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No Energy Policy and Even Less Climate Policy

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 4:38 AM GMT on March 15, 2014

No Energy Policy and Even Less Climate Policy

This week I gave a lecture on current energy use. Of the lectures I give, those on current energy use and trends are the ones I have to change the most from year to year. I remember that as a child in 1961 my father gave me a world atlas that stated that the U.S. had the world’s greatest petroleum reserves, and that all was quite rosy for the future. That didn’t turn out so well. If I look at the past 8 years of lectures I highlight in one year hydrogen cells, the next year ethanol, the ups and downs of wind energy, the machinations over solar cells and trade with China, clean coal, dirty coal, now hydraulic fracturing and the emergence of the U.S. as a oil and natural gas giant. Three years ago one of my charts showed where the U.S. imported oil and the difficult relations we had with many of our suppliers.

A common factor from year to year is that taking a global perspective, the energy use continues to increase, and the dominate energy sources are coal, oil and natural gas. Coal use has increased significantly in the last decade, which includes U.S. coal exports. Renewable energy use has increased tremendously, but remains a small part.

I first wrote a blog about the Keystone Pipeline in December of 2011. The Keystone Pipeline has emerged as a litmus test of a federal commitment to climate change. The climate advocacy group 350.org maintains regular protests against the pipeline. In President Obama’s Speech on Climate Change (June 25, 2013), Obama stated that the pipeline had to be in our national interest and cannot significantly enhance carbon pollution.

This is a classic ethical problem of the near-term versus the long-term. The analysis by the State Department comes to the conclusion that the Keystone Pipeline will not significantly enhance carbon dioxide pollution. The basic argument is that the resource will be developed in any event. The Keystone Pipeline will bring jobs and likely restart closed refineries (U.S. as gasoline exporter). In the event that the pipeline is not built, there will be efforts to build new pipelines in Canada. Until there are pipelines, a whole range of petroleum products will be transported by train and truck. This transport is inefficient and risky.

We live in a time when there is a boom in U.S. production of oil and natural gas. We are on the verge of becoming an oil and natural gas exporting nation. Yet, the stress of a cold winter has stressed the gas distribution network, causing a spike in home heating costs. We are burning off the gas in the North Dakota oil shale fields because we have no way to get it out. We are considering the role of natural gas in future geopolitical crises such as Ukraine, which is a policy driver to lowering the cost of transport. It’s just a mess.

The climate policy importance for the Keystone Pipeline decision is largely that the pipeline facilitates the burning of fossil fuels. It eases the use as a source of oil, tar sands, which are especially dirty from a climate perspective. It is also dirty from a water quality perspective, with other environmental consequences. Fundamentally, the Keystone Pipeline helps to keep fossil fuels cheap, which is completely contrary to what is needed for climate policy. The decision calculation is addressing a whole host of existing short-term problems, versus making the stand against facilitating the continuation and, perhaps, acceleration of carbon dioxide pollution (Rood blog Burning Stuff). Another calculation is whether or not this is the opportunity point for catalyzing the development of climate policy.

The Obama Administration can claim that with regard to climate policy that they have directly targeted the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. This policy initiative can be linked back to better distribution of natural gas to displace coal as the primary fuel for electricity production. Natural gas when burned releases less carbon dioxide than coal. Whether or not natural gas on the whole reduces greenhouse gas emissions depends on the care to control leakage and waste in obtaining and transporting the gas. The Obama administration can also take credit for reducing transportation emissions through the requirements than came with the auto-industry bailout during the recession (a example of policy opportunity).

In what will be a significant debate in the climate community, Marcia McNutt, Editor in Chief of Science Magazine, has endorsed the building of the pipeline. (Science has provided open access to the editorial.) Dr. McNutt cites policy opportunity in granting the permits.

We have no energy policy. We have no climate policy. We have resisted the development of energy policy for more than 30 years. We have made fragmented investments in specific technologies, most of which proved to be poor investments. We know that investments in specific technologies are usually bad policy because there is not adequate flexibility to accommodate technological development and market forces. We use these poorly conceived fragmented technology developments to argue that any energy policy we develop is doomed to failure. That keeps us in a position that encourages cheap fossil fuels relative to other forms of energy. We have even less well formed climate policy. Therefore we continue our march increasing fossil fuel emissions. I don’t think that the Keystone Pipeline is the moment that catalyzes energy policy or climate policy no matter the decision. Therefore, I expect the short-term trumps the long-term. Then the ultimate resolution will lie in set of court cases and we will churn along in our mess. It’s a decision that I am happy I don’t have to make.


Climate Change Politics

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.