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Will Climate Bill Give Us a National Building Code?

The Washington Post reports that the Waxman-Markey "cap-and-trade" bill is chock full of traditional command-and-control regulation, including measures that will create a national housing code for energy efficiency.

the bill also contains regulations on everything from light bulb standards to the specs on hot tubs, and it will reshape America's economy in dozens of ways that many don't realize.

Here is just one: The bill would give the federal government power over local building codes. It requires that by 2012 codes must require that new buildings be 30 percent more efficient than they would have been under current regulations. By 2016, that figure rises to 50 percent, with increases scheduled for years after that. With those targets in mind, the bill expects organizations that develop model codes for states and localities to fill in the details, creating a national code. If they don't, the bill commands the Energy Department to draft a national code itself.

States, meanwhile, would have to adopt the national code or one that achieves the same efficiency targets. Those that refuse will see their codes overwritten automatically, and they will be docked federal funds and carbon "allowances" -- valuable securities created elsewhere in the bill that give the holder the right to pollute and can be sold. The Energy Department also could enforce its code itself. Among other things, the policy would demonstrate the new leverage of allocation of allowances as a sort of carbon currency -- leverage this bill would be giving to Congress to direct state behavior.

As the Post notes, these sorts of provisions -- and there are many others in the 900-page bill -- undermine the supposed point of "cap-and-trade," which is achieve emission reductions in the most cost-effective fashion through the use of market transactions. As the Post asks, "if the point of cap-and-trade is to change market incentives, why does Congress, and not the market, need to dictate these changes?" Virginia Postrel comments

The editorial hints that these sorts of provisions have been inserted because the bill's authors are counting on fellow members of Congress not to read what they're voting on. They undoubtedly remember how easy it was to get Congress to ban incandescent light bulbs by sneaking a provision into the Bush-era energy bill.

Joe T. Guest:
You're leaving out the best part. As the White House has said, this isn't going to cost a thing because the carbon market created by the regulations is going to pay for itself, and for nationalized healthcare. Nobody will have to pay anything for either because people who sell carbon credits will be making lots of money and so will we all!

Or is that a two month old talking point that I'm supposed to forget ever existed? At the time it baffled me how an energy tax was not going to cost us consumers anything yet somehow it was going to generate sufficient funds to subsidize a federal takeover of 1/7th of the economy - which also was going to be free. I guess it's what Tom Lehrer called "The New Math."
6.8.2009 11:11am
rosetta's stones:

"States, meanwhile, would have to adopt the national code or one that achieves the same efficiency targets. Those that refuse will see their codes overwritten automatically, and they will be docked federal funds... "


So, the Feds are running the printing presses on overdrive, and handing out the money to the states, and if the individual states want to keep up with the resulting inflation, they better just shut up and go along with whatever they're told, or get cut off and find their state budget blown right out of the water in this inflated environment. Neat trick.
6.8.2009 11:19am
DangerMouse:
It's like they're TRYING to destroy the economy with this stuff. Honestly, they can't be this dumb...
6.8.2009 11:43am
Houston Lawyer:
I just remember how well those initial federally mandated low-flush toilets worked. The best way to reduce energy use by homes would be to make air conditioning illegal. Don't three-car garages encourage consumers to drive too many cars?
6.8.2009 11:50am
MarkField (mail):
Let's assume that the bill would give us a national building code. It's unclear to me exactly how the bill goes about doing so. Is it solely by forcing states to adopt efficiency targets (which seems consistent with the basic purpose of cap and trade), or does it actually require specific provisions (e.g., insulation) for energy savings (which it seems to do, but I can't tell and I don't really want to read the damn thing; something I apparently share with Members of Congress)?

Anyway, let's assume that it does detail the specific provisions rather than set general targets. From an economist's perspective, would a national building code, in general, be a good thing (creating a national market) or a bad thing (stifling innovation)? Are there studies of this?

In short, there's a lot of information missing here and a lot of discussion that could be more tightly focused.
6.8.2009 12:06pm
Non est:
Like most commenters, I too would prefer a lot fewer bells and whistles on a cap-and-trade bill. There aren't enough moderate, market-respecting Democrats, however, to get a clean cap-and-trade bill through, so they have to make compromises and lard up the bill with malarkey to get enough votes. Broadly speaking, the two potential sources of these votes include command-and-control Democrats and non-climate-change-denialist Republicans. Sadly, the Republicans are opposing any system of greenhouse-gas pricing, and so the only way to get the bill passed is by adding crap to get all of the Dems on board.

What really rankles is that Republicans who could have cooperated to make the bill better are now attacking it for the crap that was (politically) necessary only on account of their refusal to cooperate.
6.8.2009 12:30pm
fbeuks (www):
There already is, effectively, a national building code, adopted statewide in all states but Maine and Delaware (and in those states adopted by local municipalities). The International Building Code, the product of the International Code Council, a US-based NGO, has in the last five years gone from being adopted in a majority of states to being adopted in all of them. There are local amendments (Minnesota, for instance, omits the chapter on seismic design), and requirements, but for most intents and purposes, building requirements are already fairly uniform on a national level.

Further, the model code actually in question in the text of the bill is the International Energy Conservation Code, also a product of the ICC. The IECC is currently adopted by a majority of states (though notably not by California, which was also the last large state to adopt the IBC -- their state codes have tended to have additional hurdles to jump). What the bill requires is changing (or more likely amending) the IECC to meet the new carbon requirements.

For ICC code-adoption info, see their website here.

Carbon-related requirements may be newly imposed by the federal government, and may be onerous, but the Post's characterization of the code situation seems imprecise and confused. Using the phrase "building code" without any qualification or specificity makes the situation seem much larger than it is.
6.8.2009 12:30pm
fbeuks (www):
Oh, also, see the text of the bill here. Energy efficiency building code stuff starts on page 200.
6.8.2009 12:31pm
rosetta's stones:
Good questions, MarkField. Problem is, I doubt anybody in the top 5 levels of the Energy Dept has ever laid eyes on a building code, let alone used or written parts of one, so your questions will go unanswered in DoE, even though it appears the legislation is calling on them to write a code if necessary.

The mandated low volume toilet fiasco should be a warning to the congresscritters, as mentioned above.

The E/A industry will handle much of the energy efficiency issue, in building construction, as per historical, and building material/equipment suppliers will continue to step up (This process and many others have about doubled our energy efficiency since 1980 ($GDP/BTUconsumed).

I'd say the feds would better serve us by focusing on energy supply issues. Not that they understand those any better than they do building codes, but those issues cross boundaries and do lend themselves to federal involvement.
6.8.2009 12:34pm
geokstr (mail):

The bill would give the federal government power over local building codes. It requires that by 2012 codes must require that new buildings be 30 percent more efficient than they would have been under current regulations. By 2016, that figure rises to 50 percent, with increases scheduled for years after that.

Oh great. C.A.F.E. standards for buildings now. Should make for some interesting, fun acronyms, if nothing else.

Building Average Reductions for Fuel (B.A.R.F.)

Coming soon, to control deadly methane emissions - F.A.R.T.S. (Federal Anal Release Transmission Standards)
6.8.2009 12:46pm
BenFranklin (mail):
I can't seem to remember why we fought the Cold War. Aren't we just implementing all of the policies we were afraid the Soviets were going to force upon us if they had won?

Now if you will excuse me, I have to go drink the anti-freeze out of my car.
6.8.2009 12:59pm
Seamus (mail):

The best way to reduce energy use by homes would be to make air conditioning illegal.



If it were imposed on all U.S. government office buildings as well as on private homes, it would be worth it.
6.8.2009 1:08pm
Mike McDougal:

The best way to reduce energy use by homes would be to make air conditioning illegal.

Why do you hate people in Phoenix?
6.8.2009 1:10pm
Joe T. Guest:
I just remember how well those initial federally mandated low-flush toilets worked.


Houston lawyer, that's a good metaphor right there for most big government 'sweeping reforms." Sounds like a good idea, everybody's for it, but in the end, you find it out just doesn't do s***.

For what it's worth, I recently remodeled my house and put in all new toilets, supposedly the best flushing model on the market. I'll be couth and just say that a couple times a week, they don't quite get the job done.
6.8.2009 1:11pm
Ry Jones (mail) (www):
Here's our celebration of low-flow toilets. Check the videos.

Hard to think up an analog for a building code, or cap and trade, though.
6.8.2009 1:37pm
MarkField (mail):
Thanks, fbeuks. That was very informative.
6.8.2009 1:37pm
AnthonyJ (mail):

The best way to reduce energy use by homes would be to make air conditioning illegal.

Actually, heating uses more energy than A/C; it's just that A/C uses electricity, while heating generally burns fossil fuel.
6.8.2009 1:41pm
Gabe M. (mail):
Actually, heating uses more energy than A/C; it's just that A/C uses electricity, while heating generally burns fossil fuel.

And electicity just grows on trees, does it?

The question to me is whether Democrats are (1) simply unaware of the real damage that this cap and trade proposal would case (e.g. doubling utilities bills; increasing the price of any good which requires energy to create or maintain), (2) aware but don't care, or (3) aware and somehow believe that it's for the greater good.

Don't they know that the people energy price increases hurt the most are the people least able to adapt to them: the working class.
6.8.2009 2:00pm
Putting Two and Two...:
I wasn't aware there had even been a low-flow-toilet fiasco.

Have there been many casualties?
6.8.2009 2:03pm
AnthonyJ (mail):
And electicity just grows on trees, does it?
No, but the fuel required to produce the electricity is less than the fuel burnt on heating.

As for your other question, it depends on the particular person looking at the issue, but (3) aware and somehow believe that it's for the greater good. is a perfectly reasonable answer: you're evaluating a current cost against future costs (global warming), plus you're encouraging investment in a field (fuel efficiency, non-fossil power production) that is likely to be valuable anyway (given that the price of fossil fuel is going to rise with or without cap and trade, due to supply shortages). Now, depending on how you evaluate both future and current costs, you may or may not agree with the decision to impose a current cost, but it's not inherently illogical.
6.8.2009 2:22pm
ohwilleke:
Is a national housing code good? Who knows? There are national exceptions to local housing codes it for manufactured housing, and the interstate commerce concerns associated with non-uniformity would be genuine if they actually came up very often.

I can't say that the majority practice of codifying housing codes at the local government ordinance level, largely with reference to standard acts created in the private sector, subject to sometimes minor amendments, is a really desirable alternative approach, or that municipal courts designed to primarily deal with traffic offenses and typically controlled by the city attorney plaintiff who assists in selection and appointment of municipal judges is really the best places to litigate technical building code issues (which is what flows from the status quo).

I would prefer state law building codes that give local governments a private right of action to enforce them for their own jurisdictions in state courts (with the AG acting in case of conflict of interest or lack of a local government in place) that gives local building powers an express limited waiver power.

This would increase the likelihood that a real democratic deliberative process went into the consideration of particular provisions of them and make them more widely accessible and more likely to be uniform.
6.8.2009 2:48pm
wfjag:

Or is that a two month old talking point that I'm supposed to forget ever existed?

Dear Joe:
We have never been at war with East Asia. Anything to the contrary is to be put down the Memory Hole. We are watching you.

Actually, Cap &Trade is just a convenient way to tax poor people. In that respect, it acts like the lotteries that the states have enacted. Of course, only rich people who have set up or heavily invested in the funds that will speculate in the carbon market will make money (see, e.g., Gore, Al). Accordingly, it is a little different from lotteries in that respect, since poor people can "win" a lottery (in theory, and if you don't subtract from their winnings the previous cost of lottery tickets they have purchased, and if you don't consider the effects of removing significant amounts of cash from poor neighborhoods that otherwise would have been spent on goods and services there). The middle and upper classes can probably absorb a doubling of their energy costs and the increases costs of all goods and services that will also go up to reflect the increased energy costs for producing or providing those goods and services, or can figure out ways to pass along the increased costs. But, at least until 2011, 95% of Americans will get a "tax cut" (interesting that it ends right after the 2010 election, at the same time the Bush tax cuts end, so perhaps people won't notice that 2 different "tax cuts" ended at the same time, and the ending of those can be used as the excuse for the increased costs due to Cap and Trade).

With the increase in revenues, however, the taxes on the rich can be increased -- which makes "the rich" the tax collectors for the folks who came up with Cap and Trade (which same folks will then rail to "the poor" against "the rich" for soaking the poor by passing along the increased energy costs.)

Cap and Trade is a truly amazing shell game which you can watch in progress.

Now, if we could just get the climate to do what the computer models say it is supposed to be doing, we could have a real problem to solve.

So, keep in mind that "We have always been at war with East Asia."
6.8.2009 2:58pm
Kazinski:
This will fix the housing crisis because it will make new homes unaffordable forcing consumers to buy up the surplus inventory of foreclosed and distressed homes.
6.8.2009 3:02pm
panthan (mail):
I know this is a silly question, but could somebody tell me which article of the Constitution grants the federal government authority to do this?
6.8.2009 6:11pm
BenFranklin (mail):
Panthan, it is the part of the Constitution where FDR threatened to pack the Supreme Court with his shills if he didn't get his way.
6.8.2009 7:07pm
AnthonyJ (mail):
Article 1, Section 8, The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;. This falls under 'general Welfare'. It's actually less of a stretch than a lot of places the federal government meddles, since CO2 most certainly crosses state and national boundaries.
6.8.2009 8:18pm
Jim at FSU (mail):
The general welfare clause is not a grant of power, or it would defeat the purpose of having enumerated powers. You can't have plenary grants of power in a government of enumerated powers or you no longer have a government of enumerated powers, you have one of general powers.

Jefferson explained this a few years after the constitution was ratified. It's so simple anyone but a liberal could understand it.
6.8.2009 8:29pm
AnthonyJ (mail):
How is 'Congress shall have power' not a grant of power? Jefferson explained what he wanted the Constitution to say, not what the Constitution says (it is a mistake to think that the drafters of the Constitution all agreed. If the drafters, as a group, had agreed with Jefferson, they would have just left that clause out).
6.8.2009 8:35pm
narmstrong:
Check out 301a-3(C) - by 2029 it is raised to a total 75%!
This will require major changes to the amount of insulation used, the way we construct houses &the cost of materials used.
6.8.2009 10:00pm
MarkField (mail):

Article 1, Section 8, The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;. This falls under 'general Welfare'. It's actually less of a stretch than a lot of places the federal government meddles, since CO2 most certainly crosses state and national boundaries.


I think nowadays the usual practice would be to cite the Commerce Clause as authority for Congressional action here. Under current interpretations, that seems fairly uncontroversial. I do recognize that some believe existing law is wrong, but that's a different argument.
6.8.2009 10:30pm
panthan (mail):
I.8 seems to grant the power to levy a tax in order to pay for and provide for the general Welfare. The Commerce Clause allows for the regulation of interstate commerce. Neither of these allows for the imposition of nonsensical modifications of local building codes.

I'm very slightly familiar with some Commerce Clause history, but I can't see how even the creative interpretations I've seen could be stretched to justify this. I'm not asking for an explanation -- the comments section of somebody's blog is no place for what would have to be a long and technical discourse.
6.8.2009 10:53pm
MarkField (mail):
panthan, the short answer is that under current commerce clause interpretation (since roughly 1940), Congress can regulate economic activity which "affects" interstate commerce as well as the actual commerce itself. Under this interpretation, building codes can be regulated because the products used to build houses (wood, nails, etc.) are typically shipped in interstate commerce.

Of course I'm simplifying, and (again) I'm not here arguing in favor of this interpretation, just trying to describe it.
6.8.2009 11:20pm
LarryA (mail) (www):
From an economist's perspective, would a national building code, in general, be a good thing (creating a national market) or a bad thing (stifling innovation)?
I'd vote bad thing, especially if written by Congress.
Actually, heating uses more energy than A/C; it's just that A/C uses electricity, while heating generally burns fossil fuel.
That's exactly the kind of generalization that will get everyone screwed. Down here in Texas for residential use we run electric heat pumps on AC about 300 days a year, run them on heat mode maybe 30 days a year, and power up the heat strips on the half-a-dozen really cold nights annually. In most commercial buildings the heat load from the lighting is high enough that the AC runs every day. The only "fossil fuel" we use is natural gas or propane for water heating and cooking, and most of us don't have that.

I recently had a conversation with a damnyankee environmentalist who proposed a national law requiring energy efficiency by mandating heat-gathering southern exposures and heavily insulated basements. He just wouldn't believe that in Texas the last thing anyone needed was an exposure that gathered more heat, and putting basements in homes from the Hill Country to Houston is, for widely different reasons, unnecessary and just about impossible.
6.9.2009 12:02am
rosetta's stones:
LarryA, back when I lived in Texas, I believe they had an open season on "damnyankee environmentalists"... wha' happun?!
.
.

This brings up a good point though. Much of the various previous codes were developed mindful of regional requirements, similar to what Larry mentions. Code consolidation is always a fine idea, if executed while staying mindful of issues such as those regional differences. The old "Southern Building Code" had a purpose, afterall, and I doubt the damnyankee environmentalists know what it was, even yet today. Code consolidation must fold all that thinking into the new code, to be valid.

Pardon me if I mistrust the congresscritters to be mindful of anything besides their next campaign contribution, let alone building codes. Best if they stay well clear of this, and leave it to the groups who have always done it.
6.9.2009 8:10am
LarryA (mail) (www):
LarryA, back when I lived in Texas, I believe they had an open season on "damnyankee environmentalists"... wha' happun?!
Internet conversation. He wasn't quite in range.
6.9.2009 10:02am
Mark Bahner (www):
If we get a Building Energy Czar, I hope we can find someone named Potemkin.
6.10.2009 10:18pm

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