One of the most common phrases used to support various environmental policies is "follow the science." This assumes, however, that the science is clear and that the uncertainty in the science is not being influenced by the personal politics of the scientist doing the work or by those interpreting the science. Too often that is not the case.
During the past five years, environmental policy has become one of the centerpieces of every political campaign and is highlighted regularly by elected officials. For the past five years (excluding 2010) the Washington Conservation Voters have chosen their list of "Environmental Priorities" and the Senate Majority has a web page specifically touting their successes during the past five years.
Once the legislation is passed, however, few go back to see if the policies actually achieve the promised results.
During the past five years, the legislature has enacted more than two dozen environmental policies ranging from climate change, to clean water and banning flame-retardant compounds. While these policies receive significant attention while being considered by the legislature, few of them are later audited to determine if they are achieving the intended results.
For Earth Day 2010, we have examined the environmental policies passed by the legislature and governor during the past five years to determine when they have succeeded and when they have failed. The results are mixed, but in too many cases the programs are off track and the policies have either already failed or are likely to fall short. Considered together, these environmental policies are likely to do more damage to the environment than good.
For the fourth year in a row, WWF sponsored Earth Hour, an effort to get people around the world to turn off their lights to symbolically demonstrate the need to use less energy to fight climate change. While the effort is considered symbolic, there are numerous claims that the effort actually saves significant amounts of energy.
For instance, on the Earth Hour Wikipedia page, it is claimed that "Vietnam electricity demand fell 500,000 kWh during Earth Hour 2010," and "The Philippines was able to save 611 MWh of electricity during the time period, and is said to be equivalent to shutting down a dozen coal-fired power plants for an hour," and "Toronto saved 900 megawatt-hours of electricity. 8.7% was saved if measured against a typical March Saturday night."
We examined energy use in Washington state related to Earth Hour to see if these trends were repeated here. We looked at electricity data from various parts of the state and found that energy use actually increased during Earth Hour compared to similar Saturdays and to the Friday and Sunday surrounding the event.
For instance, when looking at energy use during the recent Earth Hour weekend, we found that energy went up on all three days during the 8 p.m. hour, fell during the 9 p.m. hour on Friday and Sunday, but not on the Earth Hour Saturday. Here is the data on the change in energy from 8 p.m., before Earth Hour, and 9 p.m., the middle of Earth Hour (energy data is available by hours, so the actual data covering 8:30-9:30 p.m. is not available):
Change in Usage
Friday, March 26
Saturday March 27 (Earth Hour)
Sunday, March 28
The other issue is whether energy use on every Saturday goes up during that hour when compared to typical Fridays and Sundays. So we also looked at the Saturdays before and after Earth Day. This data covers a separate part of the state, so it doesn't match perfectly. It is very similar, however, indicating that results across the state are alike. Here are the results:
Change in Usage
Saturday, March 20
Saturday, March 27 (Earth Hour)
Saturday, April 3
So, we do use energy later on Saturday than on Friday or Sunday, but the increase in energy use in Washington went up more on the Earth Hour Saturday than either Saturday before or after.
This is more evidence that environmentalism has become as much about symbolism as about sustainability. People feel good that they are making a difference without actually making a difference.
Today's Seattle Times reportsthat the state set aside $15 million from the Asarco settlement to help buy a gravel mine on Maury Island that has been a poster child for Seattle environmental activists. During the past few years, environmental activists have spent huge sums of money suing to stop the creation of a dock to move the gravel off the island. Both Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark and King County Executive Dow Constantine made the issue a centerpiece of their campaigns, promising island residents that they would stop the project.
Politicians and environmental activists claim the dock is environmentally damaging. There's only one problem -- the scientists at the Puget Sound Partnership don't rank this project as a priority.
In their priority list for the South Central Area, the scientists at the Puget Sound Partnershp (PSP) do not mention the dock. Despite that, the state found $15 million to prevent it from being used. By way of comparison, $15 million is larger than the annual protection and restoration budgets for:
DOE - Local Gov't Stormwater Grants - $14
Washington Wildlife and Recreation Grants (WWRP) - $11
DOE – other direct spending - $11
Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) - $10
Puget Sound Partnership (PSP) - $9
Public Works Assistance Account (PWAA) - $5
Department of Natural Resources (DNR) - $4
State Parks - $3
Salmon Recovery Funding Board (SRFB) - $3
Conservation Commission - $2
Aquatic Lands Enhancement Account (ALEA) - $2
While the Maury Island dock is not a priority concern, the PSP does, however, list Quartermaster Harbor, on the other side of Maury Island, sandwiched between Vashon and Maury Islands. Quartermaster Harbor, which is part of a state aquatic reserve, is recognized as one of the most polluted places in the Sound. The Vashon/Maury Island Beachcomber reports that "Research five years ago showed that Quartermaster Harbor hosts the highest concentration in all of Puget Sound of an alga that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning."
The problem is that septic tanks surrounding the Harbor are failing, polluting the harbor. So, what has been done about this problem?
Despite working for years, there has no progress fixing the problem of septic tank failure. Last September the Beachcomber reported "After two years of effort, King County officials have made little headway in a far-reaching attempt to get homeowners along the western shore of outer Quartermaster Harbor to address failing septic systems that are fouling the wildlife-rich bay."
The County doesn't deserve all of the blame, the homeowners are not cooperating and politicians are not anxious to put pressure on voters and donors who helped them during the last campaign. This is a major reason that so much focus has been put on the gravel dock rather than a more significant environmental concern a couple miles away.
The final irony is that while $15 million has been lavished on a non-problem, a group looking to help clean Quartermaster Harbor is begging for volunteers. The Beachcomber reports that "The Puget Sound Restoration Fund, a small, highly regarded nonprofit that is undertaking the mussel research, wants volunteers. Islanders can help them collect native mussels to attach to the raft or even help build the raft."
Today, the legislature will vote on a bill to increase state debt by $500 million, spending the money on a variety of projects on public buildings. As this bill has moved forward, the number of jobs created by the spending has changed, and not in a consistent way.
When the bill was offered initially, it proposed borrowing $850 million to create 38,000 jobs -- a cost of $22,368.42 per job. The bill being offered today has been scaled back by about 40 percent, down to $500 million. The jobs creation estimates, however, were cut by about half that amount, to 30,000 jobs, for a cost of $16,666.67 per job. Since the projects have not been chosen, these numbers are purely estimates, so it is unclear why the cost per job would change. Remember that these numbers include both labor and materials, so not all of this amount goes to workers.
Last month we noted that the basis for job creation claims can be all over the map. When the Governor announced grants to create "green" jobs, the cost per job ranged from $174,063 to $477.
Additionally, although the bill says it will "create jobs quickly," the criteria for submitted grants won't be finished until December 31, 2010. Applications will then be turned in and approved sometime during 2011 with construction to begin after that.
An example of the confusion about jobs, is this discussion from January 13, when the bill was first heard in the Capital Budget Committee. The discussion is interesting because it demonstrates:
- How fast and loose they are with the jobs projections - The tension between efficiency and job creation. Rep. Dunshee claims both that the bill will be extremely efficient, with a high return on investment and claims that it costs more to do these kinds of projects, leading to more jobs.
The Senate is set to take up HB 2561, a bill that would create $850 million in new debt to pay for energy retrofits at schools in Washington. Sponsor Hans Dunshee says the bill has been modified to address concerns about the impact this new debt would have on the state's bond rating.
Those changes, however, won't be unveiled until the hearing. The Tacoma News Tribune reports that Dunshee is "declining to give details until the new plan is rolled out Sunday afternoon at a public hearing." The Special Session is set to end Tuesday, so if the bill is to pass before the deadline, the bill's hidden details will have to be approved today.
Beyond the concerns about transparency, the bill itself is unlikely to deliver the promised results. When it is was released earlier this year, Rep. Dunshee claimed on the House Democrats' blog that it would create:
* 38,000 new jobs * $190 million in energy savings every year * Better, longer-lasting schools * It pays for itself
Our research shows these claims are not based in actual experience.
First, the energy savings estimates are based on a small version of the program that has been around for a decade. Those energy retrofits, however, have not been audited, so projections are based on an estimate of savings, not actual results. The GA estimates first-year savings and then simply extrapolates over the life of the project. As we've noted with green schools, these projections can be wide of the mark and, without audits, they are of questionable reliability. Supporters of the bill claim the numbers are "guaranteed" by the contractor. But the performance is confirmed only for the first year. Contractors are willing to monitor beyond that initial year, but will charge addition fees to do so. An amendment to extend the requirement for audits beyond the first year was killed in the House Capital Committee.
Second, the return on investment of these projects varies widely. Some pay for themselves in about eight years (based on GA's projections), while others take more than 50 years. Some actually increase energy use. For instance, in South Kitsap School District, funding was used to fix a failing HVAC system. The good news is that the school now has air conditioning. The bad news is that the school's energy bill increased. This is certainly an improvement in the quality of the school but basing budget projections on savings from these projects is faulty.
It is also unclear how the bill pays for itself. Rep. Dunshee told the Capital Committee that the State would make no effort to recover the projected energy savings. The state provides the money to the districts, but any energy savings are kept by the district.
Finally, an audit of a similar federal program found a number of problems. The Inspector General of the Department of Energy found, when examining a subset of the projects, that "the Department may risk spending up to $17.3 million more than it will realize in energy savings." They also found that contractors overestimated the savings from projects, increasing the fees they receive, which are calculated based on energy savings. You can read the whole report here.
There are opportunities for the state and school districts to receive savings by upgrading equipment, but not all projects are created equal and some have simply failed to live up to their promise. Ensuring the state gets what it pays for is why we offered the Climate Change Accountability Act (C2A2) this year. Heard in the House Ecology and Parks Committee, the bill would have required contractors on state projects to certify energy savings, refunding a portion of their fee to the state if energy targets were missed. Many of the same contractors who will likely testify in favor of the bill today, testified against the increased monitoring and accountability requirements of C2A2.
Environmental activists have long pushed the myth that eating tuna and some other fish is bad for women due to potentially high levels of mercury. The Washington State Department of Health shows the nuanced approach to this warning. On their web page they give the following advice to women who are or might become pregnant:
Do not eat - shark, swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel, or tuna steaks.
The legislature continues to look at a package of tax increases to close the gap between revenues and their desired level of spending. One of the ideas on the table is a tax increase on refineries which translates to a gas tax increase of 4-6 cents (see note below). The justification for this tax is that the money is needed to fund Puget Sound Cleanup.
Previous funds for Puget Sound cleanup have been shifted to other projects, leaving little for that effort. Rep. Ross Hunter explained why the money keeps getting taken for other things:
“Imagine you had saved up money to do a landscaping project in your back yard, and you had this nice pot of money, and you’re just about ready to start on it, and you get unemployed and you stay unemployed, and it looks like you're going to be unemployed for a while. You know, you might say it might be a good idea to take this money that I have saved up for cleaning up my backyard, and I’d kind of like to have groceries this week. I think that's the kind of the situation the state’s in right now. We’re trying to not do that, but you also have to recognize that you have to prioritize what you do, and maybe doing that in the short run is a better choice than either eliminating all of our college financing for students, or eliminating the kinds of daycare that we provide that allows parents who are coming off welfare to go back to work rather than staying at home.”
Following the analogy the unemployed person should take a loan and fix the yard anyway. Of course the only way legislators can get away with such logic is by believing that they can simply raise taxes anytime to create more money without considering the consequences of those tax increases. Such a mindset is not conducive to setting and keeping priorities.
This attitude also ignores the fact that businesses and families cannot do the same and each dollar lost to taxes cannot simply be made up elsewhere.
This mindset can also be bad for the environment. The state does not currently prioritize environmental expenditures in any systematic way. Environmental priorities are chosen based on their political popularity rather than analyzing which projects will have the greatest environmental benefit for the dollar. As a result, projects that are sexy are "prioritized" while other projects that may have more environmental benefit are ignored.
This year we offered the 2010 Recommendations for Effective Environmental Stewardship which includes a recommendation to analyze the state's environmental projects to see where we can receive the highest benefit for each taxpayer dollar. At a time when resources are scarce, putting funding where it matters most is more thoughtful and responsible than hoping we can continue to raise taxes on job-creators and families without consequence.
So, the Sightline Institute doesn't like my range of 4-6 cents for the cost of this. They argue that the current proposal calls for an increase of 0.85 percent, which, given current prices, is two cents. OK. I agree. It is worth pointing out that this is different from other gas taxes in that it is a percentage and not an actual cost per gallon. Most taxes on gasoline are a fixed cost per gallon. This is a percentage, which means the price will go up if wholesale price goes up.
Really, though, the actual amount is a bit of a distraction since whatever the price is must be justified based on environmental benefit. Neither Sightline nor Ross Hunter have done this, which is the point of my blog entry. Is two cents, or four, or six, justifiable? Who knows because no such effort has been made to determine that other than an assumption that it is. If we truly care about doing what is best for the environment, we should justify expenses based on something more than "good things will happen." Spending money without an idea of the quantity of benefit reduces the funding available for other projects that might have a greater environmental benefit.
Seattle environmental think tank, the Sightline Institute, has a story about a promising new technology, the salmon-goat. I am featured in this article noting that this technology is just as foolhardy as previous proposals:
Todd Myers, environmental director for the right-leaning Washington Policy Center, objected to the development of salmon-goats, arguing that previous hybrids had not yielded their promised benefits for urban agriculture. “Remember the banana-chicken?” said Myers, “In the 1990s environmentalists said the banana-chicken would solve ozone depletion, and look where that got us."
Opposing the banana-chicken was the right policy then. It is still the right policy today.
Today, Governor Gregoire announced $16.5 million in grants for "for energy efficiency, clean technology, transportation and bioenergy programs throughout the state." The package of grants, she claimed, "supports and creates more than 2,000 living wage jobs." A closer look at the project reveals that the definition of "living wage" is fairly flexible.
As a kid, I wore number 27 in the blue and white, just like Darryl Sitler. As a goalie, I idolized Ken Dryden and read Jacque Plante's book. I still have a broken stick from Gilles Meloche I got when I was six. I can identify Don Cherry by sight.
Despite my love for hockey, and Canadian hockey players, I don't idolize Canada as much as Alan Durning of the Seattle environmental think tank, the Sightline Institute. He wrote a piece recently demonstrating the fundamental difference greens and free-market advocates have in our views about the relationship between people and the government. And it says a great deal about why the environmental left keeps trying to impose policies that fail time and again.
At the Sightline blog, Durning writes that Canada has a superior system of government, which he says is more "democratic" than the approach we followed with the creation of the US Senate. The evidence of their system's superiority is its ability to pass laws. He uses BC's decision on the carbon tax as evidence:
"An example: British Columbia’s leaders announced a carbon tax shift in February 2008, enacted it in May, and began collecting it in July. This speed and decisiveness would have been impossible in any of the Northwest states."
He goes on to say that "Canada rules, because of Canada’s rules for making rules." The criteria he uses to assess the success of a political system is its ability to impose rules on the public.
Is that really what we want in a government?
First, he mistakenly calls a parliamentary system more "democratic" than our system. A cursory look shows this is false. A parliamentary majority can be earned with a fraction of the nationwide or provincial vote. A parliamentary system only requires that one party win a majority of seats. Those seats are won by receiving a plurality, not majority, in a district. Thus, a party can theoretically win a majority of seats, and control of the federal government, without winning a majority of the vote in ANY of its individual seats. For instance, in the 2005 UK elections, the Labor Party won 55 percent of the seats in Parliament, but received only 35.2 percent of the national vote. The Conservatives won 45 percent fewer seats despite receiving only three percent fewer votes nationally.
Second, the reason BC was quick to enact the carbon tax was that one party controlled government, a feature Durning likes. One party controls government in our state's capital and it doesn't seem to be speeding things along.
Finally, systems of government are not created to make life easy for politicians. Instead, they are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed to promote life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There are many systems where speed of decision-making is put ahead of those goals and the results are frequently less positive.
In his 2004 book "The Logic of Political Survival," Stanford professor Bruce Bueno de Mesquita notes that Presidential systems are best at promoting peace and prosperity. Analyzing data going back a century from countries across the world, Mesquita notes that countries where the national leaders must face a national vote do best. Parliamentary systems do well, but are not as prosperous or free as Presidential systems like ours. He says, that dictators are the worst for "promoting peace, prosperity, and human dignity, while representative democracy, especially with direct election of the head of government, appears to be the best yet invented to achieve those ends." The book is an excellent empirical analysis of how governments actually perform.
Environmental activists emphasize policies that impose lifestyle changes, feeling that if only people would live the way politicians want, everything would work out. As a result, they look for political systems that facilitate the process of imposing rules. This approach, however, is a failure. Politicians promote mass transit, but bus and light rail ridership consistently falls well below projections.
Those of us who believe in the free market, on the other hand, emphasize the goals of prosperity and freedom for people. As Mesquita's research shows, the American Presidential system is the best for those ends. Better yet, prosperity is the best tool to promote environmental sustainability. As America has become more prosperous, our air and water has become cleaner and energy efficiency has dramatically improved.
I like to have the best of both worlds: I idolize Canadian hockey players and advocate the American Presidential, free-market system.
We have not engaged this session on the campaign by the Washington Conservation Voters and Washington Toxics Coalition to ban bisphenol A (BPA) largely because such campaigns are built around emotion not science. As we noted yesterday, politicians were literally kissing babies at the ceremony to ban BPA. The campaigns against PBDEs and thimerosol were run in much the same way.
Last week we called on supporters of the ban to track its results to determine if the human illnesses they claim BPA is causing, actually decline during the next decade. That suggestion drew this response from a supporter of the ban:
If you're skeptical, maybe the WPC will fund a self-study in which you can swallow a teaspoon a day of BPA for a year, then report back one [sic] how it worked out for you.
This demonstrates how science-free the campaign against BPA is. Studies show that the high end of the public's exposure to BPA is one-tenth of a microgram per kilogram per day. One teaspoon is about 5 grams, or about 50 million times more, per kilogram, than the high end of actual exposure. Since I weigh about 86 kilograms, the BPA dosage the commenter wants me to eat is 580,000 times more than the upper end of real-world exposure.
By way of comparison, the maximum recommended daily intake of salt is 2,400 mg. To match in salt the BPA dosage the commenter recommends, he would have to eat more than 3,000 lbs of salt every day! My guess is that eating that much salt would have a more negative impact on his health than my swallowing 1 tsp of BPA a day.
The argument offered by the commenter, and many who called for the BPA ban, requires ignoring basic scientific precepts like the level of exposure. This is a common game in these types of campaigns and demonstrates that the efforts are not based in science but are simply eco-fads.
We will almost certainly see another effort next year to ban some compound deemed dangerous to children, and the campaign will certainly feature photos of babies. It will also certainly feature the same kind of unscientific claims made by the commenter.
Governor Gregoire today signed a ban on bisphenol A (BPA),a compound used in plastics such as beverage containers. Both the Washington Conservation Voters and the Washington Toxics Coalition praised the signing, arguing that BPA hurts children.
The Toxics Coalition even tweeted that politicians at the signing were "kissing babies (no joke)." Indeed that style of politics has typified the campaign against BPA, and in today's press release, one advocate said "Chemicals like BPA have no place in consumer products, especially those used by children..."
So, what now?
Advocates of the ban claimed all manner of impacts to children from BPA, as they have in previous campaigns. A Washington Toxics Coalition fact sheet claims that "Laboratory studies have linked BPA to cancer, miscarriage, obesity, reproductive problems, and hyperactivity." These impacts are seen, they claim, "at extremely low exposure levels."
This provides an opportunity to test the accuracy of those claims. Beginning next July, BPA is banned in beverage containers for children under age three. Over the next decade we should theoretically see a reduction exposure levels and, therefore, miscarriage, obesity, reproductive problems and hyperactivity. But that hasn't always been the way it has worked out.
After claims that autism was associated with a vaccine preservative called thimerosal, California banned it. A study found that even after it was banned, autism rates continued to climb. The AP noted "Researchers from the state Department of Public Health found the autism rate in children rose continuously during the 12-year study period from 1995 to 2007. The preservative thimerosal [a form of mercury] has not been used in childhood vaccines since 2001, but it is used in some flu shots."
If the Washington ToxicsCoalition and the Washington Conservation Voters care about helping children, and not just appearing to help children, they will measure the impact of these bills as time goes on and be honest about the results. Doing so is the best way to ensure that we are truly doing what is best for children. If BPA is harmful, the data will show it. If it is not, then they should support restoring itrather than risking impact from whatever compound replaces it. It may be embarrassing to admit they were wrong, but if their campaign is truly for the health of children, that is a small price to pay. We'll see what they do.
Monday's Seattle Times wrote about the Bullitt Foundation's effort to create the "greenest building ever." The Times reports the Foundation is running into problems. Government regulations are hindering progress and the City of Seattle is having to waive some rules. This led to an unintentionally honest assessment of the City's regulation:
"We haven't actually gone down this road before," said Sally Clark, who chairs the Seattle City Council's land-use committee. "Most [regulatory] systems are not built for innovation."
Truer words were never spoken and they exemplify the problems with politically designed approaches to environmental sustainability. Innovation, such as hybrid vehicles and improved energy efficiency, has been the driving force in improving environmental health. Regulations impede that progress and narrow the options available to find new environmental solutions.
The irony is that politicians in Seattle and Olympia don't take that lesson from these examples. For them, the answer to too much government is more government. They add new regulations and government programs in the hope that such efforts will guide us to a sustainable future. As the new Bullitt Foundation building demonstrates, however, innovation thrives in an environment with fewer rules and more intellectual freedom.
Making regulation the centerpiece of environmental policy undermines the very freedom needed to promote innovation.