How Big-Government Regulation Contributed to California's Wildfires

In 2013, cartoonist Jack Ohman made a macabre attempt at humor that was published by the Sacramento Bee in a political cartoon referencing an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, at which fifteen people were killed and more than 200 were injured.  In the left panel of that cartoon, Ohman portrayed then-governor Rick Perry saying, "Business is BOOMING in Texas!" while standing in front of a sign that says "Low Taxes!" and "Low Regs!"  In the payoff panel to its right, we see a massive explosion representing the tragedy in West: "BOOM!"  The image comes complete with a mushroom cloud. 

I have no doubt that Ohman believed he was making some high-minded political comment with this cartoon, and his message is clear.  The explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas was somehow the failure of the relatively small-government, low-regulation policies for which Texas is well known, meant to be juxtaposed with the comparatively high-tax, highly regulatory government policies for which California is equally well known, and where one might not expect such disasters to happen.

This leads to an obvious question.  If, according to the proponents of big government at the Sacramento Bee, a random explosion at a fertilizer plant in West must signify the failures of small-government policies and low regulation, why do the persistent catastrophic wildfires in California's forests not represent the failures of comparably big-government regulation?

In truth, there was nothing, then or now, to suggest that more regulations upon industry at the federal or state level might have prevented the calamity in West.  It was, in fact, later determined to have been caused by a criminal act, therefore it was a horrifying anomaly.  There is, however, plenty to suggest that the irresponsibility of bloated federal and state government bureaucracies' impositions of regulations has led to the destructive extent of the wildfires in California.

Fires are nothing new in California, and there's something of an interesting history to them that used to not be nearly as tragic as we see today.  Chuck DeVore, vice president of national initiatives at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, reminds his readers at Forbes that as "a citizen soldier in the California National Guard for two decades, I often heard the gallows humor that California's four seasons were: flood, fire, earthquake, and riot."

DeVore takes to task the editorial board at the Sacramento Bee for their commentary around the Carr Fire of 2018, in which they suggested that the recent fires are the result of "climate change, for real and in real time.  We were warned that the atmospheric buildup of man-made greenhouse gas would eventually be an existential threat."

"The problem with the Bee's editorial is that making a passionate argument is no substitute for the truth," DeVore writes.

He recalls that as a freshman California assemblyman in 2005, he visited forest product industry professionals in Northern California.  They told him of a "worrisome trend" that had begun many years before, where "both federal and state regulators were making it more and more difficult for them to do their jobs."  Mainly, the problem was that "[a]s timber harvesting permit fees went up and environmental challenges multiplied, the people who earned a living felling and planting trees looked for other lines of work."  As the "timber industry gradually collapsed," the "combustible fuel load in the forest predictably soared," because forest management professionals stopped "clearing brush and thinning trees."

The process of clearing forests in California had begun long before industrialization, with the native populations in California prior to the Gold Rush — but for different reasons then.  Photographic evidence of the Sierra landscape in the 1850s and 1860s presents "open fields of grass punctuated by isolated pine stands and scattered oak trees," largely because the natives "shaped this landscape with fire to encourage the grasslands and boost the game animal population."

When the Gold Rush took hold and California grew, forests were a vital resource for both construction and fuel.  "The landscape filled with trees," DeVore writes, "but the trees were harvested every 30 to 50 years."  Increasing federal and state regulation "disrupted" that cycle in the 1990s, however, "especially on the almost 60% of California forest land owned by the federal government." 

It is ironic, I suppose, that proponents of big-government regulation are quick to blame a lack of regulation for such singular tragedies as the explosion in West but fail to see how an abundance of expansive and oppressive regulations have led to the extent of tragedies like the modern California wildfires.  But even that observation is overshadowed by an even larger irony, in an environmental sense.

The reason for the regulations curtailing logging and the use of biofuels as an energy source is predicated upon environmental concerns.  Specifically, "wood doesn't burn as cleanly as natural gas," and the "wood waste from timber operations" that used to be burned in biomass generators became scarcer.  As such, there have been mass closures in recent decades of the biomass generators that once provided readily available and affordable energy.  "What used to be burned safely in power generators is now burned in catastrophic fires," DeVore writes.

Today, there are many who would defend the regulatory endeavors that have made logging less profitable and thereby less prevalent, and particularly might celebrate that such regulations have led to the closure of biomass fuel generators, in favor of massively subsidized wind and solar energy.  But as early as 2006, it was observed by the Western Governors' Association, in their Biomass Task Force Report, that:

[O]ver time the fire-prone forests that were not thinned, burn in uncharacteristically destructive wildfires, and the resulting loss of forest carbon is much greater than would occur if the forests had been thinned before the fire moved through. ... [F]ailing to thin leads to a greater greenhouse gas burden than the thinning created in the first place, and that doesn't even account for the avoided fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions due to the production of energy from the forest thinning.  In the long term, leaving forests overgrown and prone to unnaturally destructive wildfires means there will be significantly less biomass on the ground, and more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

It would be difficult to argue that federal and state regulations that curtailed the incentive for private companies to engage in forestry work have led to a better environmental outcome in terms of carbon emissions, and harder still to argue that such regulation has not led to the catastrophic extent of the devastation in California's persistent wildfires.

And yet, what is the solution, according to California's Governor Gavin Newsom?  He has found a viable patsy for regulatory overreach by the government in the corporate entity known as Pacific Gas and Electric. 

Count me among those critical of PG&E, as the arguably overbroad rolling blackouts in California have caused some days without power when the "high winds" (ostensibly the reason for the power outage) may not have blown a napkin off my patio table.  But somehow, Newsom and his big-government cohorts, anxious to compel public sentiment toward more government regulation, feel that the best way to capitalize on consumer anger and correct the struggling company's business practices is to allow state control in reshaping and regulating its practices — "even if it mean[s] a public takeover," according to the New York Times.

Imagine the insanity in what is being offered to solve this crisis.  For the crime of having equipment malfunctions which created the sparks that allegedly ignited some of California's wildfires, the "solution" is to allow more expansive regulation to be crafted by the same regulatory bodies that allowed for the copious kindling and fuel which allowed those fires to burn at such levels as to consume so much of California's forests and inhabited land, claiming the businesses, homes, and lives of so many of California's citizens?

That is definitely misguided, and there's an undeniable irony in Newsom suggesting that more government and environmental regulation will fix California's problems with wildfires, when it seems obvious that expansive government and environmental regulation has greatly contributed to the destructive extent of the wildfires it is experiencing.  

But, unlike cartoonist Jack Ohman and the Sacramento Bee's editorial board, I don't find anything funny at all in my making this well evidenced contention today.

In 2013, cartoonist Jack Ohman made a macabre attempt at humor that was published by the Sacramento Bee in a political cartoon referencing an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, at which fifteen people were killed and more than 200 were injured.  In the left panel of that cartoon, Ohman portrayed then-governor Rick Perry saying, "Business is BOOMING in Texas!" while standing in front of a sign that says "Low Taxes!" and "Low Regs!"  In the payoff panel to its right, we see a massive explosion representing the tragedy in West: "BOOM!"  The image comes complete with a mushroom cloud. 

I have no doubt that Ohman believed he was making some high-minded political comment with this cartoon, and his message is clear.  The explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas was somehow the failure of the relatively small-government, low-regulation policies for which Texas is well known, meant to be juxtaposed with the comparatively high-tax, highly regulatory government policies for which California is equally well known, and where one might not expect such disasters to happen.

This leads to an obvious question.  If, according to the proponents of big government at the Sacramento Bee, a random explosion at a fertilizer plant in West must signify the failures of small-government policies and low regulation, why do the persistent catastrophic wildfires in California's forests not represent the failures of comparably big-government regulation?

In truth, there was nothing, then or now, to suggest that more regulations upon industry at the federal or state level might have prevented the calamity in West.  It was, in fact, later determined to have been caused by a criminal act, therefore it was a horrifying anomaly.  There is, however, plenty to suggest that the irresponsibility of bloated federal and state government bureaucracies' impositions of regulations has led to the destructive extent of the wildfires in California.

Fires are nothing new in California, and there's something of an interesting history to them that used to not be nearly as tragic as we see today.  Chuck DeVore, vice president of national initiatives at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, reminds his readers at Forbes that as "a citizen soldier in the California National Guard for two decades, I often heard the gallows humor that California's four seasons were: flood, fire, earthquake, and riot."

DeVore takes to task the editorial board at the Sacramento Bee for their commentary around the Carr Fire of 2018, in which they suggested that the recent fires are the result of "climate change, for real and in real time.  We were warned that the atmospheric buildup of man-made greenhouse gas would eventually be an existential threat."

"The problem with the Bee's editorial is that making a passionate argument is no substitute for the truth," DeVore writes.

He recalls that as a freshman California assemblyman in 2005, he visited forest product industry professionals in Northern California.  They told him of a "worrisome trend" that had begun many years before, where "both federal and state regulators were making it more and more difficult for them to do their jobs."  Mainly, the problem was that "[a]s timber harvesting permit fees went up and environmental challenges multiplied, the people who earned a living felling and planting trees looked for other lines of work."  As the "timber industry gradually collapsed," the "combustible fuel load in the forest predictably soared," because forest management professionals stopped "clearing brush and thinning trees."

The process of clearing forests in California had begun long before industrialization, with the native populations in California prior to the Gold Rush — but for different reasons then.  Photographic evidence of the Sierra landscape in the 1850s and 1860s presents "open fields of grass punctuated by isolated pine stands and scattered oak trees," largely because the natives "shaped this landscape with fire to encourage the grasslands and boost the game animal population."

When the Gold Rush took hold and California grew, forests were a vital resource for both construction and fuel.  "The landscape filled with trees," DeVore writes, "but the trees were harvested every 30 to 50 years."  Increasing federal and state regulation "disrupted" that cycle in the 1990s, however, "especially on the almost 60% of California forest land owned by the federal government." 

It is ironic, I suppose, that proponents of big-government regulation are quick to blame a lack of regulation for such singular tragedies as the explosion in West but fail to see how an abundance of expansive and oppressive regulations have led to the extent of tragedies like the modern California wildfires.  But even that observation is overshadowed by an even larger irony, in an environmental sense.

The reason for the regulations curtailing logging and the use of biofuels as an energy source is predicated upon environmental concerns.  Specifically, "wood doesn't burn as cleanly as natural gas," and the "wood waste from timber operations" that used to be burned in biomass generators became scarcer.  As such, there have been mass closures in recent decades of the biomass generators that once provided readily available and affordable energy.  "What used to be burned safely in power generators is now burned in catastrophic fires," DeVore writes.

Today, there are many who would defend the regulatory endeavors that have made logging less profitable and thereby less prevalent, and particularly might celebrate that such regulations have led to the closure of biomass fuel generators, in favor of massively subsidized wind and solar energy.  But as early as 2006, it was observed by the Western Governors' Association, in their Biomass Task Force Report, that:

[O]ver time the fire-prone forests that were not thinned, burn in uncharacteristically destructive wildfires, and the resulting loss of forest carbon is much greater than would occur if the forests had been thinned before the fire moved through. ... [F]ailing to thin leads to a greater greenhouse gas burden than the thinning created in the first place, and that doesn't even account for the avoided fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions due to the production of energy from the forest thinning.  In the long term, leaving forests overgrown and prone to unnaturally destructive wildfires means there will be significantly less biomass on the ground, and more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

It would be difficult to argue that federal and state regulations that curtailed the incentive for private companies to engage in forestry work have led to a better environmental outcome in terms of carbon emissions, and harder still to argue that such regulation has not led to the catastrophic extent of the devastation in California's persistent wildfires.

And yet, what is the solution, according to California's Governor Gavin Newsom?  He has found a viable patsy for regulatory overreach by the government in the corporate entity known as Pacific Gas and Electric. 

Count me among those critical of PG&E, as the arguably overbroad rolling blackouts in California have caused some days without power when the "high winds" (ostensibly the reason for the power outage) may not have blown a napkin off my patio table.  But somehow, Newsom and his big-government cohorts, anxious to compel public sentiment toward more government regulation, feel that the best way to capitalize on consumer anger and correct the struggling company's business practices is to allow state control in reshaping and regulating its practices — "even if it mean[s] a public takeover," according to the New York Times.

Imagine the insanity in what is being offered to solve this crisis.  For the crime of having equipment malfunctions which created the sparks that allegedly ignited some of California's wildfires, the "solution" is to allow more expansive regulation to be crafted by the same regulatory bodies that allowed for the copious kindling and fuel which allowed those fires to burn at such levels as to consume so much of California's forests and inhabited land, claiming the businesses, homes, and lives of so many of California's citizens?

That is definitely misguided, and there's an undeniable irony in Newsom suggesting that more government and environmental regulation will fix California's problems with wildfires, when it seems obvious that expansive government and environmental regulation has greatly contributed to the destructive extent of the wildfires it is experiencing.  

But, unlike cartoonist Jack Ohman and the Sacramento Bee's editorial board, I don't find anything funny at all in my making this well evidenced contention today.