Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Warming Thoughts #8---Moral Hazard, the Precautionary Principle and Defunding Fossil Fuels


By: James F. Lavin, CEO Electron Storage, Inc.


If fossil fuel use, as advocated by many, ceased tomorrow, anthropomorphic global warming would indeed be dramatically slowed.   But most climate activists and most politicians haven’t considered the potential costs of such an abrupt transition; if tomorrow fossil fuels vanished, most of the humanity would be dead within a month.   There would be no food, no water, no sewage, no fertilizer, no communication.  I have read endless articles on the moral hazards of geoengineering research, and the moral hazards of CDR (Carbon Dioxide Removal) due to the potential that they might delay the end of fossil fuel use, but I have not seen any articles on the real potential hazards of government policies, mandates, bank regulator dictums, lawsuits, societal opprobrium, and shareholder resolutions aimed at ending the use of fossil fuels.


The precautionary principle so often used with regard to drugs and chemicals is to be very careful and ban the use of unproven technologies that may cause harm until proven otherwise, yet even optimists admit that 40% of the technologies we need to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 have yet to be developed.  The clean energy supply and energy distribution system to replace fossil fuels doesn’t yet exist.  If the incredibly rapid, difficult and technologically difficult doesn’t happen a schedule dictated by political sound bites, and we have crippled our fossil fuel distribution networks and power generation networks, the risk is to billions of lives. 


Why doesn’t the precautionary principle, so aggressively applied to minor plant genetic modifications, or, say, vaccines, apply to the grand experiment mandating the end of fossil fuel use?   There is too much comfort that fossil fuels and fossil fuel infrastructure will be there as a backstop despite every attempt to defund and cripple them.


Why aren’t we discussing the moral and real hazards involved in cutting off investment in new oil and gas fields, which are required to maintain earth’s population until we have proven on a wide-scale we can achieve transition?  Oil and gas supply, power plants, and the pipelines to distribute them take decades to develop; if a transition away from fossil fuels is ineffectively managed, they can’t simply be turned on at a moment’s notice to replace lost energy.  Suppose we can’t develop and deploy myriad technologies at the massive scale needed to effectuate the energy transition-- and we don’t have the fossil fuels and fossil fuel infrastructure still in place because we have starved them of investment? 


Because I still live here, let’s discuss New York.  New York is behind only Rhode Island in energy efficiency; it uses much less fuel for transportation than other states due to the extensive mass transit use in New York City.  It had one of the least carbon-intensive power grids due to hydropower largely from Niagara Falls, and until the shutdown of the Indian Point nuclear plant, 1/3rd of its grid power was nuclear.  NYSERDA has been taxing ratepayers to supposedly aggressively funding energy efficiency and transition projects for 45 years.


Despite these advantages, New York, to achieve net zero (ignoring the fact that New York imports many carbon-intensive products and foodstuffs) has to TRIPLE the capacity of the electrical transmission and distribution grid and find massive new clean power sources capable of meeting winter peak demand. There’s not a lot of sun in upstate New York in the winter, and electricity needs will grow dramatically as home heating is forced to switch from fossil fuels to electric heat pumps.  


But there has been no building of new large scale electrical transmission and distribution lines.  There is opposition to on-land wind farms, and the US government just cancelled two of the proposed offshore wind projects.  Despite this the government has blithely banned fracking and prohibited new pipeline development.  No progress, no feasible plan, and more proclamations competing for how soon New York must stop emitting CO2.


However, lets image that the sky is filled with linemen running new electric lines, no lawsuits delay massive new high voltage transmission lines, everyone wants modular nukes (assuming they are developed) in their backyards, multiple communities don’t object to massive wind projects everywhere, and somehow gas supply remains robust.   Even in this fantasia, what happens as gas main volume drops until they are uneconomic to maintain for those communities and individuals who couldn’t transition to electric heat and electric cars, and electric apparatuses for drying crops? 


Government officials and regulators proclaim and mandate the end of fossil fuels and enforce these proclamations with actions from banning pipelines to stopping new gas connections to forcing fossil fuel power plant retirements and dictating disinvestment in fossil fuels—but where is the responsibility for their citizens safety?  Is there any other area where they operate with such a true disregard for human life while being praised for it?  This is all with regard to New York.  The potential problems imposed upon the less developed world by banning oil and gas are much greater.  Where is the discussion of “climate justice” for killing fossil fuels without adequate, inexpensive replacements?


I believe CO2 buildup threatens life as we know it, endangering endless species and altering the planet.  I have dedicated the past 8 years of my life to CDR technologies and discussions.   If we are late in stopping global warming, we create a series of difficulties, most of which we can adapt to or mitigate as we continue to develop solutions.  If we prematurely cripple fossil fuel infrastructure, we will kill billions.  This real, and moral, hazard needs to be front and center in any honest discussion of stopping global warming.