You Can't Build That: The Regulatory Reality of the Green New Deal
During the 2012 presidential campaign, President Barack Obama said in a speech delivered in Roanoke, Virginia, “You didn't build that.” As often happens on both sides in a hard-fought political campaign, his comment was widely taken out of context. He was talking about infrastructure, and the key role government plays in the planning, design, and construction of roads and bridges. It’s a fair point: infrastructure projects are common public goods that spin off benefits far and wide, including to entrepreneurs.
Now comes the Green New Deal, whose congressional co-sponsors include four announced candidates for president. As such, it should be understood as an action plan that the Democratic Party intends to adopt if its standard-bearer is elected in 2020.
The Green New Deal has been subjected to withering criticism — including on these pages — for its breadth, audacity, and financial implications. Breadth is unmistakable because, in addition to attempting to unilaterally solve the problem of global climate change, the Green New Deal also aims to address domestic wage stagnation, socioeconomic immobility, the decline of industrial trade unions, inadequate pay for government workers, and income inequality. Audacity is self-evident because the Green New Deal would create a host of large new entitlements and, for good measure, correct “systemic” injustices inherent to the nation’s founding and republican system of government. Financial implications are only beginning to be fleshed out, beginning with Medicare for All — at least $3.3 trillion per year — and free, high-quality post-secondary education — more than $1 trillion was spent in 2017. Additional entitlements include “affordable, safe, and adequate” housing — price tag TBD — and an entitlement to a “family-sustaining wage” for those unable or unwilling to work. We can call that one “Social Security for All.”
Talk about costs may be beside the point. Could the proposed “massive transformation of our society” be achieved even if money were no object and the benefits to Americans exceeded the costs? That is, let’s assume, like the 79 sponsors and co-sponsors to date, that money grows on trees — or, more precisely, it can be printed by the Federal Reserve without any consequences. And let’s also assume, like the sponsors and co-sponsors, that, were the government to “take an equity stake in projects to get a return on investment,” the United States would not become the next Venezuela, where the government controls the production of everything from cement, steel, and glass manufacturing, to agriculture, food distribution, and supermarkets.
Finally, let’s assume that the sponsors and co-sponsors do not want to destroy the environment in order to save it. Every major Federal project must first pass muster under the National Environmental Policy Act. When NEPA was enacted in 1969, Congress expected it to ensure that environmental impacts would be fully identified and carefully analyzed. NEPA is a process statute; it did not prescribe what should be done with this information.
But long ago NEPA became the principal means by which those who oppose development projects are able to transform that opposition into effective obstruction. As Washington D.C. attorney Mark Rutzick has observed in a recent Federalist Society monograph, NEPA is the most costly, burdensome, and least effective Federal environmental law in the history of the United States. The lesson from NEPA is, “You can’t build that.” The average Federal project takes more than five years to wind its way through NEPA’s paralysis by analysis before entering the Nine Circles of Federal and State Permitting Hell. Rutzick reports that at least 192,707 NEPA reviews, including 841 Environmental Impact Statements, were required to implement the infrastructure portion of President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. But ARRA was a one-time expenditure of a mere $900 billion — loose change under the sofa cushions compared to the Green New Deal.
The projects that would be required to implement the Green New Deal would not be average. There simply are no parallels in NEPA’s 50-year history with respect to the scope and the magnitude, including the scope and magnitude of their likely environmental damage. Building high-speed rail at a scale “where air travel stops becoming necessary” and constructing “affordable public transit available to all, with [the] goal to replace every [internal] combustion-engine vehicle,” will not be environmentally benign. Replacing all internal combustion engines? Tailpipe emissions for electric cars may be zero, but electricity to power them must come from somewhere. Electricity powered by renewables would requires massive battery backup using technologies that do not exist. Simply mining the minerals to manufacture today’s automotive batteries poses extraordinary risks to public health and the environment.
I’ve been a regulatory benefit-cost analyst for 40 years, and now I’m reconsidering retirement. There is simply too much money to be made by rentseekers like me conducting, revising, and criticizing the millions of Environmental Assessments and thousands of Environmental Impact Statements that will be required before these projects will be “shovel ready.” In the past I have declined to do NEPA reviews because the whole enterprise is egregiously unproductive and wasteful. But that won’t be true when NEPA is applied to Green New Deal projects. Indeed, NEPA could be all that saves us from their catastrophic environmental damage. But if Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Markey, and their 77 (and counting) fellow travelers insist on it, I will do my duty to save the environment — and make NEPA great again.
Dr. Richard B. Belzer is a member of the Federalist Society’s Regulatory Transparency Project Energy & Environment Working Group. The opinions expressed here are his own.