Free Markets, Free People


Green Jobs, Distorted Markets And “Comprehensive” Energy Policy

This is what it takes to create “Green Jobs“?

President Obama’s announcement earlier today of an additional $2.3 billion in federal tax credits for creating approximately 17,000 subsidized temporary jobs in the green energy industry is drawing a less than enthusiastic response from Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research:

“Show me one other industry that requests and receives a nearly 30 percent taxpayer subsidy. That’s what the wind and solar industries require – at a minimum – to exist. All the president did today is throw more money at an unproven technology that is not economically viable in the marketplace. Unfortunately, the only winners in this latest taxpayer giveaway will be Wall Street money managers and corporate interests in the wind and solar industry.

Of course, dividing the subsidy by the number of jobs shows us that each job costs the taxpayers $135,295 each. The usual inefficient and wasteful spending for which the government is famous.

But there’s another bit of truth in Pyle’s statement that the right likes to mostly ignore – corporate interests, not just in the wind and solar industry, are deeply intertwined with political interests in this country and those corporate interests use their ability to influence in ways that give them an advantage (even to the point of helping to write legislation). However, that’s a post for another day.

Today, we’re looking at a perfect example of a governmental distortion of a market. Without the subsidy, the wind and solar industries most likely wouldn’t survive. But since it is a politically favored industry, it gets a hand out to keep it afloat. Meanwhile, it finds only a limited market share because the alternatives – coal, natural gas, oil, etc. – are much cheaper, more reliable and more readily available. Says Pyle:

“If the president really wants to create an environment that will foster economic growth and job creation, he need not look any further than the domestic oil, gas and coal industries. These three industries and energy sources built this nation. For the administration to continue to ignore this fact and to keep the vast resources that taxpayers own under lock and key at the Department of Interior is irresponsible and a disservice to the American people.

“The Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), if opened for business, would create over 1 million high-wage jobs. It would reduce our dangerous dependence on hostile nations for their energy resources and spur economic growth across all 50 states. Development of these energy resources will create sustainable employment, not taxpayer dependent make-work jobs.”

Instead, as I pointed out in a post last week, this administration is doing the opposite. New rules from Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar make such exploration and exploitation of these known reserves much more difficult to do. It is step 2 in the government’s distortion of the energy market.

And it’s distortion of markets does have an effect – mostly unintended and, frankly, negative. Take the biofuel mandates Congress passed into law a year or so back.

It sounded like a good idea: Provide a little government money to convert wood shavings and plant waste into renewable energy.

But as laudable as that goal sounds, it could end up causing more economic damage than good — driving up the price of raw timber, undermining an industry that has long used sawdust and wood shavings to make affordable cabinetry, and highlighting the many challenges involved in decreasing the nation’s dependence on oil by using organic materials to create biofuels.

In a matter of months, the Biomass Crop Assistance Program — a small provision tucked into the 2008 farm bill — has mushroomed into a half-a-billion dollar subsidy that is funneling taxpayer dollars to sawmills and lumber wholesalers, encouraging them to sell their waste to be converted into high-tech biofuels. In doing so, it is shutting off the supply of cheap timber byproducts to the nation’s composite wood manufacturers, who make panels for home entertainment centers and kitchen cabinets.

The subsidy has distorted the market that has historically seen timber byproducts go to composite wood manufacturers and, since the subsidy pays more, seen those byproducts go to the production of biofuels. Result? Higher timber prices, an important market segment in trouble and an industry which couldn’t survive in the market without the subsidy continues to function.

In fact, the tail is wagging the dog as the government uses its power and purse to attempt to meet the arbitrary mandates that Congress passed into law:

The federal government is actively working to support the growth of as many of these biomass crops as possible, in part to meet requirements under the 2007 energy bill: The country must produce 5.5 billion gallons of advanced biofuels annually in five years, and 21 billion gallons by 2022. Right now, almost no U.S. land is devoted to raising biomass crops; according to congressional estimates, by 2022 the country will need between 22.2 and 55.5 million acres for this purpose

Did you get that? In 13 years it is estimated that between 22 and 55 million acres will be devoted to growing crap “crops” – like switch grass – instead of food – just to feed this contention that biofuels are better for us than fossil fuels. Those, I suppose, will be “green jobs” as well.

Speaking of green jobs – the government doesn’t even have a definition of what that means:

Even the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which has been cogitating on the problem since last spring, hasn’t made up its mind on how to count green jobs.

“There’s alternative ways for doing that and we haven’t yet finalized our methodology,” says John Galvin, associate commissioner for employment statistics at the BLS.

So you, and they, can call just about whatever you want a “green job” – and I have little doubt that the spinmeisters in government will do exactly that for the foreseeable future (especially when inventing statistics for “created and saved” jobs).

In reality I have no problem with “green jobs” or alternate and renewable fuels. I only have one demand – that they carry their own weight in the marketplace. Subsidizing each doesn’t meet that demand. Instead it unleashes the law of unintended consequences in all its negative fury and distorts exiting markets in ways that cost jobs and productivity that this economy badly needs. As Thomas Pyle points out, we have existing resources and existing technology that could create more available energy while creating thousands of good paying jobs not requiring a single dollar in subsidies that we’re ignoring to push an industry (or industries) which aren’t economically viable and, with existing technology, won’t be for years if not decades.

It is a short-sighted, politically driven policy which will hurt us in the long run. While this administration talks about a “comprehensive” energy policy, it is clear it has settled on one which is focused on an nonviable but politically correct industry to the detriment of the viable but carbon based existing industry. That is not a comprehensive policy regardless of how many times the politicians claim it is or put it in the title of their bills. A comprehensive strategy would recognize the reality with which we’re faced, exploit the traditional carbon based fuels while putting together a rational timetable for switching over to alternative (nuclear) and renewable fuels as the technology proved viable and cost effective.

Instead we get subsidized distortion of the markets, eschewing of readily available carbon based fuels and a push for jobs no one has yet to be able to define.

It’s madness. And, unfortunately, it is a madness which is going to cost us dearly in the not too distant future.

~McQ

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