Cart or Horse?

May 19th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The energy policy debate over climate change has largely been framed as an issue of managing the global climate for long-term benefits with the extra benefits of reducing dependence on foreign oil, increased efficiency and decreased particulate pollution. For example, A New York Times editorial today restates this logic:

“there is some talk that Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman may offer a bill imposing industrywide caps as an amendment on the Senate floor. But a properly drawn energy bill has the potential to do much good, especially if it avoids rewarding the old polluting industries, as the House version does, and focuses instead on putting serious money behind cleaner fuels, cleaner power plants and cleaner cars. That these measures would also ease the country’s dependency on overseas oil is, of course, a persuasive side benefit.”

But what if energy policy were to be characterized in terms of a primary need to reduce dependence on foreign oil, increased efficiency and decreased particulate pollution, and with the resulting side benefit of reducing the impacts of humans on the climate system?

The difference in framing is of critical importance for practical action, e.g., it shapes arguments made in advocacy, and influences the role of science in political debates. As progress on reducing emissions has yet to show any signs of success with respect to policy goals (e.g., such as those of the Climate Convention). A large body of experience — including the adoption of Kyoto, Europe’s policy actions, the possibility of McCain/Lieberman, corporate and state endorsements of emissions limitations, etc. – might suggest that the current framing is not particularly effective. In this circumstance will there come a time when advocates for changes in energy policies consider how things might be done differently? Or are we, for better or worse, on the path that we are on for the long term? Thinking about degree to which changes to energy policy ought to be advocated in terms of their short term versus long term benefits might be a good place to start thinking about new options. Without a doubt, the current debate emphasizes the long term issues over the short term, which, and the Times states, are all but dismissed as merely a side benefit.

7 Responses to “Cart or Horse?”

  1. Eli Rabett Says:

    If one looks at the menu of goods in no particular order the one that can be most strongly in conflict with the others is decreasing dependence on foreign oil. Loud voices are heard claiming that exploitation of marginal resources in the US and further exploration in the US and surrounding waters should be the first (and often only) priorities.

    If the primary national need is to decrease dependence on foreign oil, a rational policy is to increase energy generation from coal which would be a disaster for the other goals.

    Phrasing and order do make a difference, but your rephrasing is not implication free with respect to agenda either. It can easily be used by those who are only concerned with increasing US production of oil and other fossil fuels and have no concern with increasing efficiency, decreasing particulates and limiting climate change. To do so it would have to carry the disclaimer that decreasing dependence on foreign oil must be done without negative consequences for the other goals.

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  3. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Eli- Amen …

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  5. Richard Belzer Says:

    I agree that the goals you suggest are largely in conflict. Energy “independence” requires the replacement of (some but not all foreign) oil with either domestic coal or uranium. Uranium beats coal on both carbon and PM, but it remains anathema to environmentalists and, like coal, it’s somewhat difficult to use for transportation.

    If a reduction in imported oil is what you want — either for energy “independence” or to reduce PM emissions — then the current state of affairs is ideal: High world oil prices caused primarily by economic growth. An energy policy that penalizes economic growth will cause oil prices to fall and retard all those welcome investments in energy efficiency.

    Looking for an alternative means of “framing” the issue (e.g., energy “independence” instead of global climate change) sounds like a marketing ploy, and probably an unsuucessful one. Energy “independence” has been popular among elites for decades. It gave us economic and environmental marvels such as ethanol subsidies (to permit an increase in supply) and now mandates (to force an unwilling increase in demand). Indeed, ethanol subsidies were born during an earlier (but equally unsuccessful) crusade for energy “independence”.

    My preferred plan for energy “independence” is to use up my adversaries’ oil first. Paraphrasing then-California Sen. S.I. Hayakawa’s quip about the Panama Canal, we should steal it fair and square.

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  7. kevin vranes Says:

    It should also be pointed out that “reducing dependence on foreign oil” is, at it’s most simple level, about vulnerability (both to artificial supply controls and to terrorism) and not about the cost of everyday energy. (We buy mideast oil because it has a better EROI than US oil and is thus cheap.)

    Reducing dependence on foreign oil from what, 55% to even 35%?, only marginally ameliorates vulnerability to supply controls and I’m not sure in any way ameliorates vulnerability to (however indirectly) oil-funded terrorism or oil-funded nuclear weapon building. In other words, to achieve what I think are the true goals of most who clamor for “reducing dependence on foreign oil” would require moving much closer to the 0% side of foreign petrochemical share than a marginal dip from the current ~55%. Which would of course require a massive reorganization of our energy supply infrastructure.

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  9. Richard Belzer Says:

    I agree with Kevin Vranes’ definition of energy independence, but suggest that it is not the “most simple level” definition in use. “Energy independence” is, like the “precautionary principle,” something nearly everyone favors so long as it remains so vaguely defined as to be meaningless.

    Still, Kevin’s definition is valuable–i.e., genuine energy independence consists of that level of fuel importation from a specific foreign source (e.g., Iran, Venezuela) (a) that we are prepared to do without and possibly (b) that we are willing to CREDIBLY THREATEN to do without–in the service of some other policy objective. “Doing without” is meant as shorthand for bearing the opportunity cost of pursuing that other objective.

    You suggest (and I agree) that the levels of (a) and (b) are likely to be considerably closer to 0% than 55%. That means “energy independence” is a chimerical goal that ought not be advertised as the plausible result of a policy grossly incapable of achieving it. That makes it a dubious horse to pull the cart of carbon reduction–unless, of course, what is being proposed is that oil be eliminated in transportation.

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  11. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:

    Kevin and Richard- This discussion has moved from “reducing dependence on foreign oil” to “energy independence.” These are very different issues. It may be more effective to suggest a policy goal of “reducing dependence on concentrated sources of foreign oil” (e.g., a single contry or cartel). I agree with Richard that energy independence is not in the cards. Nor would it be economically desirable. However, a good case can be made that U.S. interests are better served when energy needs are fulfilled by a diverse portfolio of energy technologies and imports. Thus, I’m not sure that Kevin’s 0% to 55% scale is a good proxy for vulnerability. It is a concentration in single point opportunities for disruption that leads to vulnerabilities. The U.S. relies more on Persian Gulf and OPEC oil than it used to, see, e.g.

    (There are obviously other considerations that shape international trade, such as geopolitics.) And of course such decisions (including the status quo) should be made in full light of opportunity costs.

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  13. Richard Belzer Says:

    I very much like the idea of seeking clarity in our objectives. Energy “independence” is mere sloganeering if it isn’t associated with a concrete policy goal. That, of course, is exactly why it is popular.

    Kevin’s point seems to be that the policy purpose of “energy independence” is materially reduced vulnerability to supply shocks caused by (foreign) factors beyond our control. That sounds reasonable to me. Then the question is whether vulnerability is a linear or nonlinenar function of oil imports from presumptively suspect foreign sources.

    My sense is that vulnerability is highly nonlinear; that, say, reducing oil imports from 55% to 27.5% would have little practical effect on U.S. vulnerability. I doubt that U.S. policy makers could politically withstand even a 5% or 10% loss of supply. Call it the Hanging Hockey Stick Model.

    Diversity in energy supply is also a desirable policy goal precisely because it reduces vulnerability (among other things). Environmental policies that force utilities to burn natural gas in lieu of coal for air quality reasons, and forbid nuclear generation for perhaps theological reasons, undermine supply diversity and increase vulnerability.

    PM reduction, CO2 reduction, and genuine energy independence are achievable without significant compromise in the electricity sector, but only from nuclear power (but at the cost of reduced diversity!). I am not sure where all the cooling water is going to come from, but compared to overcoming the environmentalists’ veto that’s a minor technical problem that markets can solve. For environmentalists, supporting nuclear power requires an admission of theological error.