A Lightbulb Tea Party?

“No man's life, liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session.”

That comment by New York State Surrogate Court Judge Gideon Tucker in 1866 aptly summarizes the so-called “Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007,” signed into law this week by President Bush.

First, the law requires auto fuel efficiency standards to increase by 40 percent by 2020. Unfortunately, this goal is presently only achievable by reducing vehicle weight — but lighter cars are deadlier cars. So what’s the purported benefit of mandating 4,000 or more deaths per year?

The law’s supporters claim that it may reduce national oil consumption by about 5 percent (400 million barrels of oil per year). Doing the math, your life is now worth about 100,000 barrels of oil. In touting the law, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “it is an environmental issue, and therefore a health issue… it is an energy issue, and it is a moral issue.”

But what exactly is the morality of risking thousands of lives every year to reduce oil consumption by an inconsequential amount?

Next, the new law doubles the use of ethanol, likely further distorting agricultural markets and driving up food prices. Animal feed costs are already up 20 percent this year, no doubt contributing to the 5 percent rise in consumer grocery prices.

More cropland dedicated to growing corn means less cropland for other important grains. In observing that its food-price index is higher today than at any time since it was created in 1845, The Economist on Dec. 8 noted that filling up an SUV’s tank with ethanol uses enough corn to feed a person for a year. Although current biofuel use already requires one-third of the U.S. corn crop, the new law mandates even more biofuels. This “commits the nation to decades of competition between food and fuel for the use of agricultural land,” observed the New York Times.

The morality of that competition may be fairly questioned since increased biofuel use isn’t likely to produce environmental benefits or make us “energy independent.” The biofuel mandates — which will require technologies that don’t yet exist on a commercial basis — are touted as cutting U.S. dependence on oil imports by replacing 20 percent of the fuel now used. But only about 17 percent of U.S. oil imports come from the volatile Middle East. A 20 percent pro-rata reduction in Middle East imports would reduce them to 13.6 percent.

It’s difficult to see precisely what national security benefit accrues from such a slight decrease. Even if the as-yet imaginary biofuels were to magically free us entirely from Middle East oil, it is worthwhile remembering that oil is a global commodity, the supply and price of which will always remain heavily dependent on Middle East producers and events. Whether we like it or not, as long as we use oil, its availability and price will be affected by the Middle East. Biofuels, particularly imaginary ones, can’t fix that vulnerability.

Another kick-in-the-teeth to consumers is the new mandate to phase-out incandescent lightbulbs in favor of compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs). The 100-watt incandescent light bulb will be the first to go in 2012. It’s bad enough that the federal government wants to dictate what sort of lighting we can have in our own homes, but it expects us to pay up for mercury-containing CFLs (up to $5 for a CFL vs. $0.75 for a standard incandescent bulb) which are inferior in quality (harsh institutional white light vs. soft yellow-white light) and function (their light-up is slow and inconsistent, and frequent on/off switching shortens their life), and which require special handling and disposal procedures (you’re not supposed to just throw them away in household trash or vacuum up CFL breakage).

Aside from the energy independence canard and the heavy lobbying by the rent-seeking ethanol/biofuels industry, the law’s driving rationale is the much-dreaded global warming. The auto fuel efficiency standards and CFL provisions, in particular, are supposed to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide — if only that really mattered. In addition to the umpteen reasons laid out in previous columns for doubting that manmade emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) play a meaningful role in global climate, a new study in this week’s Nature provides yet another.

Dutch researchers reported that during a period of intense global warming 55 million years ago — somewhat before SUVs and coal-fired electricity — there was a tremendous release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But which came first, the warming or the greenhouse gases?

The researchers report that the warming probably began before the main injection of greenhouse gases took place. Moreover, all this occurred at a time when the average temperature in Canada and Siberia was about 65 degrees Fahrenheit, the Arctic Ocean was as warm as 73 degrees Fahrenheit and atmospheric CO2 levels were already in the range of 2,000 to 3,000 parts per million — 5 to 8 times greater than current CO2 levels.

What should Americans do about all this?

I don’t know the answer, but given that CFLs come from China and are imported and sold by businesses that lobbied Congress for the incandescent bulb ban, something akin to the Boston Tea Party comes to mind. That 1773 event stemmed from Colonist resentment of the British Parliament’s Tea Act — a bill lobbied for by the East India Company so that it could monopolize the American tea market.

I suppose we should be thankful that our dim-bulb politicians will be taking the holidays off — at least we’ll have a month’s respite from meddlesome, if not outright menacing government.