All Commentary
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Free-Market Energy Vision

Energy is the master resource. Without it other resources could not be produced or consumed. Even energy requires energy: There would not be usable oil, gas, or coal without the energy to manufacture and power the requisite tools and machinery. Nor would there be wind turbines or solar panels, which are monuments to embedded fossil-fuel energy.

And just how important are fossil fuels relative to so-called renewable energies? Oil, gas, or coal generates the electricity needed to fill in for intermittent wind and solar power and ensure moment-to-moment reliability. So renewable energy, ironically, is codependent on nonrenewable energy short of (currently) prohibitively expensive battery technology firming the flow of electricity.

As a component of all products and services, energy needs to be affordable, convenient, and reliable. To this end, public policy should respect consumer preference and allow energy producers to meet the demands of the marketplace. This requires a respect for private property rights and voluntary exchange to facilitate the global exchange of energy and its innumerable subcomponents.

Global energy supplies are primarily the product of government, unfortunately, not the free market. In state-run economies political elites make the decisions that otherwise would be made by the multitude. Win-win exchanges are supplanted by government-dictated win-lose transactions. Wealth is redistributed. Pure waste results from the intervention of (political) third parties into what otherwise would be mutually advantageous self-interested exchange.

For example, electric utilities may be forced to buy wind power, solar power, or another politically correct energy under state law. A mandate is required because a free marketplace would not support such expensive, unreliable—noncompetitive—supply.

Oil and gas producers may be unable to access offshore properties because of government constraint. In such cases, supply is not produced and higher-cost substitutes elsewhere pick up some of the slack. Consumers are left with less supply and higher prices. Economists have a name for this: inefficiency.

Government intervention may also give life to uneconomic projects. Such ventures may include carbon capture and storage, a “smart” electricity grid, or even a nuclear plant that requires a federal loan guarantee. Resources that go to these projects do not go to other, more economical projects (which may or may not be in the energy sector) as judged by the marketplace. Resources are again misallocated.

Proponents of government intervention cite “market failure” as the reason for regulating or subsidizing energy projects. Negative externalities created by self-interested exchange require the government to modify transactions in ways ranging from a prohibition to a tax, they say.

Nonmarket Failures

But there are two other types of failure that also must be considered before rushing to policy judgment.

One is analytic failure, in which the outside evaluator’s prescription for intervention (such as a per-barrel “energy security” tax on oil imports or a per-ton “climate change” tax on carbon dioxide emissions) overcorrects or undercorrects for the “real” problem. The error might be purely intellectual—or it might reflect the personal prejudice of the analyst. Fallible self-interest in the marketplace has a counterpart in the ivory tower.

Second, there is government failure, whereby even the “correct” analytical blueprint is altered and violated in the political process. Special-interest tinkering adds to or subtracts from the core proposal, and political actors resort to “logrolling,” where extraneous issues are added to the legislation just to win votes.

House passage of a cap-and-trade energy bill last year and health insurance legislation enacted this year are stark evidence of sausage-making in Washington, D.C.—and something scarcely recognizable in “we the people” textbooks.

Thus “market failure” does not automatically require a government correction. This suggests a different approach. Knowing that political solutions are likely to be as bad as or worse than the problems, alleged market failures should be scrutinized to see if they are really serious problems. And if so, can the real problems be addressed by novel voluntary approaches and reforms rather than by government dictates?

Intellectual and political debates over energy have revolved around four “sustainability” issues: depletion, pollution, security, and climate change. Whole books address these issues, most from the market-failure viewpoint, concluding that mankind is on a perilous path and government-engineered energy transformation is necessary.

But students of energy history and energy policy must ask: Has a political makeover of any industry ever worked well for consumers and taxpayers? Or has it had the opposite effect? Creative destruction—a market makeover from shifting consumer demand—is one thing; having government pick winners with carrots and sticks is quite another.

Free-Market Sustainability

The arguments for allowing free markets, rather than government planning, to address the four sustainability issues can be summarized as follows:

  1. Estimated quantities of recoverable oil, gas, and coal have been increasing over time, according to the statistical record. Human ingenuity in market settings has and will continue to overcome nature’s limits, leaving in its wake errant forecasts of resource exhaustion. The resource challenge is political: restricting access and perverting incentives prevents the ultimate resource—human innovation and entrepreneurship—from expanding energy supplies and multiplying energy’s productive utilization.
  2. Statistics of air and water quality in the United States show dramatic environmental improvement and, in fact, indicate a positive correlation between energy usage and environmental improvement. While improvements have been achieved by politicized, command-and-control environmental regulation, the results could have been achieved at lower cost through market methods.
  3. Energy security in the electricity market is assured by abundant domestic coal and the fact that almost all U.S. gas imports come from Canada. Most of the oil needed for transportation comes from domestic supplies supplemented by imports from a variety of countries led by Canada and Mexico. Oil imports from unstable or unfriendly nations, such as Venezuela and those in the Middle East, can be more effectively addressed by privatizing U.S. oil and gas resources than by government penalties against oil imports that cannot distinguish between “good” and “bad” barrels. Even if the United States were to use the powers of government to pare domestic oil consumption, the resulting drop in world oil prices would encourage non-U.S. demand and subsidize foreign industry. The world oil market will continue to exist and thrive even with reduced U.S. participation, and this will become more true over time.
  4. The global warming scare is plagued by open scientific questions, economic tradeoffs, and the reality that carbon-based energy is necessary for economic growth. Carbon rationing (via the Kyoto Protocol) is a failed policy for the developed world and a nonstarter for the developing world. Not only have targeted reductions proved to be elusive, the economic costs of carbon rationing are not unlike those from (postulated) deleterious climate change.

The recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico raises an additional sustainability issue: unexpected setbacks that cause massive property damage and even fatalities. Short-run problems, however, can result in longer-term gains so long as the firm faces full liability and pays restitution to the victims. Accountability in private property settings encourages companies to square profits, people, and the environment—and avoid the financial losses that come from performance failure. Currently companies have their liability for damages capped by law at $75 million, though politics could potentially nullify the cap in any given case, as it apparently will in the BP Deepwater Horizon incident.

Rather than expand government, public policy should end preferential subsidies for politically favored energies and privatize such assets as public-land resources and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Multibillion-dollar energy programs at the U.S. Department of Energy should be eliminated. Such policy reform can simultaneously increase energy supply, improve energy security, reduce energy costs, and increase the size of the private sector relative to the public sector.

To Al Gore the “planetary emergency” is five billion to six billion people using oil, gas, or coal for most of their energy needs. But the real energy problem is that nearly one and a half billion people do not use modern forms of energy. Rampant statism in place of private property, voluntary exchange, and the rule of law is behind this problem.

Energy-impoverished people use dried dung and primitive biomass to stay warm and cook their meals, destroying their health and shortening their lives. Without electricity or machines, they do not have clean water, reliable lighting, or other means for comfortable, sanitary living. This here-and-now problem demands energy freedom and an end to debilitating energy statism.

The free-market vision stresses that these impoverished people should not be subject to energy rationing by government. Solar panels and industrial wind turbines can only generate a fraction of the energy produced by diesel generators or a conventional power plant—and are much less reliable. Energy brawn is needed, not inferior but politically correct energies that appeal to energy planners.

Property Rights vs. the Resource Curse

More fundamentally, these victims of statism need private property rights to in-ground minerals and ownership title to energy infrastructure. In this way, they can overcome the so-called resource curse whereby siphoned energy wealth underwrites government control and bad economic policy.

Countries worldwide should reject energy planning from a politically endowed elite. Government planners suffer from a “fatal conceit” that their knowledge and goals must override those of the masses. But on-the-spot energy consumers and energy producers, guided by prices and profit/loss, have much more collective wisdom than faceless bureaucrats commanding from on high. Top-down planning misdirects and destroys despite the best efforts of even well-educated, well-meaning bureaucrats.

Freedom—the use of reason and persuasion in place of coercion—is a worthy goal. In the U.S. energy sector, market reliance, though compromised by both pro-business and anti-business government intervention, has produced economic coordination, fostered economic growth, and democratized wealth. Government intervention, on the other hand, such as occurred in the 1970s with U.S. oil and gas price controls, has produced shortages, civil strife, and bureaucratic waste.

Markets are not perfect, inspiring some to devise and champion government intervention. But political solutions must contend with analytic failure, implementation problems, and public-sector (taxpayer) costs. Imperfect markets, in other words, may well be better than “perfect” regulation in the real world. The burden of proof, therefore, should be on government intervention, rather than on voluntary transactions premised on private property and governed by the rule of law.

  • Robert L. Bradley Jr. is the CEO and founder of the Institute for Energy Research.