New group formed to promote research in U.S. electric power markets

Michael Giberson

Last week saw announcement of the Electric Markets Research Foundation. The group plans “to fund unbiased research that will examine the track records of centralized electricity markets and traditionally regulated markets in providing affordable and reliable supplies of power as well as meeting clean energy, transmission and environmental needs.” The news release continues:

“There is a dearth of research available on this market-versus-regulation debate and little analysis has been conducted on this 50-state experiment. The Electric Markets Research Foundation intends to address this by supporting research by academics and industry experts on major electric market issues, including customer rates, reliability and service,” said Bruce S. Edelston, the foundation’s president and the driving force behind the research effort.

The governance group looks a little heavy on DC-oriented policy folks, except for Albert Danielsen, a long-time professor of economics at the University of Georgia and executive director of the Bonbright Center for Public Utilities at U. of G. I guess we’ll have to count on Danielsen to keep an eye on the lobbyists.

I’m looking forward to their efforts.

Economics research topics in price gouging from odd-even rationing to guilt and shame

Michael Giberson

Today the Master Resource blog published my list of ten price gouging topics needing economic research.

As I point out in the introduction, many economists think price gouging  is too simple to be worth studying. After all, it is just a kind of price cap, and we know how price caps work. My response is that “too simple to be worth studying” is losing the policy battle.

Here is my list of ten topics, see the post at Master Resource for explanations and scattered links to related discussions:

  1. Economics of odd-even rationing
  2. Shortages and the hoarding impulse
  3. Distributional effects of price gouging prohibitions
  4. Non-price rationing techniques: queuing and beyond
  5. Short-run elasticity of supply after disasters
  6. Short-run elasticity of demand after disasters
  7. Organizational form and price gouging enforcement
  8. Economics of consumer price complaints
  9. Studies of price gouging enforcement
  10. Efficiency defenses of price gouging laws

As a bonus for Knowledge Problem readers only, here is a hot, hot, hot behavioral economics research topic as well:

11. Guilt, shame, trust and fairness in pricing after disasters

Economists are increasingly realizing that it takes much more to make markets work than formal rules and freely moving prices. A host of issues sometimes styled as “culture” or “informal institutions” are also critical in getting things to work. (An aside: I’m looking forward to seeing Virgil Storr’s new book, Understanding the Culture of Markets.)

Guilt, shame, and betrayal are joining reputation as social-psychological factors important to economic activity and respectable enough for economists to work on. Does shaming “price gouging” behavior work to stop post-disaster price increases? Does shaming price gougers encourage or discourage pro-social interaction after a disaster? (I.e. do merchants work harder to bring goods to market yet keep prices low, or do merchants allow shelves to go bare and avoid engaging in costly efforts to resupply?)

Related video from Fox news reporter Arnold Diaz: Shame! Shame! Shame! for Price Gougers.

Also, a letter to the editor in New Jersey proposes the Scarlet Letter approach to shaming convicted price gougers (though the writer omits my related suggestion to also shame consumers who choose to participate in price gouging then call in complaints to the attorney general).

The federal government’s natural gas R&D breakthrough

Michael Giberson

In the recent edition of The American magazine, the on-line journal of the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus write in defense of the President’s State of the Union address claim of federal government credit for the shale gas revolution. (For those of you not keeping score at home, (1) I commented on a related Shellenberger and Nordhaus op-ed in two posts back in December 2011, here and here, and then (2) followed with a comment in response to the State of the Union remark in late January 2012, here.)

Shellenberger and Nordhaus begin this recent article:

In his State of the Union address, President Obama invoked the 30-year history of federal support for new shale gas drilling technologies to defend his present day investments in green energy. Obama stressed the value of shale gas—which will create thousands of jobs and billions in profits—as part of his “all of the above” approach to energy, and defended the critical role government investment has always played in developing new energy technologies, from nuclear to solar panels to wind turbines.

The president’s remarks unsurprisingly sparked a strong response from some conservatives (hereherehere, and here), who have downplayed and even attempted to deny the important role that federal investments in hydrofracking, geologic mapping, and horizontal drilling played in the shale gas revolution.

This is an over-reaction. In acknowledging the critical role government funding played in shale gas, conservatives need not write a blank check for all government energy subsidies. Indeed, a closer look at the shale gas story challenges liberal policy preferences as much as it challenges those of conservatives, and points to much-needed reforms for today’s mash of state and federal clean energy subsidies and mandates.

Note that the first of their “here” links is to the first of my two December 2011 blog posts in response to their op-ed, as it appeared at The Energy Collective site (where some of our KP energy-related posts get a second life). As it happens, after the President’s address, the Master Resource blog republished the post as a commentary in response to the President’s natural gas research claim, appending to my title “(December 20 post becomes part of a national debate).”

I want to object to a couple of pretty minor points below, but before I object let me emphasize my agreement with part of what they say about much-needed reforms to today’s state and federal clean energy policies. As they point out late in their article, they’d like to see a reduction or even an end to most current renewable energy production subsidies and direct some of that funding to energy research and innovation. I would completely support such a move, even though I wouldn’t defend the change on the same grounds that they do.

And now two petty objections, both in response to the sentence “The president’s remarks unsurprisingly sparked a strong response from some conservatives (here, ….”

  • First, I am not a conservative. I am pro-dynamism, pro-market, pro-experimentation in many matters both economic and social, and pro-freedom. I don’t want to belabor the point, they probably didn’t mean to offend me, but I am libertarian not conservative.
  • Second, my December 20, 2011 response was not directed at President Obama’s State of the Union address in January 2012, but rather at the mid-December 2011 op-ed by Shellenberger and Nordhaus. (For what it’s worth, I find their arguments more thoughtful and more worthy of a thoughtful response than the President’s  remarks on the topic. So even though my first response to their piece started in somewhat flippant tone, I did try to engage with what they were saying.)

My less minor objections to this new article by Shellenberger and Nordhaus will require a bit more explanation, so I’ll defer them for now. In brief, I still object to how they characterize the significance of the federal role in drilling technology and especially to some of the policy inferences they want to make. In addition, I will want to explain how and why I would support the kind of renewable energy policy reforms they propose even though I disagree with the reasons they give for the reforms.

I should add that their article goes far beyond the first three paragraphs quoted above. You should read the whole thing.

Was federal government support critical to the shale gas breakthrough?

Michael Giberson

In the State of the Union address, President Obama invoked a little federal government research history and then jumped to the kind of logical non sequitur so common to those who see the world through politically-colored glasses:

The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy. And by the way, it was public research dollars, over the course of thirty years, that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock – reminding us that Government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground.

Reminds me of the old saying, “Success has many fathers.” It is true that the federal government supported research into technologies used to extract gas from shale, but it is a politician’s self-serving leap to then suggest it means “Government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground.”

The President’s comment echoes a claim advanced by the Breakthrough Institute last month (as they were happy to point out after the speech), namely that credit for the shale gas boom ought to go to the federal government. I commented on the Breakthrough Institute’s claim in December (see here and here), and the Master Resource blog has republished the first of those posts this morning.

If the federal government were responsible for the shale gas boom, wouldn’t we have expected to see shale gas resources on federal government land developed before privately-owned resources were explored? Instead what we have is the President, in the same State of the Union speech, announcing disclosure requirements for companies that want to use hydraulic fracturing on federal lands – meaning, given the way policy gets developed, that sometime soon a regulatory proposal on the issue will be initiated and in several months, or maybe a year or two, a rule will be in place.

There is nothing wrong with the checks and balances in the policy making process, even though they cause the federal government to sometimes move at a glacial pace. But anyone with the least familiarity with running a business will know that this isn’t the way breakthroughs get made in the private sector.

I certainly would recommend the interested reader check out the Breakthrough Institute’s work on the issue. In addition to the Washington Post op-ed linked above, on their blog they have a summary of their message, interviews with former Mitchell Energy geologist Dan Steward and Penn State University geologist and fracking expert Terry Englander, and other supporting information. The basic reporting presented is quite good. Just be ready to form your own conclusions.

 

 

Does a public good argument justify subsidizing private energy production?

Michael Giberson

Yesterday I disputed the analysis by which the Breakthough Institute wanted to claim credit on behalf of the federal government for the shale gas boom; today I dispute their claimed broader implications for federal energy R&D policy.

Late in their op-ed, the Breakthrough folks shift emphasis from a narrow drilling technology story to a broader examination of energy R&D policy:

Giving the federal government credit where it is due takes nothing away from Mitchell, who was determined and tenacious. But the lesson of the shale gas revolution is that we should not be so quick to judge government investments in energy technology. Between 1978 and 2007, the Energy Department spent $24 billion on fossil energy research. Billions more were spent through the Gas Research Institute and non-conventional gas tax credits. Those investments were widely panned as a failure during the ’80s and early ’90s, when gas was plentiful and cheap.

Whatever one thinks about shale gas today — we worry about its environmental consequences — there’s no denying the extraordinary economic return on taxpayer investments.

This last point is interesting, but undeveloped in the article. If one were to calculate the “economic return on taxpayer investments,” would one have to conclude they were extraordinary?

The essay ultimately wants to argue against claims that the Solyndra episode proves governments can’t pick winners and the shale gas boom proves private enterprise can. Defenders of subsidies for solar power projects claim critics are too focused on a single failure, Solyndra, when reasonably critics should be assessing the overall portfolio of projects supported. It is a fair observation, but it may turn against their conclusion. If we are to consider the return on “taxpayer investments” in energy R&D, we’d reasonably need to survey the full portfolio of energy technology concepts funded by the federal government. We’d have to count the winners and losers both, based on the best current understanding, and again (as yesterday) we’d want to work out some idea of what would have happened in the energy technology space without federal government intervention. Further, we wouldn’t just worry about the environmental consequences, we’d have to compute some estimate of the costs and include it in the analysis.

The article goes nowhere close to presenting the relevant case. Near the end of the article they claim federal credit for “nuclear power, natural gas turbines, solar panels, and wind turbines — pretty much every significant energy technology since World War II.” Hmmm, notice they don’t mention the other big selectively-cited-by-critics failure: the Carter-era launch of an$88 billion effort to make oil from coal. Like the Solyndra and Synfuels Corp. complainers, the Breakthrough Institute wants to draw policy implications for an uncertain future based on a selective invocation of history.

It is further a kind of mistake to invoke Solyndra in an essay all about energy R&D policy. Much recent taxpayer-extracted support for energy shows up in the production tax credit, the investment tax credits, the Section 1603 Treasury grants and miscellaneous other subsidies that are directed to help promote the fortunes of companies building renewable power components or producing power via renewable sources. While some of these companies are pursuing technological developments, these subsidies are not tied to research in any substantial way and yield very little in the way of publicly available research results. Try gathering detailed data on production from a wind farm or solar power plant benefiting from millions of dollars in taxpayer-supported subsidies – their lawyers will likely tell you it is commercially-sensitive information and not publicly available. And by the way it isn’t just renewable energy, the lawyers for subsidized production from low-output oil and gas wells will likely say the same thing.

There is a respectable public good argument that can be made in support of subsidizing at least some research. The “extraordinary economic return” that the Breakthrough Institute wants to claim on behalf of government subsidized research into oil and gas drilling technology is this kind of an argument. If Breakthrough wants to drag Solyndra and the full range of energy production subsidies into this argument, an economist looking for a respectable public good argument has got to ask: where is the public good in subsidizing private energy production from projects that hide publicly useful information from public review?

Did the federal government invent the shale gas boom?

Michael Giberson

In the Washington Post the folks at the Breakthrough Institute try to learn us some history about the shale gas boom. Maybe you think the shale gas boom was some big surprise suddenly made real after the decades-long work of a hard-headed oil and gas guy – George Mitchell – willing to spend millions of dollars on the crazy idea that hydrocarbons stuck in a rock could be produced economically, once the right mix of technologies could be brought to bear.

Wrong, says the Breakthrough Institute, credit the shale gas boom to the federal government.

They have their reasons:

  • “Slick-water fracking, the technology that Mitchell used to crack the shale gas code, was adapted from massive hydraulic fracturing, a technology first demonstrated by the Energy Department in 1977.”
  • “Mitchell learned of shale’s potential from the Eastern Gas Shales Project, a partnership begun in 1976 between the Energy Department’s Morgantown Energy Research Center and dozens of companies and universities ….”
  • “Mitchell’s success depended on a revolution in monitoring and mapping technologies driven largely by government labs.”
  • In 1991, Mitchell asked the publicly funded Gas Research Institute, then funded by a tax on gas production, and the Energy Department for help.”
  • “Sandia National Labs provided Mitchell with many critical microseismic tools.”
  • “Mitchell also benefited from 3-D imaging, which the Energy Department had long supported.”
  • “The third critical technology was horizontal drilling and well installation …. In 1976, two government engineers … patented an early-stage directional drilling technology that became the precursor to horizontal drilling.”
  • “A joint venture between the Energy Department and industry drilled the first horizontal Devonian shale well….

There are a few more similar points. The article pursues a larger goal – some statement concerning current energy policy support – but today I just want to consider how to assess the credit for technological advancement. (See tomorrow for part II.)

A fair analysis of credit and blame requires more than just a recounting of history, such as provided in the article, we need also to construct a counterfactual history for comparison. Should we reasonably believe that but-for the energy technology programs of the Department of Energy, we’d be unable to produce natural gas from shale? It would be difficult to do this analysis well, and the authors don’t attempt it here, but a full assessment calls for it.

A sketch of technology developments may be helpful. Note that fracturing as a well-stimulation technology started in Pennsylvania in the early 1860s. A few clever folk discovered dropping gunpowder down a well, later liquid nitroglycerin,  often brought marvelous returns. Edward A. L. Roberts submitted a patent application for the process in 1864. Hydraulic fracturing technology was first developed by Standard Oil (Indiana) in the late 1940s.  In the 1960s, Project Gasbuggy had the federal government collaborating with the oil and gas industry to test a nuclear-weapon based fracturing technology on federal land in New Mexico. The Breakthrough Institute’s story picks up in the 1970s, but what the backstory reveals is a history of efforts to develop fracturing technology, funded privately in some cases and publicly in others. Department of Energy involvement may have shaped the direction of research, but I suspect its pool of research funds was merely convenient to technological advancement and not necessary. (More recently, GasFrac Energy Services of Alberta has pioneered a propane-based fracturing technology.)

Directional drilling, a precursor to horizontal drilling, first became practiced in the industry in the 1920s – well before “two government engineers … patented an early-stage directional drilling technology” in 1976. (See “Slanted Oil Wells,” published in Popular Science magazine in 1931.) As with hydraulic fracturing,  the industry found the technology quite useful in application and companies pursued technological advancements. Taxpayer funding may have been convenient support for the oil and gas industry, government research involvement may have shaped the direction of directional-drilling research, but the industry would have pursued the technology in any case.

So possibly the federal government’s involvement advanced by a few years the technologies that were finally blended in a sufficiently promising mix by George Mitchell. Even if we grant as much, it isn’t the whole of the shale gas boom that federal involvement gains credit for, just the added value that comes from shifting shale gas production forward by a few years. Of course possibly the whole of the federal government’s involvement in the industry – tax policies, regulatory policies, antitrust policies, federal lands policy, and so on – could reasonably be counted as delaying technological advancement when compared against what would have happened under some more rational regime.

Admittedly, they were just writing an op-ed and I’m complaining that they didn’t do a dissertation’s worth of work to support it. Maybe my complaints are a little unfair.

Okay, here is an offer: I’ll admit my complaints are unfair if they admit that their analysis was insufficient to justify their conclusions.