In November 2011, American citizens gathered at the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline project, which has been proposed to bring oil from Canadian tar sands through and to the United States. At roughly $7 billion, this project is a massive undertaking. Keystone is an interesting topic because it pits the needs of economic growth (during a recession) with the sensitivities of the environment. TOC chose this particular topic to segue way into a discussion around the role of government in protecting our environment while maintaining the principles of free market capitalism. There is no doubt that capitalism and free markets have performed better than other economic systems in terms of growing wealth and creating value. There is no reason why a well-functioning system cannot do the same for the protection of the environment. Often, we get trapped into believing free markets and environmental protection are in conflict. TOC strongly disagrees with this notion and believes that a different paradigm is needed.
To be clear, a free market does not exist unless you eliminate market failures. Government must be focused on eliminating the failures that cause environmental harm. We can look at examples by using Wikipedia (please see the references provided at the bottom of the linked Wikipedia article, as TOC does not believe that Wikipedia itself is reliable but can be used as a link to reliable sources when provided). The first market failure to consider is the existence of information asymmetries and externalities. The second is the existence of oligopolies and the lack of substitutes, creating non-competitive markets.
Consider first externalities and information asymmetries. When governments subsidize the true cost of using fossil fuels by failing to have suppliers or consumers pay for the external cost of carbon (more specifically, the consumption/destruction of carbon-free air) and by providing subsidies to the oil, coal and gas industries, the market fails to reveal to the consumer the true cost of a gallon of gas or a kWh of energy. Subsidies are not just tax breaks, but are also the failure to enforce laws that allow externalities, such as protecting citizens of Appalachia from coal-mining by mountain-top blasting. If I do not understand the true cost of energy as a consumer of energy, I am less likely to consider alternatives; however, I still pay an invisible cost of higher health care (borne by certain citizens and impacting me indirectly), higher tax burdens for other industries and individuals, and (allegedly) the indirect and direct costs of climate change. Note that, even if you do not believe in climate change, you have to agree that there are other externalities caused by the usage of fossil-fuel based energy. The invisibility of these costs is the information asymmetry that causes consumers (buyers) to have less incentive to seek alternatives. There has to be a process of disclosing these hidden costs.
Next, there is the oligopolistic nature of energy, which drives the cost of almost everything consumers purchase. While a lot of conservatives strongly disagree with the concept of governments investing in alternative energy due to the definition of a free market, they fail to realize that there is no free market when we consider energy. We power most of our automobiles with gasoline or natural gas. Most of the remaining vehicles are powered with a battery through hybrid technology (realistically, just a more efficient usage of fossil fuel) and plug-in electrical power. A majority of power on the electrical grid is generated by fossil fuels in the US. Consumers do not have relatively many sources of electrical power or gasoline (While it is true that consumers have many distributors of gasoline, they do not have many sources of gasoline, increasing the market price). Furthermore, the lack of substitutes forces consumers to participate in the fossil-fuel-based energy market. By providing subsidies that support a well-crafted comprehensive energy plan, government can be an investor into such a system and work to lessen this failure as long as the rationale behind such investments is objective and economical, not political. The eventual growth in these investments will pay off in terms of the elimination of externalities and the growth of alternative industries.
TOC believes government has a role as the entity that can eliminate these inefficiencies. This has to be an objective, not political, process. Admittedly, this is an idealistic viewpoint that is virtually impossible in our world of polls, sound bites, politics and 24-hour news cycles; however, it is achievable if the citizenry takes responsibility for the environment, forcing governments to make decisions promoting disclosure in order to empower the public. Maximizing disclosure allows the citizenry to take responsibility for the environment and seek and create less costly goods and services (in terms of true cost).
This is where conservatism comes in. Some conservatives argue free markets must be free of government interference. A true conservative believes in and wants to preserve free markets. Free markets can only exist when there is an entity present that is strong enough to eliminate or limit market inefficiencies and failures. This is why TOC touts conservatism and not an affiliation with a political party. TOC believes we have a major confusion in this country between these two concepts. Political parties exist to advance a political agenda through alliances and mutually beneficial pacts, not necessarily to advance a certain ideology.
In closing we return to the protestors and the pipeline. TOC is not prepared to say if the pipeline project should be allowed or not. Indeed, an objective, informed discussion may reveal that the pipeline has environmental benefits, such as the reduction of truck traffic to haul crude to refining centers. That is not the purpose of this blog post; instead what TOC wants is to make sure we address the larger issue – that there is a need for the pipeline in the first place – and ensure we are investigating realistic solutions to the same.