Last week’s entry outlined the recent presidential actions on energy policy in some detail, likening them to a three-act play:
ACT ONE: Took aim at essentially all energy policy decisions implemented during the Trump administration, reversing some and suspending others pending further review.
ACT TWO: Rolled out replacement policies (some new, some reinstated Obama era policies), specifying administrative responsibilities and setting reporting deadlines for an all of the federal government response.
ACT THREE: Claimed manmade global warming and the proposed green energy solutions are based on science and evidence so they should not be questioned.
Now let’s assess the policy changes being put in play. We’ll consider a series of possible objections, starting with a suggestion that the “climate crisis” has been exaggerated.
1. No climate crisis – The percentage of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere has been climbing since approximately the start of the Industrial Revolution and now stands at about .042% of the atmosphere, versus, say .03% as of 1800. During the same period, average global temperatures have generally been in a warming phase albeit with pauses and reversals
Some scientists have theorized a cause and effect relationship, i.e., attributed the warming trend to CO2 buildup. Correlation should not be confused with causation, however, and other scientists are skeptical that the level of atmospheric CO2 has somehow supplanted solar activity and other factors to become the prime driver of global temperatures. Much ado about global warming, 10/26/15. (Our analysis was posted a couple of months before the Paris Climate Accord was finalized; John Kerry was secretary of state at the time.)
Despite ongoing scientific research, the issue remains unsettled. And we’ve noticed that supporters of the Manmade Global Warming Theory (MMGWT) don’t seem anxious to explain the scientific reasoning involved. Many crises, one solution (government action), 2/3/20.
How much easier to fall back on arguments that there is (1) an overwhelming scientific consensus in favor of man-made global warming (now relabeled as “Climate Change” or “Climate Crisis”), (2) no time to waste if we wish to avert a global catastrophe, and (3) no downside, since even if the theory did turn out to be wrong, the huge expenditures required to replace fossil fuel energy with “renewable” energy (generally understood as wind and solar power) could be recovered through the resultant creation of “green jobs.” As an example of the type of doomsday rhetoric that climate alarmists are prone to use, consider a recent statement by John Kerry, President Biden’s special envoy for climate, which was made during a bitter winter cold wave. Granted that twelve minus three equals nine, the statement strikes us as underwhelming. John Kerry: “We have nine years left” until climate crisis, Trent Baker, breitbart.com, 2/19/21. It is directly related to the warming, even though your instinct is to say, wait a minute, this is the new ice age, but it’s not. It is coming from the global warming, and it threatens all the normal weather patterns. [T]he scientists told us three years ago we had 12 years to avert the worst consequences of climate crisis. We are now three years gone, so we have nine years left.
Similarly, the various presidential actions that have been published assert the existence of a climate crisis without getting into any of the particulars. Who says so – specific targets and dates – program costs - does anyone have a different view? See, e.g., Action 10 (1/20/21). Section 6(c): Climate change has had a growing effect on the U.S. economy, with climate-related costs increasing over the last 4 years. Extreme weather events and other climate-related effects have harmed the health, safety, and security of the American people and have increased the urgency for combatting climate change and accelerating the transition toward a clean energy economy. The world must be put on a sustainable climate pathway to protect Americans and the domestic economy from harmful climate impacts, and to create well-paying union jobs as part of the climate solution. Bottom line, CO2 buildup in the atmosphere may have negative effects and it’s right to look into the matter – but this isn’t truly a “crisis” warranting an “all hands on deck” response. Perhaps a less ambitious (and costly) plan would make sense. Two nuclear options, Paul Driessen, townhall.com, 1/26/21. Citing computer models and studies that often hide data and misrepresent planetary reality, they insist we face a climate crisis that justifies radical action. However, as climatologist Dr. Roy Spencer points out, climate models now produce and predict “at least twice as much warming” as we are actually seeing. There simply is no climate emergency: not in temperatures and not in hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, wildfires or other supposedly CO2-driven events. The climate catastrophes are make-believe. 2. Wrong answers – Identifying a valid issue is not enough; one still needs to offer a solid proposal for addressing it. In our view, the new plan does not meet this requirement.
#Why wind and solar? The primary thrust of the Biden administration’s plan is to phase out the use of fossil fuel energy while ramping up the use of wind and solar power. The primary reason cited for this choice, however, seems to be the creation of “green jobs” (which probably wouldn’t work in practice, see Point 3, supra).
SAFE has long questioned the merits of wind and solar power due to several built-in disadvantages. See, e.g., Let’s assess Delaware’s “renewable energy” program, Part A, 4/25/20. One key point is that wind and solar power are intermittent, meaning they can’t reliably drive the electric power grid and must be backed up by either dispatchable power sources (primarily fossil fuel & nuclear power) or expensive electric power storage facilities. If wind and solar power are used when available, with dispatchable power sources being turned off (or in the case of nuclear power grounded out), this will raise the cost of the dispatchable power and negate the supposed cost savings.
Also, both wind and solar power have environmental drawbacks that are often overlooked. A great deal of space is taken up that could be used for other purposes, e.g., farming or recreation – millions of birds and bats are killed by spinning wind turbines – specialized materials are required, e.g., rare earth minerals, which can’t be produced without creating environmental hazards somewhere in the world – wind turbine blades or solar cells must be replaced - the facilities (often in remote areas) must eventually be decommissioned.
For a current example of the dangers of excessive reliance on “renewable energy,” consider the effects of the recent freeze across the lower Midwest area of the US on the Texas energy grid. Frozen wind turbines, solar panels covered by snow, and significant (albeit lesser) power disruptions for natural gas, coal and nuclear power shut down a substantial portion of the normally available power just as demand was soaring. The only feasible solution was to impose emergency blackouts in large areas, leaving millions of Texans without light, appliances or the ability to heat their homes. In the future, if motor vehicles are electrified too, such a situation could be even more dire. This blizzard exposes the perils of trying to “electrify everything,” Robert Bryce, forbes.com, 2/15/21. One might have expected an acknowledgment from the Biden administration that the need for building “resiliency” into the distribution of electric power must and will be taken into account in the new energy plan. But the actual reaction was quite different, i.e., the new head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) reportedly announced cancellation of a pending study on this subject. More Green blackouts ahead, Wall Street Journal, 2/23/21. In 2018 FERC finally began examining these grid resilience challenges. But its new Democratic Chairman, Richard Glick, closed the inquiry last week. He cited the lack of regulatory action, but the real reason is that grid resilience conflicts with the Biden climate agenda.
#Why not nuclear power? Assuming there is some merit in the MMGWT, i.e., that CO2 buildup in the atmosphere does have significant negative consequences, nuclear power offers an alternative to fossil fuel power plants that is essentially carbon-free. In addition, nuclear power has a much smaller environmental footprint than wind and solar power, and the power output is highly reliable versus intermittent.
Liberals tend to worry about a handful of nuclear power mishaps (e.g., Chernobyl in Russia, Fukushima in Japan, Three Mile Island in the US), and compliance with rigid federal nuclear requirements have fueled permitting delays, construction cost overruns, and higher operating costs. Taking advantage of technological advances, however, many of these concerns could be minimized by building multiple copies of small nuclear power plants versus the old style mega projects. Two nuclear options, Paul Driessen, op. cit.
Thankfully there is a second nuclear option. If Team Biden-Harris is determined to eliminate fossil fuels, it could do more to promote nuclear power. So could Africa – and Europe, Asia and the rest of the world. Nuclear technologies are advancing rapidly, and modern nuclear power plant designs are vastly superior to (and less expensive than) any built previously.
Generation 3 and 4 plants have built-in passive safety features that prevent core meltdown. Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) can be as small as 100 MW. One can power a town, more can be added as power needs grow, and several can be coupled together to power a large metropolis. Pebble Bed Modular Reactors use uranium in the form of pellets the size of sugar grains, each one specially coated and then bonded into graphite balls the size of cricket or lacrosse balls. Other technologies are also in the works.
3. Poor design – Here we have in mind features that may sound appealing but, as shown by past experience and/or common sense, seem unlikely to work. Several examples follow.
#Private sector disdain – Action 10 (1/20/21) included a slew of measures designed to constrain petroleum exploration and drilling on areas under federal control and abrupt termination of the Keystone XL Pipeline project. Bottom line, these measures were included in the package to make a political point – not to solve the purported climate crisis.
The rationale for curbing exploration and drilling was surely not to reduce carbon emissions; indeed, an abundance of cheap natural gas as the result of the fracking boom has facilitated transition from coal power to lower-carbon gas power in recent years and enabled the US to painlessly reduce carbon emissions while many other countries have been moving in the opposite direction.
As for cancelling approval for completing the northern-US stretch of the Keystone XL Pipeline, the likely results are (1) less safe and economical transportation of Canadian-produced oil to Texas oil refineries, or (2) the transportation of said oil to China from a Canadian port on the West Coast. Sensitive to objections that cancellation of the Keystone Pipeline would result in the immediate loss of thousands of well-paid union jobs, Action 10 defended this particular move in strident terms: The March 2019 presidential permit for [completion of] the Keystone XL Pipeline is hereby revoked. Because the US and the world face a “climate crisis,” this pipeline “disserves the US national interest.” Leaving this permit in place “would not be consistent with my administration’s economic and climate imperatives.” #Green jobs – By scrapping existing fossil fuel power plants and investing heavily in wind and solar power, the Biden energy plan would predictably drive up the cost and reduce the reliability of electric power grids. No doubt some new jobs would be created, but many jobs would be eliminated in the conventional energy and manufacturing sectors. On a net basis, there’s no convincing reason to assume total employment would go up, especially with government bureaucrats calling the shots.
For a comprehensive review of the tradeoffs involved, see The False Promise of Green Energy, Morriss, Bogart, Meiners & Dorchak, Cato Institute, 2011.
Those who have followed the debate about this subject will be familiar with many of the points. The technical feasibility of a rapid transition to solar and wind power has been vastly exaggerated, while the cost estimates are correspondingly understated. Some environmentalists view nuclear power as “green” because it has the potential of reducing carbon emissions, while others will oppose it to their dying breath. There are numerous environmental objections to the government-supported ethanol program. There is no common definition of the green jobs that are promised, and forecasts are typically expressed on a gross basis (without subtracting jobs that would be eliminated, e.g., in the fossil fuel industries and in industrial operations that would leave the country as the result of higher US power costs.) Some analysts would count jobs in regulatory compliance areas as a benefit, when they actually represent an economic cost. Claims that green jobs will necessarily provide highly paid, agreeable employment are not credible. Barring the creation of trade barriers, most wind power or solar power equipment would be produced in Asia Europe versus the US.
#Chinese cooperation – Last fall, before the presidential election, candidate Joe Biden painted a rosy picture of the US and China working together to beef up the national commitments under the Paris Climate Accord. Election issues: Proposed solution for global warming, 9/7/20.
. . . the claim that the US could “lead the world” to make the sacrifices required to achieve zero net carbon emissions by 2050 is unrealistic. China, India, et al. have no reason to go along with such a request – accepting the US as the “clean energy superpower” in the bargain – so carbon emissions from fossil fuels will continue rising no matter what the US does. A question of power, Robert Bryce, 2020. The notion that China would accept US leadership of the global efforts in this area didn’t seem realistic then, nor has it been supported by the crop of presidential actions on green energy that have been published since Inauguration Day.
Realistically, China is bent on replacing the US as the world’s dominant power - not accepting our leadership. US-China rivalry: status and stakes, 11/23/20.
China is therefore unlikely to accept US requests to slow its growing use of coal and other fossil fuels, as it declined to do during the Paris Climate Accord negotiations. Its agreed national commitment featured a continuing increase in carbon emissions until about 2030. At the request of US representatives, a last minute change in the developed country commitments was made – substituting “should” for “shall” so as to supposedly obviate any need for the Obama administration to seek congressional approval (which probably wouldn’t have been forthcoming, particularly if this pact was viewed as treaty). Global warming alarmists go overboard, 12/14/15.
Note President Biden’s plans to develop an updated US climate action plan and submit it to the other parties to the agreement before the Leaders Climate Summit that he has committed to lead, in effect giving away any US leverage as a result of the decision to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord. Action 35 (1/27/21). It’s not hard to imagine China President Xi Jinping’s reaction to renewed US entreaties, e.g., we applaud the US for volunteering to increase its commitments to solving this global problem, but regrettably China will only be able to help out later. One advantage China will have in ongoing discussions of this subject is its dominance in production of rare earth minerals, which are vital in various “renewable energy” applications, e.g., producing upgraded wind turbines and electric cars, and also for cell phones, computers, defense systems, etc. While the US could develop its own capacity in this area, there would be substantial environmental drawbacks and the effort would take years. It looks like China will use our dependence on this resource to push Biden around, Grant Atkinson, westernjournal.com, 2/22/21.
#Social cost of carbon, etc. – Action 10 (1/20/21) directed various officials to develop estimates of the social cost of carbon, nitrous oxide, and methane within 30 days for use in cost v. benefits analyses – and as validation for the more ambitious fossil fuel phaseout targets (net zero carbon emissions by 2050) that the Biden administration has proposed. As there was no way to develop “accurate” estimates of the nature described, in our view, this exercise boiled down to making political judgments.
The “social cost of carbon” (SCC), “social cost of nitrous oxide” (SCN), and “social cost of methane” (SCM) are estimates of the monetized damages associated with incremental increases in greenhouse gas emissions. They are intended to include changes in net agricultural productivity, human health, property damage from increased flood risk, and the value of ecosystem services. An accurate social cost is essential for agencies to accurately determine the social benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions when conducting cost-benefit analyses of regulatory and other actions.
The proper answers are controversial, especially the longer-term SCC, etc. values to be set by the start of 2022, and the 30-day deadline passed without action. Biden administration misses deadline to update carbon cost as battle begins over its calculation, Abby Smith, Washington Examiner, 2/23/21. This situation was rectified, however, by deciding to adopt the Obama era SCC, etc. (adjusted for inflation) pending completion of the longer-term review. Biden returns to Obama’s “social cost of carbon” for now, Abby Smith, Washington Examiner, 2/26/21. 4. Excess baggage – Assume for discussion purposes that there really is a climate crisis, which needs to be addressed expeditiously. There may still be a temptation to include a few other items in the mix, which are deemed politically attractive and might be harder to sell if they were proposed separately.
The presidential actions re green energy are loaded with such items, e.g., offering special treatment for various segments of the population in the name of “climate equity,” creating a Civilian Climate Corps, and favoring the unionization of workers engaged in the new “green jobs” economy. Maybe these ideas are meritorious, maybe not, but either way they would complicate the plan considerably and divert attention from the presumed top priority – putting paid to the climate crisis before it’s too late.
The solution is obvious. Jettison the excess baggage and proceed with a slimmed-down plan that can be implemented faster and may attract more support from the other side.
5. Pushback – For those who may share our dour view of the Biden administration energy plan, what’s the best response?
The first step is to express your concerns, perhaps some alarmists can be convinced that this plan would force a switch to more expensive, less reliable energy sources for no good purpose. Not that there is anything wrong with using wind and solar power to the extent that this makes business sense, but government subsidization of these projects should end.
It might be possible to invoke the congressional “power of the purse” as an obstacle to implementing unilateral presidential actions, but the narrow Democrat control of both houses of Congress will make this strategy problematic. To gain meaningful leverage, Republicans would need to win back the House and/or Senate in the 2022 mid-term elections. Also, the delusion that unlimited sums of money can be appropriated (never mind the resulting deficits) without drastic consequences needs to be rejected – on both sides of the aisle. Relief may be available in a few cases through judicial action. Thus, for example, there has been serious talk about challenging cancellation of the Keystone XL Pipeline.
The thrust here is not that anyone had a legal right to presidential approval for the project initially, but that once it was finally approved (during the Trump administration) investors had a right to act in reliance on the approval. Keystone decision shows what Biden administration thinks of property rights, Martha Bonetta, townhall.com, 1/25/21.
The most plausible plaintiff is probably Alberta-based TC Energy Corp, which has been trying to get the pipeline over the finish line since 2008. This legal hurdle could trip up Biden’s cancellation of Keystone Pipeline, Fred Lucas, dailysignal.com, 2/1/21.
. . . TC Energy issued at least six contracts and was set to employ 11,000 for the $8 billion construction of the pipeline to carry 830,000 barrels of crude oil per day from oil sands in Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska. From there, the pipeline would connect with another Keystone pipeline that runs south to the Gulf Coast.
Idled pipeline workers and/or local businesses who stood to benefit from their presence may also play a role in ongoing discussions of the matter. South Dakotans fear for their future and vow not to give up Keystone XL pipeline fight, Barnini Chakravorty, Washington Examiner, 2/9/21.