Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Coal Ash Regulation

Coal ash from power plants is often stored in local ponds. Although the polluted water becomes extremely dangerous (you want an ice cold glass of coal sludge?), power companies usually build sturdy walls around the sludge ponds to prevent seepage. In December of 2008, however, a Tennessee Valley Authority containment wall in eastern Tennessee broke, spilling 300 million gallons of sludge and flooding 15 homes. The image above shows one of the homes (photo courtesy of the Freakonomics blog and Dorothy Griffith).

The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced that it would begin monitoring coal ash disposal sites. It identified 44 high hazard potential sites, places that are most likely to experience a similar spill. Although this is a great first step, EPA needs to clearly outline its plans for regulating coal ash. According to Stephen Smith:

It’s still unclear to me what the E.P.A.’s ultimate goal here is to do. Are they really going to aggressively regulate this material like they need to, or are they taking more of a hands-off approach?
It will be interesting to see how the EPA handles this issue in the coming months.

Why I Don't Like Politics...

I recently blogged about why I think the Waxman-Markley climate-change bill is a bad idea. (The House, by the way, approved the bill last Friday.) As I mentioned in the previous post, I don't think that climate-change regulation is undesirable per se. I instead think that (a) the costs of this ill-conceived cap-and-trade scheme will outweigh the benefits and that (b) a carbon tax is far preferable.

Anyway, the breakdown of how members of the House voted on this bill reminded me of the vote on the stimulus package. No Republicans voted for the stimulus bill, while only eight Republicans voted for Waxman-Markey. These outcomes are stark examples of why I hate politics.

I find it very hard to believe that virtually all Republicans thought that both the stimulus and the climate-change bills were terrible. It is thus seems clear that, on these important issues, Republicans voted strictly along party lines. If party membership determined their congressional votes, members of Congress did not necessarily vote according to what they felt would be best for our country. And that, in my view, is a major problem. (To be fair, I'm equally certain many Democrats simply voted along party lines.)

The two-party system does more harm than good. The parties largely determine how members of Congress will vote on each issue. If party members stray, their reelection funding source may be cut off. With Waxman-Markey, conservative bloggers are absolutely livid about the eight Republicans who voted for it, saying that they have betrayed the principles of the Republican party (you know, the principles that President Bush and Congress upheld so firmly over the last eight years - principles like low government spending and limited government interference).

Maybe it seems silly that I'm upset about the backlash against Republicans who voted for Waxman-Markey, since I'm not in favor of the bill. But I would much prefer politicians who vote on the basis of what they think is best. Sure I may disagree with their votes, but at least I'm disagreeing with their ideas - not with what the party thinks best.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Regulatory Czar

President Obama, in what I view to be one of his best decisions, nominated Cass Sunstein to lead the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. The so-called regulatory czar can have an enormous effect on environmental regulations and regulatory analysis, since OIRA is required to review and approve regulations that have a $100 million-plus effect on the economy. I have enormous respect for Professor Sunstein. Much of my research coincides with Sunstein's solid work on the value of human life and cost-benefit analysis.

The Hill, however, reports that Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) wishes to block Sunstein's nomination. The basis for Sen. Chambliss's opposition is statements Sunstein made about hunting and the rights of plants and animals. I find this resistance silly for at least three reasons.

First, no matter what Republicans do, they likely don't have enough votes to block the confirmation of Sunstein. Second, on all matters related to his future job description, Sunstein is quite moderate. Republicans can't hope to do much better but could certainly do much worse. Third, Sunstein likely won't be required to review hunting regulations. Even if he did, he would be required by law to follow cost-benefit guidelines, not his own political agenda.

I hope Sunstein is confirmed as soon as possible.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Man on the Moon

I finally watched In the Shadow of the Moon this weekend. It was an inspiring movie. It reminded me of why, as a child, I wanted to be an astronaut. The movie also made me wish our current space exploration program wasn't so tepid. I was glad to find out that NASA's planning a moon base, from which we could attempt a trip to Mars. It's not surprising that this new push to return to the moon and, eventually, Mars is fueled by foreign countries' plans to travel to the moon.

"The new thing is China, and they've announced they're going to the moon. The Europeans want to go; the Russians want to go; and if we don't go, maybe they'll go with the Chinese," Mars Institute Chairman Pascal Lee said in an interview.

The U.S.S.R.'s planned lunar trip provided impetus for our original trips to the moon. The wonders of competition can aid scientific achievement, too.

The movie also reminded me what our nation - and our government - can accomplish by working resolutely on a single problem. Our success, for a moment at least, created a bond between all nations. I wonder if working on the climate-change problem could have a similar effect on the nations of the world. I doubt it, since the results won't be as dramatic and visible as the picture above.