19 May 2010

Borenstein and Revkin on New NAS Reports

Writing for AP, Seth Borenstein says that the US National Academy of Sciences has embarked o0n a new course of open advocacy and decided to overtly recommend a cap-and-trade program or a carbon tax, which he associates with specific legislation being considered in Congress:

Ditching its past cautious tone, the nation's top scientists urged the government Wednesday to take drastic action to raise the cost of using coal and oil to slow global warming.

The National Academy of Sciences specifically called for a carbon tax on fossil fuels or a cap-and-trade system for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, calling global warming an urgent threat.

The academy, which advises the government on scientific matters, said the nation needs to cut the pollution that causes global warming by about 57 percent to 83 percent by 2050. That's close to President Barack Obama's goal. . .

In the past, the academy has called climate change a problem, but it has never recommended a specific policy. The impetus for its bolder stance now was a set of questions posed by Congress on climate change and how to deal with it.

The cap-and-trade idea, which is supported by the Obama administration, has been proposed for several years in Congress but never passed the Senate. It would set overall limits on carbon dioxide pollution, but would allow companies to pollute more by paying for it and buying pollution credits from cleaner companies.

Last year, the House approved a cap-and-trade bill, but it stalled in the Senate as health care legislation took center stage. A new version, that doesn't use the cap-and-trade phrase but has similar characteristics, was introduced last week.

In what probably qualifies as the boneheaded comment of the day, the panel co-chair says that it is science that is telling us to act, not anyone's opinions (emphasis added):

"We really need to get started right away. It's not opinion, it's what the science tells you," said academy panel vice chairman Robert Fri, who was acting Environmental Protection Agency chief under President Richard Nixon. "The country needs both a prompt and a sustained commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

By contrast Andy Revkin sees not much new in terms of advocacy in the report, or in its discussion of policy options:
The Academies, the country’s preeminent scientific advisory body, have issued strings of reports on global warming over the decades. In 1991, the language was already strong and urgent, noting that the risks were sufficient to justify action even with substantial unanswered questions: “Despite the great uncertainties, greenhouse warming is a potential threat sufficient to justify action now.”
Revkin also finds no clear linkage with Obama Administration policies or those currently being debated in Congress:

The report on “Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change” lays out what would be required to drive an energy revolution in the United States — greatly cutting output of greenhouse gases while sustaining economic well being. It’s a familiar mix of finding ways to add a price to pollution, moving forward with standards and policies that fulfill the huge potential for cutting energy waste and also invigorating the innovation pipeline by greatly boosting investment — public and private — in research and development and the other steps required to generate insights and turn them into new and widely disseminated technologies.

It does not expressly endorse a “cap and trade” approach as opposed to a carbon tax but does recommend creating an overall “budget” for greenhouse gas emissions over a stretch of decades that can lead to a clear, directly measurable goal.
Who has got this right Borenstein or Revkin? Obviously, somebody is spinning madly.


  1. What are the potential second order consequences of cap and trade? Playing with a fragile economic system -we don't understand may be more dangerous than playing with a climate system- we don't understand. The press has spent considerable efforts looking at worse case scenarios for climate change-- perhaps they should look at some worse case scenarios for an international financial collapse.

  2. Apart from the spin, the most telling statement to me is Robert Fri's statement: "Its not opinion, its what the science tells you." This really seems to be a standard opinion of people involved in such climate assessment reports, and the opinion extends fairly deep into the climate research community.

    This isn't stealth advocacy, its explicit advocacy, and the scary thing is that (most) of the scientists don't realize that its advocacy. Jim Hansen understands exactly what he is doing in terms of advocacy and is prepared to the pay the price in terms of expecting his research to receive extra scrutiny and to be attacked politically and understands that his scientific reputation could take a hit. (Most) of the other scientists sharing Fri's perspective seem to have no idea what they are doing and then (many) whine when people accuse them of being policy advocates, they get attacked politically, and their research receives extra scrutiny.

    So Roger, i think you may need another category of "advocate" here, unless my understanding of the nuances of your taxonomy is inadequate.

  3. Roger,

    Do these people ever allow themselves to be questioned vigorously by someone who knows how? I have to think that they don't, or they wouldn't keep saying such foolish things.

  4. A price on carbon is essential. But should it be done through a carbon tax, Cap and trade or cap and dividend (Jim Hansen) or cap and reward? I argue for cap and reward as it will be direct benefit to US economy where it is currently a world leader - computers, Internet and media. A cap and reward will create jobs and economic growth. See http://green-broadband.blogspot.com/ for more details

  5. I'm in favor of a small carbon tax to be revisited every 10 years for adjustment. I would like it to be revenue neutral, with taxes rebated to consumers.

    But is there anything here that is projected to have the impact of last year's 7% decline in CO2 emissions without a coordinated policy? Only one third of the decline was due to the recession. If we could do that again this year, some might ask if we needed such a policy at all...

    I think we need to put a price on carbon as a negative externality. I really do. But last year's global CO2 decline, coming as it did with robust growth in Asian economies, really makes me wonder how much else we need.

  6. Can someone explain to me how any rational person, scientist or otherwise, can even entertain the idea of cutting CO2 emissions by 83%? Energy is a basic need, like food, clothing and shelter. Wnen the cost of energy gets sufficiently high, the people will simply start burning all the trees. Do the envirowhacos want midnight logging in the National Forests?

  7. -2-Judy

    Thanks ... Regarding Jim Hansen, he is an explicit advocate, we agree.

    I use the term "stealth issue advocate" to describe someone, like Fri, who hides their advocacy behind science. Such stealth issue advocacy could be done knowingly or unknowingly (e.g., he might really believe that there are no opinions here).

    So I think it fits the framework just about perfectly.

  8. "Can someone explain to me how any rational person, scientist or otherwise, can even entertain the idea of cutting CO2 emissions by 83%?"

    Every power plant is nuclear, and virtually all transportion is plug-in hybrid and/or fueled with algal biofuel.

  9. Let 'em get on with the carbon tax. It's surely better than cap and trade and it'll be so miniscule compare to the speculators market manipulations that it'll be buried. However it'll be a nice dignified exit strategy when the temperature fails to rise for the next 5 years: They can say they saved the planet.

    But it's not as if a carbon tax is particularly unusual - it's just normally called a fuel tax. They don't need all this preamble to give us fuel taxes so it's either pure political posturing or setting up these guys who brought us economic catastrophe for a cap and trade bonanza.

  10. Instead of arguing about how to tax carbon, it would be more useful to concentrate on developing technologies that actually compete on a cost effective basis with coal and oil. I would love to see an unbiased analysis by someone with the tools to do it, of the net effects on the economy and the environment if we could wave a magic wand and replace coal with thorium for electrical power production, and oil as a motor fuel (cars, trucks, locomotives, heavy equipment) with compressed and/or liquefied natural gas (methane). Coal and oil would still need to be used for heavy industry and chemical feedstock, etc., but not for electricity.

    A national program to rapidly develop thorium reactors, (especially LFTR) as an alternative to both coal and uranium/plutonium just seems a no brainer. It would be far cleaner, safer, and likely have a lower total environmental footprint than even wind and solar as baseload power. Our national fear of nuclear power must be overcome if we really want a practical alternative to fossil fuels, and thorium is the means to do it.

    As for methane, given that it is twenty times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2, it would seem a net gain to capture all of it we can and convert it by combustion to CO2 and water while using its energy in the process. Let's stop dithering about taxing carbon and look at win-win alternatives that aren't a drag on western economies and on human aspirations in developing countries.

  11. A 83% cut by 20501?

    What are the chances of that?


    The National Academy of Sciences are not living in the real world.

  12. Neither is spinning, really. Revkin is looking at the content of the statement, Borenstein the context (ie the timing of its release).

  13. David
    You or somebody else keeps bringing this LFTR issue up. But Candu reactors can burn Thorium already:
    All the US needs to do is buy them from the Canadians. Good enough for China! Meantime the Indians are already developing the LTFR concept.

  14. jgdes - the above was my first comment here. I'm all for using thorium in existing reactor designs where applicable. An outfit called "Lightbridge" is about to seek NRC approval for a thorium/uranium fuel rod design to use in existing reactors. LFTR appears to offer much cheaper capital cost as they would not be pressurized and thus require no steam containment dome. There are other advantages as well, too numerous to go into here. Russia, France and the Chech Republic are also experimenting with LFTR and other thorium designs. We (U.S.) invented it (LFTR) and proved it in concept at Oak Ridge, we should put it to use.

  15. David
    Ok but would you support the cheaper option of just buying proven, existing technology now and getting each power station installed in 40 months time rather than wait for another 20 years of development of something that may end up not working? It seems to me that national pride shouldn't play a role here.

    I wouldn't trust any nuclear system that only exists on paper, given the history of such over-optimism. I was involved in the fast reactor programs and everyone was full of it. Areva are also guilty of believing their own hype and are paying the price with their EPR in Finland.

    I agree about the lower pressure designs being best. Unfortunately the industry is fixated on largely unproven high temp, high pressure systems. I guess these guys bribe better. My favourite throwaway line from them is that these designs will be so much safer. With higher temps and higher pressures they'd sure better be! Quite a lot of engineers don't seem to realize that the thicker pipes and vessels required for higher pressures lead directly to considerably higher stresses from thermal transients which is the number one design/failure problem. But I digress...

  16. David said... 10

    "replace coal with thorium for electrical power production"

    The current loan guarantee program was budgeted in 2005. It's taken the first design 5 years to get thru NRC review on what is essentially a 'proven' design.

    Secretary Chu has been asking for some funding to sponsor a couple of demonstration reactors.
    Which designs he isn't saying. I suppose if he manages to get some cash they will send out requests for proposals etc etc.

    Thorium might be a great idea, but until you've actually run a reactor to it's design life you can't be certain of the life and you can't be certain of O&M costs.

  17. jgdes asked "Ok but would you support the cheaper option of just buying proven, existing technology now and getting each power station installed in 40 months time rather than wait for another 20 years of development of something that may end up not working?"

    Yes, of course, as long as LFTR is developed expeditiously in parallel. I'm not a nuclear engineer or physicist, but I don't think it should take 20 yrs. to begin deploying LFTR technology if it were given national priority (funding and NRC approval process).
    The promise of LFTR in terms of safety, efficiency, proliferation resistance, and long term waste storage reduction seems too great to let it continue to languish in obscurity.

    Anyhow, the point is that thorium nuclear, if given a level regulatory playing field, can and should economically replace coal and oil for electricity production. No carbon tax required. But as I said originally, I'd like to see an expert economic/scientific analysis of this with methane as the primary national motor and heating fuel.

  18. David
    Alas, I don't want to be negative, but historically the most likely outcome is quasi-total abandonment after money and patience runs out and safety boasts are not borne out - eg pebble-bed, fast breeders etc. Oops though, I was wrong about Indian LFTRs; they are concentrating on PHWRs using Thorium. Thought I'd better correct that.

    I wouldn't assume that such analyses are not being done - they surely are, but just not in public.

  19. David said... 17

    "Yes, of course, as long as LFTR is developed expeditiously in parallel"

    DOE put some research money on the table in FY 2010 under the heading 'Advanced High Temperature Reactors"

    The primary driver of high temperature nuclear reactor research is the production of hydrogen rather then electricity.
    We've already got trucks on the road that run on Liquefied Natural Gas, the technological leap to Liquid Hydrogen isn't inconceivable.

  20. @Harrywr2 (#19): Hydrogen powered trucks is a high hurdle. Least of all is the problem of making hydrogen. The big deal is distributing it and storing enough in the truck to go any significant distance. Joe Romm is not popular in these parts, but his book, "The Hype About Hydrogen" is very solidly argued, ATMO. The energy penalty for either liquefying or compressing it is enormous compared to LPG or LNG.

    His argument, in short form, appeared in Issues.

    Romm is very persuasive that it would be much better, from a GHG emissions standpoint, to use nuclear to replace coal fired electricity generation than to generate hydrogen.

    I would extend this to Roger's paradigm and say that regardless where you stand on GHG emissions, it would be better to use nuclear power to displace gas-fired electricity and reallocate the gas to vehicles (like Pickens's wind-power proposal) than to make hydrogen.

  21. Harry #19 - that's good news, but $38 million for 42 university-led research projects is a small fraction of what is needed. I suspect that private capital would also get more involved if investors were assured that the nation's regulatory commitment to new nuclear were half as serious as it apparently is to wind and solar.

    Jonathon #20 - I agree. Although high temperature, low pressure reactors like LFTR would be ideal for producing hydrogen, the problems and expense of developing a hydrogen economy are too great when compared to methane, which unlike oil, is also a potentially renewable resource that wouldn't require diversion of cropland or tropical forests to utilize it as a biofuel. All kinds of waste streams can be used today for methane production (although not presently competitive economically with traditional sources of natural gas.)

  22. Jonathan Gilligan said... 20

    "Harrywr2 (#19): Hydrogen powered trucks is a high hurdle. Least of all is the problem of making hydrogen."

    Given the state of current technology I agree with your assessment. There is also an 'order' of operation.

    Some cost estimates for producing Hydrogen from water using a Sodium-Iodine Thermal process rather then electrolysis.

    Electrolysis works out to be $24/GJ.
    Thermal Sodium Iodine works out to be $10/GJ.
    A barrel of oil is 6 GJ.
    So at $10/GJ it's theoretically possible to produce Hydrogen at a competitive cost to oil.

    Liquid Hydrogen from nuclear power is at least 10-20 years away.

    Using Liquefied Natural Gas as an interim step is a great idea. It's cost effective today to liquefy natural gas. We end up learning about and building some cryogenic fuel infrastructure systems, fuel tanks etc. Hopefully we learn how to do things a bit more cost effectively.

    IMHO The DOE has their research 'priorities' in the correct order.
    1) Get 'ready to build' nuclear technology rolling out the door
    2) Set in motion a cryogenics's fuel industry using liquefied natural gas as a 'test' fuel.
    3) Start a research project to demonstrate commercial scale feasibility of liquid hydrogen using a nuclear thermal process.

    If the hydro part of the project doesn't work out we have an LNG fuel option for transportation and another 'nuclear electricity' option on the menu.

    If we get much more than 60% of our electricity from nuclear we are going to have to figure out something to do with the unused off peak power.

    As far as what Joe Romm thinks.
    I saw his most recent piece on Peak Oil.

    He/or his source left out the 12 million barrels of oil per day that the Iraqi's will bring online between now and 2020 from his projections.

  23. David said... 21

    "Harry #19 - that's good news, but $38 million for 42 university-led research projects is a small fraction of what is needed."

    yes, it's a paltry sum, but under the Gen IV Forum the US has it's pieces of research to do and others have their pieces.

    "The goals adopted by GIF provided the basis for identifying and selecting six nuclear energy systems for further development."

    If I look at the FY2011 DOE budget request, the big 'concern' is how to squeeze another 40 years out of our existing reactor fleet.

    If we can figure out how to extend reactor life from it's current 40-60 years to 80-100 years that substantially changes the economics.