Decarbonizing our future

December 16, 2013

Give me an “R” for Reason!

Sid Morrison is one of the most gifted and gracious leaders I have ever met, a Republican who puts a high value on science, collaboration, and solutions.  While I don’t share his enthusiasm for nuclear power, I admire and appreciate his relentless quest for the common ground where knowledge, compassion, and public policy meet.  He and I teamed up on the op-ed below, which ran in the Seattle Times today.

Decarbonizing our future

Sid Morrison and KC Golden

WE have met the enemy, and it is not us. It is not civilization. It is not energy production per se. It is carbon. It’s our excessive reliance on energy systems that dig ancient carbon — fossil fuels — out of the ground and release it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.No C

The science is clear: carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere at levels that disrupt the climate. This is not a theory. It’s simple physics, and its impacts are happening now.

The snowpack that anchors our power and water supplies is dwindling over time. Forest health is declining and wildfires are becoming more frequent and dangerous. Ocean acidification is eating away at the marine food chain. Around the world, extreme weather events are taking a growing toll on life and property.

A primary driver of these changes is the carbon that’s released when we burn fossil fuels. For the last 150 years of human development, economic progress has been linked to increasing fossil fuel consumption. Now, we must break that link, both for our own long-term prosperity, and for the billions of people around the world who need a pathway out of energy poverty.

The authors differ in our perspectives on energy technology and policy. One of us chairs the executive board of Washington’s only commercial nuclear power plant. The other is a longtime advocate for energy efficiency and new renewable energy sources. But on this we agree: We can and must rise to the challenge of decarbonizing our energy system. And we believe that the Pacific Northwest is the place to prove it can be done.

If the Northwest were applying for the position of “pioneer for a carbon-free future,” we’d bring an impressive resume to the interview. We have a vast, public infrastructure for producing and delivering carbon-free energy, anchored by the Bonneville Power Administration and the region’s locally controlled public power systems. Our private utilities are among the nation’s most innovative, with deep experience in energy efficiency and with a growing portfolio of carbon-free energy assets. We’re blessed with extraordinary natural and human resources and a culture of innovation, having played leadership roles in the aviation, software and Internet revolutions.

Perhaps better than any region on Earth, we are qualified to blaze the trail to a carbon-free future. But we can’t do it by resting on our laurels. We need to think forward and big: How can we scrub the carbon out of our power supplies, replacing aging coal plants with carbon-free resources? How can we squeeze more work out of existing supplies, making every unit of energy go further and deliver more economic value? How can we leverage our low-cost, low-carbon electricity to replace the high-cost, high-carbon petroleum that dominates our transportation system and drains money out of our local economies?

Here again, the authors would emphasize different practical answers to these questions. But we enthusiastically align together on the need for new policies that focus clearly on the carbon challenge. We don’t have to agree on whether solar or nuclear technology is better in order to support a firm public policy commitment to systematically reduce carbon pollution from energy production.

Such a policy commitment would align the laws of the land with the laws of physics — limiting carbon pollution to safe levels and letting energy markets respond to the true cost of carbon. It would allow nuclear, solar, wind and other carbon-free technologies to compete fairly with fossil fuels, without having to swim against the unfair economic tide of free and unlimited carbon dumping.

It would let the authors go back to slugging it out for their preferred energy strategies, with greater confidence that the winners would be those that deliver on the decarbonization imperative in the most economically and environmentally sound way.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Note:  Sid and I had planned to publish this earlier in the month.  Never one to pass up a rhetorical flourish, I suggested we add a World War II hook for Pearl Harbor Day, to convey the urgency of the climate threat.  Sid humored me, “….go ahead, even if you have throw in WWII.  We won that one!” 

Here’s the ending we would have used had it been published earlier in the month:

“This Pearl Harbor Day, we’d do well to remind ourselves:  the once-vague global threat of climate disruption is now on our shores.  And the first step toward winning this war for solutions is clearly identifying the enemy and committing ourselves to the cause:  decarbonizing our energy system.”


Senate EPW: “Climate change is Happening Now”. House E&C: “More fossil fuel exports!”

July 18, 2013

I’m testifying at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing today entitled:  “Climate change; It’s happening now.”  I’ll be calling for responsible limits on climate pollution, a fair price for dumping carbon in the atmosphere, and an end to federal support for new, long-term capital investments that lock in dangerous climate disruption (The Keystone Principle.)  My written statement is here.

Last month, I testified before a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee about coal exports.  Seated next to me was a witness representing the National Association of Manufacturers, who objected to the notion that federal environmental analysis of proposed coal export facilities might include consideration of the climate impacts of burning the coal.Corn, toys, and coal

He worried that such an evaluation would create a slippery slope, leading to climate impact tests for other products, including corn and toys.

A little bit of common sense should suffice here.  The export of corn and toys is not one of the leading preventable causes of catastrophic global climate disruption.  The introduction of large amounts of cheap, subsidized, American coal into the world’s fastest growing economies is.  So we might want to look at that.  As the President said in a landmark of understatement, referring to the climate impacts of Keystone XL,  “It’s relevant.”

But the concern raised by the NAM witness is, in at least one respect, legitimate.  Because we have no meaningful national climate policy, we are left to ask and answer these kinds of questions on ad hoc basis, leading to outcomes that are surely less efficient and effective than we could achieve with a thoughtful, comprehensive policy.  The issue of where and how to ensure accountability for the costs of climate pollution is indeed a very important consideration for climate policy design.  But in June of 2013 — 25 years after Jim Hansen first confirmed to Congress that climate change was a real threat requiring decisive and immediate action — we were not having a hearing on climate policy design in the House of Representatives.  We were having a hearing on how to expedite coal export.

At that same hearing, the Army Corp of Engineers announced that it would not consider climate impacts in its environmental review of proposed export terminals.  This stands in direct contradiction to the principle the President established when he said the Keystone XL pipeline is not in the national interest if it contributes significantly to increased climate pollution.

Ironically, on that same day, the commander of the Corps called for new, stronger standards for levee design and flood protection to cope with climate disruption.

Yup, we can count on the Corps to request larger budgets for responding to climate impacts (as, sadly, they should) but not, apparently, to analyze those impacts in the context of decisions which might prevent them.  We are being set up for tons of “cure” at public expense, because we lack the responsible federal climate policies that would provide an ounce of prevention.

Hey, at least today the Senate is having a hearing on the subject!