Biofuels lobbyists have been successful in securing federal funding and regulatory support. As an industry that thrives on federal subsidies, any threat to its privileged status is a cause for alarm. This week Energy Secretary Stephen Chu set off such alarm when he told a group of alternative energy developers that “if it were up to me, I would put every cent into electric cars.”
It didn’t take a Ph.D. in economics to recognize that the federal “Cash for Clunkers” program would put upward pressure on used-car prices. In nominating it “the dumbest program ever” back in August, Chris Edwards noted that “low-income families, who tend to buy used cars, were harmed because the clunkers program will push up used car prices.”
Yesterday the Wall Street Journal took a lengthy look (subscription required) at the deteriorating financial situation of domestic biofuel producers. According to the Journal:
Try as they might, supporters of big government spending cannot make federal programs work very well. The Department of Energy, for example, has been plagued by mismanagement, cost overruns, and scandals for decades.
Today, the Washington Post reports on the poor performance of DoE’s environmental clean-up programs. As I reviewed in the linked essay, these enormously costly programs have been plagued by mismanagement for at least 25 years. Last week, Lou Dobbs lambasted DOE’s National Ignition Facility in California for its huge cost overruns (Hat Tip: Harrison Moar).
I summarize these costly projects and other DoE boondoggles here. With bipartisan support for increases to energy subsidies, we can expect a raft of bipartisan boondoggles developing over coming months and years.
People who support expanded federal intervention into areas such as energy and health care naively assume that policymakers can make economically rational and efficient decisions to allocate resources. They cannot, as a Washington Post story today on FutureGen illustrates.
The story describes the political battle over the location of a $1.8 billion ”clean coal” plant. I don’t know where the most efficient place to site such a plant is, or if such a plant makes any sense in the first place. But the story illustrates that as soon as such decisions are moved from the private sector to the political arena, millions of dollars are spent to lobby the decisionmakers, and members of Congress are hopelessly biased in favor of home-state spending regardless of what might be best for the national economy as a whole.
President Obama has promised to ramp up spending on such green projects. So get ready for some huge political fights over the big-dollar spoils, and get ready for some monsterous energy boondoggles.
The Senate stimulus bill apparently contains $2 billion for “FutureGen.” Here is what my assistant, Harrison Moar, found out about this project:
FutureGen was launched in 2003 by President Bush as a public-private partnership to build a low-emission coal-fueled power plant and demonstrate technologies to capture carbon dioxide. The government was to share the cost of the project with 12 private energy companies. The project was originally estimated to cost $1 billion, but by 2008 the estimate had ballooned to $1.8 billion. By mid-2008, $176 million had been spent.
In 2007, the Department of Energy chose a single site for the project in Mattoon, Illinois. But after the project’s estimated cost started soaring, the department changed direction in 2008 and cancelled the Mattoon project. That was a good decision, but the government had still flushed $176 million down the drain. The department’s new idea was to focus on developing other clean coal projects in different locations at an estimated taxpayer cost of $1.3 billion.
FutureGen has involved pork barrel politics since the beginning. As the department originally considered various project sites in Illinois and Texas, the state governments in those states deployed aggressive lobbying to woo federal officials. Upon news of possible cancellation of the Mattoon project in 2008, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois swung into action using all his tools as the second-ranking senator to continue the funding to his state. He even threatened to block appointments to the Department of Energy unless it reversed its cancellation decision.
After you’ve watched federal policymaking for a number of years, you realize that the actual effectiveness of federal programs has absolutely no bearing on their survival or level of funding. That’s because the purpose of federal programs is not to solve problems, but to provide a menu of levers that politicians can pull to appeal to certain types of voters.
We see this at play in the 2008 election with “clean coal,” which has attracted the attention of both candidates. Obama wants to “significantly increase the resources devoted to the commercialization and deployment of low-carbon coal technologies.” Meanwhile, McCain has pledged to spend $2 billion a year on clean coal technology if elected.
Since these pledges make for good bullet points in speeches, the campaigns don’t really care about the actual track record of federal subsidies to clean coal. But after the election, the next president should hesitate to increase such corporate welfare. Here is what I noted in Downsizing the Federal Government:
The Washington Post reported yesterday that the cost of new combat ships from Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics will likely be at least $350 million each, instead of the originally budgeted $220 million.
That 59 percent cost increase is routine for big federal procurements. The table below summarizes official government estimates of costs for various defense, energy, and transportation projects.