Monday, January 04, 2010

Energy conservation insanity

French bureaucrats at work.
From The Prize:
France also developed the most aggressive government policy on energy conservation. Inspectors would swoop down on banks, department stores, and offices and do "le check up" -- take the inside temperature with special thermometers. If the temperature exceeded the officially approved twenty-degree-centrigrade level, fines would be levied on the building management. But perhaps the most striking aspect of France's overall energy conservation program, and an altogether French initiative, was the ban on any advertising that "encouraged" energy consumption. A manufacturer could advertise that his portable electric heater was more efficient than comparable heaters, but he could not say that electric heating was the best form of heating, because that encouraged energy use. Officials of the French Energy Conservation Agency were known to hear a radio advertisement on the way to work and, judging it as encouraging consumption, have it pulled from the radio by lunchtime.

The advertising ban created particular perplexity for the oil companies. They were accustomed to waging aggressive campaigns to win even a 1 percent gasoline market share away from their competitors. No more. Now about the best they could do was trumpet the gasoline-saving properties of various additives. Exxon's tiger was tamed in France; no longer in the tank, he was judiciously advising motorists to check their tires and tune their engines to save gasoline. The companies could not give away the kind of trinkets and premiums that gasoline stations habitually offered around the world -- mugs, glasses, spoons, and decals. After all, such gifts would encourage consumption. Instead, about the only thing they were permitted to hand out were cheap tool kits, but only so long as they contained a brush for cleaning spark plugs to promote higher efficiency.

One of the two French national oil companies, Total, searched desperately for some way to keep its name in front of the public. At last, it had a brilliant idea. It started putting up billboards, picturing a beautiful piece of green French countryside, with a simple legend announcing "This is France" and signed "Total." The ad was banned. A stunned Total asked why. "It is easy," said Jean Syrota, the director of the Energy Conservation Agency. "Consumers look at this ad and say, 'Oil companies are wasting a great deal of money on such ads, therefore the companies must be rich, therefore there must not be any energy problem, therefore it is all right to waste energy.'"
You really have to hand it to them, nobody does regulation like the French. On a more serious note, this is simply another example of government bureaucrats tilting at windmills. Quite plainly, energy conservation is not a problem which government needs to solve. If energy supplies are running low, prices will increase which will in turn prompt government investigations of profiteering consumers to use less without any outside meddling. Much of government is best understood through this paradigm, people in search of a problem or an attempt to establish relevance.

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