Not Easy Being Green

February 24, 2019

by Steve Stofka

Newly elected Democratic Rep Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez has introduced a House resolution that details a broad basket of long-term infrastructure and humanitarian goals titled a Green New Deal. Connecticut Senator Ed Markey has introduced the resolution in the Senate. Whether it makes it to the floor of either chamber for a vote is uncertain. Some of the attacks on the resolution have been on points that were rejected from the resolution but were raised in a Q&A passed around to some House members in the building of a political consensus (Note #1).

The aspirations behind these improvements echo the infrastructure dreams of a post-World War 2 America. Politifact recently summarized the various points (Note #2). The key characteristics of the infrastructure goals are “safe,” “efficient” and “clean.” Those characteristics are embedded already in thousands of laws and regulations – but with practical limitations. A flexible approach is key to achieving these goals.

This week, I’ll focus on the infrastructure goals, starting locally at the granular level. “Upgrading all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximum energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability, including through electrification.”
Someone clumsily attached those last three words, but they are critical. The words may be read to include an electrical upgrade of all buildings. They may be understood to include all buildings which could be improved with new electrical service. The language may be interpreted as a call for building retrofits for solar power.

These are expensive retrofits, so it is important that this clumsy language be sold as an aspirational guide, not the model language of a law or an agency rule. Local building regulations often “grandfather” older buildings so that they do not have to meet more recent building guidelines if they passed existing codes when they were built or remodeled. Anything other than a gradual approach in this area will be doomed.

“Universal access to clean water.”
Shortly after WW2, the Federal government took an increasing role in regulating local water supplies and sanitation, while helping to fund improvements (Note #3). This Green resolution is a reaffirmation of those goals. After seventy years, many existing water systems need massive and costly improvements. A contaminated water supply forced the residents of Flint, Michigan to use bottled water for more than three years.

The key word in this goal is “universal” and how that word is read. An exodus of residents and industry from poorer rural communities have crippled their budgets and resources. Who will pay to rebuild the aging plumbing systems of these hollowed out communities? Within many thriving metro areas are rural communities who do not have a central water system or sanitation. Homeowners and commercial buildings rely on private wells and are responsible for the maintenance of their wells and septic systems. Poorer residents may not have the means to service their systems properly. Will proposed legislation subsidize those residents? Since the Clean Water Act was passed fifty years ago, state and local governments have been fighting a legal battle with the Federal government over improvements to the water supply. Without a deft approach, legislation would continue to keep the lawyers busy.

Smart grids, a more efficient electrical delivery system, is a regional goal that is a restatement of the EISA law created in 2007 (Note #4). Our existing grids are more than fifty years old and need upgrading to a system that senses and adjusts to the changes in the system load. It would enable more clean power alternatives. Federal legislation which mandates upgrades to existing buildings to implement this vision will be met with impassioned resistance. Shall all power lines and power stations throughout the country be upgraded to meet new standards?

In conjunction with a transition to smart grids, this Green resolution restates an earlier vision: “eliminating pollution and greenhouse gas emissions as much as technologically feasible.” In the years after WW2, there was talk that the country would transition to nuclear power plants, a source of clean, cheap energy. The accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979 disrupted that vision (Note #5).

“Clean, affordable, and accessible public transit, and high-speed rail.”
This was a 20th century goal whose implementation stumbled. In 1960, my family traveled by train from Chicago to Dallas. We enjoyed the passing countryside from the upper deck of an observation car on the train. When Amtrak was created in 1971 (Note #6), there was going to be a highly efficient and affordable rail network built throughout the country. We are still waiting. After 9-11, let’s face it – plane travel sucks. The U.S. has the finest rail transport for goods in the world. Why are we so bad at moving people by rail?

There are many reasons. Following WW2, America invested more in highways than railroads. Families fell in love with the individual freedom of their automobile. The public is more resistant to the Federal government’s exercise of eminent domain. When the Civil War Republican Congress passed the Railway Act in 1862, the Federal government took what land it needed, and gave vast tracts to railroad companies who became rich selling off the land after laying the rails (Note #7). The Federal government played a key role in creating the corporate America that now wields an extraordinary amount of political and economic control of our daily lives. The public is weary and wary of large Federal projects.

Sweeping Federal legislation to achieve these goals must overcome the constitutional design of the country which gives those in rural areas a greater say in policy than their numbers warrant. This design was a 19th century compromise between agricultural and industrial states. Until a Supreme Court decision in 1964, many rural states did not redraw their state electoral maps after each census. In some states, one rural vote counted the same as forty urban votes (Note #8). Fifty years later, the structure of many state houses is designed to weaken the power of urban voters within the state.

The infrastructure goals contained in this resolution are essentially Infrastructure 2.0, an update of 20th century dreams. As in the past, economic and political realities will present formidable obstacles. Next week, I’ll look at the humanitarian goals contained in the resolution.

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Notes:
1. Green New Deal article at the Hill
2. Green New Deal article at Politifact
3. Water and sanitation regulation after WW2
4. Smart grid
5. Three Mile Island 
6. Amtrak history
7. Pacific Railroad Acts 
8. Reynolds v. Sims reinforced the idea of one person, one vote

 

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