Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Banana Republic

As Paul Krugman points out in a post this week, whether or not you are enjoying the current slump in oil prices depends pretty much on where you live, and it's a lesson Austin Knudsen really ought take to heart.

Krugman is a smart guy, but let's face it, this is not rocket science. For most of the world – the part that doesn’t produce and sell the stuff - cheaper oil means lower fuel costs for families and businesses. Wages go farther, profits grow, and it’s all good.*

On the other hand, for the producers – these days we think of Russia, the Bakken, the Tar Sands, OPEC and so forth – declining prices can hurt pretty badly, with just how badly depending on how dependent the economy is on oil production. Krugman offers as a case in point Texas, back in the mid-1980s. At that point about 5% of Texas’s total economic output was attributable to oil production. Then, as now, the economy was recovering from what at the time was the worst recession on record since the Great Depression. Then, as now, the national unemployment rate, while still high, was drifting steadily downward. And then, but even more so than now, there was a sudden, sharp decline in oil prices; in the first six months of 1986, the West Texas Intermediate spot price fell by 58%, from $26 to $11 per barrel.**

The result, for Texas, was very, very bad. Here’s Krugman’s chart, which shows that in 1986, as the US economy was recovering, the unemployment rate in Texas rocketed up, going from well below to well above the national average, where it stayed for several years.

You might think about all this when you read this Missoulian report on the Republican agenda for the 2015 legislative session. According to Austin Knudsen, who Republicans in the House have tapped for Speaker, more resource extraction is at the top of his party’s wish list, apparently because it will create “long-term new wealth.”

This is pretty standard stuff. Republicans, and a few of my fellow Democrats as well, have been saying for years that Montana is a “natural resource state” and that we can secure our economic future by digging up the ground and cutting down trees. But think about it: is placing all our eggs in the one basket of natural resource extraction really all that smart? Should we really, like Texas in 1986, rely for our prosperity on the notorious vagaries of international oil markets?  Should we really invest heavily in digging up and exporting more coal when our biggest potential customer apparently intends to import less of it? Should we blithely assume the world is going to keep on burning the fossil fuels we’re selling, consequences be damned? Does anyone really believe that in a world economy driven by incomprehensibly rapid change in technology and scientific knowledge, sustainable “long-term new wealth” is going to be found in natural resource extraction?

Speaker Knutsen comes from the oil patch, so his sympathies, and those of his party for the well-being of the oil companies that bankroll it, are easily understood. They make Montana sound like a 19th. century colonial economy, the kind controlled by foreign corporations and local elites with the sole purpose of sending oil or copper or coffee or something off to a hungry imperial power. But come on: If we really care about Montana’s future, can’t we come up with a better vision for it than as a latter day banana republic?

*Well, mostly good. If people respond to lower fuel prices by burning more of the stuff, then we have a problem. Fortunately, in the short run at any rate, that tends not to happen; the demand for oil, as economists like to say, is inelastic.

** For a very useful site for tracking historic crude oil prices, click here.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Bring It!

Sen. Roger Webb popped up in the Missoulian this week, trotting out the usual litany of Republican shibboleths about the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. He says the plan, which will reduce carbon emissions from electrical generation by about 15 percent between now and 2030, is going to cost us an arm and a leg.* It’s going to devastate Montana’s economy. It’s going to drive the price of electricity through the roof.  It’s going to have no significant effect on emissions. It’s…well, you know the drill.  And as you also know if you’ve read my previous posts responding to Steve Daines, Rick Hill, Glenn Opel, Arnold Olsen and Keith Regier, and Bob Lake on this point, there’s not much new here, and it’s probably not worth plowing old ground to show, once again, how wrong headed it all is.

But Webb, who is in line to chair the Montana Senate Energy Committee, does say something that sticks out like a sore thumb. It's this: “Climate change is certainly a problem that we must tackle, but the solution to this problem must be at a cost we can afford… Republicans would prefer to...solve climate change… by focusing on making coal-fired electricity generation even cleaner than it is today”.

For most of us, the idea that “climate change is certainly a problem we must tackle” is hardly a revelation, but for a Montana Republican to acknowledge that fact is almost unheard of. Webb says something here that Daines and Hill and all those other guys just haven’t been able to bring themselves to say. As far as I can see, that’s progress.

But let’s take it up a notch.

If Webb is really serious about wanting cost effective measures to arrest climate change, he should stop attacking the Clean Power Plan and get down to business. Because the plan itself is designed to allow states to figure out how they want to reduce emissions. It doesn’t mandate solar, or wind, or end-use efficiency, or clean coal technology, or nuclear. It says that states can meet emissions reductions targets however they want, using any mix of strategies they chose, working in compacts with other states if that’s to their advantage, and employing cap and trade systems or carbon taxes if they think that will work.

In short, the plan gives states the flexibility to identify and implement the least costly strategy for reducing emissions, and that is what Webb says he wants. If Republicans really believe that the cheapest way to reduce emissions is to make “coal fired electricity generation even cleaner than it is today,” here’s their chance to prove it.

It’s not going to be easy: earlier this year Count on Coal Montana was telling us that carbon capture and storage at power plants is going to be very, very expensive. Now, apparently, it’s the source of our salvation. I guess we’ll just have to see. But whatever they do, Republicans should just bring it. They should stop this incessant whining about the Clean Power Plan and start using it to prove, if that's possible, that they can actually do something about the climate crisis.

* The Clean Power Plan is usually described as reducing emissions from the electrical generating sector by 30 percent between 2005 and 2030. But since half that reduction has already been achieved (for reasons other than the plan itself), we have about a 15 percent reduction to deal with going forward.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Montana's Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card

When the EPA laid out its plan for reducing carbon emissions from electrical generating plants last June, Montana got something of a get-out-of-jail-free card.

The  EPA’s Clean Power Plan calls on every state to reduce its carbon emissions rate –the amount of carbon it dumps in the atmosphere per megawatt hour of electricity it produces - with some states reducing rates quite a bit and others, like Montana, very little.  Specifically, the EPA wants us to reduce our rate by just 21%, which is less than what’s expected from all but a handful of states, as you can see from the map.* And as the Montana Department of Environmental quality reported in a white paper last month, we can achieve this rate reduction without reducing actual emissions very much at all; Montana’s coal fired power plants can continue to operate much as they have in the past and burn about the same amount of coal.

The DEQ white paper left many of the people who worry a lot about climate change (I’m one of them) mystified and a little disillusioned. How could a plan that was supposed to reduce US emissions by 30%** possibly leave coal unscathed? Why didn’t the EPA expect Montana to do more? And even if the EPA doesn’t think so, shouldn’t we do more anyway? Shouldn’t DEQ design some implementation scenarios that would make that happen?

The answer to the first question is pretty simple: What happens to coal is going to depend mainly on the implementation plans of the states that burn it, rather than the states that dig it out of the ground. Montana does some of both, of course, but a big part of Montana’s coal is sold to other states, and how they decide to control their emissions will determine how much coal they’ll want to buy in the future. There are a lot of unknowns here, but since total US power sector emissions need to decline by about 15% between now and 2030 to meet the EPA goal, it seems safe to conclude that the market for coal – including Montana’s - will contract slowly, but hardly disappear.

Why the EPA expects so little from Montana is a more complicated matter. To determine how much a state could reasonably be expected to reduce its emission rate, the EPA calculated how much the state could take advantage of four different “building blocks,” or strategies, to come up with a best system of emissions reductions (BSER in the jargon). These building blocks – which included more production of renewable energy, greater efficiency both in burning coal and in using electricity, and shifting generation to less polluting natural gas plants – were all ones that the EPA deemed both technically feasible and available at reasonable cost. So the EPA’s goal for Montana – the 21% reduction in our emissions rate – reflects what the agency thinks it’s actually possible for us to do at reasonable cost. And the reason that we are able to do relatively little is that we’re lacking one of the building blocks – the shifting of electrical generation to cleaner natural gas plants – for the simple reason that we have no natural gas plants to shift to.

There is then a method to the EPA’s madness in assigning the wide range of emission rate reductions you see on the map, and it’s this: if you required all states to reduce their emissions equally, some states, among them Montana, would be forced to resort to strategies, such as sequestration, that are believed to be costly and not very reliable. And making some states pay a lot for emissions reductions, while other states could do the job for much less, doesn’t make economic sense.

But bear in mind that the EPA is not requiring that states use only the four building blocks it has identified. On the contrary: a state can employ almost any strategy it wants to hit its emissions reduction target; those possible alternative strategies are what DEQ is running up the flag pole in its white paper. EPA appears to recognize that a top-down, one-size-fits-all BSER, making use of only the four building blocks, will often not be a good match for a particular state, either because it has available some effective, low cost way of reducing emissions that’s not one of the building blocks, or because it is willing to follow a higher cost strategy in order to protect some special interest.  Protecting the coal industry by relying on sequestration would be an example.

DEQ gave us five possible scenarios that would get us to Clean Power Plan compliance, as well as a planning model that lets folks come up with more scenarios of their own. Going forward, there are going to be people who will want us to reject the Clean Power Plan in any way, shape or form, out of hand. The rest of us have to take advantage of the flexibility we have been accorded to come up with a compliance plan that is low cost, equitable and allows us to make a meaningful contribution to reducing emissions and arresting climate change.

* I clipped this map from NERA Economic Consulting’s report, PotentialEnergy Impacts of the EPA Proposed Clean Power Plan.

** This is the EPA’s estimate of the reduction in emissions from the electric power sector that will occur between 2005 and 2030 if the plan is implemented. But because emissions have fallen about 15% since 2005, we are already half way to the EPA’s 2030 goal; the regulations are designed to get us the rest of the way.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Lower Carbon Emissions! Now Available at Low, Low Prices!

When the EPA proposed its Clean Power Plan last June, the usual special interest groups, including the Montana Chamber of Commerce, went on the attack. After all, the plan was intended to reduce carbon emissions from existing coal fired power plants, which surely meant that less coal would be mined, energy would be more expensive, and the economy would languish in depression and misery. To prove it, the US Chamber of Commerce trotted out a commissioned economic study of the EPA plan which showed that it would cost the economy something like $50 billion a year every year through 2030; that, from the Chamber’s perspective, was far too much to pay to secure the benefits of reducing carbon emissions (which the Chamber, by the way, made no attempt to quantify).

All that might’ve seemed scary - the Chamber certainly wanted you to be scared - but as it turned out, it was also overblown. For one thing, as I pointed out in a previous post, $50 billion may look like a pretty serious chunk of change, but when you consider what the US economy produces every year (currently about $16 trillion worth of goods and services), it shrivels in comparison. And then there was the inconvenient fact that the Chamber study examined the cost of a plan that reduced emissions by much more than the EPA was proposing to, and that meant that the EPA plan would not cost $50 billion, but something substantially less.*

The Chamber could offer only a wobbly defense for being less than completely straight forward with these cost estimates, so I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know that they bounced back earlier this week when Glenn Oppel at the Montana Chamber was able to tout a new study by NERA Economic Consulting.  You can find the NERA analysis here, and while I am happy to report that it does appear to assess the regulations that the EPA is actually proposing, there’s some bad news as well: the numbers are bigger and scarier than ever. As Oppel pointed out in a press release, the cost of complying with the EPA regulations is now estimated to be more than $366 billion! It looks like we're going to hell in a hand basket after all.

Now before you drive yourself crazy trying to figure out why smaller emissions reductions should cost 7.3 times more than larger ones, you need to recognize that we are comparing apples and oranges here. The first study said that the EPA plan would cost us $50 billion a year; the new study says that it will cost $366 billion a …well, who knows? If Oppel does, he’s not telling. So you need to read the study itself.

It turns out that $366 billion is the “present value...taken in 2014 using a 5% discount rate” of all the costs of compliance from 2017 to 2031. The “simple” way of explaining what all that gobbledygook means is this: $366 billion is the amount of money we would have to set aside this year - in a trust fund or bank account or some other investment earning 5% - in order to cover our total compliance costs from 2017 to 2031. It’s sort of like the wise parents of a new baby salting away enough money now (if that’s possible) to cover the astronomical college tuition the kid is going to have to pay in 2032.

Is $366 billion a lot of money? One way to look at it is to imagine that we really do want to prepay right away, this year, for our future emissions reductions: $366 billion, cash on the barrel head. How hard would that be? Well, as I said before, our GDP this year is about $16 trillion, so our emissions reductions nest egg would eat up about 2.3% of our total economic output. Not cheap, but doable.

Doable, but not very sensible. Why should we pay for all the costs of the next 17 years of emissions reductions out of this year’s GDP? After all, aren’t we going to be producing GDP like gang busters all those years as well? Shouldn’t we use some of that future GDP to pay our future emissions bill? Well, of course we should. And what we should compare that $366 billion to is the “present value...taken in 2014 using a 5% discount rate” of all the GDP that will be produced from 2017 to 2031. And that is about $196 trillion dollars.

So there you have it: according to numbers in the NERA analysis, complying with the Clean Power Plan over the next 17 years would cost a little less than 1/5th of 1% of GDP over the same period. That’s pretty darned cheap, and something to think about the next time somebody tells you that fighting climate change is going to lead to our economic ruination.

* None of this has deterred a number of Republican politicians from repeatedly using, and misusing, the Chamber study in the past few months. See my previous posts on this point concerning Rick Hill, Steve Daines, and Alan Olson and Keith Regier.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Emissions Fuzzy Math

When the Montana Department of Environmental Quality released its Options for Montana’s Energy Future white paper last month, I was expecting to hear a vast sigh of relief from just about every corner of the state. 

Back in June, the EPA  proposed, for the first time, regulations to limit carbon emissions from existing coal and gas fired electric generating plants, and assigned to each state an emissions reduction goal to be met between 2012 and 2030. For Montana, the goal was 21%, and while that meant Montana had to do less than most states, we certainly had to do something and we had to puzzle out how to do it. So DEQ sat down to solve that puzzle, and what they came up with in the white paper was a set of scenarios that complied with the EPA goal (or even more than complied with it) and which allowed all the existing coal fired power plants in the state* to continue to operate at current or even higher levels of output and to burn the same or a little less coal than they do right now.

What was there not to like in that?

For the folks at Count on Coal and the Chamber of Commerce and for legislators from coal country who had predicted that the EPA regulations would kill the coal industry and plunge the Montana economy into eternal darkness, this had to be good news. Producing more coal would have been better, of course, but at least these regulations were going to allow for business as usual.

It was good news as well for the politicians and editorial writers and other pundits who regularly offer us the bland assurance that we can “develop our natural resources” and at the same time enjoy a “clean and healthy environment.” The Missoulian doubled down on this possibility when it editorialized that we could reduce emissions and still maintain coal’s current share in electrical generation. Since our need for generation is presumably going to grow over time, maintaining coal’s share would mean burning more coal in the future. So, more coal, lower emissions!

But there seemed to be in all this an element of having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too. After all, haven’t guys like Steve Running been telling us for years that we’re never going to address the problem of climate change without sharply reducing our use of coal?  If almost every single pound of CO2 we pump into the atmosphere when we generate electricity comes from burning coal, is it really possible to burn more and pollute less? Isn’t this this just too good to be true? Well, yes it is. Kind of. Here’s what happened. This gets a little wonkish, but it’s important, so stick with me.

The 21% goal that the EPA proposed for Montana was not for a reduction in emissions, but for a reduction in the emissions rate, which is measured as the amount of emissions (in pounds) per megawatt hour of electricity generated. In 2012, Montana pumped about 35.9 billion pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere in the course of producing 16 million MWhs of electricity (included in that total is about 1.3 million MWhs from renewables).** So taking the ratio of those two numbers - (35.9 billion lbs. CO2)/(16 million  MWh) - you can calculate our 2012 emissions rate as 2,246 lbs/MWh. And what EPA wants us to do is take that rate down by 21%, to 1,771.

Now applying a little arithmetic it’s clear that you can take the rate down either by reducing actual emissions (the number in the numerator of the rate calculation) or by increasing total generation (the number in the denominator) or by some combination of the two.  What DEQ sketched out in its white paper were some of those possible combinations, which typically involve reducing emissions a little, by getting power plants to use coal more efficiently, while significantly increasing electrical generation from renewables and efficiency.*** That means we can meet the EPA target for a rate reduction without actually meaningfully reducing the mass of emissions. And while that’s good news for the coal industry, it’s bad news for Montanans concerned about climate change and who worry that we will in effect be doing almost nothing to reverse it. After all the fanfare that accompanied the EPA’s roll out of the regulations – finally, finally we were doing something about climate change – that's a bitter pill to swallow.

If it sounds like I am accusing DEQ of hoodwinking us here, forget it.  What EPA wanted us in Montana to do is figure out is how we can modestly reduce our emissions rate and that is what DEQ has done. And while the technical wonks at DEQ have made it clear as a bell that they were working with rates, they have also gone out of their way to calculate the (always small) change in the actual mass of emissions entailed in each of their rate reduction scenarios. They have also made available a handy dandy little planning model that allows you to design and test any emissions reduction scenario that suits your fancy. You tell the model what you want to see (carbon sequestration, nuclear plant, a fivefold increase in wind power, whatever) and it will spit out how far both the rate and mass of emissions will fall. You can download the model here, so get cracking. Even if EPA can't figure out how Montana can make a difference, maybe you can.

* All the scenarios did anticipate that the Corette power plant in Billings would be mothballed in 2015 as previously planned by PPL Montana.

** Not including hydro. EPA does not allow hydropower to be included in the total of generation from renewables.

*** The EPA allows power saved by increasing efficiency in transmission and end use to count in total generation.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Prove It!

One of the canards about the Salish Kootenai Water Compact that opponents never tire of trotting out is that the compact will take away the water rights of private citizens living all over western Montana. If you attend enough public meetings up in the Flathead, or read the letters to the editor, or listen to Tea Party legislative candidates, you’ll hear this claim all the time, coming from all sorts of people, including a handful of legislators who should know better and be a lot more careful about their public pronouncements. I don’t know if these folks really believe what they are saying or are simply following the advice of the propagandist who claimed that if you say something often enough, people will begin to believe it, but I do know this:

I’m getting really fed up with this nonsense.

Part of the problem is that I serve on the Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission, which is the outfit that is negotiating the compact on behalf of the state. The Commission, and especially its staff, have put in endless hours negotiating a settlement that carefully protects the rights and interests of Montana citizens living on and off the Flathead Reservation, so when someone comes along and tells us that we have violated our oath of office, defiled the Constitution, exceeded our authority and sold our fellow citizens down the river, I take it pretty badly.

Of course the real problem here is not my ruffled feelings. It is, rather, the fact that the claim is just not true: The Compact doesn’t take anybody’s water or property rights away. Proving that is not as hard as it sounds but it does take some time. Obviously, there’s no clause I can steer you to saying “This compact doesn’t take away anybody’s water rights;” a list of clauses saying everything the compact doesn’t do would potentially be infinitely long. But if you comb through the document (I’m not suggesting you actually do that, but if you want to, here’s the link) and try to find a provision, any one little provision, that actually effects the taking of a water right, you won’t find one.

Now I can almost hear compact opponents howling that you most certainly will; that the fatal provision is in there somewhere and you just haven’t looked hard enough. But here’s the thing: not once, not one single time, have I ever heard anyone cite any provision in the compact to back up the claim that water rights are being taken. And if they can’t do that, the claim is hollow.

So here’s a challenge to the people who are going to stand up at negotiating sessions and public meetings and legislative hearings and claim, yet again, that the compact is a bundle of takings: Prove it. Show us the provisions you think make takings happen. Tell us clearly just what water rights you believe are being taken. In short, be responsible for the truth of what you say. That’s the price of admission to a civil and productive conversation about any issue we really care about.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Getting Family Planning Funding Straight

As I mentioned in my last post, in preparation for Election Day the Missoulian has been asking legislative candidates about their positions on a handful of critical issues, including whether or not the Legislature should “continue to approve federal money to family planning clinics, including Planned Parenthood.”

Now I admit that for me funding family planning adequately is a no-brainer, and in the interests of full disclosure I need to tell you that I served for several years on the board of Planned Parenthood here is Missoula, but really, it’s not just me; for all Montanans, this question is important. What’s at stake here is millions of federal Title X dollars that come to Montana to support family planning clinics that provide birth control, cancer screenings, HIV testing, fertility counseling and treatment, and a whole lot more.* Why would anyone not want to spend federal dollars for services like that?

Well, as it turns out, some Title X money goes to Planned Parenthood clinics that provide abortions. And that fact has provoked conservative Republican anti-choice legislators into  trying, repeatedly, to block all Title X funding for everyone, even though by Federal law no Title X money is, or can be, used to pay for abortion services. Best I can figure, these folks believe this money is tainted and shouldn’t be touched, but as abortion opponents, they’re biting off their noses to spite their faces: there surely can’t be any better way to respect the autonomy and privacy of women and at the same time prevent abortions than by avoiding unintended pregnancies in the first place.

So as I say, the issue is important and anyone running for public office should be able to come up with a decent answer when the Missoulian asks about it. I’m not saying a would-be legislator has to agree with me – for example, there’s certainly a place in the room for folks that think that family planning should be a private matter – but I do think that whatever the answer is, it should at least be sensible and reasonably well informed. Is that too much to ask of a person who wants to go to Helena, occupy a legislative seat, and make decisions critical to the welfare of his or her consituents?

Well, apparently it is, because at least three Republican** candidates’ answers that have appeared in the Missoulian don’t pass that test. Here’s what I’m talking about:

Rep. Ed Greef: Title X funds many good programs that benefit the health needs of women. These are important to our communities. It’s too bad the federal government includes abortion in the package, thus creating a situation of all or nothing in the package. Unreasonable tactic.

Brad Tschida
: I believe we should be using any available federal dollars paid to entities like Planned Parenthood to assist our seniors, veterans and special needs citizens. Money for the needs of those citizens is a far better use of such funds.

Gary Marbut: Federal funding? I am under the impression that Congress (in D.C.) approves federal funding, not the Legislature (in Helena).

So there you have it. When confronted with the critical question of whether or not the Legislature should continue to appropriate federal family planning money, one candidate, Greef, who is also a sitting legislator, says no, because he thinks the money pays for abortions, which it doesn’t. Another, Tschida, says no because he would rather spend the money on something other than family planning, apparently unaware of the fact the federal family planning money has to be spent on, well, family planning. And a third, Marbut, doesn’t think he needs to answer, because evidently he doesn’t know that the Legislature appropriates, and can chose not to appropriate if it wants, hundreds of millions of Federal dollars every biennium.

Come on. Don’t voters deserve better thought-out and more carefully informed answers than these from folks who want to represent them in Helena next January?

*You can learn more about the services these clinics provide, and find a clinic near you, at this Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services

** Actually, one of these guys, Gary Marbut, although he has run as a Republican in the past, this time around is running as an Independent. Against Kim Dudik, who will no doubt whup him about as badly as last time.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Just Answer The Question, Please.

Last week the Missoulian began to print the responses of candidates to its legislative questionnaire – you know, those questions that it sends out every other year before the November elections, asking would-be solons how they stand on the issues. I (and I hope most voters) read the candidates’ answers pretty carefully. After all, how else are we going to get beyond the sound bites, pretty pictures, TV attack ads and robocalls that constitute political communication these days?

Of course, if candidates really want us to know what they think, they’ve got to answer frankly and honestly the questions they were actually asked. But unfortunately, when it comes to at least some questions, all the Republican candidates whose answers have been printed so far have given us anything but frankness and honesty.

Here are the questions.

 Do you support additional restrictions on abortion in Montana? Should the Legislature continue to approve federal money to family planning clinics, including Planned Parenthood?

And here are the answers.

Rep. Nancy Ballance: I do not support any federal or state funding of abortions.

Dick Haines
:  I cannot support abortions except to save the life of the mother or a mother and child.

Lyn Hellegaard: In 2012, Planned Parenthood revealed a total income of $1.14 billion. Taxpayers shelled out $542 million through federal and state grants and contracts (or 45 percent of its entire income). At the same time, Planned Parenthood cut back non-abortion related programs like adoption, breast cancer screenings and infertility treatment, and demanded that all its affiliate centers offer surgical abortion. Abortions should be privately funded. For the sake of argument, let’s assume I believe that life begins at conception. If that is what I believe, how can I be anything but pro-life.

Rep. Jerry O’Neil: Being pro-life, I would like to see less abortions performed in Montana, but am not willing to outlaw birth control pills in order to reach that result.

To be clear about this, the questions the Missoulian is asking here are not hypotheticals. In every legislative session I have served in, conservative Republican anti-choice legislators have introduced bills to interfere with access to abortion. In at least the last two sessions, they have also attempted to prevent the state from receiving and spending the Federal Title X money which goes to support family planning clinics. And when that effort failed, the Ravalli County commissioners, down in Rep. Ballance’s country, turned down the money and shut their county clinic, despite the fact that not one cent of Title X money pays for abortions; it’s all spent on family planning and women’s health programs. 

So what we have here are real questions about important issues that affect a lot of Montanans. We deserve  honest and complete answers. But what we get are answers that range from the totally irrelevant through the deliberately deceptive and on to the hopelessly absurd.

Not one of these folks actually tells us if they would “support additional restrictions on abortion.” Haines gets the closest, I guess, by saying that he only supports abortions to “save the life of the mother or a mother and child.” I leave to your imagination what he can possibly mean by an abortion to save the life of a child.* Whether he would actually support legislation to restrict abortion to these cases he doesn’t say, and whether or not he is aware of the fact that such legislation would fly in the face of Roe v. Wade is unclear.

O’Neil tells us that he would like to see fewer abortions performed in Montana, but would be unwilling to “outlaw birth control pills . . . to reach that result.” Well, that’s a relief! Not that anybody is proposing anything that crazy, but how O’Neil thinks that outlawing birth control pills could lead to anything other than more unplanned pregnancies and more abortions is an utter mystery.

Not one of these candidates tells us if the Legislature should “continue to approve federal money to family planning clinics, including Planned Parenthood.” Ballance and Hellegaard both say that they oppose public funding of abortions, which is not the question at issue when it comes to spending Title X funds. Hellegaard hints at her hostility to Planned Parenthood (okay, okay, it’s more than a hint) by citing how much revenue and public funding it receives, but without telling us that the numbers refer to Planned Parenthood nationwide nor explaining what, if anything, that money has to do with supporting family planning clinics in Montana. And in an absurd attempt at craftiness, Hellegaard tells us that if, “for the sake of the argument,” she believes that life begins at conception, she has to be pro-life. Myself, I’d rather know that she really is pro-life than to have to contemplate this sophistry.

I suppose we need to understand what a tough position these questions put conservative Republican candidates in. After all, winning elections means having to hold your base and at the same time capturing voters in the center, and in this case, never the twain shall meet. The conservative Republican base is staunchly anti-abortion and just queasy enough about sex to think that we shouldn’t help anyone engage in it by providing them with birth control.  Folks in the middle, on the other hand, don’t want to further restrict abortion access, and think that if you don’t like abortion, the last thing in the world you should do is defund the family planning that obviates the need for it.

What is a poor Republican candidate to do in this situation?

Well, as we see here, the answer is duck and cover.**

* Haines’ responses to the Missoulian, which you can find here, are worth an additional look. Among other things, he says, with regard to the referendum to end election day registration,I support the referendum. I saw too many bus loads of students that had had a hamburger and beer arriving to vote at the last minute. I admit I could be wrong, but I suspect many in the ‘last minute’ crowd had voted somewhere else as well.” Funny how those duplicate registrations didn’t pop up all over the place in the Missoula County Elections Office.

** In the cases of Ballance and O’Neil, of course, ducking is a bit of a problem, because they have actual voting records. So just so you know: Both earned a score of zero from NARAL Pro-Choice Montana (you can find NARAL’s 2013 voting score card here). O’Neil didn’t get a chance to vote on Title X in 2013, but as a member of the Appropriations Committee, Ballance voted against an attempt by Rep. Kim Dudik to amend HB2, the general appropriations bill, to include Title X funding.  Both voted for HB2 when it left the House, but when the Senate added Title X back in and returned the bill to the House, they voted against it (although that could be because they objected to some other Senate amendment). 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Unfounded Fears

I hoped when I posted recently about paranoia on the Republican right that I could safely forget about the topic for a while. After all, trying to respond to every accusation about the evil intentions of the Federal government, or the Bullock administration, or the Democratic Party, or the Responsible Republican caucus could easily become a full time, crazy-making job. But I couldn’t quite ignore it when I came across this post from Rep. Kerry While, on his Facebook page.*

What’s apparently set off alarm bells for White is that the Interim State-Tribal Relations Committee recently passed a resolution in support of the Salish Kootenai water compact, which White, as you can see, doesn’t like one little bit.  This worries me some, because I’m pretty sure the compact will be coming back to the 2015 Legislature, I’ll be supporting it, and I can just about see White’s hand flying to the red button when the bill hits the House floor.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that supporting the compact is in White’s job description as a member of the Montana House. But it is in his job description that he consider bills carefully, listen to all sides, and ultimately base his yea or nay on sound, legitimate reasons and not on unfounded fears. But so far, unfounded fears appear to be all he’s got.

Case in point: White is afraid that because the Flathead compact recognizes tribal water rights off the reservation, all the other tribes in Montana “will surely reopen their compacts” and claim the “rest of our state water.” But there is no way that could happen. Every tribal water compact that has been negotiated contains language that requires all the parties to agree before the compact can be reopened. Every compact states that it is the final settlement, for “all time,” of all tribal water rights claims. And no Montana tribe, other than the Salish and Kootenai, has ever asserted a claim to off-reservation rights.**

White is afraid that the compact “gives over” state water to the Federal government (in trust for the Tribes), that the Federal government will “gain control” of constitutionally protected state water, and that property owners will be required to “relinquish all claims to their life blood.”

Now I’m not sure that White has actually read the compact, but if he has, he should know that what it does is recognize and quantify various tribal water rights and put a lot of side boards on how those rights can be exercised.  As every water right holder in Montana should know, what a water right allows its owner to do is use a given amount of water in a particular way, and it also tells the owner where they stand in line when, as sometimes unfortunately happens, there’s not enough water in a basin to satisfy every claim on it. Tribal water rights are the same thing. They don’t give ownership of water to anybody or in any way diminish the state’s constitutionally recognized ownership of the underlying resource. They don’t give “control” over water to anybody. They don’t give the Tribes (or the Federal government, if you insist) anything that thousands of other Montana water rights holders don’t have.  And recognizing that one party (tribe, rancher, household, business, or what have you) has a senior right to water from a particular source does not “take away” the junior rights of other parties to water from that source.

In one respect, the compact, far from taking away the water rights of property owners, will actually enhance them. It works like this: as a matter of long established law, the Tribes water rights are senior to everybody else’s. And being senior, the Tribes could, at a time when there wasn’t enough water to go around, tell all those juniors to stop using water. This is termed “making a call” on juniors, and here’s the thing: in the compact the Tribes have agreed either to waive their right to make a call, or have made their senior claims modest enough that the likelihood of most such shortages occurring in the first place is very, very small. Most junior water users across Montana don’t enjoy that kind of protection.

One other thing: you may be wondering about White’s obscure remark regarding Tutvedt and the $22,000 the Tribes contributed to his PAC. Needless to say, I am not a Republican insider, but anybody who’s paying attention knows that Bruce Tutvedt and Kerry White are on opposite sides of the Republican Great Divide. Last spring, when the two factions were running primary campaigns against each other, the Tribes made a $22,000 contribution to the PAC Tutvedt put together to support his side, presumably because his side supports the compact.*** There’s been a certain amount of tongue wagging  on the Republican right about all this, the suggestion being that there's something inappropriate about the Tribes making campaign donations to Republican legislators who support the compact. But for better or worse, that's the way the system works: donors support legislators whose positions they agree with. And in this case, at any rate, that's crystal clear. There's no dark money, no mysterious donors, no hidden agendas,

That's not to say that we shouldn't be worried about the oceans of money in politics or PACs, and their donors, throwing their weight around. But it strikes me as a little unseemly of White to raise the issue. After all, almost 60 percent of the money that he raised in his primary campaign this year came from – you guessed it – PACs. You can find his campaign finance report on the Commission of Political Practices website.

*This is a screenshot, but last time I checked, the post was still up on White’s page and available to all you Facebookers out there. Click here.

** The basis for the Salish and Kootenai claim to off-reservation water rights is specific language in the Stevens treaty that established the reservation. No other tribe in Montana negotiated a Stevens treaty and no other tribal treaty has comparable language. If you want to delve further into what the completed tribal compacts actually say (as opposed to what White apparently thinks they say) click here.

***Full disclosure: Bruce Tutvedt and I co-authored an opinion piece supporting the compact, which I posted here back in August.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Twisting Words

I’m calling a foul on Sen. Alan Olson.

At a meeting of the Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee on Sept. 8, Sen. Olson took me to task for what he apparently believes, or wants you to believe, is my indifference to the wellbeing of the coal miners he represents. I don’t care about these folks, he says, because after all, there are no coal miners in Missoula, and that makes me “flippant” about the impact of the EPA’s proposed carbon standards on his constituents.

It just ain’t so.

What apparently got Sen. Olson’s back up here was a letter that I and four other legislators (who somehow managed to escape Olson’s wrath) wrote back in August, objecting to a proposal by Rep. Keith Regier that the committee write to President Obama expressing adamant opposition to the EPA carbon standards. The draft letter Regier proposed to send was rife with indisputable errors of fact, and  no matter what position it took on the standards, had it been sent it would have reflected badly on the Montana legislature.*

One point in particular in Regier’s letter that we disputed was the claim that the EPA rules would have a “devastating” effect on Montana. Here’s what we said about that:

Although reducing carbon emissions will inevitably require reduced domestic use of coal (unless cost-effective sequestration can be brought on line), at this point it is impossible to know how much Montana’s production will be reduced. Suffice it to say that nothing in the proposed regulations suggests that production will be eliminated, and any reduction in output and employment in the coal industry that does occur will represent a very small fraction of output and employment in the state as a whole. Moreover, to the extent that the regulations call for accelerated development of renewables and energy efficiency investments, there will be positive impacts on employment and output offsetting negative impacts in the coal industry. Accordingly, it is incorrect to conclude that the impact of the regulations will be “devastating.”

And that’s it. That is the sum total of what we said about potential lost jobs in the coal industry: that they would “represent a very small fraction of … employment in the state as a whole.” Indeed, as Thomas and Donovan Power pointed out in a Missoulian column earlier this week, jobs in coal mining amount to about two-tenths of one percent of all the jobs in the state. And you’ve got to remember that even in the worst case, only a fraction (currently unknown) of those jobs will be lost due to enforcement of the EPA regulations.

What we didn’t say in our response to Regier’s letter was that we didn’t care about what happened to coal miners. We didn’t deny the hardship experienced by workers and their families when they lose jobs and livelihoods. We weren’t “flippant” about anything. And we don’t question Sen. Olson’s good intentions when he fights to keep the people in his district working.

But he should fight clean. We offered a reasoned and, I believe, correct assessment of the potential impact of carbon regulations on the Montana economy.  Knowing what that impact will be is critical to formulating the state’s response to the rules. If Sen. Olson disagrees with that assessment, he should explain why. Twisting words to make us sound callous and indifferent is no substitute for that.

*You can read both Regier’s letter and our critique here.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Paranoia about the nefarious and conspiratorial intentions of the Federal government, “Washington bureaucrats,” and the Obama administration has been part and parcel of the conservative Republican mindset for some time now. You know: Obama’s going to take away your guns, indoctrinate your children, march you in front of death panels, make you read the Koran, raise your electricity rates to astronomical levels, etc., etc., etc.

If you’re like me, you’ve pretty much learned to let these ravings slide. Some of them are even kind of funny. But at times they can get your goat. Take, for example, this recent Missoulian opinion piece, by Joanne Blyton.

Blyton, a Republican House member from Carbon County, is all upset about the “gainful employment” rule being proposed by the US Department of Education, which establishes performance standards for vocational programs at community colleges and for-profit institutions such as trade schools. It’s a little complicated, but the basic idea is that under the rule vocational programs whose graduates exceed certain benchmarks with respect to their student loan burdens will lose their eligibility to participate in Federal student loans programs.* The idea is that if a program recruits students, teaches them a trade, tells them they will get a decent job when they graduate and helps them borrow money to pay for the training, it should deliver: Graduates should be gainfully enough employed to repay the loans and not have to use the lion’s share of their income to do it.

Now there is certainly room for a conversation about how this rule is written, how badly it’s needed, how well it will work, and whether it will have unintended consequences. One hopes that that conversation would be grounded in reality, but the representative from Carbon County doesn’t quite get there. According to Blyton, the Department of Education has embarked on a “strange quest to dismantle ‘for profit’ higher education.” She says the rule is an example of the “Orwellian doublespeak we see so often from Washington these days.” It would “severely restrict education opportunities for many Americans.” “It’s a blatant attempt to put a large swath of our higher education system out of business.” And it is “dangerous” because it gives the “Washington bureaucracy…new power to pick and choose favored institutions.”

This is all very odd. According to this report, the Department of Education estimates that there are about 8,000 vocational programs, housed mainly in community colleges and for-profit schools, that would have to comply with the standards. The programs enroll about a million students, which amounts to around 5 percent of total US higher education enrollment. And about 16 percent of these programs would fail under the proposed rule. So let’s get this straight: the rule applies to all vocational programs, not just to for-profit institutions. And while vocational programs are the principal offerings of for-profits, approximately 84 percent of them would not be affected by the rule. Students in the programs that would be affected make up less than 1 percent of total higher education enrollment. How can those numbers possibly be construed to mean that the Federal government wants to dismantle for-profit education or put a “large swath” of the higher education system out of business? How does establishing minimal standards for the success of programs amount to picking and choosing favored institutions?

Blyton is concerned about denying educational opportunity to the students who have no choice but to enroll in programs that can’t comply with the regulations, and well she should be. But she is tone deaf to the real problem these students face. Their educational background is typically poor, they are often disadvantaged economically and socially, their ability to evaluate the usefulness of the vocational programs on offer is limited, and as a result they can be easily deceived into enrolling in institutions that take their money – or worse, the money they borrow – and give them little or nothing in return. That, such as it is, is the educational opportunity we are talking about here. It certainly does not describe what most vocational programs or for-profit institutions provide. The vast majority give their students a useful education; that’s the same vast majority that will comply with the standards. But unfortunately, this educational market is one where bad actors can also easily get a foothold.**

You don’t have to take my word for it. You can go to this Department of Education site and download the “2012 GE Informational Rates.” Do it and browse around a little. You’ll find schools like the Southwest Acupuncture College in Santa Fe, whose graduates’ student loan payments are equal to half their income of $16,900. Or there’s the International Academy of Design and Technology in Chicago. Its graduates have to pay off student loans at an average of $4,300 a year, which is 22 percent of what they earn (better than the acupuncturists!) but 191 percent of their “discretionary” income, i.e. what they earn beyond the poverty level.

Now I’m not saying that the folks running these schools are snake oil salesmen, but there’s definitely a problem here. People are borrowing money to pay for vocational training that doesn’t appear to be doing them much good. Can we agree on that? Can we agree that this is an issue we should take seriously? And if the Department of Education wants to take this issue seriously, can we refrain from outlandish and unfounded accusations about what we think its “real” intentions are?

*Blyton’s description of these standards is a little off. If you want to delve into the details, check out this description by the American Council on Education.

** A wonkish aside: markets like this are characterized by what economists call “asymmetric information,” meaning that the sellers know a lot more than the buyers do about the true quality of the goods trading hands. Back in 1970, Geroge Akerlof wrote a paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics (“The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism”) explaining why, in such markets, low quality goods tend to displace high quality ones. The paper became very famous and has been cited thousands of times in the past 44 years. For his work on asymmetric information Akerlof (with Michael Spence and Joseph Stiglitz) was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Bipartisanship on the Flathead

In case you missed it in the your local newspaper, I am posting below an opinion piece regarding the Flathead Reservation water compact, authored by me and Bruce Tutvedt. Bruce is a Republican senator from Kalispell who, in his non-legislative life, is a farmer-irrigator and represents constituents who have a substantial interest in how the compact turns out. He has been outspoken in his support, which has not always been an easy thing to do. My connection to this issue is that I have been serving on the Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission since 2011, and have been of the Flathead compact negotiating team.

As members of the Montana Senate who come from opposing parties, we have often found ourselves disagreeing about political values, legislative proposals and our constituents’ interests. But one thing we do agree on is that there are times when we all should leave our politics, animosity and distrust at the door and work together to find practical, fair solutions to pressing issues. That’s why we support the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Water Compact and will work for its approval by the 2015 Legislature.

Over three decades ago, the Montana Legislature recognized the potential for serious conflict between the reserved water rights claimed by Federal agencies and Indian tribes, and the state based rights claimed by farmers and ranchers, state and local governments, households, and businesses. Rather than letting these conflicts be resolved by courts after long and expensive legal wrangling, the Legislature set up the Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission and charged it with settling disputes out of court, through negotiation.

Montana’s compacting process has been an outstanding success. It’s taken a while, but we now have 17 negotiated compacts that resolve all outstanding Federal reserved water rights claims, except those on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The reason for that success is that negotiation in good faith works, and it is working in the Flathead.

Although there is still an important piece of the agreement being negotiated, the State, the Federal government and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have already agreed to a settlement that complies with Montana’s Constitution and water laws and will

·    Allow the adjudication of water rights on the reservation to be completed, giving households, businesses, farmers and ranchers clear title to their water rights and providing certainty regarding ownership of the private properties to which those rights are attached.
·          Protect all existing on-reservation, non-irrigation water rights from call by the Tribes.
·        Make a substantial amount of water from Hungry Horse reservoir available to mitigate the impact of future development in the Flathead and Clark Fork drainages.
·        Provide for the infusion of both State and Federal funds to improve the efficiency and infrastructure of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project.
·    Recognize historic Tribal claims to water for fisheries off the reservation in a way that protects almost all existing off-reservation irrigation use.
·       Create an authority for managing on-Reservation water rights in the future in which the Tribes and the State will participate as equal partners.
·        Quantify a right to water that the Tribes can use for development on the Reservation or lease off the Reservation but within Montana.

The piece of the Compact still being negotiated concerns the allocation of water between the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project and in-stream flow to protect fisheries on the many waterways on the Reservation. The goal of all the parties is to assure that through improvements to the project and its operation, senior Tribal claims for in-stream flows to promote healthy fisheries will be recognized without curtailing crop consumptive use of water by Project irrigators.

While we believe that the Compact is a good deal for all parties concerned, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that it has run into bitter and strident opposition as well. We think that much of that opposition is based on fear, old animosities and misunderstanding of what the Compact does and doesn’t do. It simply isn’t true, for example, that the Compact will “take” water rights or private property. It won’t “give the Tribes control over all the water in western Montana.” It won’t end ranching and farming on the Reservation.

These fears and misunderstandings concern us deeply, and we urge all Montanans to take the time to examine closely what has been achieved in these negotiations and to consider carefully the implications of rejecting this agreement. We believe that rejection would lead to years of litigation, untold costs to be borne by individuals and very little prospect of a court determined outcome superior to the benefits the compact now provides.

But our support for this Compact does not come by default. It comes, rather, from our conviction that the settlement has been negotiated in good faith, is fair and practical and will serve well the interests of all Montanans.

Sen. Dick Barrett, Missoula
Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, Kalispell

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Cliven Bundy School of Land Management

When Cliven Bundy and his ragtag posse of supporters staged that showdown with the Federal government last April, most Americans just didn’t get it. I’m talking here about all those folks out there in Boston or Akron or Tallahassee or Petaluma or wherever who regularly put quarters in parking meters or pay bridge tolls or send tuition checks off to the state university, apparently in the belief that when they get something of value they should expect to pay for it.

This point appears to have been lost on all the Sage Brush Rebels, County Movement Enthusiasts, Shovel Brigadiers, Tea Partiers, and Federal Land Seizers who grabbed their guns and rushed off to Nevada to defend Bundy, who for years had grazed his cattle on Federal land and refused to pay for it. In other words, although he dreamed up some cockamamie legal theory about how the land didn’t really belong to the Federal government, Bundy was a deadbeat pure and simple. But that just didn’t seem to bother the folks who rallied around him, ready to shoot it out with the Federales. It was only when Bundy turned out to be a racist as well as a deadbeat that they started to back away.

Now at first blush it might seem a little strange that Bundy’s pals were willing to overlook the fact that he was stiffing the Federal government. After all, these are the people who never tire of telling us what a bang up job they would do managing public lands, but now in the next breath are saying they’re willing to ignore the receivables. How does that work?

On the other hand, of course, these are also the people who have been trying for years to get their hands on public lands and resources with the fewest restrictions and at the lowest prices possible. And if that’s their aim, they’ve gotta love Bundy, who’s the poster child for exploiting Federal land at rock bottom prices. In his case, zero.

So there’s the dilemma: how do people (including a slew of state legislators) who want to take over Federal land get to claim, on the one hand, that they can do a much better job managing it than the Federal government does, and then on the other hand seem ready to rent, sell or lease it at fire sale prices?

The answer, of course, revolves around money and jobs. The takeover artists claim that they want public land management to be “economically productive,” by which they mean that public lands should produce a flow of cash revenue and be exploited in a way that provides jobs and stimulates local economies.

Now nobody’s going to argue that more revenue and more jobs are a bad thing, but using public lands to generate them does not necessarily constitute sound land management. Economically productive management puts land to its highest and best use – the one that creates the greatest net benefits – and that’s not always, or even usually, the use that creates the most jobs or generates the highest cash flow.

That may seem to defy common sense when it comes to what government should do with its resources – surely job creation is a worthy public goal – but think about it another way.  Public land managers could no doubt put an awful lot of people to work if they made access to land and the resources on it really cheap. But whether or not all that work made the land productive would depend on the economic value of what the workers were producing. And if people are only willing to work on the land if they can get access for next to nothing, it’s a safe bet that their use of the land is not going to produce much. It might be tempting to think that at least use of the land has produced a lot of jobs, but as I’ve pointed out before, jobs are not what’s produced, but the cost of production, and efficient management means keeping those costs as low as possible.

When it comes to the demand that they generate revenue, public land managers face another dilemma, because public lands can produce public services for which there is no market but that are nevertheless economically valuable. Think watershed protection or conservation of wildlife habitat: these services have economic value – in fact, a lot of economic value - precisely because they confer material benefits on the public,  just like private services like medical care or a Paul McCartney concert. The only difference is that nobody has to pay in order to get them. Nevertheless, the false notion that commercial values are economic (because they have a dollar sign attached to them) and environmental values are uneconomic (because there is no dollar sign) is remarkably durable.

Opponents of taking over Federal lands – Jon Tester, for example – worry out loud about how takeover would ultimately result in the public lands being “sold to the highest bidder.” I’m with the opponents, but I don’t think that’s the problem. The problem is that in the name of job creation and revenue generation, access to public land would be sold at rock bottom prices, and the land would end up wasting away in high cost, low valued uses.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Profound Irresponsibility

If he didn’t know it already, Steve Daines has obviously learned since going to Washington that “all politics are local,” and that he should keep his gaze firmly fixed on what’s happening inside Montana’s borders. But really, just how myopic can the guy get?

Danes recently announced that he has introduced something called the “Coal Jobs and Affordable Energy Protection Act,” which would prohibit the EPA’s newly proposed carbon emission regulations from taking effect unless various Federal agencies could certify that the regulations would not result in any loss of jobs or gross domestic product, would not raise electricity rates and would not affect the reliability of electricity delivery.

Now all that may sound sensible and prudent (certainly the Congressman wants you to think so), but understand what it really means: Daines apparently believes that there is no cost, of any kind and however small, that it is worth incurring to secure the benefits of reducing carbon emissions and slowing climate change. None. Zip. Zero.

It is hard to imagine how a politician who never tires of telling us about his background as a successful businessman can take such a short sighted position. What halfway competent businessman would pass up the opportunity to make a modest investment today that will protect his company from catastrophic damages in the future? What businessman worth his salt simply assumes that there is no insurance policy worth paying for?

And it is hard to imagine how a man who claims he cares about families is willing to be so utterly cavalier about the state of the world we are going to hand over to our children and grandchildren. How can a politician who agonizes endlessly about the Federal debt we will leave to our kids believe that we should not inconvenience ourselves one iota to protect the environment we will be leaving them at the same time?

The fact is that for Daines, who apparently can’t see beyond the end of his nose, the EPA regulations are there to wage a “war on coal,” not to arrest, in any minimal way they can, the pace of climate change. In a constituent email Daines quotes Michael Grunwald, writing in Time, to the effect that the EPA regulations “take the war on coal to the next level.” But Daines ignores the rest of Grunwald’s piece, which makes it clear that “In the 21st. century, any national leader that takes environmental protection and the fate of the planet seriously will need to launch a war on coal.” Grunwald’s rhetoric is a little over the top, but I take his point, which Daines should have taken as well: arresting climate change will require us to substantially reduce our dependence on coal and we need to be prepared to make the transition to other energy sources. There’s no future in throwing ourselves on the ground kicking and screaming and shouting “never!”

Of course it could be that Daines, with his eyes fixed firmly on the November elections, doesn’t really take his own bill seriously. Maybe it’s just a sop to throw to the folks back home, to try to convince us he cares. Or maybe Daines is just a climate change denier. We know, after all, that his grasp on science is a little tenuous.

Either way, Daines owes us an explanation for his profound irresponsibility and short sightedness in responding to the threat of climate change. And if he can’t do any better than he’s done so far, we’d better remember that in November.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Figures Don't Lie, But...

As I pointed out in my last post, while a recent US Chamber of Commerce report on the economic impacts of cutting carbon emissions is open to wildly conflicting interpretations, one thing about it is clear: it doesn’t tell us anything very useful about the carbon standards the EPA wants to apply to existing power plants. That’s because the Chamber analyzed the impacts of a substantially bigger cut in emissions than the EPA is actually aiming for, so naturally the impacts are bigger too, although arguably still pretty modest.

This point apparently plumb evades Rick Hill. Hill, a former Republican Congressman, has a column in today’s Missoulian, pumping up Steve Daines for opposing the EPA regulations and bashing John Walsh for supporting them.  Hill is obviously thinking about next November here, and not much else, because he drags in the irrelevant Chamber study to make his case.

And it gets worse. Here’s Hill:

“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates the regulation will decrease the average household’s disposable income by $3,400 as a result of higher prices for energy and a slowdown to the economy. Those income reductions come in addition to an average of a quarter million jobs estimated to be lost each year through 2030.

What Hill doesn’t say – aside from the fact that the Chamber’s numbers are not really based on “the regulation” proposed by the EPA - is that that $3,400 reduction in household disposable income is the total reduction over the 2014-2030 period; annually, that amounts to an average of about $200, or about one third of one percent of current median household income. So our former Congressman has taken an irrelevant number and presented it in the most deceptive and frightening way possible, all with the hope, apparently, of putting a little positive spin on Steve Daines. He should be ashamed of himself.

I know I don’t have any right to expect Hill to believe me when I say the Chamber study is not really applicable to the EPA standards, but it turns out that I’m not the only one who says so. In fact, the Chamber has taken so much flak on that front that it posted a defense of its study’s relevance on its blog. You can read it here, but really, there’s not much of substance to read. There’s a lot of explanation about why the Chamber and EPA emissions reduction targets don’t match, and the odd speculation that since the EPA proposal is only a draft, the agency might at some point bring its target up to the Chamber’s level (and resounding silence on the possibility that it might take its target down). There’s an even odder suggestion that the Chamber study might somehow be relevant because the EPA proposal requires a handful of states to achieve emission reductions as great as those the Chamber analyzed for the nation as a whole.

But in the end, as the Chamber itself says, the “jury is still out.” Maybe, someday, somehow, it will make sense to use the Chamber’s numbers to assess the impact of what the EPA is proposing to do. But that day isn’t here yet, and politicians like Hill should know that, and stop trying to pull the wool over eyes of Montana voters.