One Idea from Rio+20: Investing in Green Infrastructure

Twenty years ago, world leaders gathered in Rio de Janeiro to grapple with climate change, biological diversity, and other environmental challenges. Today they are back again, but with much less fanfare. If my Twitter feed is any indication, Rio+20 is getting much less attention that the original Earth Summit.

One item that deserves attention is greater emphasis on getting business involved in protecting the environment. For example, two dozen leading businesses–from Alcoa to Xerox–teamed up with The Nature Conservancy on a vision for The New Business Imperative: Valuing Natural Capital (interactive, pdf).

The report lays out the business case that natural resources have real economic value, even if they aren’t traded in markets, and that protecting them can sometimes reduce costs, maintain supplies, soften the blow of future regulation, and build goodwill with customers, communities, and workers. All kind of obvious, at one level, but nonetheless useful to see in print with examples and commitments.

One item that caught my eye is the potential for “green” infrastructure to replace “gray”:

Strong, reliable manmade (“gray”) infrastructure undergirds a healthy marketplace, and most companies depend heavily on it to operate effectively and efficiently. Yet increasingly, companies are seeing the enormous potential for “natural infrastructure” in the form of wetlands and forests, watersheds and coastal habitats to perform many of the same tasks as gray infrastructure — sometimes better and more cheaply.

For instance, investing in protection of coral reefs and mangroves can provide a stronger barrier to protect coastal operations against flooding and storm surge during extreme weather, while inland flooding can be reduced by strategic investments in catchment forests, vegetation and marshes. Forests are also crucial for maintaining usable freshwater sources, as well as for naturally regulating water flow.

Putting funds into maintaining a wetland near a processing or manufacturing plant can be a more cost- effective way of meeting regulatory requirements than building a wastewater treatment facility, as evidenced by the Dow Chemical Seadrift, Texas facility, where a 110-acre constructed wetland provides tertiary wastewater treatment of five million gallons a day. While the cost of a traditional “gray”treatment installation averages >$40 million, Dow’s up-front costs were just $1.4 million.

For companies reliant on agricultural systems, improved land management of forests and ecosystems along field edges and streams, along with the introduction of more diversified and resilient sustainable agriculture systems, can minimize dependency on external inputs like artificial fertilizers, pesticides and blue irrigation water.

To encourage such investments, where they make sense, lawmakers and regulators need to focus on performance–is the wastewater getting clean?–rather than the use of specific technologies or construction.

What Role for Natural Gas in Transportation?

Will natural gas ever catch on as an important transportation fuel?

Yes, argues MIT Professor Christopher Knittel, in a new discussion paper for the Hamilton Project. Given the now-enormous spread between gasoline and natural gas prices, Knittel thinks that natural gas vehicles should become increasingly popular. Here, for example, are his calculations of the lifetime operating costs for various vehicles using gasoline or natural gas (click to enlarge, and be sure to read the caveat in the footnote): 

As you would expect, the biggest potential savings accrue to the most fuel-guzzling vehicles, heavy-duty trucks in particular.

Knittel does not believe, however, that the private market will exploit this potential as fast or extensively as it should. He thus proposes policies to accelerate refueling infrastructure build-out and to encourage natural gas vehicles. Here’s his abstract:

Technological advances in horizontal drilling deep underground have led to large-scale discoveries of natural gas reserves that are now economical to access. This, along with increases in oil prices, has fundamentally changed the relative price of oil and natural gas in the United States. As of December 2011, oil was trading at a 500 percent premium over natural gas. This ratio has a number of policy goals related to energy. Natural gas can replace oil in transportation through a number of channels. However, the field between natural gas as a transportation fuel and petroleum-based fuels is not level. Given this uneven playing field, left to its own devices, the market is unlikely to lead to an efficient mix of petroleum- and natural gas-based fuels. This paper presents a pair of policy proposals designed to increase the nation’s energy security, decrease the susceptibility of the U.S. economy to recessions caused by oil-price shocks, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. First, I propose improving the natural gas fueling infrastructure in homes, at local distribution companies, and along long-haul trucking routes. Second, I offer steps to promote the use of natural gas vehicles and fuels.

His “steps to promote the use of natural gas vehicles and fuels” are subsidies and regulations. Regular readers will recall that I believe environmental taxes would be a better way of addressing environmental concerns and, in particular, of promoting natural gas over gasoline. Of course, that view hasn’t gained much traction among policymakers. As least not yet.

When Should You Stop Looking for a Possibly-Extinct Species?

When you’ve found two of everything else.

That’s the conclusion of a fascinating, if disappointing, paper about the ivory-billed woodpecker in the latest issue of Conservation Biology. Most experts believe the “Lord God” bird was driven to extinction in the middle of the twentieth century. Occasional reports of sightings, however, have kept some hope alive. A report from Arkansas in 2004, for example, inspired detailed censuses of several areas with promising habitat. Sadly, no unambiguous evidence of IBWPs appeared.

Which raises an important question: when should you stop looking? Nicholas, J. Gotelli, Anne Chao, Robert K. Colwell, Wen-Han Hwang, and Gary R. Graves used statistics and cost-benefit analysis to derive a simple stopping rule:

We evaluated whether the census efforts at these localities were sufficient to discover an Ivory-billed Woodpecker if it had been present and derived a practical stopping rule for deciding when to abandon the search in a particular site. An efficient stopping rule that incorporates rewards of discovery and costs of additional sampling should be triggered at the smallest sample size q satisfying f1/q < c/R, where f1 is the number of singletons (species observed exactly once during a census), c is the cost of making a single observation, and R is the reward for detecting each previously undetected species (Rasmussen & Starr 1979). Because R for an Ivory-billed Woodpecker is extremely large relative to c, c/R is close to zero. Thus, a simple, empirical stopping rule is to stop searching when each observed species is represented by at least 2 individuals in the sample (f1= 0). The same stopping rule can be derived independently from theorems originally developed by Turing and Good for cryptographic analyses (Good 1953, 2000). Both derivations imply that when f1= 0, the probability of detecting a new species approaches zero. We applied this stopping rule to the census data for the set of species that regularly winter in bottomland forest, such as the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which was sedentary and occupied year-round territories.

According to that stopping rule, the search should be called off at one location (Congaree River, South Carolina) and is close to hopeless in the other three (Choctawhatchee River, Florida; Pearl River, Louisiana and Mississippi; and Pascagoula River, Mississippi).

Based on these and other data, the authors conclude that the probability that ivory-billed woodpeckers still inhabit the southeastern United States are less than 1 in 10,000.

The Natural Gas Glut is Reshaping Electricity Markets

Over at Bloomberg, Julie Johnsson and Mark Chediak document how low natural gas prices are reshaping electricity markets. Wind, nuclear, and coal all look expensive compared to natural gas generation:

 With abundant new supplies of gas making it the cheapest option for new power generation, the largest U.S. wind-energy producer, NextEra Energy Inc. (NEE), has shelved plans for new U.S. wind projects next year and Exelon Corp. (EXC) called off plans to expand two nuclear plants. Michigan utility CMS Energy Corp. (CMS) canceled a $2 billion coal plant after deciding it wasn’t financially viable in a time of “low natural-gas prices linked to expanded shale-gas supplies,” according to a company statement.

Mirroring the gas market, wholesale electricity prices have dropped more than 50 percent on average since 2008, and about 10 percent during the fourth quarter of 2011, according to a Jan. 11 research report by Aneesh Prabhu, a New York-based credit analyst with Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC. Prices in the west hub of PJM Interconnection LLC, the largest wholesale market in the U.S., declined to about $39 per megawatt hour by December 2011 from $87 in the first quarter of 2008.

Power producers’ profits are deflated by cheap gas because electricity pricing historically has been linked to the gas market. As profit margins shrink from falling prices, more generators are expected to postpone or abandon coal, nuclear and wind projects, decisions that may slow the shift to cleaner forms of energy and shape the industry for decades to come, Mark Pruitt, a Chicago-based independent industry consultant, said in a telephone interview.

The hard question, of course, is whether low natural gas prices will persist, particularly if everyone decides to rush into gas-fired generation:

“The way to make $4 gas $8 gas is for everyone to go out and build combined-cycle natural-gas plants,” Michael Morris, non-executive chairman of American Electric Power (AEP) Inc., said at an industry conference in November. “We need to be cautious about how we go about this.”

The whole article is worth a read if you follow these issues. (ht: Jack B.)

Oil and Natural Gas Prices Move Even Further Apart

In 2010, I wrote a series of posts documenting how oil and natural prices had decoupled from each other (see here and here). For many years, oil prices (as measured in $ per barrel) were typically 6 to 12 times natural gas prices (as measured in $ per MMBtu). That ratio blew out to around 20 in 2009 and again in 2010, a severe break with historical trends.

At the time, that seemed like an enormous disparity between the two prices. In retrospect, we hadn’t seem anything yet. As of yesterday, the ratio stood at more than 33:

A barrel of oil has roughly 6 times the energy content of a MMBtu of natural gas. If the fuels were perfect substitutes, oil prices would thus tend to be about 6 times natural gas prices. In practice, however, the ease of using oil for making gasoline means that oil is more valuable. So oil has usually traded higher.

But the current ratio is unprecedented. Each Btu of oil is now worth about five times as much as each Btu of natural gas. Thanks to a torrent of new supply, natural gas prices are down at $3.00 per MMBtu even as oil (as measured by the WTI price) has risen back above the $100 per barrel mark.

Perhaps natural gas vehicles will be the wave of the future?

Note: Energy price aficionados will note that I’ve used the WTI price in these calculations. That used to be straightforward and unobjectionable. Now, however, we have to worry about another pricing discrepancy: WTI is very cheap relative to similar grades of oil on the world market (for background, see this post). For example, Brent crude closed Monday around $112 per barrel, well above the $101 WTI price. Brent prices are relevant to many U.S. oil consumers. There’s a good argument, therefore, that my chart understates how much the price ratio has moved. 

What Should We Do With Higher Gas Tax Revenues?

Most of the economics bloggers I know favor higher gasoline taxes. Not immediately, of course, given our economic weakness. But eventually because of environmental and national security concerns.

As noted yesterday, Tim Kane of the Kauffman Foundation does a quarterly survey of economics bloggers. This time around, Tim included a question from me about the federal gas tax. Specifically, what would economics bloggers do with the money from a higher gasoline tax? (While allowing for the possibility that some don’t want it to go up.)

Here are their responses:

(Note: The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon; state gas taxes average another 30 cents, according to the American Petroleum Institute.)

As Tim notes in the full survey, “bloggers seem to love the gas tax.” Almost 85% of respondents supported a higher gasoline tax of which fully half would use the money for infrastructure spending. The remainder would use the money for deficit reduction or to reduce other taxes.

Taxes and Energy Policy

Last week I had the opportunity to testify before two Ways and Means subcommittees–Select Revenue Measures and Oversight–about the way our tax system is used as a tool of energy policy. Here are my opening remarks. You can find my full testimony here.

As you know, our tax system is desperately in need of reform. It’s needlessly complex, economically harmful, and often unfair. Because of a plethora of temporary tax cuts, it’s also increasingly unpredictable.

We can and should do better.

The most promising path to reform is to reexamine the many tax preferences in our code. For decades, lawmakers have used the tax system not only to raise revenues to pay for government activities, but also to pursue a broad range of social and economic policies. These policies touch many aspects of life, including health insurance, home ownership, retirement saving, and the topic of today’s hearing, energy production and use.

These preferences often support important policy goals, but they have a downside. They narrow the tax base, reduce revenues, distort economic activity, complicate the tax system, force tax rates to be higher than they otherwise would be, and are often unfair. Those concerns have prompted policymakers and analysts across the political spectrum—including, most notably, the Bowles-Simpson commission—to recommend that tax preferences be cut back. The resulting revenue could then be used to lower tax rates, reduce future deficits, or some combination of the two.

In considering such proposals, lawmakers should consider how tax reform, fiscal concerns, and energy policy interact.  Six factors are particularly important.

  • Our tax system needs a fundamental overhaul. Every tax provision, including those related to energy, deserves close scrutiny to determine whether its benefits exceed its costs. Such a review will reveal that many tax preferences should be reduced, redesigned, or eliminated.
  • The code includes numerous energy tax preferences. The Treasury Department, for example, recently identified 25 types of energy preferences worth about $16 billion in 2011. These include incentives for renewable energy sources, traditional fossil fuel sources, and energy efficiency. In addition, energy companies are also eligible for several tax preferences that are available more broadly, such as the domestic production credit.
  • Tax subsidies are an imperfect way of pursuing energy and environmental policy goals. Such subsidies do encourage greater use of targeted energy resources. But, as I discuss in greater detail in my written testimony, they do so in an economically wasteful manner. Subsidies require, for example, that the government play a substantial role in picking winners and losers among energy technologies. The associated revenue losses also require higher taxes or larger deficits.
  • A key political challenge for reform is that energy tax subsidies are often viewed as tax cuts. It makes more sense, however, to view them as spending through the tax code. Reducing such subsidies would make the government smaller even though tax revenues, as conventionally measured, would increase.
  • Tax subsidies are not created equal. Production incentives reward businesses for producing desired energy and are agnostic about what mix of capital, labor, and materials firms use to accomplish that. Investment incentives, in contrast, reward businesses merely for making qualifying investments and encourage firms to use relatively more capital than labor. For both reasons, production incentives tend to be more efficient than investment incentives.
  • Well-designed taxes can typically address the negative effects of energy use more effectively and at lower cost than can tax subsidies. I understand that higher gasoline taxes or a new carbon tax are not popular ideas in many circles, but please bear with me. As I explain at length in my written testimony, well-designed energy taxes are a much more pro-market way of addressing energy concerns than are tax subsidies. Taxes take full advantage of market forces and, in so doing, can accomplish policy goals at least cost and with minimal government intervention. Subsidies, in contrast, make much less use of market forces and inevitably require the government to pick winners and losers. Energy taxes also generate revenue that lawmakers can use to cut other taxes or to reduce deficits.

P.S. Not surprisingly, that last point wasn’t picked up by anyone else, at least during my panel (one of three at the hearing). New energy taxes would, of course, be problematic for the macroeconomy if enacted immediately. And we’d have to make some adjustment, either in the tax code or in benefit programs, to offset the impact on low-income families. In the long-run, however, I think that would be a much better way to address many energy concerns, including carbon emissions and oil dependence. But that’s not the way our system works. Instead, as noted, it’s much more popular to use tax preferences, whose benefits are visible and whose costs are obscure, to pursue energy and environmental goals. Other participants discussed the particular incentives, existing and proposed, in greater detail; their testimony is available here.

Congestion Pricing Saves Time and Money

The Highway Trust Fund will soon be broke. Gasoline tax revenues haven’t kept up with spending, and it’s likely that demands for new highway infrastructure will grow in the future.

Joseph Kile, head of the microeconomics studies division at the Congressional Budget Office, discussed various policy options to deal with this funding gap in his testimony to the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday. Most news coverage of Joe’s testimony emphasized his suggestion that taxes based on miles traveled, rather than gasoline consumption, might be a better way to finance America’s highways. After all, miles traveled is, along with weight, the primary driver of wear and tear on the roads. And it’s a decent proxy for the benefit that drivers get from having functioning roads.

That’s an interesting idea, but I’d like to highlight another important point that Joe made: the amount of infrastructure America should build depends very much on how we price it.

If a six-lane highway gets congested, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to build new lanes or lay out parallel roads.

We could charge congestion fees instead. That would discourage driving at peak times and thus speed traffic without new construction. That’s what London and Singapore famously do to limit traffic in their downtowns. And it’s something we should more here in the United States.

Joe reports estimates from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) that congestion pricing could decrease highway spending needs by 25 to 33 percent:

The federal government spent about $43 billion on highway investment in 2010. To maintain the same quality of highway performance would require an average of $57 billion in annual federal spending in coming years, according to the FHWA. That price tag drops to only $38 billion, however, if we make good use of congestion pricing. Congestion pricing would thus save federal taxpayers almost $20 billion per year; state and local governments would save even more, since they pay for more than half the costs of these projects.

Congestion pricing can make our roadways work better, save Americans precious time, and reduce federal, state, and local budget pressures. That a great combination in this time of growing infrastructure needs and tightening budgets.

Can Natural Gas Replace Oil for Diesel?

In a series of posts (most recent here), I’ve noted that oil and natural gas prices have become unhinged from each other. Oil (denominated in $ per barrel) used to trade at 6 to 12 times the price of natural gas (denominated in $ per MMBtu). But lately that ratio has been north of 20, thanks to a surfeit of new gas in the United States (and elsewhere) and, recently, growing global demand for oil.

The wide spread between oil and natural gas prices provides a tempting incentive for any innovators who can figure out how to use natural gas, rather than oil, to make transportation fuels.

Over at the New York Times, Matthew Wald identifies one possibility, using natural gas to produce diesel:

Diesel and jet fuel are usually made from crude oil. But with oil prices rising even as a glut of natural gas keeps prices for that fuel extraordinarily cheap, a bit of expensive alchemy is suddenly starting to look financially appealing: turning natural gas into liquid fuels.

A South African firm, Sasol, announced Monday that it would spend just over 1 billion Canadian dollars to buy a half-interest in a Canadian shale gas field, so it can explore turning natural gas into diesel and other liquids. Sasol’s proprietary conversion technology was developed decades ago to help the apartheid government of South Africa survive an international oil embargo, and it is a refinement of the ones used by the Germans to make fuel for the Wehrmacht during World War II.

The technology takes “a lot of money and a lot of effort,” said Michael E. Webber, associate director of the Center for International Energy Environmental Policy at the University of Texas, Austin. “You wouldn’t do this if you could find easy oil,” he said.

But with the huge spread between oil and gas prices, and predictions of oil topping $100 a barrel next year, the conversion technology could be a “a money-maker for whoever is a first mover in that space.”

Will Budget Concerns Ever Influence Carbon Policy?

Climate change legislation died an ignominious death in the Senate earlier this year. If you’d like to understand why, check out Ryan Lizza’s autopsy of the effort in the latest New Yorker. Lizza documents how the “tripartisan” trio of John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham came up short in their effort to craft a 60-vote coalition in the Senate. Among the bumps along the way:

  • On March 31, President Obama announced a dramatic expansion in offshore waters open for oil and natural gas drilling. In so doing, he gave away one of the sweeteners that the trio was hoping to use to attract pro-drilling senators.
  • On April 15, Fox News reported that, according to “senior administration officials”, the White House was opposing efforts by Senator Graham to increase gasoline taxes. That claim was perverse–the bill didn’t include higher gasoline taxes and Graham certainly wasn’t pushing them–but not surprisingly it created problems for Graham back home.

Lizza’s article is rich with such anecdotes, but it’s the larger picture I’d like to emphasize. Kerry, Lieberman, and Graham adopted a traditional approach to building a Senate coalition. They identified their main goal–comprehensive climate change limits–and then started negotiating with individual Senators and special interests to see how they could get to 60 votes. Nuclear power, electric utilities, oil refiners, home heating oil, even cod fisherman all make an appearance at the bargaining table. But it’s not clear that such horse-trading could ever yield 60 votes.

This failure makes me wonder whether the traditional approach will ever generate a substantive climate bill. I suppose that’s still possible, particularly if the EPA begins to implement a burdensome regulatory approach to limiting carbon emissions. That might bring affected industries running back to the table.

But I would like to suggest another strategy: Perhaps the environmental community should make common cause with the budget worrywarts. In principle, a carbon tax is a powerful two-birds-with-one-stone policy: it cuts carbon emissions and raises money to finance the government. (This is equally true of a cap-and-trade approach in which the government auctions allowances and keeps the proceeds.) Perhaps there’s a future 60-vote coalition that would favor those outcomes even if various energy interests would be opposed?

Such a coalition is unthinkable today. Opposition to energy taxes runs deep, as Senator Graham experienced. But fiscal concerns will continue to grow in coming years, and spending reductions may not be enough to get rising debts under control. If so, maybe we’ll see a day in which a partnership of the greens and the green eyeshades will take a stab at a carbon tax.