Saturday, February 19, 2022

More infrastructure snafu

Just as I hit publish on my last post, the Wall Street Journal publishes a much better essay by Ted Nordhaus on the impossibility of building infrastructure in the US, even if it is green alternative energy climate-change infrastructure.

In Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, local environmentalists and devotees of the Burning Man festival are using the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to oppose a geothermal energy plant. Further south, the Sierra Club has joined with all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts to stop development of what would be the nation’s largest solar farm, which it says threatens endangered tortoises. ... proposals to develop wind energy in American coastal regions have also faced a constant barrage of NEPA and Endangered Species Act (ESA) lawsuits designed to stop them.

The Nantucket wind farms are the classic example. Wind farms, yes, but not if it spoils the view of uber-wealthy greens. Sue! On whale-disturbance grounds. 

...In California, environmentalists have used a state law designed to protect fish eggs as a pretext to close the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, the state’s largest source of clean energy, while the California Environmental Quality Act has hobbled efforts to build both high-speed rail and high-voltage transmission lines that the state is counting on to meet its climate commitments.  ..over the last decade, the U.S. hasn’t constructed a single major new transmission line.

High speed rail, billions over budget, the prize of the 2009 shovel-ready stimulus programs, has not laid a single mile of track. It will probably be ready at gold-plated cost, just as the last car and truck on I-5 is electric. 

Electrification is big news. But the electricity has to come from somewhere, over power lines that have to be built. Where I live they just banned gas hookups. For now, we burn gas to make electricity, then send it over nonexistent power lines to turn the electricity into heat, at about half the efficiency of just burning it at home. I guess the idea is that after we've burned about twice as much gas as we need for a decade, eventually it will all come from those new solar panels that work at night. 

(In related news, in New Jersey's similar plan to switch from gas to electricity which comes, for now, from gas, 

The Department of Environmental Protection, which is mulling new regulations for boiler permits, said in a rule proposal unveiled in December that electric boilers would cost between 4.2% and 4.9% more to operate than their gas counterparts. But a correction issued by the agency Tuesday said running electric boilers would cost between 4.2 and 4.9 times more than their fossil fuel equivalents.


Nuclear power remains a catastrophe: 

In Washington, D.C., meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission peremptorily rejected last month the application of the first advanced nuclear reactor developer to seek a license before the commission, to cheers from leading environmental groups.... 

 since its founding in 1975, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has never licensed a new commercial nuclear reactor design that was subsequently built. 

...Merely completing an environmental-impact statement for infrastructure projects now takes almost five years on average. 

The US is still capable of dumping trillions of dollars down ratholes,

Though the Biden administration and Democrats currently propose to spend close to a trillion dollars on low-carbon infrastructure and technology, there is little reason to believe the U.S. is capable of building any of it in a timely or cost-effective way.

And it's going to get worse (see previous post on how FHWA literally bans new infrastructure )  

...Democrats and environmentalists propose to add still more bureaucratic and regulatory requirements to the already Kafkaesque process of building any major energy or infrastructure project. President Biden’s landmark executive order on environmental justice, for example, has directed every federal agency to screen all new infrastructure and clean-energy spending for disparate racial impact while carving out 40% of all spending for marginalized communities. Congress, meanwhile, has produced complicated formulas to guide its proposed new clean-energy investments in order to encourage the use of union labor and to achieve various other wage and occupational outcomes.

Nordhaus has some positive ideas on how to fix this mess: 

start with an overhaul of the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act, under which you can sue to stop projects based on the tiniest environmental claim], the ESA [Endangered Species Act], the Jones Act [All shipping between US ports must be on US merchant marine ships. Also the send-it-by-truck act]  and a range of other regulations in order to make them more compatible with the need to dramatically cut emissions. Another priority should be to change the NRC’s mandate so that it balances public safety with the public’s interest in building nuclear power plants to produce clean and affordable energy.

And a special nod to California 

Federal taxpayers should not send billions of dollars to the states every year without a reasonable expectation that the funded infrastructure will be built in a timely and cost-effective way.


  1. The Government trying to promote the construction of infrastructure using taxpayer money while government enhanced regulation (by the same "Government") prevents the construction of this very same infrastructure is a "beautiful" case of public choice theory: in reality governments don't work like their favorite narratives could make you believe they do.

    In any case this is far from being an exceptionality of the US. In Germany I can't wait to see how the battle between climate activist and conservationist over wind turbines unfold.

    Once you enter the realm of the "political market" any costly stupidity can happens (a risk that it is only mitigated by the fact that, most of the times, nothing happens given the "veto power" of so many constituencies in this political market)

  2. Enjoying the coverage of these energy snafus! The root of the opposition to energy / infrastructure at large is an anti-human philosophy, that views human action or impact as being evil as such. Notice how there is ALWAYS a reason for opposition: whether the trees, the butterflies, the bats, the sturgeon - all take priority over human existence and what human existence requires.

  3. "For now, we burn gas to make electricity, then send it over nonexistent power lines to turn the electricity into heat, at about half the efficiency of just burning it at home."

    Heat pumps are a thing FYI. It's usually more efficient to burn gas in a turbine to make electricity to power a heat pump, than burning it in a boiler. And that was if all the electricity were gas, which it obviously wouldn't be.

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    1. At this point in time, the "status quo" is ALWAYS the best option. New regulation or any regulatory change would be counterproductive. It has been like that for a long time now.

      From Reason interviewing Coase:

      Reason: Can you give us an example of what you consider to be a good regulation and then an example of what you consider to be a not-so-good regulation?

      Coase: This is a very interesting question because one can’t give an answer to it. When I was editor of The Journal of Law and Economics, we published a whole series of studies of regulation and its effects. Almost all the studies–perhaps all the studies–suggested that the results of regulation had been bad, that the prices were higher, that the product was worse adapted to the needs of consumers, than it otherwise would have been. I was not willing to accept the view that all regulation was bound to produce these results. Therefore, what was my explanation for the results we had? I argued that the most probable explanation was that the government now operates on such a massive scale that it had reached the stage of what economists call negative marginal returns. Anything additional it does, it messes up.

      The whole interview

  5. Just pray fusion works. And if not that, magic and chanting.


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