Friday, March 03, 2006

READER RESPONSE -- Rep. Cox responds to mercury emissions column

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:30 AM |  

Rep. Ray Cox responds to my Pioneer Press column on mercury reduction on his blog. Unfortunately he missed the point of the column. He writes --
Mr. Westover and many other individuals seem to think the only way to accomplish something, whether it is mercury reduction or water clean-up, is to essentially order that a specific task or procedure be implemented. I don’t agree with that thought at all. I want to see our power plants have full flexibility to analyze what system works best for them to reduce mercury. I believe it is the Legislature's job to set a mercury standard through our policy setting process. In this instance I do not believe that we should proscribe specific actions to the power companies operating coal plants.
First, I agree with Rep. Cox that the legislature should never prescribe the technology nor a specific task or procedure that private industry should implement. I agree that power plants should have full flexibility to work out technology to reduce mercury for themselves. Making such prescriptions was not my point. What I took Rep. Cox and Sen. Scott Dibble to task for was setting an objective without full recognitions of the costs involved -- in other words without fully understanding the problem.

If they do understand the problem, that was not made clear their Pioneer Press opinion piece, which was a diatribe against the MPCA, the energy industry and included exaggerations of the danger (not the toxicity) of environmental mercury.

I find Rep. Cox’s statement "I believe it is the Legislature's job to set a mercury standard through our policy setting process” indicative of that lack of understanding. Simply stating a standard, like “a 90 percent reduction” does not indicate any understanding of the costs or consequences of that policy. Rep. Cox provides some examples of government setting standards that further indicate his misconception.
Contrary to what Mr. Westover implies, there are many excellent examples of our great American technology rising to tackle tough issues. In the 1970’s Congress established corporate average fuel efficiency ratings…or CAFÉ standards…for vehicles. They didn’t tell the automobile manufacturers how to accomplish that goal. Congress set strict performance standards and let industry deal with how to meet the standard. During consideration of the CAFÉ standards many individuals and businesses were running around saying ‘it can’t be done.’ But, as we all know, the CAFÉ standards were met without difficulty and America has saved billions of gallons of fuel over the decades because of the standards. I’d like to see them increased now.
CAFÉ standards are a good example of government setting standards without consideration of costs nor unintended consequences and further, not considering those costs and consequences when declaring success.

The intended goal of CAFÉ standards was to decrease fuel consumption , not just produce fuel efficient cars. But what happens when a car gets better gas mileage? People drive more. Better mileage effectively decreases the cost per mile driven in the same way lower fuel prices do. Now that’s a good thing, mind you, and when faced with high-mileage imports as the industry was when CAFÉ standards were first passed, chances are the market would have driven higher mileage vehicles anyway. The point is, the legislation did not accomplish the goal of lower oil consumption, added to the bureaucratic overhead on producing an automobile, and probably didn’t increase the vehicle mileage all that much more than market activity would have.

Groups and publications "as diverse as USA Today, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the National Academy of Sciences and the Harvard Injury Control Center have documented the divergence between vehicle size and passenger safety." A number of studies make the claim that to meet the immediate requirements of the CAFE standards, the quickest and easiest way to meet the objectives was to produce lighter cars (more petroleum-based plastic), which resulted in more fatalities.

The Heritage Foundation concluded that the CAFE standards should not be increased. They should be repealed and replaced with free market strategies. Consumers respond to market signals. As past experience shows, competition can lead to a market that makes gas guzzlers less attractive than safer and more fuel-efficient vehicles. That is the right way to foster energy conservation.

Unintended consequences aside, I will grant that mercury emissions differ from fuel standards in that protecting the health of citizens is a proper function of government -- regulating fuel consumption is not. Nonetheless, working with the market and environmental groups, considering social, economic and environmental factors, the MPCA approach, makes more sense than legislators creating arbitrary standards designed for popularity rather than realism.

And, I would further argue that if public health is the real concern, Rep. Cox and Sen. Dibble look to the vaccine/mercury issue with the same enthusiasm they show for the far less critical danger of smokestack emissions.

Update: Mercury bill could hurt Iron Range mines