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Energy and Climate Realities by Mark Wohlschlegel


 

In my 40 year career involved in working in the energy business, I can’t recall a time when the facts about energy and climate are so tortured with contradictions, bad math, and just plain lies.  And now with the Supreme Court ruling that CO2, one of the lower constituents of “green house” gases should in fact be regulated by the US EPA!  That’s right; CO2 constitutes a very small percentage of all greenhouse gases which by the way, are absolutely essential to sustain human life on our planet!  How many times have you heard that statement made in the media?  Actually, the highest percentage of what constitutes greenhouse gases in our atmosphere is water vapor.  Why doesn’t the Supreme Court mandate that the EPA regulate water vapor?

My intentions in writing this article are to try to have an honest factual discussion about energy policy, global warming, and how devastating an impact that a cap and trade regulation would have on America.  My goal is to appeal to your common sense with easily verifiable facts—not hype and propaganda.

A little background and facts.  Our atmosphere consists of 75% nitrogen, 22% oxygen, 1% argon, and .0001% neon, helium, and krypton. These are constant gases.  Variable gases which are greenhouse gases consist of water vapor 4%, and CO2 at .038% plus four other gases that are consider trace in concentration, methane, sulfur dioxide, ozone, and nitrogen oxide.  So one can see greenhouse gases represent a very, very small amount of what composes our atmosphere, however, greenhouse gases perform an important and critical function that allows us to sustain life on our planet.  Greenhouse gases serve as a blanket over our earth that keeps our planet from cooling.  Our planet without the presence of greenhouse gases would on average be 33 degrees F cooler than at present.  Greenhouse gases are fundamental to all known forms of life and in fact studies show that the gases are very beneficial for crop production, i.e. sources of food for people on our planet.

Carbon dioxide is NOT a toxin, is not directly harmful to human health, and is not projected to become so even without legislative or regulatory action.  If we look at the percentages closer isolating just greenhouse gases, water vapor is the largest component—between 36-72% and when we consider clouds 66-85% and by the way, water vapor, clearly the most significant component of greenhouse gases is NOT affected by humans.  CO2 represents from between 9-26% of greenhouse gases—the variations are as a result of photosynthesis, ocean and crop absorption.  Methane is between 4-9% and nitrous oxides, ozone, chlorofluorocarbons constitute the balance.

There are few greater challenges facing mankind today than to figure out how we are going to meet the energy needs of a planet that is projected to have 9 billion people living here by the year 2050.  The magnitude of this challenge becomes even more daunting when you consider that of the 6.5 billion people on the planet today, more than 1.6 billion don’t even have electricity—that’s a fact—25% of the people living on this earth today do not have electricity—have never flipped on a light switch.

The media long ago along with the politicians declared that CO2 greenhouse gases produced by man are creating a “global emergency” and that we must take immediate action to reduce the man-made concentrations of CO2.  Scientists by the way are hugely divided on this debate.  Recently, an article appearing in the Wall Street Journal, January 27th edition, opinion section signed by 16 scientists, summarized the situation as follows:

The article states “a large and growing number of distinguished scientists and engineers do not agree that drastic actions on global warming are needed.”  This is based on the inconvenient fat that “there is a lack of global warming documentation for well over 10 years.”  This was actually substantiated by the “2009 Climategate” email of climate scientist Kevin Trenberth-stating the fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.”  Lastly, the WSJ article states, “The lack of warming for more than a decade—indeed, the smaller than predicted warming over the 22 years since the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change began issuing projections-suggests that computer models have greatly exaggerated how much warming additional man made CO2 can cause.”  “Faced with this embarrassment, those promoting alarm have shifted their drumbeat from warming to weather extremes, to enable anything unusual that happens in our chaotic climate to be ascribed to CO2.”

I would encourage you to read this article in the WSJ.

My further research of fact suggests that yes; we have been in a cycle of incremental warming, but not by an unusual and not so alarming amount.  Over the past 250 years since the end of the Little Ice Age, CO2 levels in the upper atmosphere have increased by about 280 parts per million to about 380 parts per million today—that’s .00038.  What this tells us is that CO2, the gas we all exhale, the gas in a Diet Coke, the gas that plants need to grow—is in fact a trace gas, comprising just four out of every 10,000 molecules in the atmosphere.  Allow me to put this into an example that we can all appreciate.  Imagine a football stadium with 40,000 people in it.  380 parts per million CO2 is analogous to just 16 people in a stadium of 40,000.  Bottom line—CO2 is a vital trace gas—there would be no earth without it.

Contrary to what you hear in the media and through politicians, no one knows how much warming will occur in the future if any at all.  That is fact.  No one knows or can predict if any warming will occur due to man, or due to nature.  When someone tries to convince you otherwise, recall Mark Twain’s advice: respect those who seek the truth, be wary of those who claim to have found it!

The scientist’s computer models, as complex as they are, simply do not accurately predict future warming.  If the only variable driving global average temperatures were CO2, man-made CO2, then the math would be simple.  Global average temperatures would increase 1 degree over the next 100 years.  But the earth’s climate is what engineers and scientists call a non-linear, dynamic system and thus impossible to model.  The most sophisticated models depend on man’s multiple inputs which are the “opinions and assumptions” of the modelers.  As an example, scientists assume that clouds and water vapor’s (the highest percentage of greenhouse gases) net effect is to cool the earth by reflecting radiant heat from the sun back into space.  But it’s an assumption, one that some well-qualified scientists doubt.  The point is if you don’t have consensus on how to model clouds, you don’t have consensus on the significance of human CO2 emissions.

There are other inconvenient facts that are seldom communicated to us by the media and politicians.  We all know that the sun is by far the biggest driver of the earth’s climate.  Over the past 50 years, global-temperatures have shown a higher correlation with solar radiation from the sun than from atmospheric CO2 levels.  In fact, data over millions of years shows no cause-effect relationship between CO2 levels in the atmosphere and global-average temperatures.  The warmest year in the US in the last century was 1934—75 years ago, when human CO2 emissions were far less than they are today.  Global-average temperatures have been essentially flat for the past 11 years, despite continued increases in manmade CO2.  None of the models predict this reality.  Atmospheric CO2 levels have been much higher in the past and somehow the planet has survived.  This simply proves one thing—the climate is always changing!

So with the above facts, can anyone explain to me how Congress can for example pass the Waxman-Market bill containing 1,428 pages with a House vote of 219-212 to pass it followed by similar legislation in the Senate sponsored by Sens. Barbara Boxer and John Kerry?

The fact is W-M is arguably one of the most asinine pieces of legislation passed by our Congress in the century.  It is government at its worst.  The W-M bill has promulgated over 1,500 new regulations and mandates involving 21 federal agencies.  It has essentially engaged our federal government to micromanage energy choices.

Briefly, to translate W-M into common language, the requirement which is now law is to reduce emissions by 83% from a 2005 baseline by 2050!  Americans emitted about 5.8 billion tons of CO2 in 2005.  Divide 5.8 billion by the US population of roughly 300 million and you get America’s carbon footprint—about 20 tons of CO2 per person in 2005.  Under W-M, by 2050, we’d have to cut US CO2 emissions by 83% to just 1 billion tons per year.  The Census Bureau projects that by 2050, the US population will reach 430 million people.  Divide one billion by 420 million people and you get 2.4 tons per person per year.

When was the last time America’s carbon footprint was as low as 2.4 tons per person per year?  The answer is in the 1800’s when Thomas Edison taught us how to use electricity, before cars, trucks, and planes.  2.4 tons is roughly the per-capita carbon footprint of Bangladesh, Cuba, and North Korea.  Tell me folks—does this make sense to you?  How is this great country going to wean ourselves of fossil fuels in just four decades?  It is simply impossible to get there from here.

The reality is that government through their deliberate actions and complete disregard for “facts” is completely incapable of reconciling our prosperity and our way of life with our environmental ideals which are based on fiction—not facts.  Who of us is willing to make this sacrifice?  We all aspire to our way of life, and to an improvement of our way of life.  We like our computers, our flat screen TV’s, our air conditioning, our plastic things and clothes—all of these depend on abundant, affordable, and growing supplies of energy.  And guess what, as stated above, we share this planet with 6.2 billion other people who all want the same things!

The U.S’s energy demand has been growing by about 1% per year, driven by prosperity and population growth.  But while our way of life is directly affected by increasing amounts of energy, we are “crazy” when it comes to the things that energy companies must do to deliver the energy the makes modern life possible.  We want energy security—we don’t like being dependent on foreign oil. But we don’t like drilling in the US million of acres of onshore lands plus the entire east and west coasts of the US.  We hate paying $4.00/gallon for gasoline—but not as much as we hate the refineries that turn crude oil into gasoline.  We have not built a refinery in this country for over 30 years.  We expect the lights to come on when we turn them on, but we don’t like coal which produces 50% of our electricity today very efficiently with our own abundant in the ground resources.  We don’t like and will not expand nuclear energy (100 plants) which produces 20% of our energy and is clean.  Hydro power is also clean and inexpensive and renewable but it has been black listed—dams hurt fish.

We don’t want pollution of any kind, in any amount, but we also refuse to ask and answer the question, “How much are we willing to pay for environmental perfection?”

Reduction of CO2 and the commensurate value of doing so based on the above discussion is a real questionable objective.  But let’s say just for argument sake, that there is a solid correlation between the production of man-made CO2 and climate change.  There are some significant facts that we must consider in proposing a “solution” to reduce future levels.

1) Worldwide demand for energy will grow by 30-50% over the next few decades.  Simply put, America and the world will need all the energy that the markets can deliver.
2) There are no near-term alternatives to oil, natural gas, and coal.  Folks may not like to hear this but this is fact.  Not only is there no alternatives now, but their frankly are no alternatives for decades to follow.  Projections by IEA on World Energy Outlook forecasts that fossil fuels will supply about 80% of the world’s energy demand in 2030—which is roughly the same as today.  Someday at least part of this need can be supplied by renewable but that is still a long way off.  This is not about who is in the White House, or who is in Congress, or who is in power positions in other OECD countries.  It’s about thermodynamics and economics.

Renewables such as wind and solar are NOT alternatives to fossil fuels, at best they are and will always be only supplements.  Taken together, in spite of huge government subsidies over the past decade in the US, wind and solar are still less than 1% of the generation in the US.  The reason for arguing supplements is very simple.  Electricity in bulk cannot be stored—it must be produced when consumers use it.  With wind and solar, that translates into the fact that when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining, these technologies cannot produce electricity—and therefore they must have fossil fuel or nuclear backups.  There is a metric in the power industry called capacity factor.  Capacity factor simply stated is the ratio of the availability of a generator to produce electricity when it is needed.  For wind and solar, at best this ratio is 30%.  Translated, this means that 70% of the time, when you need electricity to be produced by a solar plant or a wind plant, it will not be available!  So our politicians who continue to subsidize and make statements like we will eventually get to a solar and wind generation based asset in our country are either stupid, or grossly gullible, or they are lying to us.

Why are the subsidies for wind and solar power materially failed?  The answer to that question has nothing to do with politicians or environmentalists, but is has everything to do with the laws of thermodynamics.  Turning diffused sources of energy such as photons in sunlight or the kinetic energy in wind requires massive investment to concentrate that energy into a form that’s usable on any meaningful scale.  The technologies will never compete with conventional sources of power generation—just can’t happen based on facts.

It is impossible to safely or reliably operate the power grid with more than just a few percentage of electricity coming from intermittent sources like wind and solar.  Until there is a major breakthrough in high-density electricity bulk storage (and it has been worked on for more than 100 years)—wind and solar cannot be relied upon for base-load power.

Besides thermodynamics, there is a second and large factor which makes these technologies impractical—economics.  The US has invested trillions of dollars in electricity infrastructure over the past 150 years.  Changing these systems based on a renewable energy will require massive new investment for many, many decades.

In summary, please understand that solar and wind will never be alternatives for fossil and nuclear plants—at best supplements and most likely for a long time—very small supplements.

3) Cap and trade has not been recently discussed but rest assured, it is on the hearts and minds of the EPA and environmental groups.  It is a disaster as has been clearly demonstrated in Europe.  It will drive the cost of electricity painfully higher which by the way is the whole objective of a cap and trade strategy—to drive up the cost of fossil energy so that otherwise uneconomical alternatives can compete because they cannot compete on a level playing field.  The price tag for cap and trade to US consumers and industry will be in the trillions of dollars.  This is not a strategy to re-tool our manufacturing and create jobs!  Furthermore, higher electricity costs will hurt low-income Americans very hard.

What we as citizens must demand of our administration and Congressman is how much future warming will be avoided for all of this sacrifice?  The answer to this question is probably none.

This brings me to the next topic.  Global warming is not a US problem presuming it is happening, it is a world problem.  A pound of CO2 emissions in Houston is the same as a pound of emissions in Beijing.  What this says, is that even if the US severely reduces its CO2, unless you have 100% participation throughout the world, it simply will do no good.  China today for example, is commercializing one large coal fired power plant each week!  In the US, we essentially have stopped all new coal power plant additions as they are virtually impossible to get permitted.  India is right behind China in building out new coal fired power plants.  Our own government’s forecasts show that by 2050, 70% of global manmade CO2 emissions will be coming from China, India, and non-OECD countries (developing countries).  Our Congressman cannot (or maybe they are) so naive to believe if we jump off the cliff, that the rest of the world will do the same.  China and India will not—it has been publicly stated by their politicians.  There is no way these countries will sacrifice economic growth in a futile attempt to sever the link between prosperity and fossil fuels.

So what are we to do?  Perhaps we should consider given the sketchy scientific facts, an alternative strategy.  Let’s call it adaptation.  Even if we believe there is some very small incremental warming of the planet (and many of your older folks remember in the late sixties and early seventies that pundits were arguing that the planet was cooling and that we were going into an ice age), maybe we should adapt to this small warming.  Many scientists believe that added CO2 in the atmosphere may be good for the planet because CO2 helps plants grow.  How many times have you heard this opinion in the media or from a politician?  There also is a theory touted by some scientists that we are about to go into a global cooling cycle!

There are some that say we are not sure of the facts but we should take heed and employ a precautionary principle.  There are at least three major problems with employing this strategy.

1) No one in our daily lives live according to the precautionary principle.  Example-around the world there are about 1.2 million people who die each year in automobile accidents—about 3,200 deaths a day.  If we impose a 5 mph speed reduction, we could reduce a substantial percentage of these fatalities.  How many of us are willing to do that?  Answer—none.  We all accept trade-offs in life and many of us do a cost-benefit analysis and conclude that we will not do without our cars, or we will not drive slower to save a percentage of these fatalities.
2) The politicians and media dwell on the potential harm from global warming but never balance this against the fact that the costs to reduce CO2 will also do substantial harm.  We have hunger, poverty, malaria, dirty water, and many other social problems that kill millions each year.  The world has finite wealth.  By taking huge amounts of this wealth and investing it in the reduction of CO2 that otherwise could be spent addressing these other problems to save lives should be evaluated and considered.  When was the last time you heard a media person ask the EPA or the administration, what if we took the billions of dollars that we are spending in subsidizing renewable technologies and move that instead into bolster our inner cities, or creating jobs—now wouldn’t that be a worthy question to ask?
3) The consequences of regulation that force shifts to inefficient and otherwise uneconomic forms of energy will be slower economic growth.  Slower growth, compounded over decades means we leave future generations with less wealth to deal with the effects of global warming whatever they may be.  The impact will hit poor and the disadvantages proportionally more.  When again have you heard the media or a politician discuss this issue?

In conclusion, let’s look at history.  We have learned over the past 30 or more years that energy choices favored by politicians but not confirmed by markets are destined to fail.  We must insist that politicians do not substitute their judgments for the markets, and let the markets determine how much energy get used, what types of energy get used, where, how, and by whom energy gets used.  The fact is no energy source is perfect, thus only markets can weigh the pros and cons of each source.  Government’s role is to set reasonable standards for environmental performance, and allow the markets to work.  This is not happening in our current political environment today.  We must all look at this situation and elect officials that will truly reverse our craziness.

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