Here’s a story from Mary Anastasia O’Grady at the Wall Street Journal. She interviewed Puerto Rican Gov. Luis Fortuño and learned about his plan to boost the island’s economic growth.
If [Luis Fortuño’s] plan to boost the island’s competitiveness by switching electricity generation from oil to natural gas is to succeed, he’s going to need relief from the pernicious 1920 Jones Act. It prohibits any ship not made in the U.S. from carrying cargo between U.S. ports. There are no liquefied-natural-gas (LNG) tankers made in the U.S. Unless Puerto Rico gets a Jones Act exemption, it cannot take advantage of the U.S. natural gas bonanza to make itself more competitive.
The Jones Act is good if you are a union shipbuilder who doesn’t like competition, or a member of Congress who takes political contributions from the maritime lobby. But it’s bad if you are a low-income Puerto Rican who needs a job. And there are plenty of those.
Puerto Ricans are American citizens but they are significantly poorer than the rest of the country. Per capita income on the island in 2010 was roughly $16,300 compared to just over $47,000 for the nation as a whole.
Life on the island is also expensive, in part because of the high price of electricity, 68% of which is produced using imported oil. The governor’s office says that the price of electricity here went up 100% from 2001 to 2011.
[…][B]ringing down high energy costs remains a fundamental challenge, and one that is exacerbated by new costly federal regulations on emissions that would require the installation of scrubbers on oil-fired electricity plants. To meet those regulations affordably, Mr. Fortuño wants to convert the island’s oil-fired plants to cheaper, cleaner natural gas. To that end, he proposes a pipeline from the southern LNG terminal at Punta Guayanilla across the island to San Juan. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has assessed the proposal and said it would produce no significant environmental impact.
It sounds like a plan to help the poor and unemployed. There are only two problems. First, the Sierra Club and local environmentalists have ginned up fears about the project and promised to sue to stop construction. Second, the Jones Act is still in the way.
The governor admits that his administration could have done a better job communicating the pipeline plan to Puerto Ricans, but he also points out that “some of the same groups that have opposed the pipeline have also opposed wind-power and solar projects. They are opposing everything, including waste-to-energy” projects which he maintains are less polluting than landfills.
Mr. Fortuño says that he expects Washington to give him a carve-out for LNG tankers, but he doesn’t have it yet. He also says that a large part of the environmentalist push-back is political, suggesting to me that he ought to be more worried than he is. This kind of politics needs to preserve the status quo of the welfare state. And that implies blocking Mr. Fortuño’s development agenda no matter what it means to the poor.
I thought this article was a neat little way to see how groups of people who understand economics try to pull themselves up out of messes, and who stands in their way. It’s something to think about when you think about poverty – what will really work to lift people out of poverty? And what is the real effect of labor unions and environmentalists on economies?