Environmental policy Policy and Politics Politics Uncategorized

From Leader to Laggard in Environment

How conflict over environmental regulations led to U.S. polarization and political paralysis

 A 2020 poll on voter views about climate change by the Pew Trust found that “88% of Democratic-registered voters said stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost. A 61% majority of GOP voters said such environmental laws cost too many jobs and hurt the economy”. The quote reflects both the split in the parties and the widespread assumption in the U.S. that efforts against global climate change require more rigorous regulations. Recent research observes that the U.S.’s labyrinthine regulatory system is an anomaly among advanced nations and has not led to an effective policy against climate change; it lies at the root of the U.S.’s current status as an environmental laggard in the campaign against climate change.

In the early 1970s, the U.S. had no conflict over environmental policy. The Clean Air and Clean Water Act Amendments of 1970 and 1972  were approved unanimously in the Senate en route to overwhelming passage in Congress. They and the NEPA Act of 1969 made rapid progress against pollution. The U.S. became the world leader in environmental policy. However, the revolutionary new laws contained seeds of future problems. The following list offers a troubling picture about subsequent progress in environmental management.

  • World Bank data show that in 2018 Sweden was the world leader with 52% renewable to total energy use. The U.S. was at 10%, near the bottom of European nations.
  • The U.S. landfills 50% of municipal waste, Sweden landfills 1%.
  • The U.S. recycles a third of glass bottles; advanced European nations recycle 90%
  • Power plants use about a third of produced energy for electricity. Over 11% of European power plants, but only around 1% of U.S. power plants employ cogeneration.
  • The U.S.‘s uniquely labyrinthine regulatory/permitting system requires an average of 4.5 years for permitting major infrastructure projects; delays and cost overruns are typical for federally-assisted initiatives.
  • Regulatory-associated NIMBY shackles innovative renewable energy developments. For example, 5,341 wind turbines operated in European waters in 2020. The U.S. has seven turbines in our highest wind-energy corridor along the Atlantic coast.
  • The U.S. is dependent on foreign suppliers for renewable energy equipment and minerals critical for renewable energy development.
  • Federal agencies are inhibited from employing proactive management techniques to minimize wildfires; carbon dioxide from millions of acres of burned national forests goes unnecessarily into the atmosphere.
  • The U.S. has thousands of brownfields and many Superfund sites that could be remediated with advanced techniques. The Bureau of Mines was leading cleanup research when it was abolished in the 1990s. Charged with managing the sites, EPA is overburdened by mandated tasks and operates under constraints that offer little scope for entrepreneurship.

What happened to U.S. environmental effectiveness? A major answer is polarization over environmental regulations. The drastic impact of 1970s environmental laws on the economy aroused antagonism in the business community. Conflict over environmental policy widened to political polarization between environmentalists and U.S. industry and their respective political supporters in the 1980s. Global climate change concern subsequently intensified conflict. A prominent environmental scientist’s 2021 book is titled The New Climate War and openly labels corporations as the enemy. While not monolithic, much of industry and political supporters quietly reciprocate environmentalist hostility. This condition is incompatible with progress. Industry (not academic activists or their political supporters) builds electrical grids – a point noted by Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Radicalization has led each side in the conflict to automatically oppose the goals of the other.  As a result, neither side achieves its goals. Over 50% of Republicans in Congress were recently claimed to be climate deniers. The strategy of leading environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council has been to shut down fossil fuel production or transportation wherever possible under the assumption that this will speed  transformation to boutique renewables – solar and wind energy. They oppose backup nuclear power, biomass energy, and even hydropower – which together dominate current U.S. renewable energy production. They are skeptical of carbon sequestration (geological burial of CO2) because it could encourage continuation of fossil fuel production. Besides stoking counterhostility, the campaign against “dirty” energy industries that will remain critical to society well into the future diverts progressive younger talent from seeking leadership positions in fossil fuel and related industries.

Risks of overzealous campaigns. Besides the European fuel crisis created by Russia’s attack on Ukraine, if shutdowns like the Keystone and Dakota pipelines, lawsuits like those challenging national maintenance of oil and gas pipelines, and blockage of LNG terminals continue to exceed progress in replacing fossil fuels, they could lead to stranded financial and technical resources, supply interruption, and major resumption of fuel imports. Steep price rises could sour public opinion against proactive environmental measures. They would risk future ENRONs, companies playing the environmental game with less than admirable motives.

 Outdated U.S. regulatory and permitting systems vs. European policies. The U.S.’s revolutionary environmental statutes date from 1969 through the 1970s. Polarization and Congressional gridlock have frozen in place policies designed for earlier times and conditions. U.S. policies contrast with cooperative environmental policies adopted by European nations in the early 1990s. Europeans are now world leaders, whereas the U.S. is a laggard in environmental policy and performance.

Germany’s ingenious feed-in tariff, initiated by the Green Party, exponentially increased renewable energy development without front-end government investments. Denmark took an aggressive approach to wind energy development, exploiting the country’s flatness and high wind energies. It became the world leader in wind turbine production. Once alternative energy capacity was sufficiently developed, DONG (Danish Oil and Natural Gas Company) divested itself of oil and gas interests and transitioned entirely into offshore wind energy development. The new entity, Ørsted, is the primary contractor for proposed new offshore wind developments off the U.S. Northeast coast.

A better approach. Complex environmental regulatory/permitting systems introduced in the 1970s were effective in controlling environmental pollution. However, they subsequently proved equally effective in inhibiting infrastructure projects and renewable energy development. Rather than applying stricter regulations or seeking to weaken enforcement of existing laws,  the U.S. could benefit by considering the superior performance of  European environmental policies and revisiting the U.S.’s 40-year-old environmental management system.

American history Civil War Economy Environmental policy Industry Journalism Policy and Politics Politics Science and education Uncategorized

The Coronavirus signals need for reform of U.S. policies for approval of vaccines and advanced cures

I sent a message similar to this essay to Robyn Dixon, author of an article on Russian science and vaccine development in the Washington Post yesterday, February 9. 2021. The Dixon article cited scientist and journalist, Irina Yakutenko, saying that “you should do everything according to the protocols. It takes a long, long time. It takes a lot of money”. That has been true for U.S. policies that have required ten years to release new vaccines*. But the “miraculous” speed of vaccine development in 2020 tells us that those medical policies are grievously outdated and need to change. I copied this message to Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, encouraging them to explore reforms with Senate colleagues and NIH Director Francis Collins. Republicans would likely agree about the importance of reform.

The length of time needed for vaccine development is due to the extreme rigor of U.S requirements for them and other critical cures. This in turn is attributable to concern to minimize adverse effects. The positive potential of a new vaccine can be confirmed in a dozen cases, but to rule out 1:1000 adverse effects may require years and trials with 6000 persons. The FDA operates in the world’s most litigious nation and is risk-averse. We saw what happened in 2020 when excess cautions were swept aside because of the emergency created by the coronavirus. The speed of the approval was startling for our system, but other nations produced vaccines in the same time frame. Sixty-three coronavirus vaccines have been reported in clinical development. Because of the U.S.’s overwhelming dominance in research funding and the rigor and reputation of the National Institute of Health, the sponsor of federally supported trials, our protocols are widely adopted in Germany and other EU nations.

A new vaccine can cost $500 million to $2 billion. This leads to exorbitant treatment costs and a lack of attention to rarer diseases that could be cured. An example is my wife, Lucy, who has a rare “SCA 8” ataxia that could be readily cured by gene editing – but it can’t get attention.

A sleeper factor also holds back treatment in America. The Washington Post article mentions scientific publication as being desirable for Russian medical development. To the extent that they report new knowledge and advances, scientific publications play critical roles.  But the U.S. suffers from a flood of excess clinical publications. Reports offer many promising new treatments “for the future” while there is a dearth of new treatment opportunities today. The reason is that it is more advantageous for medical researchers to apply for research funding and get their names in print or in the news for promising developments than to take the risks of moving to formal treatment. The latter receives little public recognition while it incurs major risks for lawsuits over new procedures. Risk adverseness operates on clinics as well as clinicians.

In 2016 I became personally familiar with a pioneering Austrian heart surgeon who saved the life of an American composer who had a heart attack while attending a concert in Vienna. Dr. Werner Mohl** developed a procedure for restoring heart tissue damaged in heart attacks. The American would probably have died in the U.S. because the procedure would not have been authorized until clinical trials proved its efficacy.

*Vaccines, 5th Ed., Philadelphia, Saunders 2008.


American history Economy Environmental policy Industry

America’s Paradox: Low Taxes on Corporations — and Higher Taxes on the Execs Who Run Them Could Stimulate U.S. Manufacturing

U.S. progressives call for higher corporate and personal taxes. Conservatives want no tax increases. Given that the Biden “green” plan at its core requires a robust American manufacturing sector, we need a more nuanced tax scenario.

The Biden campaign proposal to increase the nation’s corporate tax rate to 28 percent would leave that rate below pre-Trump corporate tax levels but still put the United States above most European rates and leave American manufacturing at a competitive disadvantage.

Would federal policies that mandate the purchase of U.S.- made products offset this disadvantage? Mandates work mainly for subsidized activities. These tend to involve insider contracts rather than promote entrepreneurship. Germany has become an international manufacturing powerhouse — with large foreign exchange surpluses but industrial wage and benefit levels nearly double what U.S. corporations provide — without such mandates. Germany has a corporate tax rate of 15 percent, plus a 5 percent “solidarity” assessment.

On personal taxes we have counterintuitive reasons for increasing progressivity in personal income taxes beyond Biden’s 39.6 percent. The first reason looks back to the 1970s when the United States suffered disproportionate deindustrialization. We hemorrhaged products and industries where we had traditionally excelled. Other European nations didn’t abandon traditional and new industries. Finland produces those beautiful cruise liners. Italy retains its shoe and clothing industries and leads in popular granite table tops and other stoneware. Sweden’s IKEA is the world’s leading home furnishings company, and Volvo ranks as the second biggest truck maker after Daimler. Sweden also shares with Denmark the distinction of having the world’s highest personal tax rates on high incomes. In the United States, we have one of the lowest.

The subsequent Reagan administration’s relegitimization of business may have been timely. But the Reagan reduction of top personal taxes from 70 to 28 percent led to executive pay becoming linked to corporate profits. This stimulated exponential increases in executive compensation (as well as lawyers’ and others’ pay) , and those increases, in turn, encouraged corporate executives to pursue short-term profits over long-term goals.

No U.S. top executive pursued short-term profits with more zest and celebrity than  General Electric’s CEO, Jack Welch, who would retire in 2001 with a record severance of $457 million. The culture Welch installed at GE created bubble growth and an ultimate crash for the historic manufacturing company.

In 2014 GE contracted to sell the last major U.S. suite of household appliances — its appliance division — to Sweden’s Electrolux, a move designed to gain cash for more profitable investments. Such investments earlier included high-finance and real estate ventures that brought GE profits along with a deemphasis on making products and meeting U.S. technological needs. GE’s German counterpart, Siemens, took a different course. It continued its traditional long-term strategies and today rates as a major global player across the technological spectrum, as well as a key partner in Germany’s proactive climate-change policies.

The learning I take from all this: America’s astoundingly high top incomes have a negative effect on our national productivity. Nor do top earners stimulate productivity. They buy expensive real estate like Bill Gates’ $147 million primary residence. They purchase foreign properties and luxury goods, art objects and Lear Jets, expensive security and financial services. They invest for personal income security and growth, but as Jack Welch demonstrated, investments for the highest possible returns do not necessarily serve national needs.

The incomes of our top earners have an additional negative impact. They grow our nation’s unsupportable inequality. Among advanced nations, we have the greatest disparity between rich and poorBefore 1970 the lowest income quintiles in the United States saw the fastest growth. In a post-war America where top-bracket personal tax rates never dipped below 70 percent, blue-collar breadwinners could support families on one income. Since 1970 incomes in our lowest quintile income have remained nearly flat in inflation-adjusted terms, with our bottom 50 percent owning a mere 1 percent of the nation’s wealth. Older families, the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank reports, have 12 times the wealth of younger families.

These extremes have triggered record public support for more radical political policies, with disaffection concentrated among younger voters. We will have no economic and political stability in the United States until we correct these imbalances.

Economy Environmental policy Industry

The real story under the controversy over offshore drilling

On January 4 2018 Interior Secretary Zinke announced a plan to open up 90% of the U.S.’s offshore Exclusive Economic Zone, equivalent to more than three quarters of the land area of the United States to commercial recovery of oil and gas. The report ( stated that current moratoria put 94% of the this area under moratoria. Florida was to be excluded from the proposed open areas.

The Interior announcement set off heated opposition from environmentalists and governors of many states. Lena Moffitt, senior director of the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign, said Monday in an email. “This debacle has further highlighted Donald Trump and his administration’s incompetence and failure to take the health, safety, and economic well-being of coastal communities seriously”

As a long-time researcher on offshore environmental policy I suggest that current objections to offshore drilling have less to do with real environmental hazards than with a unique US ideological conflict that emerged in the 1980s. Democrats became the party of environment and Republicans became the party of industry. Opponents to drilling declare that drilling will devastate the coastal environment and economy and throw every possible argument against it, justified or not. Industry and its conservative supporters are no angels either. They long ago abandoned public debate in favor of lobbying and behind the scenes networking on short-range goals.

Compare the 94% of U.S. under offshore moratorium up to the recent Interior Department action with Norway, an international environmental leader. Norway leases all potentially productive offshore areas except off the Lofoten Islands, north of the Arctic Circle, where there are cod spawning grounds. Its offshore oil industry coexists with Norway’s important fishing industry. Norway’s huge fund from petroleum revenues now covers the national pension system.

U.S. Geological Survey assessments show that potential hydrocarbon resources off Maryland are in the Mesozoic Taylorsville basin off Virginia and southern Maryland. They are primarily natural gas, not oil. Had Virginia and Maryland leased their offshore areas years ago and dedicated revenue from lease sales to renewable energy projects like offshore wind turbines and carbon burial they could have been national environmental leaders, even if no commercial production resulted (see state offshore sectors in figure from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM)

If the U.S. had not become embroiled in our battle-to-the-death conflict over natural resource policy it would now probably be a world leader against global climate change instead of a black sheep – with nearly the lowest proportion of renewable energy to total energy consumption among advanced nations. Whereas 3200 offshore wind turbines operate in European waters our regulatory and ideological impasses mean that we recently only got our first offshore wind farm off Block Island in 2016. Is it time to crawl out of our ideological caves and start acting rationally?