Tag Archives: Energy Department

A New Year’s Gift from the Department of Energy

On New Year’s Eve, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced it will be denying a petition brought to the agency by the Landmark Legal Foundation. The petition had requested the DOE reconsider a regulation related to energy efficiency standards for microwave ovens on the grounds that the Energy Department used a new, much higher, estimate of the social cost of carbon (SCC) in the final analysis of the regulation than had been used in the proposed version of the rule. The SCC is a number the Department uses to estimate benefits to society from reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The public was denied the opportunity to comment on the higher estimate of the SCC since the new estimate was not used until after the time the public was allowed to comment on the regulation.

Here’s some of the DOE’s reasoning for denying the petition:

In the microwave oven rule, the SCC analysis did not affect DOE’s decision regarding the standards that were published in the Federal Register at either the proposed rule or final rule stage because the estimated benefits to consumers of the standard exceeded the costs of the standard, even without considering the SCC values. [emphasis added]

However, as I and others have stated before, these “benefits to consumers” are not benefits at all, and should be excluded from consideration when determining whether the DOE’s energy efficiency standards produce benefits in excess of costs. In a comment I wrote to the DOE as the agency considered this petition, I said:

The preponderance of the rule’s benefits, nearly 80 percent, are not related to reductions in carbon emissions, or even to any environmental effects at all. Instead, these benefits are based on the assumption that consumers behave in an irrational manner when purchasing microwave ovens and that the Department will be able to “fix” this behavior by issuing a regulation, thereby resulting in benefits to consumers. These “savings” should be excluded from the agency’s final analysis of benefits resulting from the regulation.

So the DOE is partly right. The new SCC really doesn’t make a difference in this particular case. However, this is because the regulation produces net costs to society with or without the higher estimate of the social cost of carbon. Thus, the rule can’t be justified on a cost-benefit basis even with the new social cost of carbon number the DOE uses. As I explained in my comment:

Given that the primary estimate of the total benefits resulting from this regulation is estimated at $294 million per year (2011$), and total costs are estimated at $66.4 million per year, subtracting the consumer “irrationality” benefits of $234 million produces net costs to society of $6.4 million per year (2011$).12 If DOE used a lower value of the SCC, like the estimate used in the proposed version of this regulation, that net cost figure would be even higher. The problem is further compounded if benefits to other countries are excluded from the estimates.

The DOE made no effort to respond to this particular critique in its response to the Landmark Legal Foundation petition. The agency does not view the questionable nature of its estimated benefits to consumers as within the scope of the issue it sought comment on. Perhaps this is so. However, there will be more such regulations in the future where this controversial technique is employed by the DOE. Indeed, at Mercatus we have already commented on such regulations. Additionally, the agency’s decision to slip this notice out on New Year’s Eve leads one to question the degree to which the agency is committed to transparent practices. As a result, an inefficient regulation will be implemented and Americans will be made worse off.

 

Where Are The Benefits From Recent Energy Efficiency Regulations?

On Tuesday, President Obama gave a speech announcing his new agenda to combat climate change. As part of his efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the President and his administration plan on releasing a series of energy efficiency regulations, supposedly with the intention of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The problem is, the vast majority of the benefits from many energy efficiency rules have nothing to do with reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and this is according to the government’s own estimates. Instead, agencies like the Department of Energy (DOE) are eliminating options for consumers, and then counting the loss to consumers as a benefit of regulating.

How do they do this? It all has to do with a relatively new field of social science known as behavioral economics. You can think of behavioral economics as the intersection of psychology and economics. Behavioral economists believe that people exhibit many biases that cause them to systematically act in ways that are out of line with their true preferences. In a lab situation, there are many examples of such biases that have been demonstrated. For example, a person buying a home may bid one price, but if she is selling the same house, she may require a higher price, implying she values the same object differently depending on whether the object belongs to her or not. Or, people may value objects differently depending on time. For instance, a person might choose to receive $100 today over $110 tomorrow, yet at the same time pass on $100 a year from now in exchange for $110 in a year and one day, implying the person is more impatient today than he sees himself being in the future.

As the chart below demonstrates, the Department of Energy recently finalized a regulation related to microwave ovens, and nearly 80% of the benefits of the rule stemmed, not from protecting the environment or public health, but from saving consumers money by preventing them from buying the products they would choose otherwise. DOE does not seem to understand why consumers might choose to pay a relatively low price today for a product that is not very energy efficient, when this person could buy a more expensive energy efficient product that will save money over the life of the product through lower electricity bills. From an economics perspective, DOE does not believe this behavior is rational, hence it is like one of the behavioral biases described above, and in many cases DOE has decided to ban the products it doesn’t like in order to protect consumers from themselves.

Energy Efficiency Benefits from DOE Microwave Ovens Regulation*

Capture4

Federal agencies are ignoring the fact that consumers may value other attributes of products aside from energy and fuel efficiency. With automobiles, consumers may prefer larger and safer cars, to smaller more fuel efficient vehicles. Restaurants may prefer light bulbs that raise electric bills slightly every month, but whose warm glow creates an ambiance that customers enjoy. And in the case of microwaves and laundry machines, it may be that machines that use more energy simply work better at their stated purpose. And it’s not just microwave ovens. DOE, and other agencies like the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency, make this same type of assumption with other regulations, like rules impacting commercial clothes washers, light bulbs, and fuel efficiency standards for vehicles. Agencies even assume businesses are behaving in this manner. Does anyone honestly believe that trucking companies aren’t taking fuel efficiency into account when buying new fleets? Or that laundromat owners don’t consider electricity costs when purchasing new equipment? It seems highly implausible, but agencies are assuming just that.

For decades, agencies have been required to identify a market failure or other systemic problem that exists before intervening in the marketplace with a regulation. Market failures include things like a lack of competition, a lack of consumer information, or costs that spill over onto the public as the result of a private transaction. Now, agencies like DOE have begun to expand the definition of market failure to include what they deem to be personal failures on the part of consumers.

So why are agencies doing this? One reason may be because the environmental benefits alone aren’t enough to justify the costs of some regulations. Claiming additional benefits helps agencies justify an inefficient policy, and keeps government programs continuing to employ regulators. Agencies have other ways to make the benefits of rules appear greater too. In the case of the microwave rule, of the small portion of benefits related to carbon dioxide reductions, most will be captured by citizens of foreign countries, with only a small fraction going to US citizens. Counting benefits to foreigners makes the benefits of rules appear greater, even though agencies are asked to only consider benefits to the United States in most cases.

Another reason we may be getting these types of rules is the rules may really be intended to benefit special interest groups more than consumers. A manufacturer that is already producing an energy efficient product may capture market share by getting the products of its competitors banned. Or manufacturers may simply want to force consumers to buy a more expensive product, or replace old products with new ones, while eliminating the possibility of a competitor undercutting them by selling a cheaper product in the marketplace.

Reducing Carbon Dioxide emissions in order to combat climate change may be a noble goal, but recent energy efficiency regulations are unlikely to get us there. Rather than overriding consumer choice, and counting this loss to consumers as a benefit, DOE and other agencies should give the American people a more honest assessment of the benefits of their rules.

* Source: Department of Energy, “Technical Support Document: Energy Efficiency Program for Consumer Products and Commercial and Industrial Equipment: Residential Microwave Ovens – Stand-By-Power,” (Table 1.2.1.), May 2013. Calculated using a 3 percent discount rate. Assumes 15 percent of reductions in CO2 emissions are attributed to the United States. This is the midpoint between 7 percent and 23 percent, the range estimated by the Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Carbon, “Technical Support Document, Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis under Executive Order 12866,” February 2010.

Why Would Light Bulb Manufacturers Want to Be Regulated?

Image courtesy of "posterize"

NPR’s Peter Overby had an interesting (pre-holiday) story on recently-passed legislation to save the incandescent light bulb. In Robert Siegel’s intro he tells us:

Last weekend, Congress passed a trillion-dollar budget bill. Among its provisions, plenty of things not related to spending. One of these so-called riders is aimed at saving the hundred-watt incandescent light bulb. But as NPR’s Peter Overby tells us, the move by Republicans is more about politics than light bulbs.

Here is Overby:

Old-fashioned incandescent bulbs waste a lot of energy. So under federal law, they’re being slowly phased out. And the first to go, starting on New Year’s Day, is that old reliable of home lighting: the 100-watt bulb. But what looked like energy efficiency when President George W. Bush signed to law four years ago now looks like oppressive big government to many conservatives.

So the conservatives made sure that the spending bill had a rider which says the Energy Department cannot spend money to enforce the phase out of the 100-watt bulb. Here is where things get interesting. Overby went and talked to industry representatives and found that few if any actually wanted to repeal the ban:

But from the perspective of the lighting industry, this rider is several years too late to make a difference, and they don’t want Congress changing things now….

companies long ago started changing their product lines from traditional incandescents to halogens, compact fluorescents and LEDs.

The National Electrical Manufacturers Association’s Joseph Higbee tells Overby:

Delaying enforcement undermines those investments and creates regulatory uncertainty.

So far, so interesting. The companies being regulated actually want the regulation and getting rid of it would create uncertainty. So, “the move by Republicans is more about politics than light bulbs.”

But is this really the whole story? I think it would be natural to ask just a few more questions. If the ban were lifted, nothing would keep the companies from making the newfangled bulbs anyway, right? So why in the world would a firm favor legislation that limits its options? Why would it expend scarce resources lobbying Congress to keep the ban? Overby says that they “spent months giving show-and-tell demonstrations to lawmakers.” That must have taken up a fair amount of company time. But why do it?

My guess is that it has less to do with the firms wanting to limit their own options and more to do with them wanting to limit the options of would-be competitors who haven’t made investments in the newer technologies. They must worry that there is still a market for the older bulbs and they’d prefer that other firms be forbidden from serving that market.

Economists will recognize this as a simple story of regulatory capture. As Barry Mitnick put it in his classic study, The Political Economy of Regulation:

Much relatively recent research has argued that regulation was often sought by industries for their own protection, rather than being imposed in some ‘public interest.’ Although the distinction is not always made clear in this recent literature, we may add that regulation which is not directly sought at the outset is generally ‘captured’ later on so it behaves with consistency to the industry’s major interests, or at least has been observed to behave in this manner.

When I used to teach capture theory to my students, I’d often encounter incredulity. It sounds like formalized conspiracy theory. Are we
really supposed to believe that all regulations come about because industries have somehow greased the palms of politicians? Well, no. Sometimes it’s that obvious. But often, it is subtler.

As the light bulb story illustrates, some regulations come about because some politician has some well-meaning belief that the regulation will improve lives. But once the regulation is on the books, it tends to favor incumbent firms. So even if it proves to be inefficient, the incumbent firms are willing to exert a great deal of pressure to keep it there lest the market be opened up to others with different business models.

For a helpful and enlightening compendium of observations about capture, see this post by my colleague, Adam Thierer. It is interesting to note that progressive thinkers have often been the first to uncover these stories.