Saturday, February 22, 2014

Background Check Funny Math

As I noted in an earlier post, Missoula Mayor John Engen and Nancy de Pastino had a fine column about gun violence in the Missoulian last week, in which they called for enhanced background checks for gun sales. And as anyone could have predicted, angry responses are beginning to pop up on the op-ed page.

Daniel Kostelnik’s letter in yesterday’s paper is a case in point. Kostelnik lards his letter with some offensive and bizarre accusations – he apparently believes, for example, that Engen is in cahoots with “rich and powerful people … who are working to disarm all American citizens” – but his main point seems to be that background checks don’t really keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.

Kostelnik claims that “out of thousands of people denied gun purchases, all but 17 were cases of mistaken identity.” In others words, thousands of people (except for those 17) were denied their legitimate Second Amendment right to buy and bear arms. Where he got this ridiculous number he doesn’t say, but it certainly doesn’t square with this U.S. Department of Justice report that in 2010, the last year for which data is available, only 24% of denials were appealed, and only a third of those appeals resulted in the denial being reversed. So about 8% of all denials (there were 2.1 million denials between 1998 and 2010) were eventually reversed. So Kostelnik is asking us to believe that 2.1 million people (minus 17) were denied the ability to purchase a gun because of mistaken identity, and only 8% of them were able to get the error corrected (if they even tried, which most of them didn't)! Believe that if you want, but if you do, I have a bridge to sell you.

According to the DOJ report, about 1.8% of all applications for gun transfers are denied, and opponents of background checks often cite that low number as evidence that the checks don’t work. “See! Those pesky checks hardly stop any felons or abusers or mentally impaired people from getting guns!” Indeed, that’s Kostelnik’s point, although he blows it way out of proportion: the way he figures it, over 118 million background checks have only prevented 17 sales to people who shouldn’t have guns.

But even if the numbers are correct, the reasoning is faulty, because presumably there are a fair number of those folks who shouldn’t have guns who never tried to purchase one (legally) in the first place, precisely because they knew they couldn’t pass the background check. In other words, use whatever numbers you want, the DOJ’s or Kostelnik’s; you still won’t know how effective background checks are at deterring attempts to purchase guns illegally. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Vote Facey!

For me, at any rate, one of the awkward results of legislative redistricting is that I no longer represent a group of constituents who voted for me in 2012, expecting that I would represent them in the Montana Senate for the next four years. That happened because the Redistricting Commission shifted the boundaries of my district a bit, which added some new territory but took away some as well, mainly in the heart of Missoula.

The good news is that when the Commissioners shifted that territory out of my district, they shifted it into Senate District 50, where Sen.Tom Facey is running for reelection. The neighbors in the area couldn’t ask for a better legislator.

I’ve known Tom for quite a while, but it was only during last year’s session that I had the chance to work with him in Helena. He’s a life long teacher, so he brings to the Legislature a deep commitment to education. He understands school finance (which is a challenge to most us), pension systems, workmen’s compensation, labor law, human rights and several other issues that he has worked on, and become an expert about, over the years. In everything he does, he is level headed, thoughtful and a good listener, the type of guy who really can “work across the aisle” and not just talk about it.

So if you’re one of the voters who’s leaving my district, good bye! It’s been a pleasure and a privilege serving as your representative in the Senate. Now when Tom Facey comes around knocking at your door, and he will get there, let him know he has your support. You'll be glad you did.

Pricey Electricity?

Count on Coal Montana was touting a news report in the Washington Examiner last week claiming that electricity prices are going to “soar 80 percent, thanks to EPA coal regulations.” And according to the Examiner, a conservative fish wrapper not usually noted for relying on Obama administration officials, the source for this alarming news was none other than, you guessed it, an Obama administration official.

But before you go out and mortgage the house to pay for this astronomical increase in your electricity bill, take a deep breath and relax. It isn’t going to happen, and Count on Coal Montana should know that. Here’s the story.

Last year the EPA announced limits on the amount of carbon that can be produced by new electrical generation stations, and it was apparent that new coal fired power plants could not operate within those limits without capturing and sequestering a significant portion of their carbon emissions. The problem is that although the technology for sequestration, known as CCS, is technically feasible and has worked in some demonstration projects, it is still very costly, and is not even remotely competitive, on a cost basis, with other technologies such as wind, natural gas, conservation or conventional coal.

Reducing the high cost of CCS has become a project of the Obama administration and last week a Department of Energy official, Julio Friedman, was up on Capitol Hill to give the House Energy and Commerce Committee a report on how that effort is coming along (you can watch a video of the hearing here).  What Friedman was talking about was the cost of CCS, and what he said was that if we had to generate our electricity in CCS-equipped coal-fired power plants under current conditions, the price of electricity would have to go up by about 80 percent for those plants to cover costs. Longer term – in a decade or so – CCS costs and the break-even price would come down.

The future of electricity prices if all new generation were to come from CCS-equipped, coal-fired plants may be an interesting hypothetical for Dr. Friedman and Congress people to contemplate, but here’s the thing: it doesn’t really have much to do with what will actually happen in the electricity market.

When the EPA announced its new source carbon standards last year, there was a great hue and cry, including in the halls Congress, about the “war on coal” the Obama administration was supposedly waging by imposing standards that were so tough that coal couldn’t be burned without CCS. Mandating CCS might make coal even more non-competitive, but as Brad Plummer noted in a Washington Post report, even without the EPA regulations, coal is, and will be for a long time to come, at a big cost disadvantage with respect to natural gas. As a result, Plummer says, “it’s entirely possible that no coal power plants of any type will get built for years, regardless of what the EPA does.” It’s the market, not the President, who’s waging the war on coal, and the price of electricity in that market will be driven by the cost of producing electricity with natural gas, wind and other renewables.

Count on Coal Montana is arguing on the one hand that EPA regulations are driving coal fired power plants out of business and on the other hand, that the price of electricity will be driven by the generation costs in those very same out-of-business plants. Can someone please explain how this works? I just don’t get it.