How does government work? If that’s the old joke rather than a serious question, the punch line goes: “Well, it doesn’t really.” If it’s a serious question, however, the reasons are that there are two governments and that one gets in the way of our seeing the other clearly.
Back in the 19th century, Walter Bagehot, a journalist on the Economist, realized this when he distinguished between two functions of the English government of his day: the “dignified” (the Monarchy, the Courts, etc.) and the “efficient” (the civil service, MPs in Parliament, etc.) The efficient side made and enforced laws and regulations, and the dignified side ensured that the people were overawed by how impressively they were governed. That essential division remains true except that whereas once MPs and Congressmen, presidents and prime ministers, were government workers on the “efficient” side of the table, today they have half-migrated to the “dignified” side of things.
They debate national issues and pass impressive laws on grounds of high principle, which we follow and which sometimes thrill us, but the laws they pass are full of gaps and aspirational hopes where concrete instructions and practical rules should really be. Written in invisible ink are the words: “fill in this passage, director” or “think of something suitable here, judge.”
World's greatest deliberative body in action.
To see how it works and why it’s a bad system, neither dignified nor efficient, consider what is now the most important issue of the day—how energy policy can be intelligently designed to enable us to provide cheap and reliable energy to the populations of Western countries while reducing our reliance on oil and gas from Russia in the aftermath of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
That’s a very big deal.
But look at how the “dignified” side of government has handled this challenge. Former Democrat presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry, now President Biden’s special presidential envoy for climate, expressed his serious concern about the crisis, the people of Ukraine, democracy, the principles of international law at stake, and so on. He then went on:
But it [the war in Ukraine] could have a profound negative impact on the climate obviously. You have a war and obviously you’re going to have massive emissions consequences to the war. But equally importantly, you're going to lose people's focus, you're going to lose certainly big country attention because they will be diverted and I think it could have a damaging impact.
He ended by hoping that President Putin would “help us to stay on track with respect to what we need to do for the climate."
It’s not hard to poke fun at this as if Senator Kerry had made a foolish gaffe—which is probably what most people think. In reality Kerry’s words perfectly express what the West’s political elites have believed until recently and may still believe—that the long-term and uncertain risks of a temperature rise of 1.5 degrees above that of the early industrial period are an urgent threat to the West and the world at least as dangerous (and maybe more so) than Putin’s brutal murder of Ukraine and his assault on peace and international law. We therefore need to continue working with him, however distasteful or strategically unwise that may be. That belief now goes very deep into our societies—particularly among the higher-educated, both intelligentsia and lumpenintelligentsia.
Did someone say lumpenintelligentsia?
That said, there are signs that Putin’s actions have provoked a greater realism among government leaders in the dignified ranks on both sides of the Atlantic. There will at least be serious debates about energy policy, the climate, Western defense, and the links between them in the next few months. If the announcement of massive hikes in defense spending and severe economic sanctions on Russia by German chancellor Olaf Scholz to the Bundestag—described by British prime minister Boris Johnson as a speech of "world-historical' importance—is any guide, realistic changes may be attempted in policy too.
But what effect will those debates or policy changes have on the “efficient” sector of government as it interprets and applies the broad general principles of Kerry’s climate and energy policies in practice? I have a feeling that he has little to fear from their interpretations. The threat of Vladimir Putin will pass smoothly over their heads.
Let me give two examples, one Canadian, one from the U.S.
Under the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change must announce a carbon emissions reduction program by the end of March this year. He is currently consulting a universe of “stakeholders,” including Canada’s provincial governments, indigenous peoples, a net-zero advisory group, environmentalist NGOs, etc., etc., on how to achieve various priorities and commitments. These include mandating that fifty percent of cars and pick-up trucks sold in Canada will be zero-emission by 2030 and 100 percent of them by 2035; and placing the same mandate on heavy-duty vehicles by 2040. These mandates will require serious expenditures by government, industry, and private citizens that will be beyond the means of some.
But what stands out to Canadians is the commitment to cap “emissions from the oil and gas sector at current levels and require that they decline at the pace and scale needed to get to net zero by 2050.”
The Minister of Environment and Climate Change demands action!
Canada is the fifth largest producer of oil and natural gas in the world. Canada’s oil and gas industry employs 247,000 people and supports another 150,000 jobs. Its share of the country’s GDP is 6.4 percent. And all of these figures are probably rising because of the increase in the price of fossil fuels on the world market. Unless there is a dramatic scientific breakthrough that enables the industry to capture and store carbon from fossil fuels much more cheaply—and specific innovations cannot simply be conjured up by politicians—there is no way that this commitment can be met without huge and irreparable damage to the oil and gas industry and to Canadian living standards.
As for Canada’s contribution to the West’s need for cheap reliable energy in the darkness of the Russo-Ukraine war, Justin Trudeau risks doing for Putin in Canada what Angela Merkel did for Putin in Europe—namely, making his energy weapon against Ukraine and the West substantially more valuable and thus more threatening.
Now, the U.S. example: the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, is an independent agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas, and oil. Last month FERC issued two new regulations that had the effect not of regulating energy transmission but of reducing it by increasing the obstacles to building natural gas infrastructure.
For instance, the FERC expanded its framework of what it takes into account when making infrastructure decisions in order to include broad and ill-defined subjects such as “environmental justice.” In addition to being the kind of cloudy idea that shouldn’t be in any legislation for any reason, such provisions are often inserted by activist congressional aides so that sympathetic agencies or judges can fill them with whatever the bureaucratic Blob wants but can’t get legislators to approve explicitly.
It also seems to be the case that the FERC went beyond its authority by including in a carbon-emission estimate for an infrastructure project those “indirect emissions” from industries upstream and downstream of it over which it has no regulatory authority. If so, not only was that illegitimate, but its would also greatly increase the risks and disincentives for companies and investors interested in the project by making it impossible to estimate costs, profits, or (more likely) losses.
Finally, the FERC announced that it will in future expand the number of those invited to comment on “market need” and future demand for gas to include third parties such as environmental and academic groups. These will undoubtedly include groups and “experts” who see no need or demand anywhere at any time for any fossil fuel, however clean, nor for nuclear, nor anything but “renewables”—and maybe not even them since Michael Moore among others has pointed out the heavy environmental costs of wind turbines when they grow old and rust.
All these devices are tactics in the political game of multiplying obstacles to the development of pipelines and other projects until potential investors and business in general depart in frustration and look for profit in a less hostile environment. It's a much more honest definition of "Greenmail" than the one aimed at corporate takeovers.
That at least was the opinion of one of FERC’s Commissioners, James Danley, who in dissent described the majority decision “contravene[ing] the purpose of the NGA which, as the Supreme Court has held, is to ‘encourage the orderly development of plentiful supplies of natural gas at reasonable prices.’”
Across the Pond, Russian state and industry helped to fund “Green” protest groups that used all these tactics to block the development of energy project in Western Europe which helps explain the continent's current dependence on gas supplies from President Putin.
In Canada and the U.S., we don’t leave helping Vladimir Putin to private enterprise. Government agencies do it for us.