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Archive for the ‘Unintended Consequences’ Category

Normally when I say those two words it is when discussing some governmental policy that has consequences unintended from the original idea.  For a broad example take an idea like welfare – intended to help people who are in dire straits and need a life line – but which many times appears to cause people to come to rely on that help, and to thus never pull themselves out of the hole that required the welfare in the first place.

fishplatformWell I am happy to share this report about a circumstance that appears to have a positive, and completely accidental, consequence.  Yesterday The Press Telegram reported on the condition of oil rig leggings left in the ocean floor.  According to the article, state law mandates that oil companies completely remove the remnants of an oil rig platform which is costly ($250 million) and requires large amounts of explosives to remove.  So what is the good part of this?  Well it appears that the legs of the platforms many times become de facto reefs for fish, and that a thriving sea life has formed around the pillars:

Although originally foreign to the marine environment, since their installation, the oil platforms have been co-opted by species of fish who have made the rigs their habitat, even preferring it in some cases to a natural reef, according to Chris Lowe, a CSULB marine biology professor.

“It’s basically like a high-rise building for fish, and each level actually provides another level of sea-floor habitat,” he said.

One of the reasons for the boon in fish is a moratorium on fishing near the oil rigs, which makes it about as near a preserve as you can get.  So not only do the fish have a habitat that is fairly well protected, but there is also the matter of the $250 million.  An option the article points out (and that is practiced by the Gulf states) is to strike a deal where the companies are allowed to leave the pilings and a portion of the money that would have been used to remove them are diverted to an alternate fund, usually in an environmental focus.

I like this idea.  The money is already accounted for by the oil company in their original valuation of the project, so they aren’t losing extra cash (in fact if a deal is struck it sounds as if they save money), an artificial reef is maintained, and the state gets a lump o’ cash… which if you haven’t heard, California NEEDS!

This article here paints a more nuanced picture of the idea.  Environmentalists believe that this keeps fish from properly habituating in natural reefs that are available.  The article states that pending legislation for this idea fell through in 2006 because of these concerns.  Don’t know if a debate has resurfaced in legislature or not… but it does seem that the debate is odd on the environmentalists part because as the Telegram article points out, when you dynamite the posts to remove them you kill everything living there.

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0409_smartcar01There has been much in the news lately over the Obama administrations proposed changes to CAFE legislation, raising the mpg standards on autos to 35 mpg from the current 27.5 mpg.  This provokes an interesting dilemma though.  The main way to reduce fuel consumption in autos is by making them lighter, and thus smaller.  I’m sure you have all seen the SMART car on the road and been amazed at how tiny it is… and joked about seeing that go head-to-head with a truck.  Well:

Researchers at Harvard University and the Brookings Institution found that, on average, for every 100 pounds shaved off new cars to meet CAFE standards, between 440 and 780 additional people were killed in auto accidents…

In 2002 USA Today estimated “that size and weight reductions of passenger vehicles undertaken to meet current CAFE standards had resulted in more than 46,000 deaths”.  And CEI points out that:

The death rate in minis in multi-vehicle crashes is almost twice as high as that of large cars. And in single-vehicle crashes, where there’s no oversized second vehicle to blame, the difference is even greater: Passengers in minis suffered three times as many deaths as in large cars. 

So what are these deaths a trade-off for?  The argument is to reduce pollution (global warming) and also to reduce our reliance on foreign oil.  The argument for pollution reduction is fairly useful, as any Los Angeleno can attest to, having seen the skies and air quality improve.  The argument for reliance on foreign energy… not so much.  CAFE was first enacted in 1974 during the Carter administration and it’s difficulties with oil from Iran, however:

Since 1974, domestic new car fuel economy has increased 114 percent, and light truck fuel economy has increased 56 percent. Yet over this same period, imported oil has risen from 35 percent of the oil consumed in the U. S. in 1974 to more than 52 percent today [2002].

But even regardless of whether the arguments hold up, there can be a debate about whether human lives are more important than pollution or foreign oil.  Certainly pollution can cause deaths, so a comparison can be made there to see what is the lesser evil.  Reliance on foreign oil has obviously got us entangled in all matter of problems over the years and currently… so can you measure the human lives against those problems?  It’s an interesting dilemma as I said, and one that I don’t claim to have a solid answer for, since there are so many variables.  

One thing is clear though, and it has been stated here a few times, is that legislation almost always has unintended consequences.  It’s one thing if people choose a smaller car to save money and fuel, and put their own safety at risk.  It is another when congress passes mandates to manufacturers that ensures that we ALL will have to drive smaller and more dangerous cars.

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