Think tanks wrap-up

May 28, 2003 at 6:33 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 28 (UPI) -- The UPI think tank wrap-up is a daily digest covering opinion pieces, reactions to recent news events and position statements released by various think tanks. This is the first of three wrap-ups for May 28. Contents: What's wrong with the energy bill; Jayson Blair and media dishonesty.

The National Center for Policy Analysis

(The NCPA is a public policy research institute that seeks innovative private sector solutions to public policy problems.)

DALLAS, Texas -- Energy bill mistakes: Let's call the whole thing off

By H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D.

The ultimate goals of a new "National Energy Policy" should be economic growth and consumer freedom of choice. Unfortunately, versions of the energy bill currently being debated in Congress include some economically harmful proposals designed to appease certain politically powerful constituencies.

The most harmful provisions include greenhouse gas emissions limits, renewable energy mandates and increased fuel economy standards. If enacted, these regulations would retard economic growth and reduce consumer choice. Proponents of the theory that human activities (primarily energy use) are causing global warming are attempting to use the energy bill as a vehicle to restrict greenhouse gas emissions.

George W. Bush announced early in his presidency that the United States would not implement the Kyoto Protocol for the control of greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, a number of legislators have attempted to attach climate change provisions to energy legislation. They would set mandatory caps on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants or cut greenhouse gas emissions through a system of government credits to encourage early action by industry or both.

Although all mammals exhale CO2, one proposal would treat CO2 as an air pollutant like mercury, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide -- which are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. It would require that power plants reduce the emissions of these gases via a "cap and trade" mechanism. This means setting a cap on total emissions and auctioning CO2 emissions allowances to energy producing firms that could use them or trade the allowances.

Whatever the merits of using a cap and trade approach to reduce pollution, there is no good argument for demanding drastic reductions in CO2 emissions. CO2 is not a pollutant and is not toxic at any foreseeable atmospheric level. Rather, CO2 is essential to life on earth.

CO2 is implicated in global warming as a heat-trapping greenhouse gas. But capping U.S. CO2 emissions would not reduce the threat of global warming. According to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, even if the United States cut its greenhouse gas emissions to the level required by the Kyoto Protocol and all of the other nations met their greenhouse-gas reduction targets, the reduction in average global temperatures would be less than a half-degree Celsius.

This negligible reduction would come at the steep cost of a 50 percent increase in energy prices, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates, and a one percent drop in gross domestic product and a million jobs lost, according to Energy Information Administration projections.

Even establishing a system that awards credits to companies for voluntarily reducing emissions creates problems. A system of early action credits would measure emissions reductions under voluntary plans. Companies would then be able to count their voluntary reductions against emissions if reductions later become mandatory. Accordingly, voluntary credits likely would encourage industry to lobby for a mandatory cap since the emissions credits would have no appreciable market value unless the cap were mandatory.

Various legislators have also attempted to embed a renewable energy portfolio in the proposed national energy policy. This mandate would require each energy provider to ensure that a set percentage (usually 10 or 20 percent) of its delivered energy comes from a renewable energy source within the next 10 to 15 years.

Proponents argue that this will improve air quality, reduce the threat of global warming and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign energy supplies. However, due to high cost and environmental problems, the best research indicates that renewable sources -- excluding hydroelectric dams - will continue to provide less than 10 percent of our energy needs during the next 50 years.

After more than 30 years and billions of dollars of government subsidies, neither wind nor solar power is economically competitive with fossil fuel. The costs for both solar power and wind power have fallen considerably during the past 20 years, but even with generous subsidies:

-- New solar power capacity is triple the cost of new natural gas-generated electricity and quadruple the cost of power bought on the open (spot) market.

-- New wind power capacity costs 50 to 100 percent more than new gas-generated electricity and spot-market power.

-- Also, both wind and solar power suffer from intermittency problems. Wind turbines only work when the wind blows above certain speeds and solar arrays only work when the sun shines. This requires that both types of plants be backed up by fossil fuel power plants -- an expensive redundancy.

In addition, these renewable energy technologies have their own negative environmental impacts. For instance, both types of plants take up enormous amounts of space. They are often sited in undeveloped or pristine areas, where they detract from the sites' environmental and recreational values. When sited near developed areas, they cause visual blight, and in the case of wind power, noise pollution. Wind turbines have the added environmental drawback that they kill thousands of migratory songbirds, waterfowl and raptors each year.

If the United States experiences even modest economic growth during the next 20 years, electricity demand could increase by more than 45 percent. Thus, requiring each utility's generating portfolio to include a significant portion of intermittent, high-cost wind and solar energy would condemn the nation to energy shortages and stagnant economic growth.

Some lawmakers have argued that increasing the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standard would improve America's energy security while reducing the threat of global warming.

CAFE was enacted during the 1975 "energy crisis." It required auto manufacturers to meet certain mileage standards or pay a tax on high-fuel-consumption vehicles. The goal of CAFE was to reduce America's reliance on foreign oil. While today's automobiles and trucks get substantially more miles per gallon than those in the 1970s, oil imports have risen from 35 percent of U.S. consumption in 1974 to more than 52 percent today.

Improved fuel economy and declining oil prices have made driving significantly less expensive. When driving is cheap, people drive more -- on the average, twice as many miles as they did when CAFE was enacted.

Concerning global warming, the EPA has estimated that, at most, 1.5 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions come from cars and light trucks. As a result, raising CAFE standards to 40 mpg would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by less than half of one percent -- a negligible amount.

Furthermore, the National Academy of Sciences reported that increasing CAFE standards could be counterproductive. It might reduce greenhouse gas emissions from automobile tailpipes, but greenhouse gas emissions from the production of substitute materials used to make the cars more efficient -- such as aluminum, carbon fibers or plastics -- could substantially offset gains achieved through improved fuel economy.

Few policy issues have as direct a bearing on our well being as a national energy policy. A bad energy policy can hamper economic growth. Thus, when shaping an energy policy, legislators should focus on economic growth and consumer choice. The policy provisions discussed above would restrict our sources of energy, burden the economy and limit consumer choice. They do not merit inclusion in a national energy policy.

(H. Sterling Burnett is a senior fellow for the National Center for Policy Analysis. He specializes in issues involving environmental policy and gun policy.)

DALLAS, Texas -- Stopping the next Jayson Blair

By Bruce Bartlett

The Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times has engendered more commentary than any similar press scandal I can recall. Although in substance, the scandals involving Janet Cooke at the Washington Post, Stephen Glass and Ruth Shalit at the New Republic, and Mike Barnacle at the Boston Globe are similar, the Blair scandal seems to have much greater resonance.

In part, this is due to the gross politicization of the New York Times under its executive editor, Howell Raines, and publisher Arthur Sulzberger III. Editorial opinion and news stories have become blurred to a greater extent than any time in the paper's history, most famously in its campaign to admit women to the Augusta Golf Club. So intense was this campaign that the Times even spiked a column (eventually published) by its most respected sports columnist, Pulitzer Prize winner Dave Anderson, because it took a contrary view.

To me, the most extraordinary aspect of the Blair scandal, in which he routinely made up quotes and stories, is that no one seriously complained. Apparently, any number of people saw stories about them by Blair that were patently false and quotes from them that were never uttered, yet they didn't even ask for a correction.

Of course, the fact that the Times ignored many of those who did raise concerns is also a stain on the paper's record. But I find it amazing that so many people who were abused by Blair just said, "to hell with it" or "why bother." They may even have felt that this sort of thing is standard at the Times. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz has called this possibility "pretty depressing stuff."

I've never spoken to Blair, but I have been quoted many times in the New York Times and other major papers. I have to say, I have never bothered to correct a reporter's misquotation of my words -- even when it was grossly in error. In my business, I want to be quoted. As long as they spell my name right, why should I risk alienating a reporter by asking for a correction when no one reads corrections anyway?

It is all done just for the sake of appearance. Papers don't even bother adding notations to their online editions when corrections are published. I am sure that all of Blair's articles will forever remain in the Times database exactly as written, even though the Times now acknowledges them to be false.

When memories of the Blair scandal fade, how will future readers -- researching, for example, the D.C. sniper story -- know that much of the material in the Times archives is a lie? Unless they are especially diligent, they won't.

I think that much of the jaded attitude that many people now have toward the press is the result of knowing stories first hand. This used to be a rare phenomenon. But because of cable news and the Internet, it is now common for many people to have seen stories first hand or to have read the primary source material upon which the story is based. Therefore, they are able to judge for themselves whether a story is accurate or not, or whether it has a bias that would otherwise be unknown.

This phenomenon first hit me when I went to work in Congress in the mid-1970s. For the first time, I was routinely able to read stories in papers like the New York Times about events that I had witnessed. The juxtaposition between what I knew to be the case and the often-distorted picture I read in the paper was a real eye-opener. But in those days, there was nothing one could do about it.

Today it is different. One can easily post documents, pictures, audio and video on the web so that people can find for themselves what the true facts are, without having to take the word of a New York Times reporter. Just recently, a friend of mine who was viciously maligned by an old girlfriend -- whose lies were widely repeated in the Washington Post and elsewhere -- was able to clear his name by posting documents on the web. Even one of his political enemies was forced to admit that the accusations were false, as much as he wished they were true in order to discredit my friend.

My friend's ability to clear himself would not have been possible in the pre-Internet age. Those wanting to know the truth would have had nowhere to turn. Hence, the lies likely would have dogged him forever.

In the same way, lies about President Bush, Newt Gingrich and others can now be exposed in ways that were impossible in the past. That spells the end of bias in the major media and why liars like Jayson Blair will no longer get a free pass.

(Bruce Bartlett is a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis.)

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