Free market environmentalism

AlfedPalmersmokestacksI believe in the power of markets.

I believe in environmental protection.

I believe in limited government.

Can those beliefs be reconciled?

I believe they can, even though environmental problems are often seen, correctly, as a form of market failure. We can’t allow businesses or individuals to pollute public goods such as rivers, or the air, or the earth’s atmosphere. The question is, how do we best correct those failures?

My preference is for strong and simple regulation or taxation, designed to (1) recognize the power of competitive markets to generate wealth and aggregate information to devise the best solutions to problems and (2) minimize, as much as possible, the ability of powerful interests to game the system, i.e., crony capitalism.

These are, obviously, complicated questions, perhaps best left to environmental economists. But I took a crack at the issue of clean energy policy in a column just published by Ensia, a lively, online environmental magazine published by the by the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota.

The column ran under the headline A Market-Friendly Approach to Energy. Here’s how it begins:

The world needs clean energy. Clean energy subsidies? Maybe not.

Consider the Fisker Karma, an electric car with a base price of $95,900.  A friend of mine bought one. He earned $7 million last year, and took advantage of a $7,500 U.S. federal tax credit available to buyers of electric cars.

Fisker itself got government help, too, in the form of $192 million from the U.S. Department of Energy. So did A123 Systems, which sold battery packs to Fisker; it got $129 million in energy department grants and another $125 million in tax credits and grants from the state of Michigan.

None of this helped Fisher, A123 or, more importantly, the planet.

The column goes on to argue against the vast array of subsidies to clean energy and fossil fuels favored today by the federal government and many states, and instead proposes a carbon tax. (Ideally, a revenue-neutral carbon tax.) A carbon tax would discourage dirty energy and promote  clean energy, without favoring solar or wind or biofuels or nuclear or electric cars.

The column concludes:

…Contrary to popular wisdom, we don’t need a comprehensive national energy policy any more than we need a comprehensive food strategy to stock supermarket shelves or a comprehensive laptop strategy to keep Apple or Dell in business. What markets do very well is separate winners from losers. As the economist Michael Giberson put it: “When values are diverse and knowledge is dispersed, letting a thousand energy strategies bloom really is the best approach.” To do that, we have to get the government out of the way.

You can read the rest here. While you’re at it, take a look at the excellent journalism being published by Ensia.

GE and Washington: Too cozy?

Since 2004, when I wrote a story for FORTUNE called Money and Morals at GE , I have been an admirer of General Electric and its CEO, Jeff Immelt. My admiration deepened when GE unveiled EcoMagination, its effort to solve important environmental problems. Immelt and GE also led the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, an alliance of big business and big NGOs committed to getting the government to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Jeffrey Immelt

Jeffrey Immelt

But–and you knew there’d be a but, didn’t you?–I’ve got a couple of questions about GE and Immelt that have been nagging at me. First, has GE become overly focused on Washington? Second, when will Immelt deliver for GE shareholders?

The first question was prompted by an aside in John Harwood’s column in The Times a week ago, about the Obama administration’s all-out effort to get Ben Bernanke confirmed as Fed chief. He wrote:

The investor Warren Buffett and Jeffrey R. Immelt, the chairman of General Electric, helped contact senators, a senior official said.

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course; Immelt has the right to ask senators to support Bernanke. But it reminded me that this registered Republican and his company have closely aligned their interests with the administration. Immelt serves on the president’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. Newly-released figures show that among big companies or unions, GE was second only to Exxon Mobil in lobbying expenses during 2009, spending $21.4 million. (Other sources put the figure higher.) This isn’t a surprise–GE is a huge company (2009 revenues were $156 billion) and it has a myriad of Washington interests, including taxes, trade, energy policy and financial regulation.

But there’s more. GE’s Washington operation is a case study in Washington’s revolving door. Nancy Dorn, who runs the office, [click to continue…]

Uh-oh: Obama’s “battery gold rush”

A lot of smart people—Warren Buffett, Andrew Grove, Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn—believe that electric cars will be a big answer to our climate and energy problems. GM and Ford have apparently come around to that view as well, and even Chrysler recently released a cool little neighborhood vehicle called the Peapod. (See below.) I’m impressed by BYD, the Chinese battery and electric car company, and by Better Place, Shai Agassi’s bold electric-car startup aimed at transforming the global automobile industry. Batteries are the key to making electric cars affordable. So why did this Wall Street Journal headline make me cringe?

Obama Administration Sparks Battery Gold Rush

Companies, States Vie for $2.4 Billion in Funding Aimed at Turning U.S. Into Top Maker of Fuel Cells for Electric Cars

The story went on to say that the Department of Energy has received 165 applications from companies seeking some of that $2.4 billion. which is “aimed at turning the U.S. into a battery-manufacturing powerhouse.” The Journal’s William M. Bulkeley reports:

Companies vying for the federal money include General Motors Corp., Dow Chemical Co., Johnson Controls Inc. and A123 Systems, a closely held battery maker backed by General Electric Co. and others. States including Michigan, Kentucky and Massachusetts are also weighing in with applications, usually in alliance with their favored battery makers.

When the winners are decided, as soon as the end of July, the Energy Department may anoint Livonia, Mich., or Indianapolis or Glendale, Ky., as the future U.S. hub of car batteries.

Reading carefully, it’s clear that The Journal (“free people, free markets”) is not happy about this news. Note the use of the word “anoint,” hinting that the government is assuming divine powers. The article characterizes the DOE grants as “one of the government’s biggest efforts at shaping industrial policy”—fighting words in Journal-speak.

They’ve got a point, though, don’t they? One unhappy result of all the bank bailouts of the fall is that $2.4 billion doesn’t seem like much—hey, Citi alone has collected north of $45 billion, last time I checked—but a billion here, a billion there, and you’re starting to talk real money. And if electric cars are going to be as big a business as a lot of people think, then why government investment should be needed at all? Particularly since we have a climate change bill making its way through Congress that will, at long last, if all goes well, put a price on carbon emissions—thereby giving low-carbon energy sources what they desperately need, which is a fighting chance to compete with fossil fuels on something resembling a level playing field. I thought the whole idea behind cap-and-trade (which I strongly favor) is  to capture the externalized cost of global warming pollutants, and then let the market figure out how best to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: regulation that would have a light touch but a profound impact.

But no—with Waxman-Markey, CAFE standards, biofuels mandates, subsidies for “green jobs” and the like—the administration is giving us a belt and a couple of pairs of suspenders, too. Much as I admire Steven Chu, the energy secretary, do we really want to entrust him and his staff to decide which battery technologies are likely to succeed and which companies can most wisely spend that $2.4 billion? What’s more, since the states and their legislatures are competing as well, you can be sure that the likes of John Murtha and Robert Byrd will weigh in on these investment decisions. Indeed, the states themselves are already competing to subsidize battery makers, as The Journal notes:

“If you’re the place where the batteries are made, there’s an opportunity to spin it into other things as well,” said D. Gregory Main, president of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., a state agency that has committed up to $400 million in incentives for battery manufacturers.

Kentucky is promising $110 million in aid and a 1,550-acre site, in Glendale, that it assembled in an unsuccessful effort to land a Hyundai plant several years ago.

Some of these batteries, by the way, could well find their way into cars like the Tesla (sticker price:$109,000) and those made by Fisker Automotive, a California firm that plans to sell $88,000 luxury-hybrids next year. So tax dollars collected from working people and the middle class go to subsidize rich boys and their toys.

Please don’t get me wrong. I think electric cars are a great idea. The faster they arrive, the better. But judgments about which battery-makers to finance should best be left to venture capitalists, investors like Buffett (who bought 10% of BYD), big investment banks and the like. They may be no smarter than the people at the DOE but at least they are putting their own (or their investors’) money on the line. If they’re wrong, they’ll be held accountable, or at least they should be. You can be sure that some of them will be wrong, and that’s fine.

This is why I respectfully take issue with Jesse “Watthead” Jenkins of The Breakthrough Collaborative, who with me is a lead blogger at The Energy Collective, a website that aggregates blogs about energy and the environment. Jesse’s a smart guy and a good guy, but he has more faith in government than I do and so he favors substantially more federal investment in clean energy research and development. If we’re talking basic research, that’s fine, I suppose—the private sector can’t be asked to underwritethat, because the potential payoffs are so uncertain and long-term.

But this battery program is explicitly about picking winners and losers in one industry sector, which may or may not turn out to be a real business. It reflects, I’m sorry to say, the Obama administration’s faith that the best and the brightest Ivy-educated government executives can figure out what needs to be done, and just how to do it. I have no doubt that the people around Obama are smart, well-intentioned and hard-working. I dearly hope that they can, in fact, figure out just what needs to be done. But if we learned anything from Bush II, it is to worry about people in Washington who think they have all the answers.

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