Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Danger of Messy Closets & Out Driving Your Headlights.

As I was watching today’s Senate Energy Committee hearing on the low-carbon fuel standard, I was reminded of a couple words of wisdom that have come my way:

When my Dad was alive he used to tell this family story about me when I was little (I’m pretty sure it was my brother, not me who did this), but anyway, it’s his story: He told me I had to clean my very messy room before I could go out to play; so I cleaned it; after making a cursory inspection, he said I did a good job and out I went for the rest of the day. But later that evening, for some reason, he opened my closet door and out tumbled all my stuff because I had cleaned my room by taking all my mess and throwing it in the closet. Clearly, this wasn’t Dad’s idea of a clean room, so he made clean up the closet and then grounded me. Besides telling this story to embarrass me, my Dad would use the story to point out that solving one problem by creating another one not only comes back to haunt, but really isn’t a solution.

My behind-the-wheel driving instructor spoke the second words of wisdom many years ago when he said, “never out drive your head lights.” Evidently, this pearl of driving wisdom has staying power since my daughter’s driving instructor said the same thing. Of course, the instructors’ message is simple: don’t go faster then you can see because you might crash into something.

I strongly believe action needs to be taken to address greenhouse gas emissions. So, I’m not sure why these thoughts came to me as I watched the nearly three-hour hearing on the low-carbon fuel standard idea. It’s probably because in my 20 years of being involved in public policy making I’ve learned the hard way that when policy makers go faster then their headlights permit them to see where they are going the resulting actions have adverse and unintended consequences creating other problems.

Dealing with GHG emissions is like very few other problems. It affects everything, in everyway. Thus, while adopting a “low-carbon fuel standard” may sound simple. It’s not. There are numerous factual and policy issues that need to be thoughtfully considered before adopting a low-carbon fuel standard:
• What are the economic impacts of such a standard? The University of Minnesota is starting a study to answer that question.
• What should the definition of “low-carbon” be? The life-cycle calculus debate remains wide-open. The Midwestern Governors are working on it, as are the Federal Government and the State of California. But they have not decided yet, let alone agree. One lab’s study may be valid and useful; but it’s hardly a “national” value.
• Are we sure a low carbon fuel standard, whatever it may be, will actually reduce GHGs? This is about reducing global GHGs, right?
• Or, is it the best way to reduce GHGs from the transportation sector?

These strike me as vitally important questions that Minnesota needs, if not to answer, then to thoughtfully work through to reach consensus resolution. And, the answers are unlikely to be come through creative amendment language…that’s another recipe for disaster, sort of driving without headlights. While unfortunately there may be little appetite for patience at the Minnesota legislature, patience is what is called for.

In short, Minnesota legislators should be patient and take the time to get the needed information, understand the ramifications and think through the policy options before rushing to “clean” its climate change room by packing a low carbon fuel standard in it’s closet only to find that it has out run its headlights and crash into a set of painful problems that require more than a good scolding and not be allowed to go out to play for a while.

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