Author: rbouvier consulting

Is the proposed hybrid/electric vehicle tax a good idea?

Is the proposed hybrid/electric vehicle tax a good idea?

Photo: Robert Scoble

In February, Maine’s Governor LePage proposed implementing a fee on the owners of electric and hybrid vehicles.[1]  He is not alone – 17 other states have already implemented similar fees[2]).  It may seem, at first glance, to be yet another slap in the faces of “liberal-minded environmentalists.”  But giving the Governor the benefit of the doubt, it’s actually attempting to solve a problem that’s been seemingly intractable for years: that the state highway trust fund is overextended, at a time when the state’s infrastructure is badly in need of investment.

Maine, of course, is not alone. The Federal Highway Trust fund, which is primarily funded by federal taxes on gasoline, is also underfunded and over-extended.  Much like other issues in Congress, though, potential solutions seem to be few and far between, and no politician wants to propose anything as unpalatable as a tax increase.

So, what’s the problem? The highway funds at both the federal and the state level are funded primarily through taxes on gasoline.  In Maine, slightly less than 70% of revenues earmarked for the State Highway Fund are from gasoline taxes.  Another 27% come from vehicle registrations and fees, leaving the remaining 3% to come from various other sources[3].  In 1991, the first year for which revenue for the highway fund is reported on the legislature’s web site[4] , the highway fund received approximately $197 million (or approximately $363 million in today’s dollars).  In 2015, the fund received approximately $308.5 million (or $327 million in today’s dollars).  That’s a decrease of about 10% in real terms, despite the fact that the Association of Civil Engineers has given Maine a D on roads, essentially unchanged since 2008.[5]

Moreover, whereas the federal government has supplemented its declining revenues with other sources (with questionable legality), Maine cannot do the same. So how did we get in this mess?

The answer is that the tax is poorly targeted and creates perverse incentives.  Let’s start with the targeting question.  Taxes are supposed to do several things, from an economic viewpoint: raise revenue and change behavior.  In this case, the tax is primarily to raise revenue for the highway system.  Some environmentalists would also like to see the gasoline tax used to reduce the demand for and usage of gasoline, as one of the culprits in climate change, but the two objectives are fundamentally at odds, for several reasons.

First, if the revenue from a tax is used to fund a particular program, then the tax should be designed to bring in a sustainable amount of revenue year after year.  In this case, the revenue from the gasoline tax has been declining year after year. This decline is due to both technological advances and changes in demand.  Average fuel economy for passenger cars has been generally rising since 2000, and the trend has been similar for trucks since about 2004.  Average fuel economy for both cars now stands at about double what it was in the 1970s, meaning today’s cars can travel twice the mileage on a tank of gas than they could back in the 70s[6].  That’s great news for the environment, but not great news for those who depend upon the revenue from the gas tax.

Second, even as the Maine population increases, the number of miles driven has not increased.  In fact, whereas you normally might expect to see people driving more miles as it becomes cheaper to do so, we aren’t seeing such a trend.  In fact, while Mainers drove about 14,925 in 2005, that number actually dropped to 14,838 in 2016[7]. So, the revenue from the gas tax has been hit doubly hard: the average miles per gallon has increased, while the number of miles driven per year has decreased.  We could of course increase the gasoline tax (it hasn’t been increased since 2011), but that is likely to further dampen the demand for purchases of gasoline.

So, what to do?  We could, of course, follow Governor LePage’s recommendation and impose a surcharge on hybrid and electric vehicles. In one way, that would address the “free rider” problem that some analysts have pointed out: that owners of hybrid and other fuel-efficient vehicles use the highways as much as others, but don’t pay their “fair share” to the highway fund.[8]

Ultimately, though, that would not solve the problem, because the gas tax is poorly targeted in the first place.  The wear and tear on our infrastructure is tied to the usage of the highway, which is only imperfectly proxied by gallons of gasoline purchased.  A better targeted tax would be to impose a tax on vehicle miles driven, like the one currently being studied by the Colorado Department of Transportation. [9]  Of course, such a system would require some method of tracking number of miles driven, either through electronic monitoring such as those already in place on tolled highways, or through some other system.

Such a tax would not, of course, create an incentive for individuals to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles, which is one of the reasons why environmentalists like the gas tax.  The gas tax, in their mind, is akin to a cigarette tax, which aims to curb smoking by increasing the price.  But if the goal there is to reduce carbon emissions, a tax on the carbon content of fuel, not the gasoline itself, would be a more efficiently targeted tax.  But that’s a different blog post, for a different day. (You may view my blog posts on the carbon tax, here and here.)

[1] https://www.epa.gov/fuel-economy-trends/highlights-co2-and-fuel-economy-trends

[2] https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics/2013/hm60.cfm

[3] http://www.thedrive.com/tech/18549/maine-and-colorado-struggle-to-tax-electric-cars-fairly)

[4] https://www.pressherald.com/2018/02/08/legislation-calls-for-new-annual-fee-on-all-electric-hybrid-cars-in-maine/

[5] https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/13-states-now-charge-fees-for-electric-vehicles#gs.y_6lSMM

[6] http://legislature.maine.gov/legis/ofpr/highway_fund/pie_charts/Hfpie1213.pdf

[7] http://legislature.maine.gov/legis/ofpr/highway_fund/rev_exp_history/index.htm

[8] https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Maine-Report_Card_final_booklet.pdf

[9] https://www.denverpost.com/2017/12/12/colorado-mileage-tax-experiment/

First Quarter Journal Highlights: Regulations Behaving Badly

First Quarter Journal Highlights: Regulations Behaving Badly

 

A recent article in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management (JEEM) coined a new (albeit clunky) phrase: the macroeconomic environmental rebound/backfire effect.  This effect occurs when a “green improvement,” such as an energy efficiency program, results in less of an environmental improvement than expected. This is not due to unrealistic expectations, but due to what the authors term the substitution, wealth, and sectoral reallocation effects. The substitution effect occurs when the green promotion lowers the price of the green good relative to the dirty one, and so households adjust their consumption towards the green good and away from the dirty one.  So far, so good.  But the wealth effect can work in the opposite direction. As households experience an increase in their buying power due to the now (relatively cheaper) green good, they will purchase more of everything in what economists term their “consumption bundle” – including dirty goods. Finally, the sectoral reallocation effect occurs when firms reallocate their resources between the dirty and green sectors.  Depending upon the magnitude and intensity of these three effects, a green improvement could actually lead to an increase in pollution. (Environmental rebounds/backfires: Macroeconomic implications for the promotion of environmentally-friendly products. Juin-JenChang, Wei-NengWang, Jhy-YuanShieh, Volume 88, March 2018, Pages 35-68)

Also in JEEM this quarter is a very interesting article looking at the potential for “spillovers” when regulating multiple pollutants, such as greenhouse gases and particulate matter.  A regulatory spillover is when a regulation aimed at one pollutant has an effect (either positive or negative) on the emissions of another pollutant.  For example, carbon dioxide and particulate matter are both formed through the combustion of fossil fuels, so a policy aimed at reducing the emission of greenhouses gases may reduce particulate matter at the same time. That’s an example of a positive spillover.  However, as the article points out, it’s also possible that a regulation may have a negative spillover; for example, switching from fossil fuels to biomass may reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, but increase emissions of nitrogen oxides or particulate matter.  Failure to account for policy spillovers, either positive or negative, can lead to poorly targeted regulations. 

The authors consider a transboundary pollutant (such as carbon dioxide) and a local pollutant (such as particulate matter).  For policy options, they consider emissions taxes and emissions quotas.   They find that policies to reduce greenhouse gases can lead to positive spillovers for local pollutants if the technologies that are used to reduce both are complementary. This is not a surprising result. However, they then look at whether there is an international agreement in place to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Their results suggest that if there is such an agreement in place, emissions of the local pollutant may actually increase if countries behave strategically (I.e., increase their emissions in the hopes of getting larger quotas), or when the revenue from a tax is kept within its borders. Policy spillovers in the regulation of multiple pollutants Pages 114-134 JEEM Stefan Ambec, Jessica Coria Volume 88, March 2018        

Of real interest to us in New England is a recent article that appears to suggest that the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), geared at reducing carbon emissions in some northern states, actually is associated with an increase in carbon emissions elsewhere (a phenomenon called “leakage” that occurs when regulations designed to reduce emissions in one geographic area actually increase emissions somewhere else).  While emissions decreased overall, authors found, the decrease was partially offset by an increase in neighboring states.  They conclude that such leakage means that we cannot attribute quite as much of a decrease in emissions to RGGI as originally thought.  Leakage in regional environmental policy: The case of the regional greenhouse gas initiative Harrison Fell and Peter Maniloff JEEM Volume 87, January 2018, Pages 1-23 

And finally, a slightly different type of article: several researchers from the University of Pisa in Italy investigated the links between per capita income and new cancer incidence by looking at a cross-sectional dataset from 122 countries.  They found that the incidence rate of all-sites cancer increases linearly with per capita income, even after controlling for population ageing, improvement in cancer detection, and omitted spatially correlated variables.  The article lends further support to the so-called “cancer transition hypothesis,” a theory that links economic development with a shift in the onset of cancers from those linked with infectious diseases to those linked with other types of risk factors.  To quote from the article itself: “our analysis shows that the cancer epidemic cannot be explained solely by higher life expectancy, by better statistics and by regional peculiarities: rather, a significant role must also be attributed to environmental degradation and life-styles. Unfortunately, our regressions are unable to distinguish between the two” (p 388).  Unfortunate, indeed.  Ecological Economics 146 (2018) 381–396 Economic Growth and Cancer Incidence T. Luzzati , A. Parenti, T. Rughi 

Keeping the Lights On Doesn’t Mean More Pollution

Keeping the Lights On Doesn’t Mean More Pollution

Photo – Creative Commons/Flickr Amy the Nurse

In August of 2017, Energy Secretary and former governor Rick Perry proposed to strengthen subsidies to coal- and nuclear-fueled electricity plants.  Why?  According to his proposal, coal and nuclear power plants are indispensable to our national security by virtue of the fact that they can store energy on-site. And, since the past few years have seen declines in both coal and nuclear facilities in the United States, the concern is that the nation’s electricity grid will be less reliable in the future. The proposal would have guaranteed cost recovery and a fair rate of return for generators that can store at least 90 days’ worth of energy on site.  Fortunately, the Federal Regulatory Commission rejected it.  Even so, it’s still worth looking at the pros and cons of such a proposal.

More power outages and more disruptions would, of course, harm our energy-intensive economy. As the recent spate of hurricanes (including high winds in my home state of Maine) have shown, such energy disruptions can be costly. In fact, 2017 was the costliest year in terms of economic damages from natural disasters in the US.

Would subsidizing coal and nuclear facilities really have been the best solution? To answer that, we need to take a deeper look.  When I teach cost-benefit analysis, I encourage my students to consider the baseline – what would have happened in the absence of the policy or proposal in question. The number of coal and nuclear plants in this country has been declining for decades. The decline can be attributed to several factors, including environmental regulations, but mainly the declines are due to market forces (low electricity prices, declining electricity demand, and new supplies from natural gas) and aging infrastructure. Without taking a close look at the finances of the plants in question, we can assume that at least some of these plants would have been likely to follow.  Increasing subsidies to already struggling nuclear and coal plants would likely have been just another case of throwing good money after bad.

When considering the costs and benefits of the proposed plan, there would have been several different categories, each accruing to different groups.  The beneficiaries of the plan would likely have been owners and shareholders of the qualifying coal and nuclear plants.  Their consumers, as well, may have benefited from a lower average wholesale price of electricity; however, the proposal recommended adding a surcharge to consumers’ bills in order to cover the costs. According to the analysis done by Resources for the Future, the drop in the wholesale price of electricity would not have been enough to cover the surcharge.

Moreover, practitioners of cost-benefit analysis need to carefully consider all the costs and benefits of a proposal, not just those that are easily monetized.  A complete analysis of the costs and benefits of Secretary Perry’s proposal should include the damages caused by pollution from coal and nuclear-powered plants to humans and agriculture. (While the generation of electricity from nuclear plants does not create air pollution, the mining for uranium does create environmental destruction.) Such external costs are in reality a passive subsidy that coal and nuclear plants have enjoyed for decades. An additional subsidy would exacerbate the problem. According to the analysis done by Resources for the Future, the proposed plan would have immediately increased sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, two pollutants generated by the combustion of fossil fuel.  This increase in emissions is linked to an increase in premature deaths caused by respiratory diseases such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Once environmental costs are factored in, net benefits to society would have been decidedly negative.

The next question is: would the subsidies have alleviated the problem of grid instability? The answer to this question actually lies in the question itself.  Is there really a problem of power disruption caused by declining coal and nuclear plants? Some recent research by the Rhodium Group says no.  Researchers examined the data collected by the Department of Energy whenever an electricity generator experiences an outage or a disturbance.  Results indicate that disruptions in fuel supply were responsible for less than 1 one hundredth of one percent of lost customer service hours between 2012 and 2016.  The remainder were caused by disruptions to energy distribution  Primarily, those disruptions were caused by severe weather, not by supply disruptions.  The FERC ultimately agreed when it rejected Secretary Perry’s proposal.

However, the FERC did agree that the reliability of the grid was an issue looking into.  If the goal of Secretary Perry’s proposal was to increase the reliability of the grid – not just to prop up nuclear and coal – there are several less costly and ultimately beneficial ways of doing so.  One such possibility is to replace our nation’s aging energy-related infrastructure, much of which dates to the 1950s and 60s. Energy infrastructure actually received a “D+” on the 2017 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Upgrading the energy infrastructure would come with many ancillary benefits.

A second alternative would be to invest in distributed energy and microgrids.  Distributed energy is the use of small, decentralized power generation and storage systems. While larger utilities consider the rise of distributed energy to be a threat to the existing system, the greater use of distributed energy could actually increase the resilience of our current, outdated system.  However, doing so will require innovations in monitoring, modeling, “smart switches,” and other technologies to manage peak demand and integration.

A third possibility is to invest in better long-term energy storage. Lithium ion batteries may be our best choice for now, but other storage technologies, such as flow batteries or zinc air batteries.  But by far the best alternative – one that should be a crucial part of any solution – is energy conservation.  A unit of energy conserved is one that doesn’t need to be generated.  You don’t get much more reliable than that.

Webinar: The Cost of Everything & the Value of Nothing

Webinar: The Cost of Everything & the Value of Nothing

Dates: 9/21, 10/19, 11/16 & 12/14 – 12:00PM – 1:30PM

Cost:  $25 session/$80 full series

Registration:  HERE

Join economist Rachel Bouvier for a four-part webinar series entitled, “The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing: What Environmental Professionals Should Know About Economics.” A firm grasp of economic principles is necessary to be able to articulate the full social value of environmental preservation and conservation. Using economic language helps ensure that environmental protection is on equal footing with other, more marketable services.

Live webinars will be broadcast every third Thursday of the month (with the exception of December), starting September 21 and ending December 14 from 12:00pm to 1:30pm. Presentations will be one hour, with a half hour for an interactive question and answer period.

Archived presentations will be available for registrants to access at any time.

September 21, 2017: Introduction to Economics for Environmental Professionals

What does it mean to put a value on the environment and why is it important to know how to do it?

  • Why put a value on the environment?
  • An economist’s view of the world
  • Basic concepts of economic value

 

Octoberr 19, 2017: Tools that economists use to “value” the environment

Economists use a variety of tools to value the environment. Learn what those tools are and how they are used to put a value on environmental benefits.

  • Use value / Non-use value
  • Stated Preference / Revealed Preference

 

November 16, 2017: Cost-Benefit analysis and discounting

Cost-benefit analysis and discounting are integral to creating accurate accountings of value. This webinar touches on what they are and how to use them.

  • Steps in a Cost-Benefit Analysis
  • An Introduction to Discounting
  • Value of a Statistical Life

 

December 14, 2017: Using Economics in Advocacy and Communication

Learn how to use economic information to make your work meaningful to your intended audience.

  • How to determine your audience.
  • How do you make the information meaningful to them?
  • What forum is most useful to communicate the information?