Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
Some months back, I wrote about the Environmental Kuznets Curve, which posits that, as societies become richer, their citizens can afford the luxury of caring about the environment in ways they currently cannot. I suggested that some of this preference could be expressed through government regulation or taxes on dirtier forms of energy, though said I would oppose these in favor of market-driven means.
As the Wall Street Journal details, this is sort-of happening on the West and East Coasts: Environmentalist groups — sometimes, in conjunction with Native American tribes — have successfully stymied a great deal of fossil fuel development through activism and collaboration with government regulatory mandarins because, ew, carbon. Keystone XL may be the biggest and best known example, but it’s hardly the only one:
The Cherry Point [coal-export terminal] project, proposed in 2011 by port company SSA Marine, was initially for a wider range of exports. But with coal prices high at the time, the developer secured contracts chiefly with coal companies.
“The project was quickly redefined in the public’s mind as simply a coal port,” said Craig Cole, a local consultant who has worked on behalf of the project since 2010.
Coal projects face the biggest challenges, but oil and natural-gas companies are also facing headwinds. One natural-gas pipeline proposed for the Northeast was scrapped and another rejected in recent months.
Gordon van Welie, president and CEO of ISO-New England, the region’s power grid operator, said such projects are badly needed. Residential consumers in New York and New England paid between 5% and 41% more than the national average for natural gas in March, the latest month for which data were available. They also paid more for electricity, which itself is increasingly made with natural gas.
But finding ways to move gas into the Northeast has proven difficult. Matthew Piatek, an associate director at consulting firm IHS Energy, said some natural-gas pipeline projects have been delayed by more than a year-and-a-half.
In late April, Kinder Morgan abandoned a roughly $3 billion project that would have ferried gas to Boston and elsewhere, saying it couldn’t get buy-in from utilities. The project, Northeast Energy Direct, had attracted intense opposition from local activists.
The thing with markets is that they’re not always consumer-driven (topic of yesterday’s post, too), even if consumers do make the ultimate decisions and bear the ultimate responsibility. Especially when costs and gains aren’t immediately apparent, activists steer preferences. When it’s done right, it’s education; more often, it’s just propaganda and pseudoscience.
We all want to breathe clean air and enjoy the benefits of a healthy environment, and our society is good (to a fault) at teaching how the environment can be abused. On the other hand, just about everyone also appreciates the needs to allow people the opportunity to do remunerative work and, literally, keep the lights on.
When these goals conflict, consumers and citizens have to make choices and will, in part, have to rely on advocates. The environmentalists are very good at this game and present themselves plausibly (if wrongly) as disinterested parties who care only about the public good. The energy industry’s contributions to society should speak for themselves — but often don’t — and industry advocates are smeared as self-interested lobbyists, even when they’re correct.
The other side needs its advocates, too, not because the environment doesn’t matter, but because other things do as well.