Thursday, May 31, 2018

Reefer, Crashes and Boatloads of Cash

Given Montana's relatively bad traffic fatality statistics, it seems to me that we can't promote legal recreational marijuana use without at least understanding what impact it might have on public safety on the highways. And in that regard the statistics cited by Pew in a new report might give us pause. But I have my doubts about how useful they are.
Essentially, what Colorado, Washington and other states that have legalized recreational use are reporting is a pretty big increase in the number of drivers who were using (or had recently used) marijuana when they got killed in an accident. That's suggestive, but it doesn't prove much. What we really want to know is whether, when you smoke a joint or pop an edible and get behind the wheel, you’re more likely than you otherwise would be to end up killing yourself or somebody else. And the way to answer that question is to compare the fatal accident rate for all the drivers who are under the influence of marijuana with that of all the drivers who aren't under the influence of anything. Even that comparison could be misleading, of course, because the universes of using and non-using drivers may differ from one another in some relevant respect, such as age. That's a typical confounding variable problem, and it needs to be accounted for, but in any case, we don't have the data needed to make the comparison in the first place. 
That doesn't mean that the question can be ignored. Pew reports that in 2016, of all the fatally injured drivers tested, 38 percent tested positive for marijuana use alone (the issue gets a lot more complicated when you have to take into account cases where the driver was using marijuana and drinking, or using other drugs, at the same time). On the assumption that drivers are usually tested when there is some reason to suspect they were impaired, the rate of marijuana use among all fatally injured drivers is probably less than 38 percent. That may yet sound pretty high, but whatever it is, we still don't know how it compares to the rate of use among drivers who don't have fatal accidents. It would surprise me if 38 percent of all the drivers out on the road tested positive, but what do I know? And as Pew points out, coming up with the right data is further complicated by the fact that drivers can "test positive" for marijuana long after any effects that would affect driving have worn off.
I doubt that in what remains of my political career (one more session in the Montana Senate) I will ever have the opportunity to vote on legalization, so my opinion doesn't count for much. But for what it's worth, it seems to me that decriminalization is a no-brainer. It's a monumental waste of time and resources to pursue, arrest, convict and incarcerate people for smoking a little reefer. When it comes to full on, Colorado style legalization, however, and particularly the promotion of recreational use, I have some some concerns - about public safety, for one thing, and about the health impacts of the very powerful marijuana available in the shops, for another. And the last thing in the world I think we should do is legalize because we can then collect a boatload of tax dollars. We shouldn't make ourselves financially dependent on the sale of a product that may turn out to be a stone around our necks. We did that with coal, and you can see how that worked out.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Ships in the Night

Talk about ships passing in the night!

The Missoulian today reports on the Republican US Senate candidates’ positions on the perennial question of the choice between economic health and environmental protection.  And in the same issue, there’s a piece out of the Flathead explaining just how important access to a high quality environment and outdoor recreation is to the health of Montana’s rural  economies.

As politicians of all stripes usually do, the Republican candidates (Rosendale, Fagg, Downing and Olszewski) want you to know they can give you whatever you want. Reconciling the competing demands of the economy and the environment is simply a matter of striking the right balance between protecting natural areas and outdoor recreation, on the one hand, and providing jobs in extractive natural resource industries on the other. To see it any other way, they tell you, is to embrace a false dichotomy.

Now there is a false dichotomy here, but it’s not what they think it is. It resides, rather, in comparing the benefits created by protecting the environment with the labor costs of exploiting it for commodity production. Those benefits and costs are apples and oranges.

If politicians want to fret about the jobs that will be created by using natural resources in different ways - and it seems that that’s about all politicians want to fret about - they can have at it.  Maximizing job creation and labor costs is not really a very sound basis for managing resources - it’s a far cry from finding their highest and best use - but if you are going to do it, you ought to look at the jobs created by every use, not just resource extraction. And as the Flathead article makes clear, protecting the environment and the opportunity to recreate creates lots of jobs. Not because of commercial activity associated with recreation - guiding, fishing gear sales, snowmobile rentals and so forth - but because people want to live and work and do business in nice places where they can have fun outdoors. It simply isn’t true that protecting the environment means people will have to go without jobs. On the contrary, they gravitate toward high quality environments and bring their jobs with them.

Another way of comparing alternative natural resource uses is by weighing the benefit each use provides. In the case of extractive uses, that’s pretty straight forward: the benefit is the market value  - or better yet, the market value net of production cost - of the commodities extracted (coal, for example, or timber). In the case of conservation, the benefits - again, best measured net of production costs - are the streams of environmental services (clean water, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, and so forth) that are preserved. Those services may not have a market price, but they do have substantial economic value. 

This comparison of net benefits, if policy makers were willing to engage in it, would drive resources to their highest and best use. But as long as they insist on comparing the benefits of doing one thing with the costs of doing another, we are going to get resource management decisions that are all wrong.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Implement the Clean Power Plan

While the President and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt have made no secret of their hostility to the Paris Accords, the Clean Power Plan, or for that matter just about any other initiative to address the climate change crisis, the EPA is required by law to hold public hearings before its scraps or alters the rules, promulgated under the Obama administration, that created the Clean Power Plan. The following is a text of a letter to Director Pruitt in support of the CPP from 32 Montana legislators, submitted as written testimony at the EPA hearing in Gillette, Wyoming today. 

March 27, 2018

E. Scott Pruitt, Administrator
Environmental Protection Agency
1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20004

Dear Administrator Pruitt:

As elected members of the Montana State Legislature, we write in response to your request for comment on the proposed repeal and replacement of the Clean Power Plan (CPP). In our opinion, any weakening of the CPP would be a grave mistake and would seriously threaten the health and wellbeing of Americans and indeed our neighbors throughout the world.

Since the CPP was first proposed by the prior administration, evidence of the extent of climate change, its relationship to carbon emissions, and the severity of its effects has grown rapidly. In the state of Montana, climate change is adversely affecting our agricultural and recreational economies and eroding the quality of the natural environment and ecosystems, which are the heritage of not just Montanans, but all Americans. The disappearance of glaciers in Glacier National Park and the increasing frequency of catastrophic wildfires on national forests are two outstanding examples.

Globally, climate change is now clearly implicated in rising sea levels, species loss, increasing food insecurity, compromised health, and other deleterious effects that threaten the viability of the world economy and the stability of the political order. American military analysts have identified these effects of climate change as a serious national security threat.

Since it became apparent that the current administration did not intend to move forward with the CPP, several states have taken it upon themselves to impose firm, quantifiable and verifiable reductions on their carbon emissions. We applaud the effort of those states, but we are concerned that leaving control of carbon emissions to individual states acting in isolation is unlikely to result in adequate emission reductions. The reason in clear: while the benefits of emissions reductions demonstrably outweigh the costs, those benefits accrue nationally and internationally, while the costs are born locally. It is not reasonable to expect any one state to incur the costs of providing substantial benefits outside its borders unless it is acting in concert with other states and benefiting in turn from those states’ efforts. Achieving such concerted action clearly requires direction in the form of a national policy such as the CPP.

There are several economic aspects of the CPP that we urge you to consider. One is that while efforts (such as the CPP) to control emissions are often perceived to be costly and accordingly, economically inefficient, the fact is that there is now extensive research that demonstrates that the economic magnitude of the damages avoided when emissions are reduced far outweighs the costs of achieving the reductions in the first place. It is clear that in Montana, for example, failing to arrest climate change will seriously damage both the agricultural and outdoor recreation industries which are significant contributors to the state’s economy.

When the CPP was first proposed, several national opposition studies predicted that its implementation would impose unacceptably high costs on the national economy. Since that time, however, emissions from the electric power sector have dropped at a rate comparable to that contemplated in the CPP, strictly as a result of the cost advantage conferred by switching from coal to natural gas for thermal generation and replacing fossil fuel generation with renewables. This suggests that implementing the CPP would be far less costly than critics predicted, and greater reductions could be achieved at acceptable cost.

As legislators in a coal producing state, we are aware of the potential impacts of the CPP on communities that depend on coal for their livelihoods. We believe that the country and energy companies have an obligation to assist such communities in transitioning to a lower carbon and less coal dependent energy system.  Indeed, this is an issue which we already face in Montana and which we have confronted and will continue to confront in the legislative arena. But we also believe that we have an equally compelling obligation to address the very serious threat of climate change, which we cannot do without Federal direction such as that provided for in the Clean Power Plan.


Senator Dick Barrett, Missoula
Senator Carlie Boland, Great Falls
Senator Jill Cohenour, East Helena
Senator Tom Facey, Missoula
Senator Jen Gross, Billings
Senator Margaret MacDonald, Billings
Senator Sue Malek, Missoula
Senator Nate McConnell, Missoula
Senator Mike Phillips, Bozeman
Senator JP Pomnichowski, Bozeman
Senator Diane Sands, Missoula
Senator Frank Smith, Poplar
Senator Lea Whitford, Cut Bank
Rep. Kim Abbott, Helena
Rep. Bryce Bennett , Missoula
Rep. Laurie Bishop, Livingston
Rep. Ellie Hill Smith, Missoula
Rep. Willis Curdy, Missoula
Rep. Amanda Curtis, Butte
Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, Helena
Rep. Jenny Eck, Helena
Rep. Janet Ellis, Helena
Rep. Dave Fern, Whitefish
Rep. Moffie Funk, Helena
Rep. Jim Hamilton, Bozeman
Rep. Denise Hayman, Bozeman
Rep. Shane Morigeau, Missoula
Rep. Andrea Olsen, Missoula
Rep. Rae Peppers, Lame Deer
Rep. Jean Price, Great Falls
Rep. Marilyn Ryan, Missoula
Rep. Tom Woods, Bozeman