Here We Go Again: A Closer Look at the Kerry-Lieberman Cap-and-Trade Proposal

As with the Waxman-Markey bill (H.R. 2454), passed by the House of Representatives last June, there is now some confusing commentary in the press and blogosphere about the allocation of allowances in the new Senate proposal — the American Power Act of 2010 — sponsored by Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Senator Joseph Lieberman, Independent of Connecticut.  As before, the mistake is being made of confusing the share of allowances that are freely allocated versus auctioned with (the appropriate analysis of) the actual incidence of the allowance value, that is, who ultimately benefits from the allocation and auction revenue.

In this essay, I assess quantitatively the actual incidence of the allowance value in the new Senate proposal, much as I did last year with the House legislation.  I find (as with Waxman-Markey) that the lion’s share of the allowance value — some 82% — goes to consumers and public purposes, and only 18% accrues to covered, private industry.   First, however, I place this in context by commenting briefly on the overall Senate proposal, and by examining in generic terms the effects that allowance allocations have — and do not have — in cap-and-trade systems.

The American Power Act of 2010

You may be wondering why I am bothering to write about the Kerry-Lieberman proposal at all, given the conventional wisdom that the likelihood is very small of achieving the 60 votes necessary in the Senate to pass the legislation (particularly with the withdrawal of Senator Lindsay Graham — Republican of South Carolina — from the former triplet of Senate sponsors).  Two reasons.  First, conventional wisdoms often turn out to be wrong (although I must say that the vote count on Kerry-Lieberman does not look good, with the current tally according to Environment & Energy Daily being 26 Yes, 11 Probably Yes, 31 Fence Sitters, 10 Probably No, and 22 No).  Second, if the conventional wisdom turns out to be correct, and the 60-vote margin proves insurmountable in the current Congress, then when the Congress returns to this issue — which it inevitably will in the future  — among the key starting points for Congressional thinking will be the Waxman-Markey and Kerry-Lieberman proposals.  Hence, the design issues do matter.

The American Power Act, like its House counter-part, is a long and complex piece of legislation with many design elements in its cap-and-trade system (which, of course, is not called “cap-and-trade” — but rather “reduction and investment”), and many elements that go well beyond the cap-and-trade system (sorry, I meant to say the “reduce-and-invest” system).  Perhaps in a future essay, I will examine some of those other elements (wherein there is naturally both good news and bad news), but for today, I am focusing exclusively on the allowance allocation issue, which is of central political importance.

Before turning to an empirical examination of the Kerry-Lieberman allowance allocation, it may be helpful to recall some generic facts about the role that allowance allocations play in cap-and-trade systems.

The Role of Allowance Allocations in Cap-and-Trade Systems

It is exceptionally important to keep in mind what is probably the key attribute of cap-and-trade systems:  the particular allocation of those allowances which are freely distributed has no impact on the equilibrium distribution of allowances (after trading), and therefore no impact on the allocation of emissions (or emissions abatement), the total magnitude of emissions, or the aggregate social costs.  (There are some caveats, about which more below.)  By the way, this independence of a cap-and-trade system’s performance from the initial allowance allocation was established as far back as 1972 by David Montgomery in a path-breaking article in the Journal of Economic Theory (based upon his 1971 Harvard economics Ph.D. dissertation). It has been validated with empirical evidence repeatedly over the years.

Generally speaking, the choice between auctioning and freely allocating allowances does not influence firms’ production and emission reduction decisions (although it’s true that the revenue from auctioned allowances can be used for a variety of public purposes, including cutting distortionary taxes, which can thereby reduce the net cost of the program).  Firms face the same emissions cost regardless of the allocation method.  When using an allowance, whether it was received for free or purchased, a firm loses the opportunity to sell that allowance, and thereby recognizes this “opportunity cost” in deciding whether to use the allowance.  Consequently, the allocation choice will not — for the most part — influence a cap’s overall costs.

Manifest political pressures lead to different initial allocations of allowances, which affect distribution, but not environmental effectiveness, and not cost-effectiveness.  This means that ordinary political pressures need not get in the way of developing and implementing a scientifically sound, economically rational, and politically pragmatic policy.   With other policy instruments — both in the environmental realm and in other policy domains — political pressures often reduce the effectiveness and/or increase the cost of well-intentioned public policies.  Cap-and-trade provides natural protection from this.  Distributional battles over the allowance allocation in a cap-and-trade system do not raise the overall cost of the program nor affect its environmental impacts.

In fact, the political process of states, districts, sectors, firms, and interest groups fighting for their share of the pie (free allowance allocations) serves as the mechanism whereby a political constituency in support of the system is developed, but without detrimental effects to the system’s environmental or economic performance.  That’s the good news, and it should never be forgotten.

But, depending upon the specific allocation mechanisms employed, there are several ways that the choice to freely distribute allowances can affect a system’s cost.  Here’s where the caveats come in.

Some Important Caveats

First, as I said above, auction revenue may be used in ways that reduce the costs of the existing tax system or fund other socially beneficial policies.  Free allocations forego such opportunities.

Second, some proposals to freely allocate allowances to electric utilities may affect electricity prices, and thereby affect the extent to which reduced electricity demand contributes to limiting emissions cost-effectively.  Waxman-Markey and Kerry-Lieberman both allocate a significant number of allowances to local (electricity) distribution companies, which are subject to cost-of-service regulation even in regions with restructured wholesale electricity markets.  Because the distribution companies are subject to cost-of-service regulation, the benefit of the allocation will ultimately accrue to electricity consumers, not the companies themselves.  While these allocations could increase the overall cost of the program if the economic value of the allowances is passed on to consumers in the form of reduced electricity prices, if that value is instead passed on to consumers through lump-sum rebates, the effect can be to compensate consumers for increased electricity prices without reducing incentives for energy conservation.  (There are some legitimate behavioral questions here about how consumers will respond to such rebates; these questions are best left to ongoing economic research.)

Third, “output-based updating allocations” can be useful for addressing competitiveness impacts of a climate policy on particularly energy-intensive and trade-sensitive sectors, but these allocations can provide perverse incentives and drive up the costs of achieving a cap if they are poorly designed.  This merits some explanation.

An output-based updating allocation ties the quantity of allowances that a firm receives to its output (production).  Such an allocation is essentially a production subsidy.  While this affects firms’ pricing and production decisions in ways that can, in some cases, introduce unintended consequences and increase the cost of meeting an emissions target, when applied to energy-intensive trade-exposed industries, the incentives created by such allocations can contribute to the goal of reducing emission leakage abroad.

This approach is probably superior to an import allowance requirement, whereby imports of a small set of specific commodities must carry with them CO2 allowances, because import allowance requirements can damage international trade relations.  The only real solution to the competitiveness issue is to bring key non-participating countries within an international climate regime in meaningful ways, an obviously difficult objective to achieve.  (On this, please see the work of the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements.)

Is the Kerry-Lieberman Allowance Allocation a Corporate Give-Away?

Perhaps unintentionally, there has been some potentially misleading coverage on this issue.  At first glance, about half of the allowances would be auctioned and about half freely allocated over the life of the program, 2012-2050.  (In the early years, the auction share is smaller, reflecting various transitional allocations that phase out over time.)  But looking at the shares that are auctioned and freely allocated can be very misleading.

Instead, the best way to assess the real implications is not as “free allocation” versus “auction,” but rather in terms of who is the ultimate beneficiary of each element of the allocation and auction, that is, how the value of the allowances and auction revenue are allocated.  On closer inspection, it turns out that many of the elements of the apparently free allocation accrue to consumers and public purposes, not private industry.  Indeed, my conclusion is that over the period 2012-2050, less than 18% of the allowance value accrues to industry.

First, let’s looks at the elements which will accrue to consumers and public purposes.  Next to each allocation element is the respective share of allowances over the period 2012-2050:

I.  Cost Containment

a.  Auction from cost containment reserve, 3.1%

II.  Indirect Assistance to Mitigate Impacts on Energy Consumers

b.  Electricity local distribution companies, 18.6%

c.  Natural gas local distribution companies, 4.1%

d.  State programs for home heating oil, propane, and kerosene consumers, 0.9%

III.  Direct Assistance to Households and Taxpayers

e.  Allowances auctioned to provide tax and energy refunds for low-income households, 11.7%

f.  Allowances auctioned for universal tax refunds, 22.3%

IV.  Other Domestic Priorities

g.  State renewable and energy efficiency programs, 0.6%

h.  State and local agency programs to reduce emissions through transportation projects, 1.9%

i.  Grants for national surface transportation system, 1.9%

j.  Auctioned allowances for Highway Trust Fund, 1.9%

k.  Domestic adaptation, 1.0%

l.  Rural energy savings (consumer loans to implement energy efficiency measures), 0.1%

V.  International Funding

m.  International adaptation, 1.0%

VI.  Deficit Reduction

n.  Allowances auctioned for deficit reduction, 7.4%

o.  Remaining allowances auctioned to offset bill’s impact on deficit, 6.1%

Next, the following elements will accrue to private industry, again with average (2012-2050) shares of allowances:

I.  Allocations to Covered Entities

a.  Energy-intensive, trade-exposed industries, 7.0%

b.  Petroleum refiners, 2.2%

c.  Merchant coal-fired electricity generators, 2.2%

d.  Generators under long-term contracts without cost recovery, 0.9%

II.  Technology Funding

e.  Carbon capture and sequestration incentives, 3.8%

f.  Clean energy technology R&D, 0.7%

g.  Low-carbon manufacturing R&D, 0.3%

h.  Clean vehicle technology incentives, 0.3%

III.  Other Domestic Priorities

i.  Manufacturing plant energy efficiency retrofits, 0.1%

j.  Compensation for early action emissions reductions prior to cap’s implementation, 0.1%

The bottom line?  Over the entire period from 2012 to 2050, 82.6% of the allowance value goes to consumers and public purposes, and 17.6% to private industry. Rounding error brings the total to 100.2%, so to be conservative, I’ll call this an 82%/18% split.

Moreover, because some of the allocations to private industry are – for better or for worse – conditional on recipients undertaking specific costly investments, such as investments in carbon capture and storage, part of the 18% free allocation to private industry should not be viewed as a windfall.

I should also note that some observers (who are skeptical about government programs) may reasonably question some of the dedicated public purposes of the allowance distribution, but such questioning is equivalent to questioning dedicated uses of auction revenues.  The fundamental reality remains:  the appropriate characterization of the Kerry-Lieberman allocation is that about 82% of the value of allowances go to consumers and public purposes, and 18% to private industry.

Comparing the Kerry-Lieberman 82/18 Split with Recommendations from Economic Analyses

The 82-18 split is roughly consistent with empirical economic analyses of the share that would be required – on average — to fully compensate (but no more) private industry for equity losses due to the policy’s implementation.  In a series of analyses that considered the share of allowances that would be required in perpetuity for full compensation, Bovenberg and Goulder (2003) found that 13 percent would be sufficient for compensation of the fossil fuel extraction sectors, and Smith, Ross, and Montgomery (2002) found that 21 percent would be needed to compensate primary energy producers and electricity generators.

In my work for the Hamilton Project in 2007, I recommended beginning with a 50-50 auction-free-allocation split, moving to 100% auction over 25 years, because that time-path of numerical division between the share of allowances that is freely allocated to regulated firms and the share that is auctioned is equivalent (in terms of present discounted value) to perpetual allocations of 15 percent, 19 percent, and 22 percent, at real interest rates of 3, 4, and 5 percent, respectively.  My recommended allocation was designed to be consistent with the principal of targeting free allocations to burdened sectors in proportion to their relative burdens, while being politically pragmatic with more generous allocations in the early years of the program.

So, the Kerry-Lieberman 82/18 allowance split (like the 80/20 Waxman-Markey allowance split) turns out to be consistent  — on average, i.e. economy-wide — with independent economic analysis of the share that would be required to fully compensate (but no more) the private sector for equity losses due to the imposition of the cap, and consistent with my Hamilton Project recommendation of a 50/50 split phased out to 100% auction over 25 years.

The Path Ahead

Going forward, many observers and participants in the policy process may continue to question the wisdom of some elements of the Kerry-Lieberman proposal, including its allowance allocation.  There’s nothing wrong with that.

But let’s be clear that, first, for the most part, the specific allocation of free allowances affects neither the environmental performance of the cap-and-trade system nor its aggregate social cost.

Second, we should recognize that the legislation is by no means a corporate give-away.  On the contrary, 82% of the value of allowances accrue to consumers and public purposes, and some 18% accrue to covered, private industry.  This split is roughly consistent with the recommendations of independent economic research.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that the much-lamented deal-making for shares of the allowances for various purposes that took place in the deliberations leading up the announcement by Senators Kerry and Lieberman was a good example of the useful, important, and fundamentally benign mechanism through which a cap-and-trade system provides the means for a political constituency of support and action to be assembled, without reducing the policy’s effectiveness or driving up its cost.

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Any Hope for Meaningful U.S. Climate Policy? You be the Judge.

The current conventional wisdom ­– broadly echoed by the news media and the blogosphere – is that comprehensive, economy-wide CO2 cap-and-trade legislation is dead in the current U.S. Congress, and perhaps for the next several years.

Watch out for conventional wisdoms!  They inevitably appear to be the collective judgment of numerous well-informed observers and sources, but frequently they are little more than the massive repetition of a few sample points of opinion across the echo-chamber of the professional news media and the blogosphere.

Keep in mind that the conventional wisdom as recently as June of 2009 had it that – with the Waxman-Markey bill having been passed triumphantly by the House of RepresentativesSenate action would follow; the only question raised by many commentators was whether the final legislation could be sent to the President for his signature by the time of the Copenhagen climate talks in December.  My, how the conventional wisdom has changed!

But over the past nine months, the politics have not fundamentally changed.  In June of 2009, passage of meaningful climate legislation in the Senate was already unlikely, because of the terrible economic recession in which the country found itself, and – of even greater political salience ­– lingering high rates of unemployment.  And with the lack of Republican support for the stimulus bill, the relatively small (partisan) margin by which the House passed Waxman-Markey, the then-upcoming challenges of health care and financial regulatory reform dominating the legislative calendar, and concerns voiced about climate legislation by moderate Senate Democrats, success in the Senate was always a long-shot.

What is the Likely Legislative Outcome?

In addition to ongoing consideration of an economy-wide cap-and-trade system, another possibility now receiving attention is a utility-only cap-and-trade system, which some members of the Congress inexplicably find more attractive than an economy-wide approach.  The result of such a system would be much less accomplished (forget about the President’s “conditional commitment” under the Copenhagen Accord), and at much greater cost.  This would be equivalent to taking the Northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) as a model for national action.  Not a good idea.

Even more likely is that the Congress would develop a so-called energy-only bill, which would – to a large degree – consist of killing the one part of Waxman-Markey worth saving (the comprehensive CO2 cap-and-trade system), and moving forward with the worst parts of that legislation – the smorgasbord of regulatory initiatives.  As I’ve written previously, those additional elements of the legislation are highly problematic.  When implemented under the cap-and-trade umbrella, many of those conventional standards and subsidies would have no net greenhouse-gas-reducing benefits, would limit flexibility, and would thereby have the unintended consequence of driving up compliance costs. That’s the soft under‑belly of the House legislation.

Without the cap-and-trade umbrella, that same set of standards and subsidies will accomplish very little, and do so at exceedingly high cost.  Take just one example that seems to be popular among politicians – “renewable portfolio standards” (RPS), requirements that all states or all electricity utilities derive some fixed share of their power, say 20%, from renewable sources.  Note, for example, that such an approach does not distinguish between coal and natural gas, despite the dramatically different impacts these fuels have on CO2 emissions (and a host of other environmental outcomes).  Furthermore, although an RPS may displace some new coal-fired generation with other types of generation, there is little, if any, effect on the operation of existing coal-fired power plants.

If those other, regulatory parts of the climate legislation are so ineffective and so costly, why are they so popular with politicians?  The reason is simple.  The costs are hidden.  The government simply mandates that electric utilities or manufacturers take particular actions, employing the best technology available.  Where’s the cost?  Unlike a cap-and-trade system, there’s no analysis and debate about the cost of allowances (and the marginal abatement costs they represent); and unlike a carbon tax, there’s no analysis and no focus on the dollar amount of the tax and the aggregate cost.  That is the unfortunate but fundamental political economy behind much of U.S. environmental policy since the first Earth Day in 1970.

What about Court-Ordered Regulation?

Whether “best-available-control technology standards” are crafted by the Congress or put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the court-ordered mandate stemming from the Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA and the Obama administration’s subsequent “endangerment finding,” such an approach will be relatively ineffective and terribly costly for what is accomplished.  The EPA route would essentially apply the mechanisms of the Clean Air Act, intended for localized, “criteria air pollutants,” to CO2, resulting in ineffective and costly regulations.

The White House (and most member of Congress) recognize that this is an inappropriate way to address climate change, but they seem determined to go forward, claiming that this threat will force the hand of Congress to do something more sensible instead.  Unfortunately, this is akin to my telling you that if you don’t do what I want, I will shoot myself in the foot – not a very credible or intelligent threat.  What I am referring to is that costly Clean Air Act regulation of CO2 will play into the hands of right-wing opponents of climate action, creating a poster-child of excessive regulatory intervention that will bring about a backlash against sensible climate policies.  EPA claims that there will be no such excessive regulatory actions, because it will exempt small sources through a so-called “tailoring rule.”  But legal scholars have noted that the tailoring rule stands on questionable legal grounds and could be invalidated by the courts.  In this regard, note that the first lawsuits to stop EPA from exempting small sources are coming from groups on the right, not the left.

Perhaps Senator Murkowski’s proposed joint resolution (H.J. Res. 66), introduced on January 21, 2010, disapproving (stopping) EPA’s regulatory action under the endangerment finding could save the Administration.  The conventional wisdom is that Senator Murkowski’s resolution has no political future, but with a bi-partisan list of 40 co-sponsors, that’s a total of 41 votes (more than the current total of 40 “Yes” and “Probably Yes” votes in the Senate for serious climate legislation, according to Environment and Energy Daily).  And remember that the disapproval resolution requires only 51, not 60 votes in the Senate, under the rules of the enabling statute, the Congressional Review Act of 1996 (signed by President Clinton, and part of the Republican “Contract with America”).  Of course, House action, not to mention signature by President Obama, would also be required for the resolution to take effect.  But a positive vote in the Senate will send a strong political message.

So Is There No Hope for Good Climate Policy?

Here is where it gets interesting, because as much as the current political environment in Washington may seem increasingly unreceptive to an economy-wide cap-and-trade system or some other meaningful and sensible climate policy, there is one promising approach that could actually benefit from the national political climate.

In these pages, I have expressed support for cap-and-trade mechanisms to address climate change, including the system embodied in the Waxman-Markey legislation that emerged from the House in June of last year.  Although that approach is scientifically sound, economically sensible, and may still turn out to be politically acceptable, there’s a modified version of cap-and-trade that could be much more attractive in this era of rampant expressions of populism, coming both from the right (“no new taxes”) and the left (“bash the corporations”).  Neither of those views, of course, is consistent with sound economic thinking on the environment, but it’s nevertheless possible to recognize their national appeal and build upon them.

This could be done with a simple upstream cap-and-trade system in which all of the needed allowances are sold (auctioned) – not given freely – to fossil-fuel producers and importers, and a very large share – say 75% – of the revenue is rebated directly to American households through monthly checks in a progressive scheme through which all individuals receive identical payments.

Such an approach could appeal to the populist sentiments that are increasingly dominating political discourse and judgments in this mid-term election year.  Such a system – which would have direct and visible positive financial consequences (i.e., rebate checks larger than energy price increases) for 80% of American households – might not only not be difficult for politicians to support, but it might actually be difficult for politicians to oppose!

Importantly, even though this is a specific type of cap-and-trade design (which has been known, studied, and proposed for decades), for better political optics, it should be called something else.  How about “cap-and-dividend?”

A CLEAR Answer?

What I’ve described bears a close resemblance to the “Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal (CLEAR) Act,” sponsored by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).  So, the politics of their proposal looks appealing, and the substance of it looks promising – a simple upstream cap-and-trade system (called something else), with 100% of the allowances auctioned (with a “price collar” on allowance prices to reduce cost uncertainty), 75% of the revenue refunded to all legal U.S. residents, each month, on an equal per capita basis as non-taxable income, the other 25% of the revenue dedicated to specified purposes, including “transition assistance,” and some built-in measures of protection for particularly energy-intensive, trade-sensitive sectors (not unlike Waxman-Markey).

That’s the good news.  The bad news, however, is that the proposal needs to be changed before it can promise to be not only politically attractive, but economically and environmentally sensible.  In particular, as it is currently structured, only producers and importers of fossil fuels can buy the carbon allowances.  In an up-stream system – an approach I have endorsed for years – it is producers and importers that are subject to compliance, that is, must eventually hold the allowances.  That’s fine.  But there is no sound reason to exclude other entities from participating in the auction markets; and doing so will greatly reduce market liquidity.

Furthermore, the Senators’ proposal says that holders of carbon allowances are actually prohibited from creating, selling, purchasing, or trading carbon derivatives, thereby tremendously reducing the efficiency of the market and needlessly driving up costs.  While no doubt borne out of a well-intentioned desire to protect consumers (remembering the recent impacts of mortgage-backed securities on financial markets), the Senators’ approach is akin to responding to a tragic airplane crash by concluding that the best way to protect consumers from air disasters in the future is simply to ban flying.

Less important structurally, but most important environmentally, an analysis by the World Resources Institute (which I have not validated) indicates that the caps – as currently set – would not bring about emissions reductions by 2020 that would even come close to the President’s announced goal of 17% reductions (equivalent to the Waxman-Markey targets), as submitted by the United States under the Copenhagen Accord.

But these and other problems with the CLEAR proposal can – in principle – be addressed while maintaining its basic structure and political attraction.

An Economic Perspective

It is interesting to note that many – perhaps most – economists have long favored the variant of cap-and-trade whereby allowances are auctioned and the auction revenue is used to cut distortionary taxes (on capital and/or labor), thereby reducing the net social cost of the policy.  Cap-and-Dividend moves in another direction.  This system (which was introduced several years ago in the “Sky Trust” proposal) has some merits compared with the economist’s favorite approach of tax cuts, namely that the Cap-and-Dividend scheme addresses some of the distributional issues that would be raised by using the auction revenue to fund tax cuts (which could favor higher income households).  On the other hand, it eliminates the efficiency (cost-effectiveness) gains associated with the tax-cut approach.  In fact, Stanford’s Larry Goulder has estimated that the tax-and-dividend approach would cost 40% more than an approach of combining an auction of allowances with ideal income tax rate cuts.  (By “ideal,” I mean focusing on tax cuts that would lead to the lowest net cost.)

In general, there are sound reasons to seek to compensate consumers for the energy price increases that will be brought about by a cap-and-trade system, or any meaningful climate change policy. But it is important not to insulate consumers from those price increases, as diluting the price signal reduces the effectiveness and drives up the cost of the overall policy.  Thus, “compensation” as in Cap-and-Dividend is fine, but “insulation” is not.

The most politically salient question with the Waxman-Markey approach of freely allocating a significant portion of the allowances to the private sector is how to distribute (that is, who gets) those allowances which are freely allocated.  In this regard, contrary to much of the hand-wringing in the press, the deal-making that took place in the House and may still take place in the Senate for shares of free allowances is an example of the useful and important mechanism through which a cap-and-trade system provides the means for a political constituency of support and action to be assembled without reducing the policy’s effectiveness or driving up its cost.

The ultimate political question seems to be whether there is greater (geographic and sectoral) political support for the Waxman-Markey (H.R. 2454) approach of substantial free allocations and targeted use of auction revenue, or if there is greater (populist) political support for the full auction combined with lump-sum rebate which characterizes the “cap-and-dividend” approach.  Alas, the textbook economics preference — full auction combined with cuts of distortionary taxes — appears to be a political, if not academic, orphan.

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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.

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