Monday, February 2, 2009

Greenhouse Gas Regulation in TX Leg

Texas politics takes center stage tomorrow with our guest lecturer, State Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin). The new House Speaker, Joe Strauss (R-San Antonio), is perceived as more moderate and amenable to increased environmental regulation than his predecessor, and this has sparked the filing of a number of bills regarding climate change, as noted in this recent article in the Austin American-Statesman:
Although Sen. Ellis' bill requiring the state to emit no more greenhouse gases in 2023 than in 1990 is unlikely to even reach the floor of the GOP-controlled Senate, the fact that it has been offered by this well-known Senator, that much of the Legislature appears to be moving in a direction at least more hospitable to it, and that similar bills have been passed into law by states like California I think warrants some response.

While the goal is worthy, I believe the timing, opacity, and seemingly arbitrary nature of the bill make this a poor option. As we all know, the nation is mired in a severe recession right now, and some of Texas' largest industries are the oil, gas, and chemical industries, which by their nature emit greenhouse gases. Legislation cracking down on or even bringing increased uncertainty upon these industries at this point in time would impact jobs and tax revenues in our state at a time when we can least afford it. As Sen. Averitt notes, coordinated action at the federal level is preferable to this alternative, since these industries can just move to another state, taking their jobs and tax payments with them, if faced with uniquely harsh regulations in Texas.

The bill itself also seems fairly arbitrary - what's so magical about the years 1990 and 2023? Also, how is it going to be enforced, and what industries or groups will this burden fall on? Will motorists convert to electric cars that are powered by coal plants, or perhaps will our open spaces be filled with wind and solar farms while drivers continue to drive as they have? Would the Legislature, easily swayed by political motives, be empowered to decide on whose shoulders this burden will fall, or would unelected, unaccountable (though politically insulated) bureaucrats hidden in a basement away from the lobbyists and the citizens of Texas make these decisions? Most importantly, would there be any sort of ongoing cost/benefit analysis on how beneficial the results yielded by this ongoing effort are, or will the directives be strictly mandatory, no matter if reducing CO2 emissions the last 1% costs $100 or $100 billion?

While setting grand targets and pledging to meet them makes for great sound bites, the failure of almost all Kyoto signatories to live up to their pledges provides a useful lesson on the advantages of small, focused, and measurable advances versus willing the accomplishment of massive feats. When William Bratton took over as police chief in an out of control New York City in the early 1990s, he focused the NYPD not on reducing crime city-wide, which was widely regarded as hopelessly entrenched, but for each precinct to focus on cleaning up their precinct block by block. As gains were made on the individual unit level, the crime rate for the entire city plummeted. Similarly, a detailed, market-oriented, adjustable program focused on incremental improvement would likely provide deeper emissions cuts with more responsiveness to public needs than simple decrees like Sen. Ellis' bill.


David Wogan said...

You raise some really great points. It's encouraging that climate change related bills are being floated in the Lege and equally important is to not alienate or harm businesses by regulation. It seems Texas is at a critical point where it can choose to capitalize on climate change regulation or be left behind by it.

rmk said...

An important consideration, also articulated in class by Rep. Mark Strama, is that policy can be a vehicle for transformation of industry. Likewise, I believe that Nick also brings a salient point to bear in his example of NYPD’s approach to crime reduction: that we also have need of a shift in culture on a local level. Over the past year a large number of people got engaged on a more intimate level with the national presidential campaign, holding frequent house parties and discussions. While I don’t mean to inject partisanship into this conversation, I think that there is an important theoretical change at work and which we desperately need in order to really move the ball forward both in terms of our energy and our finances.

Solutions are not simple (else this might already be solved) and we as citizens cannot sit idly by and hope that politics as usual can resolve our crises on many fronts. It is time for us to stand up, “block by block” and get engaged in the discussion and the transformation. I think that we would all agree that we cannot allow Texas to fall behind as a center of economic activity and wealth, and we see today the need to anticipate how the world is changing. The time is now to participate in the discussion from the top down to create the best possible policy to carry us forward, and to change our individual expectations (e.g. of how much we can/should consume/pollute as households, communities, as a State and Nation), culture, and behavior.

We need both forward-thinking policy and grass-roots change!