By James Kwak
I’ve already introduced you to the Springfield biomass plant proposed by Palmer Renewable Energy (PRE). The issue in that post was PRE’s witnesses’ apparent unfamiliarity with the voluminous evidence that ambient air pollution increases both the incidence and the severity of asthma, along with other diseases.
In addition, PRE is claiming that their biomass plant won’t increase air pollution, anyway. In this press release gracefully repackaged as a news story by the Springfield Republican, we read, “The average annual impact on emissions such as nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter would be minuscule, Valberg and Raczynski [PRE's environmental consultants] said.”
By James Kwak
Did you know that my wife is a “high-paid consultant” for the shadowy anti-biomass movement? Neither did I — and I’m the one who handles all of our finances, so I should know.
Last night she testified at a hearing held by the Springfield City Council, which is considering revoking the permit of Palmer Renewable Energy (PRE) to build a biomass plant in Springfield. PRE was granted a special zoning permit to build the plant in 2008. Since then, PRE has increased the amount of fuel it intends to burn (meaning, among other things, that more diesel trucks will have to drive in and out to deliver the material) and changed the type of fuel from construction and demolition debris to “green wood chips” (which matters because the plant was initially permitted as a recycling facility).*
My wife, a professor of environmental economics and econometrics, testified about the link between emissions (from power plants and diesel trucks) and illness, particularly asthma. At the hearing, one of PRE’s witnesses claimed not to know where my wife was “getting” the idea that air pollution can cause asthma. (In a newspaper article, PRE had this to say about asthma: “Valberg said there are many theories on the causes of asthma, and that indoor air quality in homes and schools is actually more of concern than outdoor air. For opponents to state that the project will worsen asthma rates ‘is just not scientifically accurate,’ Valberg said.”)
By James Kwak
To make a vast generalization, we live in a society where quantitative data are becoming more and more important. Some of this is because of the vast increase in the availability of data, which is itself largely due to computers. Some is because of the vast increase in the capacity to process data, which is also largely due to computers. Think about Hans Rosling’s TED Talks, or the rise of sabermetrics (the “Moneyball” phenomenon) not only in baseball but in many other sports, or the importance of standardized testing scores in K-12 education, or Karl Rove’s usage of data mining to identify likely supporters, or the FiveThirtyEight revolution in electoral forecasting, or the quantification of the financial markets, or zillions of other examples. I believe one of my professors has written a book about this phenomenon.
But this comes with a problem. The problem is that we do not currently collect and scrub good enough data to support this recent fascination with numbers, and on top of that our brains are not wired to understand data. And if you have a lot riding on bad data that is poorly understood, then people will distort the data or find other ways to game the system to their advantage.
Readers of this blog will all be familiar with the phenomenon of rating subprime mortgage-backed securities and their structured offspring using data exclusively from a period of rising house prices — because those were the only data that were available. But the same issue crops up in many different stories covering different aspects of society.
By James Kwak
That, I believe, was a line from Nemo in a comment long ago, on how the megabanks were holding the federal government hostage by threatening to collapse and take the financial system with them.
The coal industry seems to have learned something. Now that the EPA is recommending revoking a mountaintop mining permit (mountaintop mining is when, instead of drilling holes to get at coal underground, you simply blow the top off the mountain), the coal company in question has this to say:
“If the E.P.A. proceeds with its unlawful veto of the Spruce permit — as it appears determined to do — West Virginia’s economy and future tax base will suffer a serious blow.
“Beyond that, every business in the nation would be put on notice that any lawfully issued permit — Clean Water Act 404 or otherwise — can be revoked at any time according to the whims of the federal government. Clearly, such a development would have a chilling impact on future investment and job creation.”
I’m so out of touch I didn’t even know that some people are claiming that driving an SUV is better for the environment than having a dog. Thanks to Tyler Cowen, now I do. (And those people aren’t even named Levitt and Dubner!) Thanks to Cowen and Clark Williams-Derry, I also know that the claim is nonsense based on wildly wrong assumptions.
In the same post I discussed yesterday, Keith Hennessey cites the same NHTSA report – the Final Rule governing CAFE standards for model years 2011-15, issued in January 2008 – to make this point: “The proposal will have a trivial effect on global climate change.” (It’s point 5 in his post, and was also picked up by Alex Tabarrok in his endorsement.) Hennessey cites the NHTSA report accurately, but the report itself is misleading.
What does the report say? Look at Table VII-12 on page 624. There are three scenarios that we are concerned with: No Action (which Hennessey calls, and I will call, “Baseline”); Optimized (“Bush Plan”); and Total Costs Equal Total Benefits (“Obama Plan”). If you want to know why Optimized is Bush and TC = TB is Obama, see my previous post. In the year 2100, the projected carbon dioxide (“CO2″) concentration in the atmosphere, in parts per million, is:
- Baseline: 717.2
- Bush: 716.2
- Obama: 715.6
That’s pretty convincing – or is it?
Note: There are two somewhat significant updates at the bottom, just before the Appendix.
CAFE stands for Corporate Average Fuel Economy – the average fuel efficiency that is calculated annually for every manufacturer that sells cars or light trucks in the U.S. and compared to standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the Department of Transportation. (If you want to know more about how CAFE is measured, see the Appendix to this post.) Yesterday, President Obama proposed new, higher CAFE standards for models years up through 2016, by which point aggregate efficiency should reach 35.5 miles per gallon.
The typical conservative response to regulations like this is that they impose costs on the economy. In this case the main argument is that mandating higher fuel efficiency standards makes cars more expensive to produce; so car companies have to charge more for them; so fewer people will buy cars, and fewer people will be employed in the auto industry. I was planning to try to pre-empt this argument, but Keith Hennessey, former head of the National Economic Council under Bush II, beat me to the punch. His post summarizes some findings from a 900-page report produced by NHTSA in January 2008, when the Bush administration released the latest version of the CAFE standards. One of his main points, taken from that report, is that the Obama standards will cost 49,000 jobs. That’s relative to some baseline that I haven’t been able to identify, but it’s 38,000 jobs more than the Bush standards. The table is on page 586 of the long report; the Bush plan is “Optimized” and the Obama plan is “TC = TB.” Hennessey’s post has been picked up by Marginal Revolution (where I found it) and by The New York Times, so I decided I should stay up late and write a response.
Under a common conception of free-market capitalism, firms should do whatever they can – legally – to maximize value for shareholders, which often means maximizing profits. As long as firms do not bear the costs of the externalities they create – like air pollution – they will continue to create them. That’s all taken as a given.
What is a little more sinister, yet still completely legal, is where they will create them. Even in the absence of cash costs per ton of pollution, the effective costs to polluters will vary from place to place; those costs show up in the political difficulty of getting permits to build and operate facilities, the degree of environmental regulation, the likelihood of local muckraking journalists writing unpleasant exposes, the ability of the local populace to bring political pressure to bear, and so on. The net effect is that the low-cost places to put pollution tend to be communities with relatively less political power – in this country, communities of minorities and the poor.
A team of researchers from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and USC recently released a new report, “Justice in the Air,” that quantifies the disparate environmental impact of toxic air pollution on minorities and the poor, by firm and by facility. Michael Ash and Jim Boyce also have a working paper that describes the data sources and the methodology.