Last week’s criticism by energy investor T. Boone Pickens of U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo, a Wichita Republican serving his first term, continues to illustrate the difference between those who believe in economic freedom and free markets, and those — like Pickens — who invest in politicians, bureaucrats, and the hope of a government subsidy.
Pickens is pushing H.R. 1380: New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions Act of 2011, or NAT GAS act. The bill provides a variety of subsidies, implemented through tax credits, to producers and users of natural gas. The goal is to promote the use of natural gas as the fuel the nation uses for transportation.
In his op-ed in the Wichita Eagle, Pickens was critical of Pompeo for his stance in favor of free markets and in opposition to subsidies. His criticism, however, was inconsistent and contradictory. Further, Pompeo’s position on this issue is clear, as part of a resolution he introduced reads: eliminate existing energy subsidies.
There was another target of Pickens’ criticism. He didn’t mention the company by name, but there were several thinly-veiled references to Wichita-based Koch Industries. Charles Koch and his brother David Koch have emerged as prominent defenders of economic freedom and the freedom and prosperity it generates. Charles Koch, in particular, has been outspoken in his criticism of the type of subsidies that Pickens seeks. Koch’s op-ed, also in the Wichita Eagle and on Koch Industries website at Advancing economic freedom, was pointed in its criticism of corporate welfare: “Our government made a point of reforming its welfare policies for individuals but not for corporations. … Unfair programs that favor certain companies — such as the current well-intentioned but misguided suggestion that the natural-gas industry should receive enormous new subsidies — don’t just happen. They are promoted, in large part, by those seeking to profit politically, rather than by competing in a market where consumers vote with their wallets.”
In a statement on the company’s Viewpoint website, Dr. Richard Fink, Executive Vice President of Koch Industries, continued to explain the harm of government intervention, saying “Koch has consistently opposed subsidies that distort markets. We maintain that the marketplace, while not perfect, is the best mechanism for allocating resources to consumers. People deciding what fuels to purchase, instead of the government, is best for consumers and our country. Likewise, if natural gas vehicles are truly advantageous and economically efficient, then consumers will demand that they be developed without political mandates that exhaust more taxpayer dollars.”
Fink continues, “We do not question T. Boone Pickens’ intentions or integrity in this debate. We recognize his experience in the energy markets and take him at his word that he thinks this is a good idea. However, we believe history has demonstrated over and over that these subsidies end up undermining the long term prosperity of the country. For these principled reasons, we oppose this bill to give tax incentives to buyers and makers of natural gas-powered vehicles and related infrastructure. We also consistently oppose subsidies for all other fuels whether or not we benefit from them.”
Pickens would probably object to the use of the term “subsidy,” as the legislation he pushes grants “credits,” a term that sounds fairly benign. Timothy P. Carney, writing in the Washington Examiner, provides an explanation of the difference: “Pickens draws two dividing lines in the piece: tax credit vs. grant, and permanent versus temporary. A temporary subsidy is certainly better than an indefinite or permanent one. The tax credit question is trickier. Many free-market champions support every tax break ever proposed (Ron Paul, for instance). Other free market types (like me, probably) think that tax credits act as subsidies which distort the market, and ultimately lead to tax hikes on others. One of the bad things about tax credits is that they reward businesses for following political signals rather than market signals, but they do it in a way that allow the beneficiaries, like Pickens, to act as if they’re not on the public dole. Sure, a tax credit (most of the time) isn’t a handout, but the favored product (like ethanol or natural gas) only succeeds because its competition is taxed at high rates. So tax credits are the socially acceptable form of corporate welfare.” (emphasis added)
While Carney usually gets things just right, I’ll disagree with him that the question of tax credits is tricky: They have the same economic effect as a grant or subsidy. They engineer the behavior the government wants. But Carney is right about the confusing appearance of tax credits, allowing them to be “the socially acceptable form of corporate welfare.” Unless we really think about it, that is.
In any discussion of Pickens and natural gas, we must recognize that he is an investor in gas and another energy technology related to gas: wind power. In 2008 Pickens ordered 667 wind turbines worth $2 billion from General Electric with plans to build a large wind power plant in Texas. Wind power is highly dependent on government subsidy, with supporters claiming the industry will be devastated unless Congress continues to renew the subsidies.
At one time Pickens wanted to use wind power to generate electricity, and the natural gas saved would be used to power transportation. But there’s another relationship between wind power and gas, and it stems from the unreliability and variability of wind power. It’s difficult to quickly adjust the output of most power plants. But natural gas turbine plants are an exception. Kansas recently saw one of its major electric utilities complete a new natural gas power plant. The need for the plant was at least partly created by its investment in wind: A document produced by Westar titled The Greenhouse Gas Challenge noted the “Construction of the 665 MW natural gas-fired Emporia Energy Center, providing the ability to efficiently follow the variability of wind generation.” In another document announcing a request for a rate increase it stated “Our Emporia Energy Center is excellent for following the variability of wind production.”
At the time of these investments by Pickens and Westar, the price of natural gas was high. Now it is low — so low, and the prospects for future low prices certain enough that Pickens has abandoned his wind farm projects. Even with all the subsidy granted to wind power, it’s cheaper to generate electricity with gas.
(Pickens has been left with many wind turbines he can’t use. According to the Wall Street Journal: “He’s hoping to foist them on ratepayers in Canada, because that country has mandates that require consumers to buy more expensive renewable electricity.” In other words, relying on some other country’s government intervention to relieve him of his mistake.)
So we see Pickens moving from one government-subsidized industry — wind power — to another: the subsidized market for natural gas-powered vehicles he hopes to create. The distinction between political entrepreneurs and market entrepreneurs couldn’t be clearer.