Mixed Signals

On June 7, 2019, the Houston Chronicle reported several stories about energy that left me wondering which way we are heading environmentally. 

The front page story was about carbon dioxide removal technology (giant vacuum cleaners) which would be deployed around the world to filter out carbon dioxide.  The technology is hypothetical, unproven and, if it works, incredibly expensive, but politicians seem to like it.  The reason is obvious:  it is much easier to talk about technology saving the day rather than how we must change our energy habits. 

The lead story in the business section was about energy companies (BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Occidental Petroleum and others) urging the City of Houston to embrace stricter environmental policies, emission-reduction technologies and other measures intended to reduce greenhouse gases.  This is not exactly what you expect to hear from oil companies, but it is becoming more common and is consistent with their business strategy of diversification.  

Also in the business section was an article announcing that oil companies in the the Permian Basin were setting records for oil and gas production and another article discussing the efforts being made by Mexico to increase its oil production and refining capacity.

Finally, in the business section there was an article reporting that the 17 largest car makers in the world have joined together to tell Trump in a letter that his rollback of pollution and mileage standards threatens to hurt their profitability and produce “untenable” instability.  They want Trump to rethink his proposed regulatory rollback and return to negotiations with California and the 13 other states which have adopted California’s standards.  The article goes on to say that the automakers privately say that they fear retaliation from Trump for taking this public stand. It is also worth remembering that the car companies never said they couldn’t meet the higher standards.  It’s like Trump presented them a gift they want to return. 

On the one hand, energy companies here and abroad are producing more oil and gas than ever and intend to continue to do so, and on the other hand, energy companies and automakers are urging government to adopt cleaner energy technology and higher pollution standards.  These mixed signals tend to sow confusion. Is it our goal to produce more and more oil, gas and coal, or should we be doing everything possible to conserve energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

The one thing that is consistent is Trump’s message:  global warming is a hoax.  The Trump administration did have Rick Perry address an energy conference in Salt Lake City about two weeks ago to say that the Trump administration is committed to making fossil fuels cleaner rather than imposing “draconian regulations” on oil, gas and coal.  He also said it has been proven that technology can make traditional energy sources cleaner. Perry said, “Instead of punishing fuels that produce emissions through regulation, we’re seeking to reduce those emissions by innovation.”  Perry ignores the fact that scientists agree there is no such thing as “clean coal”.  Someone should also remind him that he was personally responsible for the fast track permitting of several coal-fired power plants in Texas so that they could avoid new EPA emissions standards and that his boss has rolled back the Obama-era EPA emissions standards on coal-fired power plants so that they don’t have to retrofit to continue to operate. 

It is impossible to harmonize Perry’s remarks about cleaner traditional energy with the Trump administration’s regulatory policies.   

I’m sure that we all hope and pray that Trump is right and that climate scientists the world over are wrong, but can we afford to simply take Trump’s word on this?

For an excellent history of the science of global warming and an understanding of how we got to this point, may I suggest Losing Earth – A Recent History” by Nathaniel Rich.  I think you will be surprised, as I was, about just how long scientists have seen this train coming down the tracks. 

Rich traces the genesis of the theory that carbon dioxide could cause climate change to John Tyndall, an Irish physicist, in 1859.  By the time of the Lyndon Johnson administration, the science was so settled and the predictions so dire that Johnson delivered a special message to Congress two weeks after his inauguration stating that the burning of fossil fuels had already “altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale”.  Rich also reveals that energy companies have known about this problem from their own research for decades. 

Considering how long ago the problem and its causes and effects were identified, thoroughly studied and understood, it is remarkable that we are only now feebly and tentatively coming to grips with it. This is no accident.  Rich documents the ignoble history of how a strategy of deception, misdirection and delay was conceived and deployed by those with a financial interest in continuing the status quo, lobbyists, politicians and special interest groups.  The only similar disinformation campaign I can think of is the tobacco industry.