“The Petro States of America” in Businessweek

February 27, 2014

Are we still living in a democracy?  Or an oilgarchy, a petrocracy?  The Keystone XL decision will be a pretty good indication.

Mark Hertsgaard makes the case powerfully today in BusinessWeek, describing why it’s tough for the President to do the right thing on the pipeline:

…[T]here’s a deeper explanation for Obama’s caution on Keystone that rarely gets acknowledged. He is the president of a petro state, a country that ranks as an OPEC nation in all but name. And in a petro state, saying no to Big Oil is never easy.

The whole piece is well worth a read, here.Saving democracy

Over the long haul, delivering climate solutions will turn out to be one of the most effective things we can do to restore democracy.  We can build a powerful, virtuous circle:   implementing solutions, reducing fossil fuel dependence, eroding the concentrated economic and political power of fossil fuel interests, and opening the door for more and better solutions.

But first we have to make it through the short haul.  We have to prevent near-term investments like KXL that would lock in fossil fuel dependence and dangerous emission levels — betraying the promise of a clean energy economy that’s rapidly dispelling fossil-funded doubts about its viability.

And to do that, we can’t wait for a patient virtuous circle of solutions and democracy.  We have to assert some democracy.  Like this.

Candidate Obama said it’s time to “end the tyranny of oil.”  The pivotal question now is whether President Obama will use his sole discretion to stand up to that tyranny, or submit to it.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Further thoughts on oil and democracy here:  All Oil is Foreign,

…and on fossil fuels and American values here:  What’s American Energy?  Consult the Constitution, not the atlas

And Climate Solutions offers a new marketing tagline for the Nissan Leaf:  Pull up at the gas station.  Pump up your tires.  Clean your windshield.  And Leaf!


Seeing red: temperature change over time and by region

February 25, 2014

Yap yap yap, it’s what a blog is for I guess.  But a good climate science picture is worth at least 997 more yaps. And an animated longitudinal data set, well, there just aren’t enough yaps to compare.

This one from NASA packs a wallop.   It’s data, but it’s alive.  53 seconds of eerie, scorching silence.


Renewables: 99% of new generating capacity in January

February 24, 2014

Here comes 6Kenneth Bossong at the SUN DAY campaign reports:

According to the latest “Energy Infrastructure Update” report from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Office of Energy Projects, non-hydro renewable energy sources (i.e., biomass, geothermal, solar, wind) accounted for more than 99% of all new domestic electrical generating capacity installed during January 2014 for a total of 324 MW.

No, it’s not a huge number in absolute terms.  No, it won’t hold up in percentage terms.  But yes, it is a glimpse into the future if we’re going to leave a recognizable one.

Every day brings more reasons for confidence that we can make it better, more confirmation that continuing to make it worse is as unnecessary as it is wrong.

With due exception for some geothermal, the future is not, as Van Jones says, down those holes.  It’s up!

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Source:  The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released its most recent 4-page “Energy Infrastructure Update,” with data through January 31, 2014, on February 20, 2014. See the tables titled “New Generation In-Service (New Build and Expansion)” and “Total Installed Operating Generating Capacity” at http://www.ferc.gov/legal/staff-reports/2014/jan-infrastructure.pdf


Get old. Get free. Get over oil.

February 18, 2014

I’m going to burn my driver’s license when I turn 75.  Maybe sooner.  I’d like to do it at the offices of Koch Enterprises, if I can get a ride home.

You may think this is a choice to sacrifice some freedom.  But it’s the opposite:  a declaration of independence from the tyranny of oil.Old guy on a bike

So I have twenty years – plenty of time – to build the family and community ties and the physical infrastructure for a car-free life.  Having made this pledge, I’m much more committed to mixed-use development, transit investment, and babysitting my prospective grandkids so someone will feel obliged to give me rides when I need them.   I’ll be safer, and so will everyone else, when I’m not travelling a mile a minute in 2-ton projectile when I can barely see.   If there’s a minimum age for a driver’s license, why not a maximum?

Contrary to everything we fear about what happens when older folks give up driving, I’ll be freer.  I won’t be physically strapped to a small power plant in rapid motion among many.  I won’t have to pay an arm and a leg to buy, insure, and maintain the beast.  I won’t have to sit in traffic, spewing carbon and going nowhere, while the bikers whiz past me.  I won’t have to pay through the nose to park it… that’s right, just to temporarily get out of the damned thing.

And best of all, I will not have to pull up to the gas pump and open my wallet so the Koch Brothers and Rex Tillerson and the US Chamber of Commerce can vacuum it clean.  I won’t have to take my little share of my community’s wealth and shoot it to the tippy-top of the economic pyramid.  I won’t have my money used to pay for false science and political campaigns to elect climate deniers and marketing strategies that equate fossil fuel extraction with happiness and health.

I grew up in LA in the sixties and seventies.  Cars were freedom.  Cars were status.  Cars were sex.  So I get why we like (I need) cars:  Madison Ave. spent jillions cementing a linear relationship between our self-esteem and the horsepower under our hoods.  And the oilgarchs worked hard to make sure we radically underinvested in transit and built our communities around cars, so that even if we could shake our egos free, we couldn’t get anywhere without strengthening their hold on wealth and power.  Even now, cops are carpeting downtown LA with jaywalking tickets, lest the humans, who are resettling downtown Autotopia like an invasive species, impinge on car habitat.

But the gig’s up now, or it certainly will be by the time I’m 75.  Transit and ridesharing and bike infrastructure and healthy mixed-use local communities are delivering better mobility service at lower cost.  Alan Durning, who wrote “The Year of Living Carlessly” just seven years ago, told me recently “I couldn’t write that now.  People would say, ‘So what?’”

Even where cars are still necessary, they’re more and more a necessary evil, not a gift.  And if you need one after seventy-five, when your vision sucks and your reflexes are slow and you need a bathroom all the time, well, that just can’t be freedom.

Maybe one can only say this from a bubble like Seattle.   But I think this transition is gaining momentum almost everywhere.  We’ve seen enough glimpses of better ideas to confirm what should be obvious:  lashing ourselves to a big steel crate impelled by oil, the payments for which are used to trample democracy and brutalize our grandkids, can’t be the best – the smartest, the healthiest, the most elegant – way to get our decreasingly skinny asses from point A to point B.  And besides, point A would rock much harder if we got out of the damned car more.  As Amory Lovins once quipped, “Personal mobility is a symptom….of being in the wrong place.”

OK, it is possible that I’m trying to turn the tables on the relationship between cars and freedom because I’m so desperately afraid of what we’re doing to the climate.  It’s conceivable that I’m making this all up because I’d like my grandkids to, you know, survive.  I’m ok with that.

At least I’ve convinced myself.  When I have to get in a car in Seattle, I feel like a sucker.  It’s like I’m in a video game and I can hear this nasty honky-buzzy noise that means “You lost, loser!”  Whereas my bike ride to and from work is a consistently delightful part of my day.  “Ding, ding, ding!”

When I give up that driver’s license, I’ll just be burning a one-way ticket to Hell.  I only wish – given how much we keep throwing down a rathole to pave the road there – it were refundable.

Thanks to dear friend-of-all-good-things Martha Wycoff for the idea of a maximum age for a driver’s license.

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Confession:  I’m already hedging.  I just leased a Leaf!  I can’t wait to pull into a gas station, clean my windshield, inflate my tires, and leave.


Keystone XL Environmental Impact Statement bottom line: Go with Gandhi

February 6, 2014

The Final Environmental Impact Statement on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline illustrates Gandhi’s famous dictum:

“We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”Gandhi Obama

This has always struck me as philosophically deep but – with due reverence for the Mahatma – a little hokey as a theory of change.  I guess I’m just not evolved enough to know what it means to “be” the demise of the Koch Brothers’ stranglehold on democracy.

But now, in the FEIS on Keystone XL, we have mathematical and economic proof that Gandhi was right.

Here’s how it works:

The argument that Keystone XL will have no meaningful impact on emissions rests on the presumption that the tar sands will be mined and burned, regardless of whether the pipeline is built.  But as our foremost climatologists have repeatedly warned, the tar sands are one of the major carbon pools that must remain substantially unburned if we are to avoid catastrophic climate disruption.  So conceding that they will be burned isn’t just an analytical assumption.  It’s capitulation.

It’s the oil industry saying “Resistance is futile,” and the State Department saying “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Sorry for the hassle.”  (Oh, and in addition to being weak, cowardly, and irresponsible, it’s demonstrably false.)

But if you untwist the fatalistic premise of the FEIS, it actually does wind its way around to a useful conclusion:  It acknowledges that the pipeline would dramatically increase tar sands extraction and therefore emissions if oil prices were relatively low.

“Oil sands production is expected to be most sensitive to increased transport costs in a range of prices around $65 to 75 per barrel. Assuming prices fell in this range, higher transportation costs could have a substantial impact on oil sands production levels—possibly in excess of the capacity of the proposed Project—because many in situ projects are estimated to break even around these levels. Prices below this range would challenge the supply costs of many projects, regardless of pipeline constraints, but higher transport costs could further curtail production.”

So, in a low-oil price scenario, Keystone XL would fail the President’s climate test[i]. And why would oil prices be low?  Because (says my Econ 101 prof) demand would be low; we’d be using less and emissions would go down.  Oil producers wouldn’t be able to charge so much, because we’d need less of their stuff.  A low oil-price world is a low carbon world[ii]And a low carbon world is the only one fit for human survival – the only future we can choose if, in Jim Hansen’s immortal phrase, “humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted.”

Think about it this way:  On planet Earth, Keystone XL would have a huge climate impact.  If we allow ourselves to continue to be bullied into a high-oil-price, high-carbon world, then the impact would be less, because we’d be completely screwed either way.  But that world would be so radically and violently transformed that we’d have to give it a different name.  Say, planet Toast.

Before we complete our journey back to the common sense conclusion that we have to stop digging this hole deeper, one more slug of economic analysis:

In a report prepared for the Norwegian Ministry of the Environment, Rystad Energy analyzed how much oil and other fossil fuels would have to remain unburned in order for the world to avoid dangerous, irreversible climate disruption.  As the scientific and legal basis for determining that amount, they used the 2 degree C. increase accepted by scientists and the international community as the outside limit.  (The U.S. has signed on to that limit in a UN treaty and multiple subsequent international agreements, so it’s an important benchmark for the “national interest determination” on Keystone XL.)  They then calculated the oil price corresponding to the maximum oil demand that is consistent with those limits:  $72 per barrel – low enough, according to the FEIS, that Keystone XL would flunk the President’s climate test.

The epic FEIS contains plenty of other evidence confirming the obvious conclusion:  a giant pipeline for particularly carbon-intensive fuel could well be a climate problem.  (Go figure.)

But the fact that may be of greatest relevance to the President’s ultimate decision is this:  In a low oil price world – a low carbon world, a livable world, planet Earth – the economic analysis clearly shows that Keystone XL is a climate disaster.   So our choices are these:  either we build this low carbon future, or we concede to the climate crisis that the oil industry is determined to inflict upon us by mining the tar sands.   And if we choose the latter, well then, sure, Keystone XL won’t kill us because we’ll be dead anyway.

President Obama said in his State of the Union address:

“And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.”

If we do this – if we put ourselves in position to say “yes, we did” at that critical moment – then we’ll use less fossil fuel.   We’ll dramatically increase efficiency, develop clean energy, and expand transportation choices.   We’ll stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure that makes the problem impossible to solve.  Oil demand will drop.  The price producers can charge for oil will be relatively low, because we won’t need so much.  When they don’t have us over a barrel, a barrel will cost less.  And Keystone XL, according to the FEIS, will fail the President’s climate test.

So, 11 volumes and over 1000 pages of analytic navel-gazing later, we land back at the inescapable exercise of free will.   It’s not really about which analytical assumptions we choose.  It’s about which world we choose.  And in this instance, that choice will be made squarely and in the brightest possible light by the single human being on Earth who has the greatest power to effectuate solutions, or forsake them.

From Gandhi’s lips to Obama’s ear:  Be the change.

Thanks to Michael Lazarus and Pete Erickson at the Stockholm Environment Institute for their terrific analytical work on Keystone XL and their generous informal contributions to my understanding of the economics of net emission assessment.


[i] In a super-low oil price world, the pipeline would sit empty and rust away.  We should live so long.

[ii] Paradox alert:  When we say “low oil price” here, we mean the price that producers can charge for a barrel.  A low-carbon world may well be a higher gasoline price world for consumers, because we’d have public policies that make prices tell the truth about the total cost of oil.  Not to worry though, we’d be paying less for energy overall.  The point of internalizing carbon costs into fossil fuel prices isn’t to pay them.  It’s to free ourselves from them!