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If It’s Green, He Sees Purple

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

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The Manhattan Institute scholar and conservative columnist, Max Schultz,  uses his considerable wit to shoot at anything that’s environmentally positive.

”Wind, solar, and other so-called renewable-energy sources play negligible roles in our energy economy because they fail in competition with oil, coal, natural gas, and nuclear power,” he wrote. If he had his way, the world in the 22nd century would still be desperately burning what coal, oil and gas it had left. The fact that alternative energy sources need subsidies to find their place in the economy merely demonstrates to Schultz that they are unworthy.

Similarly he decries the economics of Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman, who hold that our present social and economic troubles provide economic opportunity for an environmentally friendly build-out of the world. He poses the idea that a broken window, although it benefits the glazier, doesn’t benefit society in general because the money paid to the glazier would have been spent beneficially anyway. However, what his approach doesn’t take into account is that disasters like 9/11 or WWII, like most broken windows, are fait accompli, and require repair anyway, so why not environmentally friendly repair that also provides positive environmental benefits?

Apropos of this, he pooh-poohed Krugman’s idea that “the destruction of the World Trade Center would require new construction and therefore reinvigorate economic activity downtown.” But that was of course exactly what happened. A relatively moribund downtown Manhattan (real-estate-wise) became a dynamic center of new construction and new uses.

Schultz appears on the side of the angels with his current stand on ethanol. He said he knows that, ”Laws mandating the production and consumption of vastly larger amounts of ethanol created an artificial demand for corn, driving up its price.” (See our article on ethanol, 12/23/09.) He even decries the environmental cost of deforestation and the contribution of farm runoff to algal proliferation in the Caribbean. However, as a staff member of the US Department of Energy, and an advisor of Bush’s oil-centric energy policy until mid 2004, he did nothing to stop the rollout of the national ethanol mandate in 2003.

The trouble with clever people like Schultz is that even as they stick to one side of their arguments, they make their arguments seem plausible. In backing gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale (see our article of 11/20/09) even in New York City’s watershed, Schultz states that it will be okay because the State’s plan requires that “extra care be taken for drilling in the watershed and establishes buffer zones around its reservoirs and aqueducts.” However, the State’s plan permits drilling as close as within 300 feet of these reservoirs and aqueducts, using existing standards for drilling for water, not for wells drilled for hydraulic fracturing, with their extremely high water pressures and radioactive chemicals that have polluted wells within a four-mile radius.

It’s the same problem with all the money Schultz argues that New York State will get. “Marcellus Shale activity,” he claims, “could be worth upward of $25 billion for the Keystone State over the next decade.” However, if there is even a relatively minor accident with filterable consequences, current estimates of the price for a filtration plant for the watershed’s supply run in the $20-billion range, not counting the cost of providing a vast interim supply for the five to ten years it will take to design, fund, build and deploy such a plant. It doesn’t sound like a good bargain, but Schultz can only see the money. And for Schultz, that’s all that ever seems to matter.

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