Good News from the Regulatory Front

As each day passes, the upcoming November 2012 general elections produce new stories about potential Republican candidates for President, as well as stories about President Obama’s anticipated re-election campaign.  At the same time, the 2012 elections are already affecting Congressional debates, where each side seems increasingly interested in taking symbolic actions and scoring political points that can play to its constituencies among the electorate, rather than working earnestly on the country’s business.

The new Tea Party Republicans in the House of Representatives decry the “fact” that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to promulgate “job-killing regulations” for made-up non-problems.  And Democrats in the Congress – not to mention the Administration – are eager to talk about “win-win” policies that will produce “clean energy jobs” and protect Americans from the evils of imported oil and gas.

Neither side seems willing to admit that environmental regulations bring both good news – a cleaner environment – and bad news – costs of compliance that affect not only businesses but consumers as well.  Sometimes the cost-side of proposed regulations dominates.  Those regulatory moves are – from an economic perspective – fundamentally unwise, since they make society worse off.  In other cases, the benefits of a proposed regulation more than justify the costs that will be incurred.  Such regulations are – to use a word now favored by President Obama –  a wise investment.  They make society better off.  Failure to take action on such opportunities is imprudent, if not irresponsible.  Just such an opportunity now presents itself with EPA’s Clean Air Transport Rule.

In an op-ed that appeared on April 25, 2011, in The Huffington Post (click here for link to the original op-ed), Richard Schmalensee and I assess this opportunity.  Rather than summarize (or expand on) our op-ed, I simply re-produce it below as it was published by The Huffington Post, with some hyperlinks added for interested readers.

For anyone who is not familiar with my co-author, Richard Schmalensee, please note that he is the Howard W. Johnson Professor of Economics and Management at MIT, where he served as the Dean of the Sloan School of Management from 1998 to 2007.  Also, he served as a Member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers in the George H. W. Bush administration from 1989 to 1991.  By the way, in previous blog posts, I’ve featured other op-eds that Dick and I have written in The Huffington Post (“Renewable Irony”) and The Boston Globe (“Beware of Scorched-Earth Strategies in Climate Debates”).


An Opportunity for Timely Action:  EPA’s Transport Rule Passes the Test

by Richard Schmalensee and Robert Stavins

The Huffington Post, April 25, 2011

At a time when EPA regulations are under harsh attack, one new environmental regulation – at least – stands out as an impressive winner for the country.  Studies of the soon-to-be-finalized Clean Air Transport Rule have consistently found that the benefits created by the rule would far outweigh its costs.  By reducing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants in 31 states in the East and Midwest, the Transport Rule will create substantial benefits through lower incidence of respiratory and heart disease, improved visibility, enhanced agricultural and forestry yields, improved ecosystem services, and other environmental amenities.  According to EPA, these benefits will be 25 to 130 times greater than the associated costs.  We document this in our new report, “A Guide to Economic and Policy Analysis of EPA’s Transport Rule,” which was commissioned by the Exelon Corporation.

Despite the benefits offered by the Transport Rule, some argue that it – and other EPA regulations – will stifle economic growth and threaten the reliability of our electric power system.  However, a careful look at the evidence reveals that the Transport Rule is unlikely to create such risks.  Analyses of the Transport Rule have found that it need not lead to significant plant retirements.   Robust regulatory and market mechanisms ensure that the nation can meet emission targets while reliably meeting customer demand.

While compliance with the Transport Rule would – in some cases – require installation of new pollution control equipment, the capital expenditures required would comprise a small fraction of aggregate capital spending by the power industry.  In fact, because of the Transport Rule’s unique legal circumstances, in which the Courts have mandated that EPA replace a stringent predecessor, utilities have already begun to make pollution control investments needed to comply with the Transport Rule.

The Rule’s timing can also contribute to lowering its cost and supporting other policy goals.  Installation of the pollution control technologies needed to comply with the Rule could increase short-term employment.  Although the longer term job impacts are less clear, these short-term employment effects would complement other policy initiatives aimed at supporting the nation’s economic recovery.

EPA analysis estimates modest impacts on regional electricity rates, but reductions in health care expenditures could partially or fully offset these effects.  Expanded supplies of low-cost natural gas can also help lower the Transport Rule’s cost by providing a less costly substitute for power generated from coal.

Most importantly, actions taken to reduce emissions would create substantial health benefits.  Tens of thousands of premature deaths would be eliminated annually, as would millions of non-fatal respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses.  A diverse set of studies find that these health improvements will create $20 to over $300 billion in benefits annually.  And, while the Transport Rule is designed to reduce the impact of upwind emissions on downwind states, upwind states would also receive substantial health benefits from the cleaner air brought about by the Rule.  These upwind states have much to gain, because states with the highest emissions from coal-fired power plants are also among those with the greatest premature mortality rates from these emissions.

Along with these health benefits, the largest shares of short-term improvements in employment and regional economies are likely to accrue to the regions that are most dependent on coal-fired power, as they invest in new pollution control equipment.  Thus, while designed to help regions downwind of coal-fired power plants, the Transport Rule also offers substantial benefits to upwind states.

As the U.S. economy emerges from its worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s and faces an increasingly competitive global marketplace, regulation such as the Transport Rule that creates positive net benefits and allows industry flexibility in creating public goods can complement strategies intended to foster economic growth.  Such regulations are best identified by careful analyses to ensure that benefits truly exceed costs and avoid unfair impacts on particular groups or sectors.  The Transport Rule has undergone a series of such thorough assessments, and the results consistently indicate that it would create benefits that far exceed its costs.  Failure to take timely action on this opportunity would seem to be imprudent, if not irresponsible.


*Richard Schmalensee is the Howard W. Johnson Professor of Economics and Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and a fellow of the Econometric Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  He served as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers with primary responsibility for environmental and energy policy from 1989 through 1991.  Robert N. Stavins is the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, a university fellow of Resources for the Future, a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and a fellow of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists.  He served as chairman of the EPA’s Environmental Economics Advisory Committee from 1997 through 2002.  Their report, “A Guide to Economic and Policy Analysis of EPA’s Transport Rule,” which was commissioned by the Exelon Corporation, can be downloaded at:


Reflecting on a Century of Progress and Problems

As the first decade of the twenty-first century comes to a close, the problem of the commons is more important to our lives – and more central to economics – than a century ago when the first issue of the American Economic Review appeared, with an examination by Professor Katharine Coman of Wellesley College of “Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation” (1911).  Since that time, 100 years of remarkable economic progress have accompanied 100 years of increasingly challenging problems.

As the U.S. and other economies have grown, the carrying-capacity of the planet – in regard to natural resources and environmental quality – has become a greater concern, particularly for common-property and open-access resources.  In an article that appears in the 100th anniversary issue of the American Economic Review (AER) “The Problem of the Commons:  Still Unsettled After 100 Years” – I focus on some important, unsettled problems of the commons.

100 Years of Economic Progress and More Challenging Environmental Problems

Within the realm of natural resources, there are special challenges associated with renewable resources, which are frequently characterized by open-access.  An important example is the degradation of open-access fisheries.  Critical commons problems are also associated with environmental quality, including the ultimate commons problem of the twenty-first century – global climate change.

Small communities frequently provide modes of oversight and methods for policing their citizens, a topic about which Professor Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University has written extensively.  But as the scale of society has grown, commons problems have spread across communities and even  across nations.  In some of these cases, no over-arching authority can offer complete control, rendering commons problems more severe.

Although the type of water allocation problems of concern to Coman have frequently been addressed by common-property regimes of collective management, less easily governed problems of open-access are associated with growing concerns about air and water quality, hazardous waste, species extinction, maintenance of stratospheric ozone, and – most recently – the stability of the global climate in the face of the steady accumulation of greenhouse gases.

Whereas common property resources are held as private property by some group, open-access resources are non-excludable.  My article in the AER focuses exclusively on the latter, and thereby reflects on some important, unsettled problems of the commons.  It identifies both the contributions made by economic analysis and the challenges facing public policy.

The article begins with natural resources, highlighting the difference between most non-renewable natural resources, pure private goods that are both excludable and rival in consumption, and renewable natural resources, many of which are non-excludable.

Some of these are rival in consumption but characterized by open-access.  An example is the degradation of ocean fisheries. An economic perspective on these resources helps identify the problems they present for management, and provides guidance for sensible solutions.

The article then turns to a major set of commons problems that were not addressed until the last three decades of the twentieth century – environmental quality.  Although frequently characterized as textbook examples of externalities, these problems can also be viewed as a particular category of commons problems:  pure public goods, that are both non-excludable and non-rival in consumption.

A key contribution of economics has been the development of market-based approaches to environmental protection, including emission taxes and tradable rights.  These have potential to address the ultimate commons problem of the twenty-first century, global climate change.

Themes That Emerge

First, economic theory – by focusing on market failures linked with incomplete systems of property rights – has made major contributions to our understanding of commons problems and the development of prudent public policies.

Second, as our understanding of the commons has become more complex, the design of economic policy instruments has become more sophisticated, enabling policy makers to address problems that are characterized by uncertainty, spatial and temporal heterogeneity, and long duration.

Third, government policies that have not accounted for economic responses have been excessively costly, often ineffective, and sometimes counter-productive.

Fourth, commons problems have not diminished.  While some have been addressed successfully, others have emerged that are more important and more difficult.

Fifth, environmental economics is well positioned to offer better understanding and better policies to address these ongoing challenges.


Although I hope you will read the full article – which is very accessible — I will summarize its conclusions here.

Problems of the commons are both more widespread and more important today than when Coman wrote about unsettled problems in the first issue of the American Economic Review 100 years ago.  A century of economic growth and globalization have brought unparalleled improvements in societal well-being, but also unprecedented challenges to the carrying-capacity of the planet.  What would have been in 1911 inconceivable increases in income and population have come about and have greatly heightened pressures on the commons, particularly where there has been open access to it.

The stocks of a variety of renewable natural resources – including water, forests, fisheries, and numerous other species of plant and animal – have been depleted below socially efficient levels, principally because of poorly-defined property-right regimes.  Likewise, the same market failures of open-access – whether characterized as externalities, following A. C. Pigou (1920), or public goods, following Ronald Coase (1960) – have led to the degradation of air and water quality, inappropriate disposal of hazardous waste, depletion of stratospheric ozone, and the atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases linked with global climate change.

Over this same century, economics – as a discipline – has gradually come to focus more and more attention on these commons problems, first with regard to natural resources, and more recently with regard to environmental quality.  Economic research within academia and think tanks has improved our understanding of the causes and consequences of excessive resource depletion and inefficient environmental degradation, and thereby has helped identify sensible policy solutions.

Conventional regulatory policies, which have not accounted for economic responses, have been excessively costly, ineffective, or even counter-productive.  The problems behind what Garrett Hardin (1968) characterized as the “tragedy of the commons” might better be described as the “failure of commons regulation.”  As our understanding of the commons has become more complex, the design of economic policy instruments has become more sophisticated.

Problems of the commons have not diminished, and the lag between understanding and action can be long.  While some commons problems have been addressed successfully, others continue to emerge.  Some – such as the threat of global climate change – are both more important and more difficult than problems of the past.

Fortunately, economics is well positioned to offer better understanding and better policies to address these ongoing challenges.  As the first decade of the twenty-first century comes to a close, natural resource and environmental economics has emerged as a productive field of our discipline and one that shows even greater promise for the future.


Pursuing Real Environmental Justice in California

California Governor Jerry Brown plans to move forward with the implementation of Assembly Bill 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act, under which California seeks to take dramatic steps to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.  Questions have been raised about the wisdom of a single state trying to address a global commons problem, but with national climate policy developments having slowed dramatically in Washington, California is now the focal point of meaningful U.S. climate policy action.

California’s Plan

A key element of the mechanisms to be used for achieving California’s ambitious emissions reductions will be cap-and-trade, a promising approach with a successful track record, despite its recent demonization as “cap-and-tax” by conservatives and other opponents in the U.S. Congress.

Under this approach, regulators restrict emissions by issuing a limited number of emission allowances, with the number of allowances ratcheted down over time, thus assuring ever-larger reductions in overall emissions.  Pollution sources such as electric power plants and factories are allowed to trade allowances, and as a result, sources able to reduce emissions least expensively take on more of the pollution-reduction effort.  Experience has shown that cap-and-trade programs achieve emissions reductions at dramatically lower cost than conventional regulation.


Yet some groups in California have been very uneasy about the prospect of cap-and-trade.  In particular, the Environmental Justice movement has opposed this approach, citing concerns that it would hurt low-income communities.  Professor Lawrence Goulder of Stanford University and I addressed such concerns in an article in The Sacramento Bee.

One expressed concern has been that a cap-and-trade policy might increase pollution in low-income or minority communities.  The apprehension is not about greenhouse gases (the focus of AB 32), since these gases spread evenly around the globe and thus would have no discernible impact in the immediate area.  Rather, it’s about “co-pollutants,” such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and particulates, which can be emitted alongside greenhouse gases.

Because a cap-and-trade system would reduce California’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, it would also lower the state’s emissions of co-pollutants. Still, it’s possible, though unlikely, that co-pollutant emissions would increase in a particular locality.  But here it’s crucial to recognize that existing air pollution laws address such pollutants, and so any greenhouse gas allowance trades that would violate local air pollution limits would be prohibited.

If current limits for co-pollutants are thought to be insufficient, the best response is not to scuttle a statewide system that can achieve AB 32’s ambitious targets at minimum cost.  Rather, the most environmentally and economically effective way to address such pollution is to revisit existing local pollution laws and perhaps make them more stringent.

While much attention has rightly been given to the effects of potential climate policies on environmental conditions in low-income communities, it’s also important to consider their economic impacts on these communities.  Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will require greater reliance on more costly energy sources and more costly appliances, vehicles and other equipment.  Because low-income households devote greater shares of their income to energy and transportation costs than do higher-income households, virtually any climate policy will place relatively greater burdens on low-income households.  But because cap-and-trade will minimize  energy-related and other costs, it holds an important advantage in this regard over conventional regulations.

Moreover, a cap-and-trade system gives the public a tool for compensating low-income communities for the potential economic burdens:  If some emission allowances are auctioned, revenues can be used to mitigate economic burdens on these communities.

The Way Forward

All in all, cap-and-trade serves the goal of environmental justice better than the alternatives.  This progressive policy instrument merits a central place in the arsenal of weapons California employs.  Beyond helping the state meet its emissions-reduction targets at the lowest cost, it offers a promising way to reduce economic burdens on low-income and minority communities.