Posts tagged with: fossil fuels

promised_land_posterEnvironmental issues have increasingly become polarized. No sooner has a new technology been announced than some outspoken individual climbs athwart it to cry, “Stop!” in the name of Mother Earth.

To some extent, this is desirable – wise stewardship of our shared environment and the resources it provides not only benefits the planet but its inhabitants large and small. When prejudices overwhelm wisdom, however, well-intentioned but wrongheaded projects such as Promised Land result.

The latest cinematic effort by screenwriters-actors Matt Damon and John Krasinski (from a story by David Eggers) and director Gus Van Sant, Promised Land earnestly attempts to pull back the veil of corporate duplicity to expose the evil underbelly of hydraulic fracturing, which is more commonly known as “fracking.”

The fracking technique has been employed successfully by oil and natural gas industries since the late 1940s. Briefly, fracking involves high-pressure injection of chemically lubricated water to break up rock formations in order to drive trapped fossil fuel deposits toward wellbores.

Combined with horizontal drilling and new advances in information technology, the fracking process has reinvigorated our nation’s natural gas industry and opened up new energy resources previously considered out of reach or economically unfeasible. It has also reinvigorated debate over whether the practice is environmentally sound.

Of primary concern to opponents is its impact on groundwater, an issue Promised Land does nothing to dispel despite fracking’s impressive track record over the past 60 years and numerous government reports confirming its overall benign environmental impacts. (more…)

Andrew Morriss

Join us for the next Acton Lecture Series on Thursday, April 26, when Andrew Morriss, the D. Paul Jones, Jr. & Charlene Angelich Jones Chairholder of Law at the University of Alabama, will speak on “The False Promise of Green Energy.” Register online here.

Here’s the lecture description: “Green energy advocates claim that transforming America to an economy based on wind, solar, and biofuels will produce jobs for Americans, benefits for the environment, and restore American industry. Prof. Andrew Morriss, co-author of The False Promise of Green Energy (Cato, 2011), shows that these claims are based on unrealistic assumptions, poorly thought out models, and bad data. Rather than leading us to an eco-utopia, he argues that current green energy programs are crony capitalism that impoverishes American consumers and destroys American jobs.”

Morriss was recently on Zeeland, Mich.-based WJQK’s Common Sense Radio show where he talked energy issues with host Steve Redmond. Click on the audio player below to listen to a recording of the show:

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In his Cato book, Morriss and co-authors warn that “the concrete results of following [green energy] policies will be a decline in living standards around the globe, including for the world’s poorest; changes in lifestyle that Americans do not want; and a weakening of the technological progress that market forces have delivered, preventing us from finding real solutions to the real problems we face.” Many of those lifestyle changes will come from suddenly spending far more on energy than we’d like. Green technologies mean diverting production from cheap sources, such as coal and oil, to more expensive, highly subsidized ones, like wind and solar. These price spikes won’t be limited to our electricity bills either, the authors argue. “Anything that increases the price of energy will also increase the price of goods that use energy indirectly.”

The better solution to improving America’s energy economy, the book shows, is to let the market work by putting power in the hands of consumers. But “many environmental pressure groups don’t want to leave conservation to individuals, preferring government mandates to change energy use.” In other words, green-job proponents know they’re pushing a bad product. Rather than allow the market to expose the bad economics of green energy, they’d use the power of government to force expensive and unnecessary transformation.

Morris is also an editor of the forthcoming Silent Spring at 50: The False Crises of Rachel Carson (Cato, September 2012) with Roger Meiners and Pierre Desroches. The blurb for the Carson book notes that she got a lot wrong:

Widely credited with launching the modern environmental movement when published 50 years ago, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had a profound impact on our society. As an iconic work, the book has often been shielded from critical inquiry, but this landmark anniversary provides an excellent opportunity to reassess its legacy and influence. In Silent Spring at 50: The False Crises of Rachel Carson a team of national experts explores the book’s historical context, the science it was built on, and the policy consequences of its core ideas. The conclusion makes it abundantly clear that the legacy of Silent Spring is highly problematic. While the book provided some clear benefits, a number of Carson’s major arguments rested on what can only be described as deliberate ignorance. Despite her reputation as a careful writer widely praised for building her arguments on science and facts, Carson’s best-seller contained significant errors and sins of omission. Much of what was presented as certainty then was slanted, and today we know much of it is simply wrong.

Morriss is the author or coauthor of more than 60 book chapters, scholarly articles, and books. He is affiliated with a number of think tanks doing public policy work, including the Property & Environment Research Center, the Regulatory Studies Center at George Washington University, the Institute for Energy Research, and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Morriss earned an A.B. from Princeton University and a J.D., as well as an M.A. in Public Affairs, from the University of Texas at Austin. He received a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After law school, Morriss clerked for U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders in the Northern District of Texas.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, February 12, 2010

When it comes to energy policy, there is no perfect fuel. But in these debates, as elsewhere, the imaginary perfect fuel cannot become the enemy of the good.

And for the first time in recent memory, this means that nuclear energy, by all accounts a good alternative for the scale of demand we face, might be getting a seat at the table. Coal, which still provides more than half of the energy for the American grid, is cheap and plentiful, but environmentally and politically costly. And according to Popular Mechanics, it can only be “cleaned” up so much. That leaves a huge gap for other sources to fill.

As James B. Meigs writes,

Coal will never be clean. It is possible to make coal emissions cleaner. In fact, we’ve come a long way since the ’70s in finding ways to reduce sulfur–dioxide and nitrogen-oxide emissions, and more progress can be made. But the nut of the clean-coal sales pitch is that we can also bottle up the CO2 produced when coal is burned, most likely by burying it deep in the earth. That may be possible in theory, but it’s devilishly difficult in practice.

The rest of the piece goes on to argue how we’re really talking about “cleaner” coal, rather than “clean” coal. Remember that debate over whether it was appropriate to call sex with various forms of birth control “safe” or “safer”? We might well see a similar shift in language about coal from “clean” to “cleaner.”

But what about so-called “alternative” energy sources, like geothermal, wind, and solar? Well, as John Whitehead over at the Environmental Economics blog concludes, “…potential supplies of wind and solar don’t appear to be large enough to completely replace oil and coal in the foreseeable future. If that is the purpose, then no, alternative energy can not effectively replace fossil fuels.”

So for the foreseeable future what we’re looking at in terms of the sources of our energy, in the face of growing global demand, is a mélange; coal, oil, natural gas, and yes, wind and solar, all have their place. But so does nuclear, and that’s one of the positive takeaways from President Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he commended “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.”

The challenging for existing energy firms will be to adjust to providing the right sources in this mixture. One way to do this is to be cognizant of the alternatives and their relative costs and benefits. ExxonMobil’s “Energy Outlook” released at the end of last year predicted that the growth of some of the newer sources, like wind and solar, would grow faster than some of the conventional sources, like oil and coal.

This means that a focus on innovation and efficiency will move some surprising players to fill the demand for cleaner energy, and the vision of increasingly transient reliance on fossil fuels might indeed come to pass.

As I wrote in 2006, “The human stewardship of oil and other petroleum-based fuels entails a responsibility to use the economic opportunities they afford to find and integrate other renewable, sustainable, and cleaner sources of energy, especially represented by the promise of nuclear power, into our long-term supply.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Saleem H. Ali, a ‘pro-consumption environmentalist’ at the University of Vermont “argues that sometimes a nation has to extract a nonrenewable resource like oil, or tricky-to-recycle metals and gems, in order to leapfrog from dire poverty to a more diversified economy.”

“Money from oil wealth can be used to invest in other sectors. And that in turn can yield sustainable development,” Ali says.

Awhile back I sketched very briefly a view of the theological purpose of fossil fuels. On this view, “fossil fuels would thus have the created purpose of providing relatively cheap and pervasive sources of energy. These limited and finite resources help raise the standard of living and economic situation of societies to the point where technological research is capable of finding even cheaper, more efficient, renewable, and cleaner sources of energy.”

This meshes nicely with the Cornwall Declaration’s statement that “A clean environment is a costly good; consequently, growing affluence, technological innovation, and the application of human and material capital are integral to environmental improvement. The tendency among some to oppose economic progress in the name of environmental stewardship is often sadly self-defeating.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Wired.com blog Autopia passes along this NYT story outlining some of the fundamental challenges facing plug-in hybrid electric cars. The basic formula for the appeal of such hybrids is as follows: “The electric system runs mostly on coal, natural gas and uranium, all relatively plentiful. Cars run mostly on oil, oil and oil, which lately has been expensive. Wouldn’t it be nice to connect the two?” And as attractive an option as this might be, the NYT story writes that “despite the hopes of policy makers, engineers say there is no prospect of this happening in the near future.”

Coal Burning With Scrubbers

John Gartner is not so pessimistic about the short-term prospects for plug-in hybrids, and concludes, “The competition between the oil companies and electric companies will result in cleaner and more cost-efficient choices for consumers, and that we can all be happy about.”

But here’s the kicker for advocates of plug-in hybrids: The main source of electricity for the United States is fossil fuels, according to the DoE providing “nearly two-thirds of our electricity,” and more than half of that comes from coal. So it isn’t the case that moving from gasoline-powered engines to plug-in hybrids will move us away from the use of fossil fuels. It will, for the most part, simply shift the consumption from oil to coal.

That has some attractive national security implications, since “one quarter of the world’s coal reserves are found within the United States,” as opposed to our need to massively import foreign oil. It is on this basis that Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. argues, “It makes eminent sense to make as rapid a transition to those plug-in hybrids as we can.” This of course assumes that the withdrawal of international trade actually improves rather than worsens the prospects for international peace. Let’s leave that questionable assumption aside for now, which contradicts Bastiat’s observation, “When goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will.”

With respect to the “green-ness” of plug-in hybrids, their environmentally-friendly image belies the fact that such hybrids will to a large extent be running on the energy provided by coal. Until our nation’s electricity comes from renewable and alternative sources of energy, such as nuclear power, the environmental attractiveness of hybrids will remain illusory.

In a previous commentary examining some related aspects of these issues, I ask rhetorically, “Just how many coal-powered SUVs have you seen lately?” Well, if there were plug-in hybrid SUVs, they would to a great extent be coal-powered…and not so green as you might first think.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, August 25, 2006

As I’ve written before, you don’t need to be a climate change convert to believe that nuclear power represents a very attractive alternative to nonrenewable fossil fuels.

In this lengthy piece in Cosmos magazine, Tim Dean examines the possibility of nuclear reactors based on thorium rather than uranium. Regardless of your position on climate change, and Dean certainly makes it a key point in his article, the essential reality is that “fossil fuels won’t last forever. Current predictions are that we may reach the point of peak production for oil and natural gas within the next decade – after which production levels will continually decline worldwide.”

Even if these predictions are much too cynical with respect to the fossil fuels left, the bottom line is that these are finite, nonrenewable resources. Dean talks about the conditions needed for an alternative energy source besides coal, which is the source of vast amounts of the world’s power: “It should offer abundant power. It also needs to be clean, safe and renewable as well as consistent. And ultimately, it needs to be economical.”

Again, as I’ve said before, “If the purpose of petroleum fuels is to pave the way for their own obsolescence, it’s becoming clearer day by day that this means the embrace of nuclear power.” You don’t have to agree with all of Dean’s analysis, I don’t think, to be intrigued by the possibility of thorium reactors.

Among the advantages of thorium as opposed to uranium: “Thorium is not fissile, so no matter how much thorium you pack together, it will not start splitting atoms and blow up. This is because it cannot undergo nuclear fission by itself and it cannot sustain a nuclear chain reaction once one starts. It’s a wannabe atom splitter incapable of taking the grand title.”

There are some complications, mostly drawing from the fact that thorium cannot self-sustain. As Dean writes, “The main stumbling block until now has been how to provide thorium fuel with enough neutrons to keep the reaction going, and do so in an efficient and economical way.” Dean goes on to describe two recent innovations that have the potential of addressing this stumbling block.

“Can atomic power be green?” asks Dean. Another way of asking the question is whether folks like Greenpeace will embrace nuclear power if the primary fuel is thorium rather than uranium.

Update: Deroy Murdock passes along wonderment regarding the question “why environmentalists reject alternatives to fossil fuels if they agree with Sir David King, British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s science adviser, that global warming is ‘the greatest threat facing mankind’ and is ‘worse than terrorism.’”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Today’s NYT editorializes: “a country that consumes one-quarter of the world’s oil supply while holding only 3 percent of the reserves will never be able to drill its way to lower oil prices, much less oil independence.”

You’ll often hear the complaint that Americans use more than their fair share of the world’s oil. We’re addicted to it, some say. After all, so goes the reasoning, we have less than one-half of one percent of the world’s population, but we “consume one-quarter of the world’s oil supply.” Seems wildly out of proportion, doesn’t it?

That is, until you take into account that the United States economy represents somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of gross world product (depending on how you calculate it). So the US also produces wealth that is wildly out of proportion to our share of the world’s population.

There is a real correspondence between economic power and the use of fossil fuels. That’s part of the reality I was pointing to in this week’s Acton Commentary: “Fossil fuels would thus have the created purpose of providing relatively cheap and pervasive sources of energy. These limited and finite resources help raise the standard of living and economic situation of societies to the point where technological research is capable of finding even cheaper, more efficient, renewable, and cleaner sources of energy.”

And here’s just one more side note. Without too much exaggeration, you could say that today’s electric cars are really coal-powered. If you look at the sources of electricity in the US, “coal provides over half of the electricity flowing into American homes.” That means that in one ideal world of the alternative fuel crowd, when you plug your car in, you’re plugging it in to a coal plant (this is also why the idea of consumer carbon credits is catching on). The energy and environmental issues in the world are about far more than “gas guzzling” SUVs.

In this week’s commentary, “Transcendence and Obsolescence: The Responsible Stewardship of Oil,” I ask the question: “Why did God create oil?” I raise the question within the context of debates about global warming and the burning of fossil fuels, including Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth and the work of the Evangelical Climate Initiative.

I argue that nonrenewable resources, especially fossil fuels, “have the created purpose of providing relatively cheap and pervasive sources of energy. These limited and finite resources help raise the standard of living and economic situation of societies to the point where technological research is capable of finding even cheaper, more efficient, renewable, and cleaner sources of energy.” Nuclear power is one source that meets these criteria. The NRO blog Reconcilable Differences passes along this NYT magazine story about the potentially bleak future for nuclear power in America, “Atomic Balm?”

The point about nuclear energy is important because the burning of coal accounts for over half of the domestic use of electricity, and that high-profile campaigns like “What Would Jesus Drive?” paper over this key fact. I wonder “just how many coal-powered SUVs have you seen lately?”

Well, it turns out that there is technology that allows us to turn coal into oil, although it is costly and potentially ineffecient. Even so, the high costs of oil are currently turning this into a more feasible economic possibility. For more on this, see this NYT story, “Mining for Diesel Fuel; The Search for New Oil Sources Leads to Processed Coal” (TimesSelect required).

Read the entire commentary here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, February 10, 2006

There’s something like a question of theodicy implicitly wrapped up in the debate about global warming among Christians. It goes something like this:

Why did God create oil?

One answer is that the burning of fossil fuels is simply a divine trap for unwitting and greedy human beings, who would stop at nothing to rape the earth. Another answer is that there is some legitimate created purpose for fossil fuels.

I’m inclined to think the latter, for a number of reasons. The first answer strikes me akin to the claim that God created the earth to look old…it just doesn’t seem like something God would do. It would cast doubt on the veracity of God, in whom there is nothing false. After all, I don’t recall the covenant with Adam having anything to do with burning fossil fuels.

One possible argument in favor of the first view is that God has created the world in such a way that wrong actions tend to bear negative consequences. The wisdom literature of the Bible attests to this natural order, in which evil bears its own fruit of destruction. But this would mean that fossil fuels were created only with the fallen state of human beings in view, as a check or consequence on human sinfulness (see the corollary at the end).

It seems much more tenable to me to assert that oil was created by God as a natural resource for human beings to use wisely and to steward well in the culturing of the world. It would be much more difficult to “fill the earth and subdue it” if we didn’t have cars and planes and ships to carry us about.

If this is the case, then oil, natural gas, and other petroleum products exist to be used by human beings, but just like any other thing, are to be used responsibly. For example, we can use or misuse food: we can gorge ourselves on it (gluttony), we can waste it, we can hoard it, or we can eat and grow and share food appropriately. Oil might well be a tool like any other, that can be used for good or ill.

Supposing that one of the inevitable effects of the human consumption of oil (speaking here only about engine combustion and not other uses of fossil fuels, e.g. to make plastics) is carbon dioxide emission which inevitably raises global temperatures and adversely effects global climate, what then is our answer to the question? Is there any legitimate use for oil left if this is true? Is oil the forbidden fruit of the twentieth century?

Or perhaps petroleum products are here as a transitional stage in human development, much like societies based on wood-burning sources of energy progressed into the usage of fossil fuels. In this case, petroleum products would have the created purpose of providing relatively cheap and pervasive sources of energy, which would raise the standard of living and economic situation of the societies to the point where technological research would find even cheaper, more efficient, renewable, and cleaner sources of energy.

I don’t think anyone is claiming that oil is going to be the primary source of fuel forever. It’s just the best we have right now. And most of the world, China, for example, is heading into the stage of development where use of fossil fuels is necessary and are not at the point of progressing beyond it.

A corollary: the issue of the creation of fossil fuels through animal death may or may not have an impact here. It’s an open question to me whether animal death existed before the Fall. Certainly some kind of death (plant) undoubtedly occurred, and some form of animal death (bacteria) probably existed as well. If oil is only the consequence of animal death which is itself the product of the Fall, perhaps the well is tainted, so to speak. You might be able to argue conversely, however, that this is an example of God bringing good from evil, so the origin of fossil fuels from animal fossils doesn’t seem to be definitive.