The Real Options for U.S. Climate Policy

The time has not yet come to throw in the towel regarding the possible enactment in 2010 of meaningful economy-wide climate change policy (such as that found in the Waxman-Markey legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in June, 2009, or the more recent Kerry-Lieberman proposal in the Senate).  Meaningful action of some kind is still possible, or at least conceivable.  But with debates regarding national climate change policy becoming more acrimonious in Washington as midterm elections approach, it is important to ask, what are the real options for climate policy in the United States – not only in 2010, but in 2011 and beyond.  That’s the purpose of this essay.

Federal Policy Options

Let’s begin my considering Federal policy options under two distinct categories:  pricing instruments and other approaches.  Carbon-pricing instruments could take the form of caps on the quantity of emissions (cap-and-trade, cap-and-dividend, or baseline-and-credit), or approaches that directly put carbon prices in place (carbon taxes or subsidies).  Beyond pricing instruments, the other approaches include regulation under the Clean Air Act, energy policies not targeted exclusively at climate change, public nuisance litigation, and NIMBY and other public interventions to block permits for new fossil-fuel related investments.  I will discuss each of these in turn.

Quantity-Based Carbon Pricing

I’ve frequently written about cap-and-trade in the past (See, for example:  Here We Go Again: A Closer Look at the Kerry-Lieberman Cap-and-Trade Proposal; Eyes on the Prize:  Federal Climate Policy Should Preempt State and Regional Initiatives; Any Hope for Meaningful U.S. Climate Policy? You be the Judge; Confusion in the Senate Regarding Allowance Allocation?; Cap-and-Trade versus the Alternatives for U.S. Climate Policy; Can Countries Cut Carbon Emissions Without Hurting Economic Growth?; Cap-and-Trade: A Fly in the Ointment? Not Really; National Climate Change Policy: A Quick Look Back at Waxman-Markey and the Road Ahead; Worried About International Competitiveness? Another Look at the Waxman-Markey Cap-and-Trade Proposal; The Wonderful Politics of Cap-and-Trade: A Closer Look at Waxman-Markey; The Making of a Conventional Wisdom), and so I will be very brief on this instrument in this essay.

A Quick Reminder about Cap-and-Trade

In brief, there are four principal merits of the cap-and-trade approach to achieving significant reductions of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.  First, this approach achieves overall targets at minimum aggregate cost, that is, it is cost-effective, both in the short term by allocating responsibility among sources, and in the long term, by providing price signals that will drive technological innovation and diffusion of carbon-friendly technologies.  Second, the allowance allocation under a cap-and-trade system can be used to build a constituency of political support across sectors and geographic areas without driving up the cost of the program or reducing its environmental performance.  Third, we have significant experience in the United States with the use of this approach, including during the 1980s to phase out leaded gasoline from the marketplace, and since the 1990s to cut acid rain by 50 percent.  Fourth, and of great importance, a domestic cap-and-trade system can be linked directly and cost-effectively with cap-and-trade systems and emission-reduction-credit systems in other parts of the world to keep costs down domestically.

Three principal concerns have been voiced about cap-and-trade systems in U.S. debates.  First, while a cap-and-trade system constrains the quantity of emissions, the costs of control are left uncertain (although such cost uncertainty can be limited — if not eliminated — through the use of safety valves, price collars, or related mechanisms).  Second, in the wake of concerns regarding the roll that financial markets played in the global recession, there have been many fears about the possibilities of market manipulation in a cap-and-trade system.  A third concern – in a political context – is that this cost-effective approach to environmental protection, pioneered by the Republican administration of President George H. W. Bush, has – ironically — been demonized by conservatives in current debates.

That said, a variety of pending design issues will need to be addressed in the development of any cap-and-trade system, including:  ambition, scope (suddenly important because of a renewed focus in Washington on the possibility of a utility-only cap), point of regulation in the economy, allowance allocation, the role of offsets, cost-containment mechanisms, international competition protection, and regulatory oversight.  (I’ve written about all of these design issues in previous essays at this blog and elsewhere.)

A Design-Change for Cap-and-Trade?

Does the current political climate call for a design change — or at least a name change — for cap-and-trade?   Both stepwise and sectoral approaches are being considered.  A stepwise approach of beginning with one or a few sectors of the economy and subsequently expanding gradually to an economy-wide program was embodied in both the Waxman-Markey legislation and in the Kerry-Lieberman proposal.  Under a sectoral approach, cap-and-trade would be used for some sectors, but other approaches would be used for other parts of the economy.  To some degree, the Kerry-Lieberman proposal embodies this approach.  The current focus in Washington is on the possibility of using cap-and-trade for the electricity sector only.

Although the politics may argue for a stepwise or sectoral approach, it should be recognized that neither is likely to be cost-effective, because it is highly unlikely that marginal abatement costs will be equated across all sectors of the economy without the use of a single (implicit) price on carbon.

So the potential approach now receiving much attention in Washington of employing a cap-and-trade system in the electricity sector only would — in all likelihood — achieve less in terms of overall emissions reductions, and would not be cost-effective (due to the exclusion of other sectors).  However, it is at least conceivable that will prove to be the best among politically-feasible paths to a better future policy.  That is, of course, a political — not an economic — question.

A Populist Approach?

Populism has emerged as a major theme in recent electoral politics in the United States, both from the left and from the right.  What might be characterized as a populist approach would be a cap-and-trade system with 100% of the allowances auctioned and the auction revenue returned directly “to the people.”  Although this is a standard variant of cap-and-trade design, contemporary politics — with its demonization of the phrase “cap-and-trade” — might well argue for a name change:  how about “cap-and-dividend?”

This approach is embodied in the CLEAR Act of Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).  The merits of this approach include its simplicity, appearance of fairness, and related appeal to the populist mood.  Concerns, however, include the proposal’s relatively modest environmental achievements (according to an analysis by the World Resources Institute), its overall cost due to restrictions on trading, and its apparent political infeasibility, given its lack of visible support in the Congress.

Other Trading Mechanisms

In addition to cap-and-trade, the other major type of tradable permit system is an emission-reduction-credit system, or baseline-and-credit system.  Because such approaches lack caps, they raise some well-known concerns, in particular the necessity of comparing actual emissions with what emissions would have been in the absence of the policy.  In such a system, the latter is fundamentally unobserved and unobservable.  This is the problem of “additionality,” which comes up in spades in the case of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), but also in the context of most other offset programs.

A related trading mechanism is found in the Clean Energy Standards approach, embodied in Senator Richard Lugar’s (R-Indiana) legislative proposal.  This mechanism is similar to a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), but allows for a broader set of qualified sources;  not only renewables, but also nuclear power, fossil fuel power with carbon capture and storage (CCS), and – in principle — efficient natural gas.  If the clean energy credits are denominated in units of carbon free megawatt hours and are tradable, then the merits of this approach include the flexibility that is provided through trading.  The concerns include the lack of an emissions cap, and the difficulty of expanding this approach to other sectors or linking it with a cap-and-trade system.  However, if the clean energy credits are denominated in emissions per megawatt hour, then the program can more easily be converted to or linked with a cap-and-trade system.

Direct Carbon Pricing

A carbon tax system would be similar in design to an upstream cap-and-trade approach.  There is some real interest in this approach, mainly from academics, and there is also what I would characterize as “strategic interest,” principally from those who recognize that once the focus is on carbon taxes rather than other instruments, political debates will inevitably result in less ambitious targets or, in fact, no policy at all.

Carbon Taxes in Brief

Having said this, the merits of a carbon tax approach compared with cap-and-trade include the fact that cost uncertainty is eliminated with the tax approach (although, of course, there is quantity uncertainty, that is, no emissions cap).  And, I mentioned earlier, the cost uncertainty inherent in a cap-and-trade system can be reduced, if not eliminated, with cost-containment mechanisms such as a price collar.

Another merit of the carbon tax approach is that it would generate substantial revenues (as would a cap-and-trade system in which the allowances are auctioned).  These revenues can be used – in principle – for a variety of worthwhile public purposes, including reducing distortionary taxes, which would serve to lower the overall social cost of the policy.  Third, the tax approach is (at least perceived to be) much simpler than the allowance market that would be generated by a cap-and-trade scheme.

Major concerns regarding carbon taxes are fourfold.  First, despite their social cost-effectiveness, pollution taxes can be more costly to the regulated sector than even a non-cost-effective command-and-control instrument.  Second, unlike cap-and-trade, the tax approach lacks a benign mechanism for building political constituency, and is likely to lead to requests for tax exemptions, and hence a less ambitious policy and possibly a more costly one.  Third, although it is not impossible to link such as system internationally (for purposes of cost containment), it is more challenging to do so than with the quantity based cap-and-trade alternative.  A fourth and final concern is the apparent political infeasibility of this approach, at least currently in the United States.

In this regard, it is important to note that what has frequently been interpreted as hostility to cap-and-trade in the U.S. Senate is actually – on closer inspection — broader hostility to the very notion of carbon pricing (or any climate change policy).  Surely, the political reception to a carbon tax would be even less enthusiastic than the reception that has greeted recent cap-and-trade proposals.

Subsidies:  The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

If it’s so politically difficult to tax “bad behavior,” how about subsidizing “good behavior?”  The mirror image of a tax is indeed a subsidy, and two potential price-based approaches to achieving greenhouse gas emission reductions are the use of climate-friendly subsidies and the elimination of problematic subsidies that exacerbate the climate problem.

In thinking about climate-friendly subsidies, we should first keep in mind that the Obama economic stimulus package enacted by the Congress includes significant subsidies (and tax credits) for renewables and efficiency upgrades — to the tune of about $80 billion.  A major problem has been that the administration (in particular, the Department of Energy) has been finding it difficult to spend the money fast enough.  Also, some would consider subsidies for biofuels, such as ethanol, as falling within this category of climate-friendly subsidies, but clearly that is a matter of considerable controversy.

Principal among the problematic subsidies – and hence major candidates for reduction or elimination – are subsidies for the development and use of fossil fuels.  According to the Environmental Law Institute, U.S. fossil-fuel subsidies and tax breaks currently amount to $8-$10 billon per year.  At the global level, the International Energy Agency has estimated that such fossil-fuel subsidies now amount to $550 billion annually!  President Obama proposed at the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh in November, 2009, that such subsidies be phased out around the world, and there seemed at the time to be broad-based support for this proposal.  However, it should not be surprising that less than a year later, it now appears that the commitment may be watered down somewhat at the G20 meeting in Toronto this June.

The merit of trying to use climate-friendly subsidies is based on the fact that subsidies affect relative prices, much like taxes do, but are much more politically attractive, since politicians prefer to give out benefits rather than costs to their constituents.  And eliminating problematic subsidies can be economically efficient.

But a major concern of using climate-friendly subsidies is that the funds go not only to marginal units that otherwise would not be taking specific actions, but also to infra-marginal units that are pleased to accept the funds, but whose behavior is unaffected by them.  This means that this approach is relatively costly to the government (and to society at large) for what is accomplished.  And a concern of removing fossil fuel subsidies – particularly in the current political climate of worries about oil imports – is that this can work against so-called “energy security” (some have therefore suggested the addition of an “oil import fee”).

Climate Change Regulation under the Clean Air Act

Regulations of various kinds may soon be forthcoming – and in some cases, will definitely be forthcoming – as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA and the Obama administration’s subsequent “endangerment finding” that emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare.  This triggered mobile source standards earlier this year, the promulgation of which identified carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, thereby initiating a process of using the Clean Air Act for stationary sources as well.

Those new standards are scheduled to begin on January 1, 2011, with or without the so-called “tailoring rule” that would exempt smaller sources.  Among the possible types of regulation that could be forthcoming for stationary sources under the Clean Air Act include:  new source performance standards; performance standards for existing sources (Section 111(d)); and New Source Review with Best Available Control Technology standards under Section 165.

The merits that have been suggested of such regulatory action are that it would be effective in some sectors, and that the threat of such regulation will spur Congress to take action with a more sensible approach, namely, an economy wide cap-and-trade system.

However, regulatory action on carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act will accomplish relatively little and do so at relatively high cost, compared with carbon pricing.  Also, it is not clear that this threat will force the hand of Congress.  Indeed it is reasonable to ask whether this is a credible threat, or will instead turn out to be counter-productive (when stories about the implementation of inflexible, high-cost regulatory approaches lend ammunition to the staunchest opponents of climate policy).

Furthermore, there is the question of possible preemption.  Although Senator Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) resolution was defeated in the Senate, Senator Jay Rockefeller’s (D-West Virginia) proposal of a two-year delay of Clean Air Act regulatory action is still pending; and depending upon the outcome of the November elections, there may be a series of further Congressional actions to tie the hands of EPA in this regard.

Regulation of Conventional Pollutants under the Clean Air Act

It’s also possible that air pollution policies for non-greenhouse gas pollutants, the emissions of some of which are highly correlated with CO2 emissions, may play an important role.  For example, the three-pollutant legislation co-sponsored by Senator Thomas Carper (D-Delaware) and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), focused on SOx, NOx, and mercury, could have profound impacts on the construction and operation of coal-fired electricity plants, without any direct CO2 requirements.  Beyond this, there are also possibilities of policies for the non-CO2 greenhouse gases.

Important, Unanswered Questions

An important pending question regarding EPA’s use of the Clean Air Act is whether EPA may legally create CO2 cap-and-trade or offset markets under existing Clean Air Act authority.  The answer appears to be “probably yes.”  There is positive precedent from EPA’s emissions trading program of the 1970s, and it’s a leaded gasoline phase-down of the 1980s, although recent court decisions regarding the Bush administration’s Clean Air Interstate Rule may cause concern in this regard.

The more important question, however, may turn out to be whether EPA can politically create significant CO2 markets in the face of Congressional opposition.  The answer to this is considerably less clear.

Energy Policies Not Targeted Exclusively at Climate Change

The “positive politics” generated by the Gulf oil spill, combined with the “negative politics” of addressing climate change explicitly, may well increase the likelihood of so-called “energy-only” legislation being enacted this year.  Senator Jeff Bingaman’s (D-New Mexico) bill from the Environment and Natural Resources Committee and perhaps Senator Richard Lugar’s bill will feature centrally in any bipartisan initiative.

The possible components of such an approach which would be relevant in the context of climate change include:  a national renewable electricity standard; Federal financing for clean energy projects: energy efficiency measures (building, appliance, and industrial efficiency standards; home retrofit subsidies; and smart grid standards, subsidies, and dynamic pricing policies); and new Federal electricity-transmission siting authority.

Other Legal Mechanisms

Even without action by the Congress or by the Administration, legal action on climate policy is likely to take place within the judicial realmPublic nuisance litigation will no doubt continue, with a diverse set of lawsuits being filed across the country in pursuit of injunctive relief and/or damages.  Due to recent court decisions, the pace, the promise, and the problems of this approach remain uncertain.

Beyond the well-defined area of public nuisance litigation, other interventions which are intended to block permits for new fossil energy investments, including both power plants and transmission lines will continue.  Some of these interventions will be of the conventional NIMBY character, but others will no doubt be more strategic.

Does the Road to National Climate Policy Need to Go through Washington?

With political stalemate in Washington, attention may increasingly turn to regional, state, and even local policies intended to address climate change.  The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the Northeast has created a cap-and-trade system among electricity generators.  More striking, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (Assembly Bill 32, or AB 32) will likely lead to the creation of a very ambitious set of climate initiatives, including a statewide cap-and-trade system (unless it’s stopped by ballot initiative or a new Governor, depending on the outcome of the November 2010 elections).  The California system is likely to be linked with systems in other states and Canadian provinces under the Western Climate Initiative.

These sub-national policies will interact in a variety of ways – some good, some bad — with Federal policy when and if Federal policy is enacted.  As Professor Lawrence Goulder (Stanford University) and I have written in a new paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), some of these interactions could be problematic, such as the interaction between a Federal cap-and-trade system and a more ambitious cap-and-trade system in California under AB 32, while other interactions would be benign, such as RGGI becoming somewhat irrelevant in the face of a Federal cap-and-trade system that was both more stringent and broader in scope.

An important question is whether there can be sensible sub-national policies even in the presence of an economy-wide Federal carbon-pricing regime?  The answer is surely yes, partly because other market failures will continue to exist that are not addressed by carbon pricing.  A prime example is the principal-agent problem of insufficient energy-efficiency investments in renter-occupied properties, even in the face of high energy prices.  This is a problem that is best addressed at the state or even local level, such as through building codes and zoning.

In the meantime, in the absence of meaningful Federal action, sub-national climate policies could well become the core of national action.  Problems will no doubt arise, including legal obstacles such as possible Federal preemption or litigation associated with the so-called Dormant Commerce Clause.  Also, even a large portfolio of state and regional policies will not be comprehensive of the entire nation, that is, not truly national in scope.  And even if they are nationally comprehensive, with different policies of different stringency in different parts of the country, carbon shadow-prices will by no means be equivalent, and so overall policy objectives will be achieved at excessive social cost.

Is there a solution, if only a partial one?  Yes, state and regional carbon markets can be linked.  Such linkage occurs as a result of bilateral recognition of allowances, which results in reduced costs, price volatility, leakage, and market power.  Such bottom-up linkage of state and regional cap-and-trade systems may be an important part or perhaps the core of future of U.S. climate policy, at least until there is meaningful action at the Federal level.  In the meantime, it is at least conceivable that linkage of state-level cap-and-trade systems across the United States will become the de facto post-2012 national climate policy architecture.

The Path Ahead

Conventional politics clearly disfavors market-based (pricing) environmental policy approaches that render costs obvious or at least somewhat transparent, despite the fact that the costs of these same policies are actually less than those of alternative approaches.  Instead, conventional politics favors approaches to environmental protection that render costs less obvious (or better yet invisible), such as renewable portfolio standards, and — for that matter — all sorts of command-and-control performance and technology standards.

But carbon pricing will be necessary to address the diverse economy-wide sources of CO2 emissions effectively and at sensible cost, whether the carbon pricing comes about through an economy-wide Federal cap-and-trade system or through a Federal carbon tax.  It is inconceivable that truly meaningful reductions in CO2 emissions could be achieved through purely regulatory approaches, and it remains true that whatever would be achieved, would be accomplished at excessively high cost.

So, although it is true – as I have sought to explain in this essay – that there are a diverse set of options for future climate policy in the United States, the best available alternative to an economy-wide cap-and-trade system enacted in 2010 may be an economy-wide cap-and-trade system enacted in 2011.  But ultimately, the question of what is the best alternative this year to an economy-wide cap-and-trade system is a political, not an economic question.


Unintended Consequences of Government Policies: The Depletion of America’s Wetlands

Private land-use decisions can be affected dramatically by public investments in highways, waterways, flood control, or other infrastructure.  The large movement of jobs from central cities to suburbs in the postwar United States and the ongoing destruction of Amazon rain forests have occurred with major public investment in supporting infrastructure.  As these examples suggest, private land-use decisions can generate major environmental and social externalities – or, in common language, unintended consequences.

In an analysis that appeared in 1990 in the American Economic Review, Adam Jaffe of Brandeis University and I demonstrated that the depletion of forested wetlands in the Mississippi Valley – an important environmental problem and a North American precursor to the loss of South American rain forests – was exacerbated by Federal water-project investments, despite explicit Federal policy to protect wetlands.

Wetland Losses

Forested wetlands are among the world’s most productive ecosystems, providing improved water quality, erosion control, floodwater storage, timber, wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities.  Their depletion globally is a serious problem; and preservation and protection of wetlands have been major Federal environmental policy goals for forty years.

From the 1950s through the mid-1970s, over one-half million acres of U.S. wetlands were lost each year.  This rate slowed greatly in subsequent years, averaging approximately 60 thousand acres lost per year in the lower 48 states from 1986 through 1997.  And by 2006, the Bush administration’s Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, was able to announce a net gain in wetland acreage in the United Sates, due to restoration and creation activities surpassing wetland losses.

What Caused the Observed Losses?

What were the causes of the huge annual losses of wetlands in the earlier years?  That question and our analysis are as germane today as in 1990, because of lessons that have emerged about the unintended consequences of public investments.

The largest remaining wetland habitat in the continental United States is the bottomland hardwood forest of the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Plain.  Originally covering 26 million acres in seven states, this resource was reduced to about 12 million acres by 1937.  By 1990, another 7 million acres had been cleared, primarily for conversion to cropland.

The owner of a wetland parcel faces an economic decision involving revenues from the parcel in its natural state (primarily from timber), costs of conversion (the cost of clearing the land minus the resulting forestry windfall), and expected revenues from agriculture.  Agricultural revenues depend on prices, yields, and, significantly, the drainage and flooding frequency of the land.  Needless to say, landowners typically do not consider the positive environmental externalities generated by wetlands; thus conversion may occur more often than is socially optimal.

Such externalities are the motivation for Federal policy aimed at protecting wetlands, as embodied in the Clean Water Act.  Nevertheless, the Federal government engaged in major public investment activities, in the form of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Soil Conservation Service flood-control and drainage projects, which appeared to make agriculture more attractive and thereby encourage wetland depletion.  The significance of this effect had long been disputed by the agencies which construct and maintain these projects; they attributed the extensive conversion exclusively to rising agricultural prices.

In an econometric (statistical) analysis of data from Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, from 1935 to 1984, Jaffe and I sought to sort out the effects of Federal projects and other economic forces.  We discovered that these public investments were a very substantial factor causing conversion of wetlands to agriculture, with between 30 and 50 percent of the total wetland depletion over those five decades due to the Federal projects.

More broadly, four conclusions emerged from our analysis.  First, landowners had responded to economic incentives in their land-use decisions.  Second, construction of Federal flood-control and drainage projects caused a higher rate of conversion of forested wetlands to croplands than would have occurred in the absence of projects, leading to the depletion of an additional 1.25 million acres of wetlands.  Third, Federal projects had this impact because they made agriculture feasible on land where it had previously been infeasible, and because, on average, they improved the quality of feasible land.  Fourth, adjustment of land use to economic conditions was gradual.

Government Working at Cross-Purposes

The analysis highlighted a striking inconsistency in the Federal government’s approach to wetlands.  In articulated policies, laws, and regulations, the government recognized the positive externalities associated with some wetlands, with the George H.W. Bush administration first enunciating a “no net loss of wetlands” policy.  But public investments in wetlands – in the form of flood-control and drainage projects – had created major incentives to convert these areas to alternative uses.  The government had been working at cross-purposes.

The conclusion that major public infrastructure investments affect private land-use decisions (thereby often generating negative externalities) may not be a surprise to some readers, but it was the 1990 analysis described here that first provided rigorous evidence which contrasted sharply with the accepted wisdom among policy makers.

The Ongoing Importance of Induced Land-Use Changes

As wetlands, tropical rain forests, barrier islands, and other sensitive environmental areas become more scarce, their marginal social value rises.  In general, if induced land-use changes are not considered, the country will engage in more public investment programs whose net social benefits are negative.


Is Benefit-Cost Analysis Helpful for Environmental Regulation?

With the locus of action on Federal climate policy moving this week from the House of Representatives to the Senate, this is a convenient moment to step back from the political fray and reflect on some fundamental questions about U.S. environmental policy.

One such question is whether economic analysis – in particular, the comparison of the benefits and costs of proposed policies – plays a truly useful role in Washington, or is it little more than a distraction of attention from more important perspectives on public policy, or – worst of all – is it counter-productive, even antithetical, to the development, assessment, and implementation of sound policy in the environmental, resource, and energy realms.   With an exceptionally talented group of thinkers – including scientists, lawyers, and economists – now in key environmental and energy policy positions at the White House, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and the Department of the Treasury, this question about the usefulness of benefit-cost analysis is of particular importance.

For many years, there have been calls from some quarters for greater reliance on the use of economic analysis in the development and evaluation of environmental regulations.  As I have noted in previous posts on this blog, most economists would argue that economic efficiency — measured as the difference between benefits and costs — ought to be one of the key criteria for evaluating proposed regulations.  (See:  “The Myths of Market Prices and Efficiency,” March 3, 2009; “What Baseball Can Teach Policymakers,” April 20, 2009; “Does Economic Analysis Shortchange the Future?” April 27, 2009)  Because society has limited resources to spend on regulation, such analysis can help illuminate the trade-offs involved in making different kinds of social investments.  In this sense, it would seem irresponsible not to conduct such analyses, since they can inform decisions about how scarce resources can be put to the greatest social good.

In principle, benefit-cost analysis can also help answer questions of how much regulation is enough.  From an efficiency standpoint, the answer to this question is simple — regulate until the incremental benefits from regulation are just offset by the incremental costs.  In practice, however, the problem is much more difficult, in large part because of inherent problems in measuring marginal benefits and costs.  In addition, concerns about fairness and process may be very important economic and non-economic factors.  Regulatory policies inevitably involve winners and losers, even when aggregate benefits exceed aggregate costs.

Over the years, policy makers have sent mixed signals regarding the use of benefit-cost analysis in policy evaluation.  Congress has passed several statutes to protect health, safety, and the environment that effectively preclude the consideration of benefits and costs in the development of certain regulations, even though other statutes actually require the use of benefit-cost analysis.  At the same time, Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush all put in place formal processes for reviewing economic implications of major environmental, health, and safety regulations. Apparently the Executive Branch, charged with designing and implementing regulations, has seen a greater need than the Congress to develop a yardstick against which regulatory proposals can be assessed.  Benefit-cost analysis has been the yardstick of choice

It was in this context that ten years ago a group of economists from across the political spectrum jointly authored an article in Science magazine, asking whether there is role for benefit-cost analysis in environmental, health, and safety regulation.  That diverse group consisted of Kenneth Arrow, Maureen Cropper, George Eads, Robert Hahn, Lester Lave, Roger Noll, Paul Portney, Milton Russell, Richard Schmalensee, Kerry Smith, and myself.  That article and its findings are particularly timely, with President Obama considering putting in place a new Executive Order on Regulatory Review.

In the article, we suggested that benefit-cost analysis has a potentially important role to play in helping inform regulatory decision making, though it should not be the sole basis for such decision making.  We offered eight principles.

First, benefit-cost analysis can be useful for comparing the favorable and unfavorable effects of policies, because it can help decision makers better understand the implications of decisions by identifying and, where appropriate, quantifying the favorable and unfavorable consequences of a proposed policy change.  But, in some cases, there is too much uncertainty to use benefit-cost analysis to conclude that the benefits of a decision will exceed or fall short of its costs.

Second, decision makers should not be precluded from considering the economic costs and benefits of different policies in the development of regulations.  Removing statutory prohibitions on the balancing of benefits and costs can help promote more efficient and effective regulation.

Third, benefit-cost analysis should be required for all major regulatory decisions. The scale of a benefit-cost analysis should depend on both the stakes involved and the likelihood that the resulting information will affect the ultimate decision.

Fourth, although agencies should be required to conduct benefit-cost analyses for major decisions, and to explain why they have selected actions for which reliable evidence indicates that expected benefits are significantly less than expected costs, those agencies should not be bound by strict benefit-cost tests.  Factors other than aggregate economic benefits and costs may be important.

Fifth, benefits and costs of proposed policies should be quantified wherever possible.  But not all impacts can be quantified, let alone monetized.  Therefore, care should be taken to assure that quantitative factors do not dominate important qualitative factors in decision making.  If an agency wishes to introduce a “margin of safety” into a decision, it should do so explicitly.

Sixth, the more external review that regulatory analyses receive, the better they are likely to be.  Retrospective assessments should be carried out periodically.

Seventh, a consistent set of economic assumptions should be used in calculating benefits and costs.  Key variables include the social discount rate, the value of reducing risks of premature death and accidents, and the values associated with other improvements in health.

Eighth, while benefit-cost analysis focuses primarily on the overall relationship between benefits and costs, a good analysis will also identify important distributional consequences for important subgroups of the population.

From these eight principles, we concluded that benefit-cost analysis can play an important role in legislative and regulatory policy debates on protecting and improving the natural environment, health, and safety.  Although formal benefit-cost analysis should not be viewed as either necessary or sufficient for designing sensible public policy, it can provide an exceptionally useful framework for consistently organizing disparate information, and in this way, it can greatly improve the process and hence the outcome of policy analysis.

If properly done, benefit-cost analysis can be of great help to agencies participating in the development of environmental regulations, and it can likewise be useful in evaluating agency decision making and in shaping new laws (which brings us full-circle to the climate legislation that will be developed in the U.S. Senate over the weeks and months ahead, and which I hope to discuss in future posts).