Throw In The Towel?

I keep promising myself that I’m going to write about energy and climate issues less often on this page. It’s difficult to keep the promise because developments in these areas are coming fast and furious. Developments of late, however, suggest that there may not be much point in continuing to write about them because, well, the game may be over.

Consider: A National Research Council study concludes that it is unlikely that the U.S. will produce anything close to the amount of cellulosic ethanol by 2022 that is mandated by the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (C&EN Oct. 10, page 12).

What’s fascinating to me is that, in the preface to the NRC report, Ingrid C. Burke and Wallace E. Tyner, the cochairs of the committee that produced it, write: “Yet with all the expertise available to us, our clearest conclusion is that there is very high uncertainty in the impacts we were trying to estimate. The uncertainties include essentially all of the drivers of biofuel production and consumption and the complex interactions among those drivers: future crude oil prices, feedstock cost and availability, technological advances in conversion efficiencies, land-use change, government policy, and more.” Biofuels are supposed to be important in mitigating climate disruption, but, “We do not have generally agreed upon estimates of the environmental or [greenhouse gas] impacts of most biofuels,” Burke and Tyner admit.

Consider: A distinguished panel formed by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a group founded by two former Republican senators and two former Democratic senators, concluded recently that the U.S. “should embark on a focused and systematic program of research about climate remediation.” That is, ways to fix the climate that we are disrupting through emissions of greenhouse gases. The task force “strongly believes that climate remediation technologies are no substitute for controlling risk through climate mitigation (i.e., reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases) and climate adaptation (i.e., enhancing the resilience of human-made and natural systems to climate change).” Nevertheless, the U.S. “needs to be able to judge whether particular climate remediation techniques could offer a meaningful response to the risks of climate change,” in part, because that change could be catastrophic, and in part, because some other countries might decide to pursue climate remediation on their own.
Consider: The U.S. State Department is evaluating a proposal by TransCanada, an energy production and supply company, to build the Keystone XL pipeline to transport crude oil from oil sands deposits in Alberta to the Gulf Coast of the U.S. For a variety of reasons, oil sands are one of the most environmentally problematic of all sources of petroleum. The State Department appears to be inclined to recommend approval of the project.

That should come as no surprise. According to news reports, TransCanada’s chief lobbyist in Washington was a top official in Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign and has cozy relationships with State Department officials. Oh, and TransCanada selected the company, Cardino Entrix, that prepared the environmental impact statement (EIS) on Keystone XL for the department. The EIS takes a relatively benign view of the pipeline project. So it’s business as usual in Washington when it comes to energy development.

And finally, consider: The op-ed page of the Oct. 6 Wall Street Journal carried a piece by Robert Bryce, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, entitled “Five Truths About Climate Change.” The first “truth” Bryce cites is “The carbon taxers/limiters have lost,” pointing out that in the past decade CO2 emissions have risen 28.5%. Bryce concludes his essay: “It’s time to move the debate past the dogmatic view that carbon dioxide is evil and toward a world view that accepts the need for energy that is cheap, abundant, and reliable.” This isn’t climate change denial; it’s climate change indifference. We’re going to burn more coal and oil, much more, come what may.

Maybe it is time to throw in the towel.

Thanks for reading.

Author: Rudy Baum

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  1. No amount of fiddling with hybrids and energy conservation is going to stop the earth from carrying out its routine millennial cleanups. If tomorrow the earth decides to flood the low-lying European nations, nothing that we can do today can stop this from happening. All the politicking can buy us at most a few dozen years. Better focus on other important matters right now and brace ourselves for the inevitable.

  2. I am disappointed in your implication that Keystone XL needs to be stopped. It’s a common and extraordinarily misplaced fallacy that the denial of Keystone XL’s state department application will stop the extraction of Canadian tar sands bitumen.

    Truth is, though, the American myopia over Keystone XL overlooks the fact that Enbridge in building a $6.6 billion pipeline to the west coast of British Columbia and moving fast on it. The bitumen shipped from there will go to China, with or without Keystone XL being built. Extraction will continue. There’s nothing we can do about that short of invading Canada.

    It’s also, from a geopolitical perspective, the epitome of hubris to try and dictate Canadian energy policy from America. Canada has ratified the Kyoto protocol and has a sovereign responsibility to meets its climate change target obligations.

    Yes, bitumen is environmentally troublesome because the lifecycle analyses indicate a lifetime 15% emissions gain over most other conventional crudes. But it is no more troublesome than the other options we face, some even more environmentally damaging than bitumen. I really want to support the environmental movement and move to a carbon-free, clean energy economy but the way to do that is a carbon tax, not ineffective political obstructionism.

  3. I like Andrew Revkin’s take on the state of the planet here:

    Great Disruption? Exciting Transformation? “one way to look at the turbulence in human affairs right now — a turbulence captured in both the disruptive and transformational constructs Friedman examines — is to think of it as akin to the rewiring that occurs in the teenage brain prior to the rebooting we call adulthood. Look around. This is what puberty on the scale of a planet looks like.”

  4. Three insightful but very divergent comments. Thanks for all three.
    @NatProdNut: In my darker moments, I couldn’t agree more. The proverbial *#($ is about to hit the fan, and nothing we can do at this point is going to stop it. You should definitely click on the link Gaythia provides and watch the video of Paul Gilding talking about the Great Disruption. He agrees, we’re past the point of being able to make things better. But he takes an optimistic view of humanity–we’re at our best when we’re in a crisis, and the coming disruption will bring out the best in us and we’ll create a new and better world.
    @jtf: I know, the Alberta tar sands are going to be developed whether the Keystone XL pipeline is built or not. And I couldn’t agree more about a carbon tax; I’ve written more than once that putting a price on carbon is the only way we will every change human behavior. It’s just the way the pipeline project is being ushered through the approval process that’s so dismaying. It’s business as usual, and that’s almost certainly not going to lead to intelligent policies like a meaningful tax on carbon.
    @Gaythia: I like Revkin’s “puberty on the scale of a planet looks like” metaphor. This is a teenager, however, who’s well on the path to juvenile delinquency.

  5. The article sounds very interesting and it makes you think about different things that going on and we don’t pay enough attention to them… I think more renewable energy resources should be used and they should become more affordable to population.