Friday, February 18, 2022

Drowning in paperwork

The US, and New York State in particular, are embarked on a decarbonization agenda. Canada has a lot of hydropower to spare, which emits no CO2. (Though large hydropower is rather hilariously not deemed "renewable" by California, among others.) All we need is a big extension cord from Canada down to NYC, and we can save the climate, right? How long can that take? 

More than 17 years, as The Wall Street Journal reports

By late 2025, a 339-mile high-voltage transmission line is expected to deliver enough hydropower from Quebec’s remote forests to supply about 20% of New York City’s needs. The first electricity will finally flow 17 years after developers set out to bury a power line along the bottoms of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River, assuming they clear one last regulatory hurdle and encounter no further challenges.

Well, I'm glad climate is not a "crisis," "emergency" or "catastrophe" needing quick attention. 

In fact, this case is a good news story: 

Blackstone Inc.’s $4.5-billion Champlain Hudson Power Express is unique not so much for the length of time between inception and construction, but in that it is being built at all.

Many thousand miles of new transmission line is needed to connect wind farms, solar plants and other renewable energy sources with cities that want clean power. Yet stringing high-voltage cables over long distances is fraught. 

We need to update Bastiat, who pointed out that the damage of regulation is not the effects on visible businesses but all the unseen businesses that don't start in the first place. The damage of our catastrophic legal and political system for infrastructure projects is all the infrastructure that doesn't get envisioned, planned, or built at all. 

Fraught by regulations, NIMBYs, and environmental challenges that clearly are simply excuses to slow down projects: 

Even once they are begun, transmission projects aren’t in the clear. Poles were already in the ground when Maine voters in November scotched a transmission line that would carry hydropower from the Canadian border toward Boston...

Overhead lines inspire not-in-my-backyard opposition that can doom projects. 

Stop right there. So the most natural and  way to do this is simply ruled out ahead of time. Remember, most of the line from Quebec to NYC is uninhabited forest. What else could we do? Burying power lines under land is unimaginably expensive. And that would likely cause about as much "environmental" ruckus. Instead, put it under water. That's not going to scale, but it could work in this case

A line along the bottom of the Hudson would be out of sight. Blackstone was sold on the underwater approach and the chance to sell cheap power spun out by Quebec’s massive dams to the city that never sleeps. ..

“We believed the economic and environmental logic was super sound and that it would ultimately prevail,” said Bilal Khan, a senior managing director at Blackstone. “We didn’t think it would take a decade.”

Now the fun starts: 

Blackstone’s team discovered the Environmental Protection Agency had sectioned off the Hudson where sediment was contaminated by polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, dumped decades ago by General Electric Co. Trenching the river bottom there risked unearthing toxins, so the buried transmission line was rerouted around Schenectady along a 118-mile detour.

That sounds.. expensive. 

Blackstone['s].. environmental consultants spent the summer of 2010 watching patches of blue lupine for endangered Karner blue butterflies and frosted elfins, a threatened species. They spotted two Karners and wrote a plan for avoiding damage to the wildflowers upon which the butterflies rely. Arrangements were also made to protect bald eagle nests that might be present during construction and identify shagbark hickories big enough for the endangered Indiana bat to roost. 

Well, frankly, I'm with the Bald Eagles on this one, though it doesn't sound like a big deal.  

When it became clear developers wouldn’t get state approval to dig beneath Haverstraw Bay, where endangered Atlantic sturgeon live, they redrew the route again. 

But we're not done: 

These adjustments weren’t enough to stop opposition from several groups that normally aren’t aligned: the Sierra Club, energy companies, a bipartisan group of lawmakers and a labor union. Sierra Club argued that importing power threatened the development of in-state renewable-energy projects and could cause environmental damage in Canada.

Savor "importing power threatened the development of in-state renewable-energy projects." Does mother Gaia care where carbon-free electricity is produced? Why is state-by-state protectionism, by definition more expensive, important to climate? Or is there some other goal here? Savor "cause environmental damage in Canada" How? I think because the line might encourage the Canadians to make some new zero-carbon production capacity. Dams. Though, later, 

Hydro-Québec, the supplier of power to Champlain Hudson, has no plans for new hydropower facilities, its CEO said. 

The sad story is not all about environmental review gone amok: 

That stand put the environmental advocacy club on the same side as the operator of a soon-to-close nuclear power plant called Indian Point as well as the Business Council of New York State and the Independent Power Producers of New York Inc., which fought the line on behalf of entrenched electricity providers. 

Lawmakers objected for local reasons, with one saying he didn’t like that the power line’s energy would bypass dozens of upstate counties. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 97 argued it threatened upstate renewable projects, would eliminate the need for additional gas-fired plants and “be deleterious of New York state energy jobs.”

Ah, gas-fired plants emit CO2. And we are in a labor shortage. This is raw old-fashioned protectionism. 

More generally, this whole story is a reminder why a legal system of property rights rather than political permission is the only way to run a successful economy. 

The developers pledged $40 million to train New Yorkers for green-energy jobs and agreed to fund an environmental trust with $117 million. The trust would help pull invasive plants from Lake Champlain, restore oyster reefs around New York City and pay for implanting acoustic transmitters in adult sturgeon so scientists could study the fish.

None of which has anything to do with power or its environmental impacts. We can use the legal and political system to extract bribes. Don Corleone would be proud. Nice power line you have there. It would be a shame if something were to happen to it. You know, my son Fredo needs a nice job implanting acoustic transmitters in Sturgeon. 

Blackstone still faces one last step: That supply contract needs the approval of the New York Public Service Commission. One group that still opposes it is Riverkeeper, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Hudson. Riverkeeper initially supported the project before turning against it in 2019, saying the transmission line could lead to additional dams in Quebec that would possibly expose indigenous groups to methylmercury—a neurotoxin created by microbes in freshly flooded soils that can pass up the food chain to people who live off the land.

... There have also been no reported cases of mercury poisoning resulting from consuming fish caught in Hydro-Québec’s reservoirs during more than 40 years of monitoring, according to a spokeswoman.

This month Riverkeeper didn’t back down in a new 36-page letter to New York regulators. Besides the methylmercury threat, the group said, forests that are flooded by new dams stop storing carbon in trees and soil and begin to emit greenhouse gases as the inundated organic matter decomposes.

But how much carbon is emitted by the new gas plants? Obviously the answer here is simple: don't build anything. Freeze in the dark. Or, more likely, how about $100 million grant for us too. 

“The last thing we want is more dams because of new markets,” said John Lipscomb, a patrol-boat captain and vice president for advocacy for Riverkeeper. “We are investigating and will continue to look at opportunities to stop the project.”

The article forecasts 2025. I would not bet on it. 

When I look at local infrastructure as I drive around California -- the Golden Gate Bridge, the North Bay refineries, the transcontinental railroad, I 80 itself, I wonder how much of it could ever be built today.  

(Follow up post with more horror stories)


Or, as Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution concisely summarizes the whole mess

... a power line that could benefit millions is threatened by a brew of “Baptists” defending a few flowers and fish, bootleggers protecting their rents, shakedown artists trying to get a share of the proceeds and hysterics longing for a return to the state of nature.


  1. We will never be able to have nice things until the last environmentalist is strangled with the entrails of the last lawyer.

  2. "The US, and New York State in particular, are embarked on a decarbonization agenda. Canada has a lot of hydropower to spare, which emits on CO2." --typo in the sentence at "on", a.s.

    "Fraught by regulations, NIBYs, and environmental challenges that clearly are simply excuses to slow down projects:" --likely a typo at "NIBYs".

  3. Can't they sell this power in Canada? Isn't the economic driving force, the fact that Americans will pay more for the electricity? I suppose some bureaucrat will get a warm feeling as NY moves closer to their 70% goal, but from the standpoint of carbon emissions, this project is nonsense, because of transmission losses.

    1. Couple of potential reasons. IIRC they have a surplus. They want to expand one way or another. New York City is a metropolis that's relatively close to Québec. Aside from the red tape, the national political border doesn't make it further away physically. NYC may be willing to pay more or pay it sooner than the other nearby places the power provider could export to. Someone can correct me if I'm off-base here, but would replacing NYC's current 'less-than-green' power sources with surplus from a hydropower plant still be nonsense from a carbon emissions standpoint, even with transmission losses?

  4. I live in a country with almost all rivers blocked with dams. And we have no migratory fishes anymore. It is a bad trade off, I'd take nuclear over that any day.

  5. James Anderson MerrittFebruary 23, 2022 at 7:29 PM

    The legal and regulatory Gordian Knot that binds down those who would provide new and expanded infrastructure -- especially for power, water, and transportation -- will have to be dealt with in the same way that Alexander dispatched the legendary original one, except with us voters in the role of Alexander, I think.


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