DOT’s Doublespeak Carbon Reduction Program

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The Department of Transportation (DOT) is proposing to require its state and metropolitan counterparts to reduce on-road carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from portions of the national highway system located within their respective jurisdictions. Both the agency’s press release and the proposed rule proclaim a glaring self-contradiction. On the one hand, DOT announces that the “carbon reduction program” implemented by the rule will be “flexible,” allowing state DOTs and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to “set their own targets.” On the other hand, and practically in the same breath, DOT states that those programs must “align” with the Biden administration’s Net-Zero agenda.

We have heard this sort of doublespeak before, perhaps most promiscuously in the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which the Supreme Court vacated just before the July Fourth weekend. The Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) used “flexible” and its cognates 280 times to describe the CPP regulatory scheme.

The Obama EPA set CO2 emission standards for fossil-fuel power plants based on its determination that “generation-shifting”—a polite expression for squeezing coal- and, ultimately, natural gas-power plants out of the electricity fuel mix—is the “best system of emission reduction.” The EPA repeatedly claimed the CPP was flexible because it did not explicitly require generation shifting to meet the standards. This was gobbledygook because the standards were so stringent that compliance was impossible without large-scale generation shifting.

Page 1 of DOT’s proposal states: “The proposed rule would not mandate the level of the targets. Rather, State DOTs and MPOs would have flexibility to set targets that are appropriate for their communities and that work for their respective climate change and other policy priorities, as long as the targets would reduce emissions over time.” [Emphasis added ] Then, in the very next sentence, DOT explains that state and metropolitan targets must “align with the Administration’s net-zero targets as outlined in the national policy established under section 1 of Executive Order (E.O.) 13990, ‘Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis,’ and E.O. 14008, ‘Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad,’ and at the [Glascow] Leaders Summit on Climate.”

Those two statements are inconsistent. They are related as the velvet glove to the iron fist.

The legal problem for DOT is that nothing resembling “NetZero” targets is mentioned anywhere in the relevant statute—Section 11032 of the $1.1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed by Congress in November 2021.

I plan to comment on DOT’s proposal and will have more to say about the legal and practical issues in a future post. Three additional observations must suffice here.

First, even if highway traffic management and infrastructure systems could somehow be aligned with the administration’s NetZero targets, the impact on global temperatures in 2050 or 2100 would be far, far below the 0.08°C margin of error. “Climate benefits” too small to be experienced are benefits in name only.

Second, according to DOT’s release, the agency has authority to “provide $6.4 billion in formula funding to states and local governments to develop carbon reduction strategies and fund a wide range of projects designed to reduce carbon emissions from on-road highway sources.” That confirms American Enterprise Institute economist’s Benjamin Zycher’s point that the benefit-cost ratio of coercive climate policies is so abysmal that legislatures will not enact such policies absent large amounts of pork barrel spending extracted from taxpayers or consumers for the enrichment of special interests.

Third, the 30 senators who voted against the $1.1 trillion infrastructure bill—with its cronyism, waste, and anti-federalism “carbon reduction” mandate—were proven right here.