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The Washington Post launches a paranoid (and na¯ve) attack on the House clean energy and climate bill for promoting efficient new buildings

By Joe Romm  

"The Washington Post launches a paranoid (and na¯ve) attack on the House clean energy and climate bill for promoting efficient new buildings"

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Memo to Washington Post:  Please, please trade editor Fred Hiatt to the Wall Street Journal editorial page where his penchant for allowing unfact-checked crap into the paper — and for writing it himself — would no longer hurt the reputation of a (once) great newspaper.

There are lots of reasons for progressives and the progressive media to criticize the “B-” grade Waxman-Markey bill.  Most notably, the 2020 target is too weak, too easy to meet with the over abundance of low-cost clean energy strategies available in this country.  There are lots of reasons for status quo centrists to criticize the bill.  Most notably, they don’t get that global warming is a big deal (see “David Broder is the stenographer of those centrists who are fatally uninformed about global warming“).

But what kind of newspaper would attack the bill because it sets a standard that requires new buildings to become more energy efficient?  That is a hard-core conservative critique.  Pretty much everybody else understands the multiple market barriers that work against energy-efficient design — including the fact that the overwhelming majority of buildings are not built by the people who occupy them.  Construction and management companies emphasize minimizing first cost, spending the least amount of money upfront, which has the effect of maximizing lifecycle cost, leading to much higher energy bills that otherwise rational decision-making would lead to.

And so most reasonable, non-conservative observers understand and support national standards for energy-efficient appliances and buildings, such as you find in the Waxman-Markey bill (see “Better buildings soon? Energy and climate bill would set national energy codes“).  But not if you work for the editorial page of the Washington Post, which is usually derided as leftist by the right-wing and derided as centrist by progressives, but is now just plain derided by everybody.

Let’s go through the critique in Sunday’s unsigned Washington Post editorial, a piece that is both na¯ve and paranoid at the same time (which one can safely assume ed page editor Fred Hiatt had a big hand in) and Hiatt’s signed column today (which he apparently wrote because Krauthammer, Will, Samuelson, and the occasional Schlesinger column don’t satisfy his need for pushing right wing disinformation).

First we have the conspiracy-theory pushing Sunday editorial:

Buried Code
The unexamined federal regulation in a House energy bill

The thesis of the piece is that the people who wrote the bill are trying to conceal its provisions from the public and the media, including energy-efficient building codes.  How diabolical of Reps. Waxman and Markey!

Only thing is, the bill has been on the web for weeks, and on Tuesday the Committee published a summary of the key provisions (here), emphasizing upfront that one of the highlights of the bill is:

Mandate new energy-saving standards for buildings, appliances, and industry.

And then the Committee detailed in the accompanying summary:

Building Standards. ACES establishes new standards for building efficiency, requiring new buildings to be 30% more efficient in 2012 and 50% more efficient in 2016. States are offered allowances that they can sell to support adoption and enforcement of the new standards. The Department of Energy must enforce the standards in states that do not incorporate the building standards into their state building codes.

Apparently, the Washington Post, whose journalists once routingly won Pulitzer prizes for uncovering the deepest, darkest secrets of the government, can’t even use the Internet these days.  Their editorial opens:

THE RUNNING joke in Washington is that nobody has read the 900-plus-page energy bill sponsored by Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), which the House will consider in coming weeks.

Uhh, actually this isn’t a running joke in Washington, since most everyone here knows that the bill is no more complicated than a typical major piece of environmental legislation, like the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act.  Certainly some people have criticized the bill as too long and complicated, but mostly those are folks who are unfamiliar with the legislative process — which I guess now includes the Washington Post editorial page.

The bill would transform the energy system of the country over the next few decades to remove virtually all greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. economy.  That ain’t easy, it can’t be done simply, and this is certainly the most ambitious piece of legislation ever contemplated by the U.S. Congress.  Only an editorial page editor who is very politically na¯ve, who has little understanding of the scale of the climate problem and the scale of the energy solutions required, would start his or her critique by focusing on the length of the bill.

What you hear from its backers is that its cap-and-trade provisions would create a market-based program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — which should mean that a simple, systemwide incentive encourages polluters to make the easiest reductions in greenhouse gases first, keeping the costs of fighting global warming to a minimum. In fact, the bill also contains regulations on everything from light bulb standards to the specs on hot tubs, and it will reshape America’s economy in dozens of ways that many don’t realize.

Wow.

The writer is both incredibly na¯ve and incredibly paranoid in the same paragraph.  The Washington Post enters tin-foil hat land when it accuses the backers of misleading people about the contents of the bill.  Most of the backers I know are ecstatic about the energy-efficient standards and eager to tell people about them.  That’s why Waxman and Markey made it a lead bullet in their Tuesday web summary.  That’s why I featured a post discussing the provision in detail.

The na¯vet© is even more staggering.  How could you possibly cut US greenhouse gas emissions 83% in four decades with a few simply, systemwide incentives?  The Post is in fairy-dust land on this one.  I have been meaning to write about a recent Carnegie Mellon University report that explains what I think should be obvious, but until I get around to that, you can look at the Green Car Congress piece on it, “CMU Paper: Market-Based Mechanisms for CO2 Reduction Will Be Insufficient to Attain Mid-Century Goals.”

According to the bill’s advocates, America’s buildings account for perhaps 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse emissions, and technology is available for builders to meet the targets in ways that are economical for building owners. Much of the problem is old buildings that waste huge amounts of energy, which wouldn’t necessarily be touched by the new code. But it would be good if builders met these efficiency goals with new construction.

Is the best way to achieve that, though, to federalize what has long been a matter of local concern?

This is a purely right-wing ideological critique with no basis in substantive policy analysis.  We have appliance efficiency standards in part because appliance manufacturers lobbied Congress so they wouldn’t have to design appliances for 50 different state standards.  In the case of buildings, most states simply aren’t doing anything on energy efficiency.  As noted in the summary above, the bill even provides allowances to allow states to incorporate the new standards into their building standards, and only goes to the trouble of enforcement if the states don’t do it.

And if the point of cap-and-trade is to change market incentives, why does Congress, and not the market, need to dictate these changes? Those are a few questions that emerge when you begin to read through the 900 pages.

Once again, market-based mechanisms, which is to say price-based mechanisms, do not drive energy efficiency very well (see “why the allocations do not undermine energy efficiency efforts“).  Why?  As all of the experts on energy efficiency have said many times, energy efficiency is cost-effective today.  If you want energy efficiency, which is the cheapest mitigation strategy, you need to tear down the market barriers that block it.  Many of those barriers impede energy efficiency from being adopted in new buildings as noted above.

The Post compounds this na¯ve paranoia by letting editorial page editor Hiatt write an op-ed piece today, “Gridlock’s Irresponsible Heir?” to repeat his bewildering talking points:

For moderate voters clinging to some faith in government, the question over the past two decades of mostly two-party rule was: Can’t Washington do anything?

Now, with one party pretty much in control, the question has become both more hopeful and more anxious: Will Washington do anything responsibly?

Yes, “responsibly” is a freighted, finger-wagging word. But it seems a fair question to ask of a radically remade capital.

So Hiatt speaks for “moderate voters” — which, as we’ll see, are really center-right voters — and uses the uber-loaded word radical to describe Washington.  Yes, I’m aware he said “radically remade,” but as my father was a newspaper editor I am more than aware that this is one profession that chooses each and every word very carefully.  He wanted to use the word “radical” and he did.

Hiatt is another of those right-of-center “centrists” like Broder who are fatally uninformed about global warming:

There’s no easy answer on climate change, either, but most economists would say the sensible approach would be to levy a tax on oil, gas and coal and then get out of the way. Higher prices for those fuels would discourage use and encourage investment into wind power, conservation and other good things. To cushion the blow, you could rebate the money in a progressive or at least neutral way.

Hiatt has no way whatsoever of knowing what “most economists would say.”  He is just making up crap here to defend his position.  Not that the Post bother to fact check opinion pieces anyway, but they certainly aren’t going to fact check Hiatt’s.

You simply can’t do a tax by itself because one of the points of a climate bill is to be able to go to other countries and say these are the emissions targets that the US government and American people have agreed to.  Without targets and a clear-cut way to meet them, an international deal is impossible and the problem is unsolvable.

I dare so many if not most major economists who follow this issue fully understand that — see Nobelist Krugman strongly endorses Waxman-Markey: “The claim that carbon taxes are better than cap and trade is, in my view, just wrong.” and Robert Stavins.

Just Imposing a price on carbon can’t possibly solve this problem (see also the CMU report cited above).

But Obama and Congress don’t want to take responsibility for raising taxes any more than they do for limiting health-care options. So Democratic leaders in the House have fashioned a 946-page climate change bill that forces industries to pay to exceed a gradually declining limit on carbon emissions. It’s a tax with deniability, and with huge enforcement challenges.

Here the Post goes again with the “946-page climate change bill” criticism that their editorial page had raised just the previous day.  Uber-lame and uber-naive.

Hiatt’s entire thesis is built around the notion that a tax is inherently and irredeemably superior and more honest than cap-and-trade — and that that supposedly fact is a widely known in the policy community, so that choosing the cap-and-trade path is irresponsible.  There is no truth whatsoever to that assertion (see here and here).

Indeed, most Americans view the Europeans as more informed and more aggressive on climate action, and yet they chose the cap-and-trade path (see “Europe poised to meet Kyoto target: Does this mean the much-maligned European Trading System is a success?“)

Hiatt may not be a status quo center-right/conservative no nothing when it comes to energy and climate — but if not, he does a better job of hiding it than the authors of Waxman-Markey have done hiding its energy efficiency provisions.

Trade him to the WSJ, already.

Related Posts:

‹ China begins transition to a clean-energy economy

WSJ front-page shocker: “U.S. Foresees a Thinner Cushion of Coal,” warns rosy U.S. coal estimates “may be wildly overconfident” ›

24 Responses to The Washington Post launches a paranoid (and na¯ve) attack on the House clean energy and climate bill for promoting efficient new buildings

  1. David B. Benson says:

    Joe — Your memo to WaPo makes more sense than your previous suggestion. Follow it up by who WaPo should want in exchange.
    ?
    Maybe the janitor? :|

    [JR: Summer intern? Actually, the WSJ has some very fine economics and business reporters.]

  2. Tom in Florida says:

    Do not forget that the cost of all these things will ultimately end up out of the pocket of everyday people. Every time a small business gets a mandate to spend their hard earned profits on some pie in the sky baloney scheme people lose employment. You cannot have it both ways. While it is easy for folks like you to sit on the sidelines and demand your way is the only way. You need to get real.

  3. lizardo says:

    Is there some reason why the word tax appears with yellow highlighting in my firefox version of this post? Or is this some hacker prank?

    Even I know W-M included energy efficiency including buildings, though of course I try to read this site every day, still, excellent job Joe.

  4. hapa says:

    hmm. i was under the impression that europeans went with carbon trading because kyoto did because americans demanded it before we refused to sign, but anyway they did go with it, and now it’s the system.

    (i also see yellow “tax” and the code says it’s related to a mozilla findbar search)

  5. John Hollenberg says:

    > spend their hard earned profits on some pie in the sky baloney scheme people lose employment.

    In what way would making buildings more energy efficient (thus decreasing their total cost of ownership) be considered “pie in the sky baloney”? I read recently that a university in California (Cal Tech? can’t remember which one) calculated that building a new building to a LEED Silver standard was going to cost them $4 a square foot more–and save $66 a square foot in energy costs over the next 20 years. They opted for the LEED building, probably as much to save money as to save energy.

  6. James Newberry says:

    The fossil fools crowd is starting to crack. Reminds one of the Wizard of Oz, full of hot air. We may have a global warming spike while they have a psychological breakdown from exhaustion of all and any arguments they can mangle together.

    Thanks Joe.

  7. PaulK says:

    I suppose it’s hard for some progressives to see a difference between encouraging or facilitating and mandating. There’s a Tenth Amendment component to this and I suspect state and local governments will zealously guard their turf.

  8. K L Reddington says:

    “And then the Committee detailed in the accompanying summary:

    Building Standards. ACES establishes new standards for building efficiency, requiring new buildings to be 30% more efficient in 2012 and 50% more efficient in 2016. States are offered allowances that they can sell to support adoption and enforcement of the new standards. The Department of Energy must enforce the standards in states that do not incorporate the building standards into their state building codes.”

    And exactly who has the big book on exact current building efficiencies? No one. This is just a vague and over reaching benchmark.

    ,<<<<In what way would making buildings more energy efficient (thus decreasing their total cost of ownership) be considered “pie in the sky baloney”? I read recently that a university in California (Cal Tech? can’t remember which one) calculated that building a new building to a
    LEED Silver standard was going to cost them $4 a
    square foot more–and save $66
    a square foot in energy costs over the next 20 years. They opted for the LEED building, probably as much to save money as to save energy.<<<<<<<<

    Who has saved 66 dollars a square foot and how does one measure future energy rates and consumption? Examples appreciated.

  9. Lets not take our eyes off the external world and the increasing rate of climate change. A black swan climate event – something unanticipated – will most certainly intensify the needed legislation. Whatever Congress does now – will not suffice for affecting the climate – subsequent legislation must be magnified and intensified to meet the dangers of a rapidly changing world.

    This is economic legislation, not really climate legislation. The legislative process is unfolding in ways fully consistent with the practice of power politics. But Congress has never dealt with such a problem as this. This is just the first attempt.

  10. John Mashey says:

    K. L. Reddington:

    Given that data from the future is not usually available, it is hard to know, especially without a better reference from John Hollenberg.
    [The problem is that many universities in CA are doing this sort of thing, so it makes it hard to find the exact example.]

    Without claiming that LEED is perfect or even the best approach (I’d say it’s more like an early attempt):

    See:

    1) Buildings – Materials and Operations @ Stanford, May 11, 2009, which has some interesting presentations.

    Stanford Precourt Energy Efficiency Center does buildings.

    I’ve heard Joe Stagner discuss Stanford’s various plans. Universities of course are ideal places for doing long-term payback analyses, since they build to last, expect to occupy the premises indefinitely, and can make interesting tradeoffs: Stanford runs their own cogen plant, for example.

    I visit this building on occasion, and that’s a nice one. Next time I’m there I’ll ask about any energy-cost data they have.

    2) Art Rosenfeld, on efficiency in general. He’s long-time Lawrence Berkeley Lab & California Energy Commissioner.

    A) California Energy Commission does building standards, has a long history of this. There’s probably a relevant report in there somewhere, since they certainly model future energy costs.

    B) LBNL includes (most likely) the premier energy efficiency lab in the US, and it of course has a Division focussed on this, and they likely have lots of data as well.

    3) Cool California says:

    “Cost savings from energy efficient and water efficient equipment and fixtures are well documented. In new buildings, an estimated 30-40% energy savings and 20-30% water savings have been documented for green buildings. Typical utility expenses range from $1.40 to $2.50 per square foot. About half of these expenses can be avoided (a cost savings in the range of $0.50 to $1.40 per square foot have been documented”

    To save $66/sq ft over 20 years means saving $3.30/year, which seems a little high,but maybe they’re including some maintenance costs as well, and maybe they’re assuming that energy costs will rise. Of course, they’d build for 50 years or so, not 20.

    Bottom line: seems a little high for 20 years, but not completely crazy. Depends on the building and the circumstances. Of course, the real goal is to get a lot closer to zero net energy for new construction.

  11. Tom in Florida says:

    John Hollenberg Says: June 8th, 2009 at 7:51 pm
    “In what way would making buildings more energy efficient (thus decreasing their total cost of ownership) be considered “pie in the sky baloney”? I read recently that a university in California (Cal Tech? can’t remember which one) calculated that building a new building to a LEED Silver standard was going to cost them $4 a square foot more–and save $66 a square foot in energy costs over the next 20 years. They opted for the LEED building, probably as much to save money as to save energy.”

    Well there you have it John. They OPTED for the LEED building. Not were MANDATED to build. Free market at work. Of course that is assuming that the costs you quote are real. Don’t forget that the extra $4 sq/ft cost is up front capital with interest costs involved. Also, did the calculations base their savings on some currently unknown expected rise in energy costs somewhere in the future? If so, that’s a pie in the sky scheme!

  12. john says:

    Mr. Reddington, (and tom in Florida):

    If you would look at trend lines in th price of coal and oil, you would see a steady increase — which means future energy costs will be higher than today; which means you “point” about interest rates, false savings etc (and the notion that using less of an increasingly expensive commodity will somehow “cost” us) all go out the window.

    Sorry, fellas, but a code and standard saves money and creates jobs. Period

  13. SecularAnimist says:

    Fred Hiatt is not “naive” and indeed, if I may say so, it is naive to imagine that he is naive.

    Hiatt is a calculating, deliberate liar and a bought-and-paid-for propagandist for Big Business. His mission — which is the basic mission of the corporate-owned, so-called “mainstream” mass media in general — is to propagandize the American people in furtherance of the corporate oligarchy’s rapacious, ruthless, relentless class warfare against everyone else. In particular, his mission is to undermine public confidence in and support for the Obama administration and the Democratic majority in Congress and to thwart their efforts to govern in the public interest rather than in the corporate interest.

    Rush Limbaugh’s job is to spoon-feed corporate propaganda to a legion of brainwashed Ditto-Heads. Hiatt’s target audience is different — white collar Ditto-Heads in business suits and ties, rather than Limbaugh’s blue-collar Ditto-Heads — but his game is basically the same: to spoon-feed them corporate-sponsored, scripted, pseudo-ideological propaganda on behalf of reactionary business interests.

  14. danl says:

    >>>Well there you have it John. They OPTED for the LEED building. Not were MANDATED to build. Free market at work.>>

    Come on, Tom. Joe said it himself above,
    “Pretty much everybody else understands the multiple market barriers that work against energy-efficient design — including the fact that the overwhelming majority of buildings are not built by the people who occupy them. Construction and management companies emphasize minimizing first cost, spending the least amount of money upfront, which has the effect of maximizing lifecycle cost, leading to much higher energy bills that otherwise rational decision-making would lead to.”

    It appears that UCal is constructing their OWN building, and there is no market failure in this case. I ask– did you design the construction of your home? Do you plan to? How about where you work? It’s pretty simple here.

  15. John Hollenberg says:

    > Well there you have it John. They OPTED for the LEED building. Not were MANDATED to build.

    It seems that your politics are showing. If in fact money is saved, what’s wrong with a mandate, when we need to conserve energy for multiple reasons (current fossil fuels are a finite resource, CO2 pollution from burning coal, mercury pollution from burning coal, degradation of the environment by blowing the tops off mountains, national security issues related to reliance on foreign oil, etc.).

    Fortunately, California is more progressive, as “Los Angeles is the largest
    city to MANDATE (emphasis added) “green” building for new private development.”

    http://www.paulhastings.com/assets/publications/946.pdf?wt.mc_ID=946.pdf

    Searched and searched for the other link, but can’t find it. I remember it clearly, because I was so surprised.

  16. Tom in Florida says:

    John Hollenberg Says:

    June 9th, 2009 at 9:27 am
    > Well there you have it John. They OPTED for the LEED building. Not were MANDATED to build.

    “It seems that your politics are showing. If in fact money is saved, what’s wrong with a mandate, when we need to conserve energy for multiple reasons (current fossil fuels are a finite resource, CO2 pollution from burning coal, mercury pollution from burning coal, degradation of the environment by blowing the tops off mountains, national security issues related to reliance on foreign oil, etc.).
    Fortunately, California is more progressive, as “Los Angeles is the largest
    city to MANDATE (emphasis added) “green” building for new private development.”

    Of course my politics are showing, mandating savings is not the government’s business. Free market action will take care of that.
    I wouldn’t be too fast with the “California is more progressive” statements, as we all know they are broke. Nice job progressives!!!!!

  17. Jim Beacon says:

    Oh, lord. If you think the Post article was bad, check out this huge denier opinion piece in today’s LA Times:

    http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oe-goldberg9-2009jun09,0,1940877.column

    and be sure to read the comments after the article, which are even more horrifying.

    The push to deny and delay in the mainstream media is actually *stronger* than ever before — and more people than ever before are falling for it simply because it is, um, inconvenient to face the truth.

  18. Anna Haynes says:

    Hiatt is another inactivist journalist with a foreign-bureau-and-national-security-stories background. There seems to be a pattern.

    “From 1991 to 1995, he and his wife served as correspondents and co-bureau chiefs in the Moscow bureau, covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. From 1987 to 1990, the Hiatts were co-bureau chiefs of The Post’s Northeast Asia bureau, based in Tokyo, and reported on Korea and Japan. … Before joining the foreign staff of The Washington Post, Hiatt covered military and national security affairs for three years as a member of the newspaper’s national staff.”

  19. David B. Benson says:

    $66 saved in 20 years = average of $3.30 per year.

    The building is at CalTech.

  20. darth says:

    Tom in Florida,

    If the free market were working correctly then we wouldn’t need the standards. The problem is that the market is a reactive system – bldgs would increase efficiency only *after* energy prices rise considerably. Then we are all stuck with inefficient bldgs. Setting standards allows us to work proactively and not just react to things. Bldgs are long term investments, so it makes sense for them.

    Also with peak oil and peak coal looming, unlimited increases in fossil based energy are not possible. This will lead to a limited resource condition and cause even more government intervention (such as rationing) which is much worse than bldg codes. Actually, the rationing wouldn’t even be govt based, it could be rolling black outs as we’ve seen in CA before. Is that a better solution than some bldg codes?

  21. John Hollenberg says:

    > mandating savings is not the government’s business. Free market action will take care of that.

    They aren’t mandating savings, they are mandating actions which will reduce energy use, and will result in savings. If the free market had “taken care of that” the mandates wouldn’t have been necessary in the first place.

  22. PaulK says:

    John Hollenberg,

    State and local governments have building codes. They can, should and some do incorporate efficiencies in their codes. The federal government should not be involved and the people should improve the codes in their states and localities.

    As part of my new career as a carbon dependency activist, I’m organizing an energy event June 23rd in Chicago. Efficiency will be prominent in the presentations.

  23. John Hollenberg says:

    > The federal government should not be involved and the people should improve the codes in their states and localities.

    Again, if all the states and localities had improved their codes then federal action wouldn’t be necessary. Your belief that “the federal government should not be involved” is one based on a particular ideology. My preference is to get the job done for certain, and ASAP. The only way to guarantee that is to do it for the whole country–i.e., the federal government. I don’t think we should be fiddling while Rome burns. As Joe has pointed out, the sure way to end up with draconian federal regulation later is to prevent ANY regulation now.

  24. PaulK says:

    John Hollenberg,

    Yes, “the federal government should not be involved” is based partly on my political ideology, which celebrates the people’s power to act. I encourage you to participate in my June 23rd energy forum and join the watt – a – month club.

    “If all the states and localities had improved their codes”. Many, many states and localities have or are doing so now. From the biggest cities like L.A. and Chicago to tiny communities like Greensburg, Wisconsin, it is happening all across the country.

    The Billions and billions of dollars for building efficiency in the stimulus bill has not even begun to get spent. Consumer spending on efficiencies and alternatives is strengthening.
    My main reason