicians.’

To those denizens of the Tea Party and Libertarians who hunger for the diminishment of the federal government, be careful what you wish for.  BP was concerned only with its bottom line, not that of the residents of Louisiana.  Regulation is gamed today; in the utopia imagined by some critics, there would simply be no checks on mega-corporations like BP.  Their bottom line would be the only bottom line.  Citizens United was only the beginning.