A defense of fossil fuel: Renewable energy doesn't hold a candle to it
An employee stands on the deck of a pilot boat in view of the Ocean Princess oil platform, operated by Diamond Offshore Drilling Inc., in the Port of Cromarty Firth in Cromarty, Scotland, on Feb. 16, 2016.
(Matthew Lloyd / Bloomberg)
Michael Joe MurphyDigital Conversation Starter
A defense of fossil fuels: The Front Burner
Could climate policy geared toward curtailing the burning of fossil fuels jeopardize developments that have benefited countless people and communities across the world, and threaten a shale revolution that has transformed the energy sector? That's the argument from Kathleen Harnett White of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. White, a distinguished senior fellow and director of the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment, was in Orlando on Thursday as the keynote speaker at an energy conference. The Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board interviewed White by email.
Kathleen Hartnett White (Courtesy photo)
Q: Over the past decade or so, there has been a shift in emphasis in public policy away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy. Why are you pushing in the opposite direction?
A: At this point in time, there are no alternative energy sources capable of providing the endless goods and services that fossil fuels now handily provide. And those goods and services are why the average person around the world lives three times longer and has an income 10 times greater than our ancestors 200 years ago — before harnessing carbon-rich energy in the Industrial Revolution. We, the first generation to enjoy a life amplified by man-made energies, take this energy enrichment for granted. Far beyond electricity and oil-fueled mobility in cars and planes, fossil-fueled fertilizers account for 40 percent to 60 percent of the world's food supply. Furthermore fossil fuels are the raw materials for more than 60 percent of all materials and fibers as well as thousands of products like plastics. Our small, clean, smartphones depend on massive electric consumption. The digital universe now consumes 50 percent more energy than global aviation and will explode as the hourly energy demand of Internet traffic exceeds current annual demand. Our abundant, concentrated, affordable, versatile, reliable, storable and controllable energy from fossil fuels is far superior to renewable energy, which is produced from wind, solar, and biomass. Even after generous taxpayer subsidies dating back to the early 1990s, renewable energy accounts only for a sliver of our total energy supply. Adding more and more variable, uncontrollable renewables to the electric grid will serve only to necessitate backup power from reliable coal or natural gas to stabilize the mix.
Q: President Obama's Clean Power Plan, which would impose limits on power-plant emissions, is tied up in the courts. What don't you like about the plan?
The Baytown Exxon gas refinery produces the more processed oil than any other facility in the United States.
(Benjamin Lowy / Getty Images)
A: Congress several times considered but ultimately rejected giving the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide. With the goal of reducing CO2, the EPA's Clean Power Plan seizes a federal power to re-engineer the nation's entire system of electricity. This is a power far beyond the limited power delegated to the EPA under the federal Clean Air Act. Policies of this national consequence must be authorized by Congress and not an administrative agency like EPA if our country is to remain a democracy. Even Harvard's constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe has admonished the EPA saying, however worthy an environmental goal may be, it is not worth "burning the Constitution."
Another fatal flaw of the Clean Power Plan is its futility. Even the EPA recognizes that carbon cuts mandated by the rule would reduce the rate of warming predicted by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by only 0.02 percent — an amount so miniscule it is immeasurable.
Smoke billows from smokestacks and a coal fired generator at a steel factory on November 19, 2015 in the industrial province of Hebei, China.
(Kevin Frayer / Getty Images)
Q: How else, besides putting limits on fossil fuel use, can we reduce carbon emissions? Is there technology we're not aware of?
A: The U.S. is already reducing man-made CO2 more than any other country — including those like Germany and Britain that enacted aggressive climate programs 10 years ago. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, since 2007, when CO2 emissions peaked, the U.S. share has declined by 12.2 percent. That is more than any other nation. There are no commercially feasible technologies to directly reduce CO2 emissions. Billions of taxpayers' and private industries' money has been devoted to carbon capture and sequestration with no success. And the long-promised super batteries to store renewable power are nowhere near commercial viability. All the power storable in the batteries to be annually manufactured in Elon Musk's million-square-foot gigafactory now under construction would meet five minutes of total U.S. demand for electric power. CO2 is unlike conventional pollutants that can be dramatically reduced by emission-control technologies and operational efficiencies.
SHANXI, CHINA -NOVEMBER 26: (CHINA, HONG KONG, MACAU, TAIWAN OUT) Smoke billows from stacks as Chinese men pull a tricycle in a neighborhood next to a coal fired power plant on November 26, 2015 in Shanxi, China. A history of heavy dependence on burning coal for energy has made China the source of nearly a third of the world's total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the toxic pollutants widely cited by scientists and environmentalists as the primary cause of global warming. China's government has publicly set 2030 as a deadline to reach the country's emissions peak, and data suggest the country's coal consumption is already in decline. The governments of more than 190 countries are expected to sign an agreement in Paris to set targets on reducing carbon emissions in an attempt to forge a new global agreement on climate change. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images) ** OUTS - ELSENT, FPG, CM - OUTS * NM, PH, VA if sourced by CT, LA or MoD ** (Kevin Frayer / Getty Images)
CO2 is often called the "gas of life" because it makes photosynthesis possible — the most essential energy conversion on which all life on the Earth depends. An invisible, harmless trace gas in the Earth's atmosphere, CO2 is a plant food. In the long geological/ climatological history of the Earth, there were long periods when atmospheric levels of CO2 were hundreds of times higher than the current level of around 400 parts per mission. For context, consider that man-made emissions of CO2 now account for 0.02 percent of all atmospheric gases. Slightly higher levels of human induced CO2 have increased plant productivity especially in arid regions as shown by satellite imagery. Greenhouses inject CO2 to reach levels over 1000 ppm to increase plant growth.
a mining dumper truck hauls coal at Cloud Peak Energy's Spring Creek strip mine near Decker, Mont. U.S. officials approved a 117 million-ton expansion of a Montana coal mine after concluding that burning the fuel would have a minor impact on the nation's overall greenhouse gas emissions.
(Matthew Brown / AP)
Q: If the U.S. won't follow an aggressive plan to reduce CO2 emissions, how can we persuade China and other major emitters to follow suit?
A: Even without an aggressive climate plan, the U.S. is reducing CO2 more than any other country.
This is a result of increasing efficiency, increased use of natural gas. and an anemic economy. The first environmental priority for developing giants like China and India should be to reduce real pollution that impacts human health. Ambient levels of CO2 have no adverse impacts on living human beings. If developing giants like China and India applied the wide array of emission control technologies we use in America, the increased efficiency of their power plants and industries would also inadvertently curb carbon emissions.
NEW SHOREHAM, RI - SEPTEMBER 22: The GE-Alstom Block Island Wind Farm stands 3 miles off of Block Island on September 22, 2016 New Shoreham, Rhode Island. The five 6-megawatt wind turbines are expected to produce more energy than Block Island needs. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images) ** OUTS - ELSENT, FPG, CM - OUTS * NM, PH, VA if sourced by CT, LA or MoD ** (Scott Eisen / Getty Images)
Billions of people in this world still lack access to affordable electricity. One of the greatest killers in poor countries are contaminated water and sewage disposal. Those are readily solvable problems, but it takes electricity to operate water and wastewater treatment plants. Yet foreign aid is increasingly conditioned on use of expensive, unreliable renewable energies. As Danish statistician, Bjorn Lomborg, commented in the Wall Street Journal: "Providing the world's most deprived countries with solar panels instead of better health care and education is inexcusable self –indulgence. Green energy sources may be good to keep on a single light or to charge a cell phone. But they are largely useless for tackling the main power challenges for the world's poor."
Q: You refer to the Paris agreement as the "first energy regression in mankind's history," and refer to "man-made energy scarcity." Please explain.
A: Current climate policies to rapidly supplant fossil fuels drive energy prices higher and reduce the supply of energy. Economic growth and increased energy consumption were tightly correlated over the last century — at a rate of 96 percent. Each variable shows an advance of approximately sixteenfold over the 20th century. Energy consumption rose from 22 — 355 exajoules and gross world product rose from $2 trillion to $32 trillion. Those European countries with the most ambitious green policies have begun to experience energy poverty. The average retail rate for electricity in Germany is three times the average U.S. rate. Major German media writes that electricity has become a luxury good unaffordable for middle- and low-income families. Perhaps more than 800,000 German homes no longer have electricity and have reverted to burning wood for home heating and cooking. The Euro Actif insurance agency reports that 54 million Europeans must choose between heating and eating. This is an energy regression to the pre-industrial world.
Q: You've said hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent to subsidize aggressive installation of renewable facilities, in Europe and the United States, yet the amount of renewable energy remains minuscule. But doesn't the price of fossil fuels fail to account for its environmental costs, and its geopolitical costs — i.e., the huge cost of defending reserves in the Middle East?
A: Operating under extensive environmental regulations to reduce genuine pollutants that can harm human health and valued ecologies, the fossil fuel industries already absorb extremely high costs and still provide affordable products. The recent rise of extracting hydrocarbons from shale has given us energy bounty that has also decreased its price — a benefit for all consumers. In 2013, the United States became the world's largest producer of oil and natural gas. Imports of foreign oil have rapidly fallen from a high approaching 70 percent a decade ago to around 30 percent. The energy bounty in now-accessible shale resources is so vast that it eliminates any need to import oil from the Middle East or elsewhere. We are not running out of domestic energy sources; we are running into energy. In late 2015, Congress eliminated the 175 ban on exporting for domestic oil. Tankers have begun to leave ports on the Gulf coast to sell oil to our allies such as England and the Netherlands. We have no need of defending reserves in Middle Eastern countries. Indeed, we now have the geopolitical opportunity to strengthen ties to our long-time allies and to emerging economies that share our values while weakening those nations hostile to us that use their energy wealth to intimidate and coerce.
Q: Do you see any downside to the world's reliance on fossil fuels?
A: There is nothing inviolable about fossil fuels. Who knows what alternative sources innovative human minds will develop that can benefit humanity as much or more than oil, natural gas and coal. Right now however, there are no alternatives capable of providing the benefits of fossil fuels.
Burning fossil fuels without elaborate technologies to reduce emissions of real pollutants is an expensive downside. Yet, industries have developed those tools to dramatically reduce those impacts.
When the major producers of fossil fuels are only authoritarian OPEC countries and Russia, geopolitical turmoil has historically followed. The recently achieved ascendancy of American energy could temper if not eliminate the tragic ravages of war across the Middle East.