Hydrocarbon Man

Oxy, otherwise known as Occidental Petroleum, has produced this spot asking consumers to consider how much of our world depends on petroleum based products. But in the realm of unintended consequences, the ad is a hit within the peak oil & alternative energy community simply because it drives home the point that unless we act now to replace the hydrocarbon economy that underpins our lifestyles we're doomed. Our dependency is laid threadbare literally as the ad leaves its hero in his skivvies. 

David Leonhardt, the business editor over at the New York Times had a great article yesterday that I meant to touch on before the Andrew Breitbart's video lynching of Shirley Sherrod took hold of the news cycle.

This city just endured its hottest June since records began in 1872, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. So did Miami. Atlanta suffered its second-hottest June, and Dallas had its third hottest.

In New York, the weather was relatively pleasant: only the fourth-hottest June since 1872. Then again, New York is on pace for its hottest July on record.

Yet when United States senators and their aides file into work on Wednesday, on yet another 90-degree day, they may be on the verge of deciding to do approximately nothing about global warming. The needed 60 votes don’t seem to be there, at least not at the moment.

Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, and President Obama may still find a way to cobble together the votes, as they did on health care and financial regulation. Perhaps they can somehow persuade moderate Republicans to support a market-based limit on power plant emissions — a policy that power plants themselves seem open to.

Or perhaps Mr. Reid and Mr. Obama can get Democrats to support a less ambitious set of rules that would require vehicles, buildings and power plants to meet certain energy standards. Several Republicans support that approach. Democrats are divided between thinking that it’s the most realistic chance for progress and worrying that it’s a fig leaf that may delay more significant action.

Either way, most Senate watchers, inside and out, think the odds of a major climate bill are not great. And if this White House and this Democratic Congress can’t pass one, you have to wonder what the future of climate policy looks like.

All the while, the risks and costs of climate change grow. Sea levels are rising faster than scientists predicted just a few years ago. Himalayan glaciers are melting. In the American West, pine beetles (which struggle to survive the cold) are multiplying and killing trees.

According to NASA, 2010 is on course to be the planet’s hottest year since records started in 1880. The current top 10, in descending order, are: 2005, 2007, 2009, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2004, 2001 and 2008.

Hot is the new normal.

It is not just the eastern United States that is sweltering, most of European Russia has suffered through 38 C degree weather, that's a 100 F, for a record nine days straight. In the process, over a thousand Russians have died just from drinking while swimming. Russia's wheat crop harvested from next month may come in at 51 million metric tons, down from 61.7 million tons last year, because of the heat-related drought. Overall, the annual Russian wheat crop is expected to be just 77 million tons as opposed to 97 million tons harvested in 2009. That's a 20 percent fall in Russia's wheat production, the world fourth largest producer and it has driven wheat prices to a 19 month high.

In India, the thermometer hit 50 C or 122 F in late May killing hundreds of people across Gujarat and Maharashtra states. Northern Thailand is struggling through the worst drought in 20 years, while Israel is in the middle of the longest and most severe drought since 1920s. In Britain, this year has been the driest since 1929. The Philippines also sizzled the past summer, with parts of the country registering scorching temperatures of 38.5 degrees Celsius in April. Also, Arctic sea ice has melted to its thinnest state in June.

Mexico, meanwhile, is facing a perfect storm of floods, rising heat and humidity that breed mosquitoes, prompting a big increase in the number of hemorrhagic dengue cases. While the milder form of dengue is on the decline, Mexican officials are worried about the rise of the more serious hemorrhagic form which has spiked to about 1,900 cases this year, compared with about 1,430 in the same period of 2009. So far, 16 people have died. Nor is Mexico the only place currently battling a mosquito plague caused by hotter weather. In Mumbai, a record 9,000 cases of malaria have been reported in the last fortnight.

In China, the problem is torrential summer rains. The rains, which began in May after a severe drought in southern China, are inundating cities and villages throughout the country. Well over half of China's provinces are now enduring monsoon-like downpours, flooding and landslides. Over 700 people have died so far and millions have been displaced. The rain are even putting pressure on China's massive Three Gorges Dam as 70,000 cubic metres per second, considerably higher than the 50,000 figure recorded in 1998, flow into the reservoir. As Chinese engineers cope with the increased water, Chinese authorities are recommending the permanent relocation of a further 300,000 people - in addition to the 1.2 million who have already been forced to leave their homes - to create an "eco-buffer" belt in the worst affected areas.

More from David Leonhardt:

The most efficient way to begin attacking the global swelter is no mystery. It involves raising the price of carbon emissions, which are warming the planet, and then letting the private sector find innovative ways to use less dirty energy. Conservative economists, like Gregory Mankiw, support this approach. So do liberals, like Joseph Stiglitz.

But taxing carbon has never had much of a political chance. It’s too honest. It acknowledges that the best way to reduce the use of a product is to increase its price. We would all prefer a free lunch.

So Congress has been laboring to disguise a price increase in a more palatable package.

Last June, the House passed a cap-and-trade bill. It set a national cap on carbon emissions and required companies to have permits for such emissions. To keep emitting as much as they had been, companies would have to buy permits from more efficient companies.

Republican leaders, though, were only too happy to cast cap and trade as “cap and tax.” In the process, they helped scare away senators who had long supported this very idea, like Lindsey Graham. The sad paradox is that cap and trade — which trusts in the efficiency of markets — was originally a Republican policy, signed by the first President Bush to reduce acid rain, and disliked at the time by many liberals.

With a comprehensive cap off the table, Senate leaders began thinking instead about a narrower version that would apply only to power plants, not to emissions from vehicles or factories. This utility-only cap has two advantages.

One, it goes after the emissions that energy experts think will be among the cheapest to reduce. Two, it involves another layer of political disguise. The cap would apply to unlovable utilities, not to American families and businesses.

Of course, the cap would ultimately raise utility rates. That’s the point. So long as dirty energy remains so cheap, people are going to use huge amounts of it.

But some policy makers haven’t been willing to acknowledge this. They continue to look for a solution without downsides. For them, a tempting option is a series of new rules requiring people to use cleaner energy. In a few cases, such rules really are a free lunch, in that they force people to take steps — like home insulation — that save money. But most rules increase costs. They force people away from the energy sources they are now using.

The classic example is the fuel economy rules from the 1970s that required car companies to make fewer gas guzzlers. The newly imposed scarcity of guzzlers, in turn, increased their price. But the relationship wasn’t obvious. Americans do not think of fuel economy rules as a tax on large vehicles.

This explains why the rule-based approach seems to be the best bet for winning Republican votes. Senator Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, has proposed new rules not just for vehicles but also for appliances, building codes and power plants.

If these regulations were tough enough, they could make a difference, as the fuel economy rules have. So some Democrats and environmentalists see this approach as their best remaining chance. “There’s a way Senator Reid and the president could manage this to get a very strong energy bill,” Hal Harvey, head of the ClimateWorks Foundation in San Francisco, said. “The victory is there for them to have.”

On the other hand, such rules would require government regulators to make all kinds of decisions — about which dishwashers qualified as efficient, about which alternative energies power plants had to use and the like. Businesses and consumers couldn’t look simply for the cheapest solution, as they could if Congress put a price on carbon. They would have to comply with specific provisions.

The result would almost certainly be higher, albeit better disguised, costs than with a carbon cap or tax. Even many advocates admit that new rules won’t do enough, on their own, to reduce emissions and slow warming. Only a cap or a tax can accomplish that at a reasonable cost.

Thus the opposition among other Democrats and environmentalists to accepting the Lugar approach as a compromise — and Mr. Reid’s difficulty in finding 60 votes for it.

For one thing, the Lugar critics think that some Republicans may, in the end, be willing to vote for a utility-only cap. And even if the alternative was to do virtually nothing, critics say that might be better than a modest bill that let the Senate pretend it was seriously attacking global warming.

Robert Stavins, the Harvard economist, told me he would actually prefer a bill that cut emissions less in the short term but created a template for much bigger cuts in the future. “Success, to me, would be the beginning of political acceptance of carbon pricing,” he said.

I’ll confess to being torn about these arguments. A utility-only cap, even a flawed one, really would represent a whole different kind of progress than a souped-up version of fuel economy rules. A cap — any decent cap — remains the best benchmark of success.

Yet if the Lugar approach were the only one that could pass, should we be so confident that it would put off further action? It’s not clear to me how another failure on energy policy will somehow make success more likely in the future.

All of this will be decided in the next few weeks, before the Senate breaks for its August recess, or in September, before the midterm election campaign takes over. Meanwhile, the temperature in Washington this week is supposed to hit 99.

The House passed a far-reaching if imperfect cap and trade bill in June 2009 and yet the Senate has failed to act. We need a comprehensive energy and climate bill but as the Senate dithers the world is cooked in its own petro-fueled juices. Hydrocarbon man is nowhere man.

Tags: Peak Oil, Cap and Trade, global climate change, russia (all tags)

Comments

1 Comment

RE: Hydrocarbon Man

Does the Times allow blockquotes that long?

by Nathan Empsall 2010-07-22 12:58AM | 0 recs

Diaries

Advertise Blogads