Sunday, February 24, 2013

Wind power and a lesson for people who love public works projects

In Bob Woodward's book about the 2011 fiscal crisis, he cites (no pun intended) our Vice President for having raised one of the sillier arguments of advocates of "public works" as a device for creating jobs:

The Hoover Dam, which had employed thousands of workers during the Great Depression, had taken five years to build, Biden reminded [President Obama and the White House negotiating team].
Meaning, we should do more stuff like that.

The problem, of course, is that we no longer live in the 1930s. In part because of regulations long-favored by the left, it is not only impossible to build a dam in a few years, it may not be possible to build one at all. There are good reasons, too: We are no longer an empty country, and our courts are less willing to let the state run roughshod over the property rights of individuals.

Now comes a story in the Huffington Post about the long-frustrated campaign to build a wind power "farm" off the shore of Cape Cod:

In 2001, Jim Gordon, a well-heeled developer of natural gas plants in New England, took up a long-discussed but never-pursued idea that advocates said would usher in a new era of clean energy in America: an ocean-based wind farm off the shores of Cape Cod.

The advantages of the site seemed plain: Relentless, hard-driving winds, shallow shoals several miles offshore on which to anchor large turbines, and, perhaps most importantly, a left-leaning population inclined to support what was already viewed at the time as an overdue migration away from dirtier sources of electricity....

Almost 12 years later, the now 59-year-old Gordon, who graduated from Boston University during the 1970s oil crises with a degree in communications and, he says, vague designs on film school before he set his sights on the energy business, is still pressing his case. Not a single turbine is in the water.

Acquiring the full array of government permits and sign-offs -- a byzantine process involving dozens of sometimes overlapping, often contradictory agencies, hundreds of officials and thousands of pages of impact statements -- took over a decade. And more than a dozen lawsuits, citing everything from potential disruption of whale and bird migrations to interference with airplane and shipping traffic, the wrecking of commercial fishing grounds and the desecration of sacred Native American sites, have thrown sand in the project's gears at every turn....

To be sure, as the first proposed offshore wind project in the United States, Cape Wind, as it is called, was bound to encounter unique scrutiny, and like any undertaking of its size, it is not without environmental impacts. But the long-thwarted wind farm also highlights what some critics say has become a bloated and overly complicated regulatory maze through which fewer and fewer project developers of any kind have the wherewithal to navigate.

If you are a Rooseveltian liberal who loves the idea of the CCC as a solution to unemployment, and who, like our Vice President, thinks we should build more Hoover Dams, please explain what regulations you will repeal and what rights -- real and imagined -- you will trample to make such projects possible. Until then, please stop flapping your gums about the benefits of such projects, because they cannot happen on a scale that will solve any economic problem of shorter duration than two decades.

Oh. And remember this: Delay inherently massively increases the costs of a project because investment returns are further in to the future. That means that regulation actually turns many projects from profitable to unprofitable. That means that a project delayed is, in many cases, a project denied. Do not be confused: The regulations and the lawsuits that purport to govern big projects actually are intended to kill them.

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