Lamenting (and Learning From) Lost Dollars

US Currencies, $100 in various shape and angles.

The environmental lessons of the coronavirus and the economic downturn

When times are good, the cost of things sometimes is of little consequence. We buy the top-shelf whiskey. We get those fancy shoes we wanted. We eat a nice steak. We may pay more than we should, but in good times, paying that little bit extra can be part of the fun. Waste can be a signal to ourselves, and to others, that we are having fun.

That is the attitude many politicians and activists in our state have had for the past several years when it comes to environmental policy. Economic times were good. We could avoid hard decisions. However, the economic downturn we are now facing due to the coronavirus should be a reminder that every dollar is precious and that wasting taxpayer dollars is not only harmful to our economy but also harmful to the environment.

Climate policy is one clear example. Rather than prioritize the most effective carbon dioxide-reduction projects, some Washington legislators chose far less effective climate policies as a way to virtue signal to “social justice” activists and other political supporters about how much they care.

During the most recent legislative session, Gov. Jay Inslee’s top climate priority was to impose a low-carbon fuel standard designed to reduce transportation-related carbon dioxide emissions. This type of policy is already in effect in California and Oregon, so we have a good estimate of the cost it imposes. Currently, the low-carbon fuel standard costs about $150 to reduce one metric ton of carbon dioxide in Oregon — about 27 cents per gallon of gas when the policy is fully implemented. The cost is even higher in California — about $200 per metric ton, which translates to 36 cents per gallon.

By way of comparison, anyone can spend $10 today to reduce one metric ton of carbon dioxide by investing in projects through groups like the Bonneville Environmental Foundation. These projects are certified by independent auditors, and the state promotes them in the Clean Energy Fund. Rather than investing in effective projects, however, Washington politicians are pushing policies that spend $150 to get only $10 worth of environmental benefit.

It gets worse.

Last year, Washington state used money from the Volkswagen legal settlement to fund electric buses. According to our estimates, this costs an incredible $1,538 per metric ton of reduced carbon dioxide. The state Legislature also adopted legislation to subsidize “community solar” projects that put rooftop solar (the most expensive form of energy) on roofs in Washington (one of the worst locations in the country for solar). Using data from Google and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, we calculated that those subsidies cost $1,629 per metric ton of reduced carbon dioxide.

This problem is not limited to climate policy.

Washington state is spending $750,000 to study the impact of the Snake River dams on salmon populations. This simply echoes a more comprehensive study from the federal government and decades of research by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. Meanwhile, there are several unfunded salmon-recovery projects in north Puget Sound that could help salmon and orca populations in the near term. Instead, legislators chose to spend the money on yet another study.

Spending money on protecting the environment is not the problem. Indeed, I applaud that. That is one of the wonders of economic prosperity — we have the resources to help salmon, preserve open spaces and protect the environment. I spend my own money to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and fight against plastic in the ocean.

The sin is wasting money that could have helped the environment. Wasting opportunities to maximize environmental benefit will end up harming the environment. Now that budgets are tight, we should lament, and learn from, those lost opportunities.

I don’t know what will happen with the economy over the next year. Nobody does. But I hope the lesson we take is that it is important — in good times and bad — to get the most out of every public dollar we devote to environmental stewardship.

Todd Myers is the director of the Center for the Environment at Washington Policy Center. He is one of the nation’s leading experts on free-market environmental policy. Todd is an author and researcher. He formerly served on the executive team at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.