Posts tagged ‘Interior Department’

Mandating the Impossible (Not to Mention the Stupid)

Here is a snippet from the energy bill that just passed the House:

On Thursday, just over a year after winning the majority, Democrats in
the House of Representatives voted through an energy bill that
represents a stark departure from the administration's approach. It
would raise vehicle fuel efficiency (Cafe) standards for the first time
in over 30 years, by 40%, to 35 miles per gallon for both cars and
light trucks and SUVs. A renewable energy standard mandates that
utilities generate 15% of their power from renewables by 2020. It would
set a renewable fuel standard aiming to generate 36 billion gallons of
ethanol a year by 2022. A tax package would roll back some $13.5bn in
oil industry subsidies and tax breaks to help pay for $21bn worth of
investments in clean energy development, mainly in the form of
investment tax credits for wind and solar, along with the development
and purchase of plug-in hybrid vehicles. And it would raise efficiency
standards for appliances and buildings.

Let's look at a couple of pieces very quickly.  Recognize that this is based on 10 whole minutes of research, far more than a busy Congressman could possibly be expected to muster.

  1. They want 15% of power generation from renewables by 2020.  I am not sure if this includes hydro.  If it does, then a bunch of Pacific Northwest utilities already have this in the bag.  But even if "renewable" includes hydro, hydro power will do nothing to meet this goal by 2020.  I am not sure, given environmental concerns, if any major new hydro project will ever be permitted in the US again, and certainly not in a 10 year time frame.  In fact, speaking of permitting, there is absolutely no way utilities could finance, permit, and construct 15% of the US electricity capacity by 2020 even if they started today.  No.  Way.   By the way, as a sense of scale, after 35 years of subsidies and mandates, renewables (other than hydro) make up ... about .27% of US generation.
  2. The Congress is demanding 36 billion gallons of ethanol.  Presumably, this is all from domestic sources because Congress has refused to drop the enormous tariffs on ethanol imports.  But the entire corn harvest in 2004 of 11.8 billion bushels would make only 30 billion gallons of ethanol.  So Congress wants us to put ALL of our food supply into our cars?  Maybe we can tear down the Amazon rain forest to grow more.
  3. By the way, I am all for cutting all subsidies to any industry for any reason, but when they say "industry subsidies and tax breaks" for the oil industry, what they mostly mean is this:

These were leases for drilling rights in the Gulf of
Mexico signed between oil companies and the Clinton Administration's
Interior Department in 1998-99. At that time the world oil price had
fallen to as low as $10 a barrel and the contracts were signed without
a requirement of royalty payments if the price of oil rose above $35 a
barrel.

Interior's Inspector General investigated and found
that this standard royalty clause was omitted not because of any
conspiracy by big oil, but rather because of bureaucratic bungling in
the Clinton Administration. The same report found that a year after
these contracts were signed Chevron and other oil companies alerted
Interior to the absence of royalty fees, and that Interior replied that
the contracts should go forward nonetheless.

The companies have since invested billions of dollars
in the Gulf on the basis of those lease agreements, and only when the
price of oil surged to $70 a barrel did anyone start expressing outrage
that Big Oil was "cheating" taxpayers out of royalties. Some oil
companies have voluntarily offered to renegotiate these contracts. The
Democrats are now demanding that all these firms do so -- even though
the government signed binding contracts.

Update:  More thoughts hereMy climate skeptic video is here.

Offshore Royalty Mess

One of the issues that is giving Democrats an entre to wack on oil companies is the issue of "subsidies" for deep offshore drilling.  These subsidies appear to take the form (though nothing in the world of oil field royalty payments is very simple or clear) of reduced royalty payments:

With oil prices still above $60 a barrel, do oil companies need
inducements to find and produce more oil? That's the underlying
question of today's NYT front-page article about an Interior Department report questioning the value of royalty rebates and tax breaks for gas and oil production.

The rebates are targeted at expensive and difficult exploration,
usually in deep water or that requires deep drilling. The intention is
to incentivize that exploration, allowing the United States to increase
its domestic reserves using "unconventional oil."

This is the kind of "incentivizing" that always goes wrong for the government, and turns even the best of intentions into massive rent-seeking opportunities.  My solution is similar to Cato's Tom Firey's:  Just make the royalty payment amounts and percentages subject to a bid as part of the offshore leasing process.  The government can include minimum reserve prices and such to protect itself (as they already do for offshore leases).  He suggests rolling all the value into a single up front number.  I would instead suggest a bid upfront number plus a bid royalty that is either a fixed amount per barrel, or more likely, a fixed percentage of oil revenues at some benchmark oil price.

What I am NOT sympathetic to is one party in a lease agreement trying to use its legislative party to void the terms of a previous agreement because it no longer likes the terms:

The article notes that royalties and corporate taxes deliver into
federal coffers about 40 percent of the revenue produced from oil and
gas extracted from federal property. The worldwide average government
take is about 60"“65 percent. A 40 percent federal take may have been
fair at a time when oil prices and profits were lower, the article
suggests, but the government should be getting a much higher cut from
today's prices.

Trying to just void previous deals in order to get better terms is just thuggery, and is the worst possible disincentive for long-term investment.

Let's Tax These Bubble-Driven Windfall Profits

A number of politicians are calling for taxing "windfall profits" driven by the "price bubble" in gasoline and oil.  Previously, I narrow-mindedly opposed this, arguing that the whole point of the pricing signal being sent is to call for new supplies, which won't happen if the government takes the money away from suppliers.

I say narrow-mindedly, because I have had an epiphany.  I realize now that it is indeed unfair for sellers to benefit from such a pricing bubble.  However, I think the politicians are wrong for looking at oil, since that bubble is only small potatoes.  I propose we start with the much bigger bubble:  In housing prices.  In a time of housing shortages, it pains my heart to Americans profiteering from artificially high prices.  Besides, oil companies actually do something useful with their windfall profits, like finding more oil; home sellers will just blow their proceeds on a big screen TV or something.

My proposal is that the government set a "fair price" for housing, based on a standard rate of appreciation.  The price of the house in a base year, such as 1970, adjusted for the CPI is a good starting point, but a process can be created modeled after Hawaiian gas pricing regulation to set up the exact standard.   Every house in the country then will be appraised.  Any house selling for or appraised for an amount above the 1970 price+CPI adjustment will be deemed as having reaped windfall profits.  The government is authorized to seize 100% of these windfall profits.  When this program is a success, we should then consider a retroactive program to seize windfall profits from the Internet stock bubble.

So, for all you who were supporting government intervention into gasoline pricing and profits, this must make you feel even better, since it is a much, much bigger bubble.  Right?  Or was it somehow more fun when Exxon was a target instead of, say, you?

Update:  I thought it was obvious, but I guess not from the email I have gotten:  I am being sarcastic here.  I would oppose a "windfall" profits tax on oil, houses, Internet Stocks, Pokeman cards, or whatever. 

The WSJ ($?) had this editorial on Saturday:

We keep hearing the word "bubble" to describe
industries with rapid and unsustainable rising prices. Hence, the
Internet bubble, the telecom bubble, stock market bubble, and now, some
analysts believe, a housing bubble. Yet for some mysterious reason no
one speaks of the oil bubble -- though prices have tripled in two years
to as high as $70 a barrel.

Reviewing the history of oil-market boom and bust
confirms that we are in the midst of a classic oil bubble and that
prices will eventually fall, perhaps dramatically. Despite apocalyptic
warnings, the world is not running out of oil and the pumps are not
going to run dry in our lifetimes -- or ever. What's more, the
mechanism that will surely prevent any long-term catastrophic shortages
in energy is precisely the free-market incentive to make profits that
many politicians in Washington seem to regard as an evil pursuit and
wish to short circuit.

The best evidence for an oil bubble comes from the
lessons of America's last six energy crises dating back to the late
19th century, when there was a great scare about the industrial age
grinding to a halt because of impending shortages of coal. (Today coal
is superabundant, with about 500 years of supply.) Each one of these
crises has run almost an identical course.

First, the crisis begins with a spike in energy prices
as a result of a short-term supply shock. Next, higher prices bring
doomsday claims of energy shortages, which in turn prompts government
to intervene ineffectually into the marketplace. In the end, the advent
of new technologies and new energy discoveries -- all inspired by the
profit motive -- brings the crisis to an abrupt end, enabling oil and
electricity markets to resume their virtuous longterm downward price
trend.

The limits-to-growth crowd has predicted the end of
oil since the days when this black gold was first discovered as an
energy source in the mid-19th century. In the 1860s the U.S. Geological
Survey forecast that there was "little or no chance" that oil would be
found in Texas or California. In 1914 the Interior Department forecast
that there was only a 10-year supply of oil left; in 1939 it calculated
there was only a 13-year supply left, and in 1951 Interior warned that
by the mid-1960s the oil wells would certainly run dry. In the 1970s,
Jimmy Carter somberly told the nation that "we could use up all of the
proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next
decade."

We can ridicule these doom and gloom predictions
today, but at the time they were taken seriously by scholars and
politicians, just as the energy alarmists are gaining intellectual
traction today. But as the late economist Julian Simon taught, by any
meaningful measure oil (and all natural resources) has gotten steadily
cheaper and far more bountiful in supply over time, despite periodic
and even wild fluctuations in the market.

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More Free Market Environmentalism

My support for the Nature Conservancy and other land trusts who buy land for preservation rather than just expropriate the current holder through changed use regulations in this post garnered more comments than any of my other recent posts.  Presuming this is an indicator of interest in the topic, I point your attention to this article in the NY Times about environmentalists and grazing in southern Utah.  I no longer have much trust in the NY Times to portray such stories correctly, but from what they write, it looks like another great example of environmental activism using markets and consensual agreements rather than public coercion:

Mr. LeFevre wants the ranchers to win this range war against the lawyers and
politicians trying to restrict grazing on the plateau north of the Grand Canyon.
He fought unsuccessfully to stop the Clinton administration from declaring it
the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument because he knew the designation
would mean more regulations, more hikers and fewer cows....

But he is not bitter when he talks about the deal he made with an
environmentalist named Bill Hedden, the executive director of the Grand Canyon
Trust. Mr. Hedden's group doesn't use lobbyists or lawsuits (or guns) to drive
out ranchers. These environmentalists get land the old-fashioned way. They buy
it.

To reclaim the Escalante River canyon, Mr. Hedden bought the permits that
entitle Mr. LeFevre's cows to graze on the federal land near the river. He
figures it was a good deal for the environment because native shrubs and grasses
are reappearing, now that cows aren't eating and trampling the vegetation.

I love to see this.  The alternative Mr. LeFevre faced was steady expropriation of his grazing permits via creeping regulation and legal action:

Mr. LeFevre likes the deal because it enabled him to buy grazing permits for
higher ground that's easier for him and his cows to reach than the canyon. (He
was once almost killed there when his horse fell). He's also relieved to be on
land where hikers aren't pressuring the Bureau of Land Management to restrict
grazing, as they did for the canyon.

"I was afraid the B.L.M. would add so many restrictions that I wouldn't be
able to use the land anyway, and I'd be out the $100,000 I spent for the
permits," he said. "The B.L.M. just shuts you down. Bill said, 'Let's try to
resolve this peacefully and make you whole.' I respect that."

Ironically, this win-win environmentalism is being opposed by the Bush administration. 

The Interior Department has decided that environmentalists can no longer
simply buy grazing permits and retire them. Under its reading of the law - not
wholly shared by predecessors in the Clinton administration - land currently
being used by ranchers has already been determined to be "chiefly valuable for
grazing" and can be opened to herds at any time if the B.L.M.'s "land use
planning process" deems it necessary.

But why should a federal bureaucrat decide what's "chiefly valuable" about a
piece of land? Mr. Hedden and Mr. LeFevre have discovered a "land use planning
process" of their own: see who will pay the most for it. If an environmentalist
offers enough to induce a rancher to sell, that's the best indication the land
is more valuable for hiking than for grazing.

I have no idea why a grazing permit can't be retired - certainly that's legal and proper with emissions permits.  I never, ever thought I would find the NY Times writing something like "why should a federal bureaucrat decide what's "chiefly valuable" about a
piece of land", but I love it. And raspberries to the Bush Administration, who yet again are demonstrating that their lack of dedication to markets and private action.  Its time to admit that the republicans have returned to the bad old days of their 1970's support for big government crony capitalism.

The new policy may make short-term political sense for the Bush
administration by pleasing its Republican allies in Utah and lobbyists for the
ranching industry. But it's not good for individual ranchers, and it ensures
more bitter range wars in the future. If environmentalists can't spend their
money on land, they'll just spend it on lawyers.

Here is Mr. Hedden's site at the Grand Canyon Trust, which unfortunately seems to support lobbying for government coercion at least as much as market-based solutions.

Hat tip to Nature Noted, a great blog on land trusts.