Green Infrastructure: Pass It and Then We’ll See What’s in It

POLITICS & POLICY
Students take part in a “youth strike to act on climate change” demonstration in Nice, France, March 15, 2019. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)
The modern Beltway Republican Party deserves a healthy measure of blame for our arrival at the cusp of massively destructive climate-policy implementation.

With the August recess imminent, the congressional Democrats are desperate to spend huge sums of other people’s money, and “infrastructure” is as useful a rhetorical vehicle for that purpose as any. With their innumerable constituencies’ long wish lists hardly a secret, an infinitely elastic definition of “infrastructure” is a virtue born of necessity, one manifestation of which, simultaneously amusing and revealing, is the proposed “infrastructure” expansion of Medicare to include dental, vision, and hearing coverage. This “infrastructure” sleight of hand applies a fortiori to the “green” demands of environmentalist pressure groups; after all, “infrastructure” traditionally means roads, bridges, airports, water projects, and other such public investments in physical capital assets almost always opposed by left-wing environmentalists.

I shunt aside here the deeply dubious “crisis” description of the physical state of U.S. public infrastructure, and the issue of whether such investments ought primarily to be a federal or state/local responsibility. Suffice it to say that traditional infrastructure spending is classic political pork, the benefits of which are substantially local while the costs are spread across current and future taxpayers writ large. Nor is it necessary to delineate the division of such green provisions between the “bipartisan” $1.2 trillion (of which $579 billion is new spending) bill to be passed with 60-plus votes in the Senate, and the $3.5 trillion (at last count) “reconciliation” bill intended to be passed with 50 Democratic votes, plus the tiebreaker from Vice President Harris. (Note that these dollar figures almost certainly are underestimates driven by assumptions ranging from dubious to dishonest.) What is fascinating is that the dollar figures have been delineated by the various politicians and reported by the journalists with great specificity, while the “green” provisions themselves are a mystery. No one — not the drafters of the bill, not the negotiators, not the congressional leadership, not the Biden administration — knows what those provisions are or will be, or what they will cost, after the sausage machine is done grinding and then departs the Beltway.

But we do know that the climate left is a sizeable dimension of the Democratic coalition vociferous, unappeasable, utterly ideological and anti-human in its opposition to fossil fuels — an opposition that has virtually nothing to do with the “environment” — and invincible in its ignorance. And so it is no accident, as Pravda used to put it, that the climate imperative — opposition to fossil fuels — is the central thrust of the forthcoming “green” provisions of the infrastructure legislation, even given the enormous black box that for now prevents a detailed examination of those proposals.

At a macro level, the central “green” provisions of the forthcoming infrastructure legislation are not difficult to foresee. “Green infrastructure” means climate coercion above all else, as a policy tool with which to achieve a purported 50 percent reduction in U.S. GHG emissions by 2030, and net-zero emissions by 2050. Accordingly, the legislation will include a “clean electricity standard,” massive subsidies for electric vehicles and charging infrastructure, more electrification of buildings, a “civilian climate corps” performing make-believe “work” while on the federal payroll, and ever-more mandates, subsidies, and central planning. The discussion in this piece is limited to the clean-electricity standard and the EV subsidies, because the specifics and costs of the others are too ambiguous to allow a rigorous examination.

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Clean Electricity Standard. This would be an effort massively to retire conventional (coal, natural gas, and nuclear) power-generation capacity prematurely in favor of ever-more wind and solar power. The description of such a substitution as “clean” is classic disinformation, as it ignores the huge problems of toxic metal pollution, wildlife destruction, noise and flicker effects, massive and unsightly land use, toxic leakage in landfills, the unavoidable heavy-metal pollution from the production and disposal of large (and expensive) battery systems, and the surprisingly sizeable emissions of conventional pollutants and GHG from coal- and natural-gas backup generation needed to overcome the unreliability of wind and solar power caused by the intermittency of wind and sunlight.

That intermittency is only the beginning of the reliability problem. Most U.S. generating capacity is alternating current (AC) and must be synchronized at 60 Hertz. Because generation from wind and solar units cannot be ramped up and down in response to disequilibria in power frequencies in a grid, conventional units must be used to regulate those frequencies or the grid will prove unstable, resulting in outages. As surely as the sun rises in the east, the environmental left will oppose investment in such conventional backup capacity on “climate” grounds. Instead, it will favor the expansion of a “smart grid,” with “smart” meters allowing the government to track each customer’s power consumption in real time, thus facilitating the rationing of power supplies artificially limited by the “green” climate ideology; it will not prove surprising when such rationing is used to favor some constituencies over others. It was no accident — we return to the realm of Pravda — that authorities in Texas (Texas!) adjusted some customers’ thermostats remotely during a recent heat wave. Can anyone believe that shortages of “green” power will fail to engender similar rationing nationally? Or that such rationing will be driven heavily by political incentives and pressures?

Just as such perversities are an unavoidable effect of energy central planning, so are skyrocketing costs. Ignore the ongoing propaganda campaign maintaining the fiction that wind and solar power now are cost competitive with conventional electricity. Such deceptive cost calculations ignore the subsidies, guaranteed market shares, and the myriad other subventions bestowed upon wind and solar power, the cost of the backup capacity and generation without which a renewable system cannot work, the doubled or tripled costs of far larger transmission systems, the cost of land, the costs of the environmental damage caused by renewables, and on and on. That is why the environmental left and the wind and solar lobbies argue simultaneously that wind and solar power are cost competitive and that the subsidies for wind and solar power should never end. That is why California power prices are (barely) second only to those of Connecticut in the lower 48 states, despite the fact that federal subsidies allow California to shift a substantial part of the costs of its “green” electricity policies onto taxpayers in other states. My conservative estimate of the extra direct costs of a “net-zero” U.S. power system is about $500 billion per year, or about $4,000 annually per U.S. household.

Unsurprisingly, the costs to be imposed upon Americans are far from uniform or random. Climate policy centrally is an effort to penalize the use of conventional energy; states with more intensive consumption and/or production of fossil fuels would bear disproportionate costs. The Obama “Clean Power Plan,” the implementation of which was stayed by the Supreme Court, at its core was an effort to force states into regional cap-and-trade GHG power-system emissions limitations systems, in which the dominant payment pattern for emissions credits almost certainly would have been payments from red states to blue ones, as it is red states with energy profiles (Tables 7 and 8) exhibiting greater GHG intensity of energy use.

My estimate of the annual state-by-state per-household cost of a net-zero GHG electricity emissions policy (“Green New Deal”) ranges from about $230 for Vermont to $17,150 for Wyoming. The ten states that would bear the lowest costs: Vermont, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Maine, and New Jersey. The ten that would bear the highest costs: Wyoming, West Virginia, North Dakota, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Texas. Back to Pravda: Is that pattern an accident? And ignore President Biden’s stance that the GND “is not my plan.” Both the GND and the Biden policy are efforts to achieve net-zero U.S. GHG emissions by 2050; they are identical at their core.

Electric Vehicles. EVs have poor range, particularly in cold climates, long charging times, and other major disadvantages. Such physical realities cannot be overcome with massive subsidies. EVs are not viable for the agricultural sector, for people with lengthy commutes, and for many others who would be forced to pay higher prices for conventional vehicles to subsidize EV purchases by urban residents. And do not let the “zero emissions” label fool you: EVs create their own set of massive environmental problems, among which are the emissions from producing these vehicles and from the power generation needed to charge their batteries. There is also the “rare earth” and other toxic metal pollution attendant upon the production of the batteries, the massive disposal problem for the batteries at the end of their useful lives, and on and on. EVs are anything but “clean.”

The Biden administration is in the process of writing a regulation allowing California to impose its vehicle mileage rules — that is, its GHG emissions standard — upon the rest of the country. That this favor for California is clearly illegal under the explicit terms of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act is of no concern to the administration, and it is obvious that some judges will be happy to ignore that statutory language. An EV mandate driven by the California “zero-emissions” vehicle requirements, by making personal and business transportation much more costly and difficult, would, over time, create a household and business location shift away from rural, exurban, and suburban regions toward urban centers. More fundamentally, it would serve the broader leftist goal of making massive numbers of ordinary people ever more dependent on government, by making personal transportation vastly more difficult. Mark my words: If ever there is developed an EV that satisfies consumer preferences in terms of range, charging times, convenience, etc. — an EV that actually can take people where they choose to go — the environmental left will find reasons to oppose them, precisely because the central leftist goal is an expansion of government coercion rather than any (illusory) dimension of environmental improvement.

And speaking of the ostensible “climate” objectives of “green infrastructure” spending: Why do no journalists ask what the future climate impacts would be? Is that not an obvious benefit/cost question? Let us apply the EPA climate model under a set of assumptions that exaggerate the future effects of reductions in GHG emissions. The global temperature reduction by 2100 attendant upon the Biden net-zero proposals: 0.173 degrees C. The Paris agreement, if taken seriously (it is not): 0.17 degrees C. An immediate and permanent 50 percent GHG emissions cut by China: 0.184 degrees C. A global GHG cut of 50 percent: 0.687 degrees C. The impacts on sea levels and other climate parameters similarly would be very close to zero, and indeed barely detectable given the normal variation in global temperatures and other climate phenomena. Note that these modeling projections are independent of one’s views of the evidence on the climate “crisis” or any of the other scientific controversies.

Criticize all you choose the Democrats generally and the environmental left specifically for the endless perversities of “green infrastructure”/climate policy. But the modern Republican Party in the Beltway deserves a healthy measure of blame for our arrival at the cusp of massively destructive climate-policy implementation. The GOP stance for years has been “You can’t beat something with nothing,” an orientation guaranteed to yield endless GOP negotiations with themselves. Once the GOP endorses climate policies, it implicitly endorses the “crisis” narrative — why else would an alternative GOP climate stance be needed? — which means that no cost is too high and no benefit is too small. The reality is that “You can’t beat something by accepting the assumptions of the climate left.” The time is long past to look beyond the infrastructure pork temptations and instead to point out repeatedly the actual facts — they are not rocket science — and to fight and fight hard against the totalitarian implications of what might very well pass Congress soon.

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