Category Archives: fossil fuels

Oilsands not a good candidate for carbon capture

Turns out that carbon-capture is not the panacea for Canada’s oilsands that certain politicians have been saying, according to a briefing note (marked “secret”) obtained by the CBC:

Little of the oilsands’ carbon dioxide can be captured because most emissions aren’t concentrated enough, the notes say. For efficient capture, there must be a high concentration of CO2 coming out of a smoke stack.

“Only a small percentage of emitted CO2 is ‘capturable’ since most emissions aren’t pure enough,” the notes say. “Only limited near-term opportunities exist in the oilsands and they largely relate to upgrader facilities.”

The Canadian and Alberta governments are spending about $2.5 billion on developing carbon capture and storage, and the oilsands generally come up as the first reason for spending the money.

This doesn’t mean that carbon-capture and storage is a useless technological innovation, just that it’s of negligible use in the oilsands, which are extremely energy-intensive. CCS can be of some help in reducing emissions from upgraders — where sandy tar mined from the ground gets turned into flowing oil — but that’s only part of the production process. The upgraders on the drawing board now, which are likely to get built eventually even if they’re on hold till the economy recovers, are planned to meet pretty high standards, which is a mixed blessing. It’s good that they’re efficient and relatively low-pollution, but they’re not going to be low-hanging fruit in the hunt for emissions reductions.

The oilsands are an environmental nightmare. No getting around it.

Two oily quickies

1) This would be wrong morally, economically and practically, but poetically, there’s no denying the appeal:

So the oil companies are once again boasting record profits and yet the auto makers are asking for some government cheese.  Does anyone else see the irony here?  So I’ve got a little trickle down theory of my own.  As long as Detroit continues to make cars for the Gas-Capades let the oil companies bail them out.

(Hat-tip: Sullivan.)

2) It’s a little surprising this didn’t happen more six months ago, when the cargo would have been worth twice as much, but it’s a hell of a target of opportunity.

An environmental policy, this ain’t

Cutting taxes on diesel is not what you’d call “green.”

Stephen Harper pledged Tuesday that a re-elected Conservative government would halve a federal tax on diesel fuel. The prime minister is expected to contrast the move with the carbon tax on diesel fuel that is a centrepiece of the Liberal party’s Green Shift plan.

The Tories will take to two cents per litre the four-cents-a-litre excise tax. The Tories say that would cost the federal treasury $600 million a year.

As Stephen Gordon writes, “it takes two serious and pressing problems – the deteriorating fiscal situation and greenhouse gas emissions – and makes them both worse.”

Managing abundance

Matthew Yglesias debunks the idea that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is an expert on America’s energy problems:

Alaska politicians never worry that energy may be getting too expensive and think about how to respond. They worry that energy might get too cheap! Alaska politicians don’t develop expertise in energy conservation measures or alternative fuels, they develop expertise in fighting with out-of-state executives about how to divide the profits that come from expensive energy. That’s the energy problem people think about in Alaska, Oklahoma, and parts of Texas and Louisiana but it’s not the energy problem people worry about in Michigan or Ohio or Virginia or Florida or New Mexico or Colorado or most anywhere else in the country.

It’s up there with Liberal leader Stéphane Dion’s assertion that Canada could lead the world in water-resources management, since we have so much water. No: we don’t have so much water because we’re so damned good at hoarding it, we have so much because we got a lucky deal. You want to see some people who are good at managing water, go to Saudi Arabia or someplace, where they don’t have any.

U.S. miles driven drops again

Shouldn’t be a surprise by now, but yet again, Americans drove less year-over-year in July 2008 versus 2007. I think we can definitively put to rest the idea that demand for gasoline doesn’t change much with price, though apparently it is a bit sticky — prices have to remain high for a while before people start changing their lives.

Matthew Yglesias makes the obvious argument for a carbon tax.

Freeman Dyson and irrational optimisim

Via Sullivan, here’s a Freeman Dyson essay (in the form of a twin book review) contemplating technological solutions to the climate-change problem. It is dense and complex and elegant, which makes it easy to miss the fact that its central message is dangerously whacked-out.

The first book the renowned physicist, mathematician and futurist (who’s 84 now, and thus has lived long enough to have to account for some of his predictions) contemplates is economist William Nordhaus’s economic study of various greenhouse-gas mitigation plans, A Question of Balance. Sir Nicholas Stern’s turns out to be very expensive, according to Nordhaus’s model; Al Gore’s is, too. The Kyoto Accord, had it been implemented, would have been slightly profitable. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s proposals would be slightly more than slightly profitable, yielding a global economic benefit of $3 trillion compared to business as usual.

But by far the most appealing option is something Nordhaus calls the “low-cost backstop,” which in his models produces a net global profit of $17 billion. The only problem, one that appears not to bother Dyson, is that it’s a fantasy — the “backstop” is any hypothetical technology that could solve the climate-change problem without incurring significant cost, details left as an exercise for the reader. Indeed, Dyson’s complaint is that Nordaus doesn’t actually provide details:

The main deficiency of Nordhaus’s book is that he does not discuss the details of the “low-cost backstop” that might provide a climate policy vastly more profitable than his optimum policy…  Concerning the possible candidates for a low-cost backstop technology he mentions in the sentence I previously quoted—for example, “low-cost solar power”—Nordhaus has little to say. He writes that “no such technology presently exists, and we can only speculate on it.” The “low-cost backstop” policy is displayed in his tables as an abstract possibility without any details. It is nowhere emphasized as a practical solution to the problem of climate change…

[I]f we can control what the plants do with the carbon, the fate of the carbon in the atmosphere is in our hands. That is what Nordhaus meant when he mentioned “genetically engineered carbon-eating trees” as a low-cost backstop to global warming.

Yes, and if Grandma had wheels, she’d be a bus. But, writes Dyson:

I consider it likely that we shall have “genetically engineered carbon-eating trees” within twenty years, and almost certainly within fifty years.

Ah. Well that’s all right, then.

Look, I’m as big a fan of science and engineering as the next guy, and I do believe they’ll play a major role in sorting out the mess we’re digging ourselves deeper into. I don’t think the catastrophist branch of climate-change thought gives human resourcefulness and ingenuity enough credit. But there’s a vast chasm between respecting the power of scientific advancements and assuming that just around the corner lies science so advanced it’s indistinguishable from magic.

Yet Dyson’s piece leads a writer as smart as Andrew Sullivan to say that it’s the most “helpful” thing on the subject he’s read in weeks.

He’s not as dogmatic as some climate worriers and persuasive, I’d say, in arguing that only technology can solve this problem (and government may not help much). But the possibility of genetically-modified carbon-eating trees is what really struck home[.]

The central point Sullivan takes from the piece, that science will provide the answers — possibly in the form of carbon-sucking trees — and politics but the nudge in the right direction, is important. The danger, however, is that people who don’t want the nudging to happen will assume that science is on the case and if only we wait a bit, it’ll supply all the solutions we need on a silver platter.

We’ve seen the effects of high gas prices on consumer and corporate behaviour, and from an environmental standpoint, they’re encouraging. But there’s no connection between those high prices and the climate-change problem. If everyone dials down the rhetoric in the Middle East and just calms the hell down a little, we’ll see the prices fall, and all the incentives to use less fuel and devise alternatives will fade again.

Dyson’s described his many prognostications thus:

When I make predictions, I am not speaking as a scientist. I am speaking as a story-teller, and my predictions are science-fiction rather than science.

So let’s hope we get the trees and sort this whole mess out forthwith. But let’s not bet on it.

John McCain’s priorities

Ezra Klein points out the gap between the Republican presidential candidates words and his … well, his other words:

He supports a “market-based program” to “beat climate change” in the abstract, but he also wants gas tax holidays, domestic drilling incentives, megapork for nuclear and coal, no boosts in sector-specific efficiency or fuel economy standards, limited public investment, and enormous tax cuts. When the abstraction bumps into the conservative interest group, the abstraction gives way. Yep. McCain totally believes in global warming and the need to get away from fossil fuels. He has a policy that will do this by raising the price of carbon, and thus of fossil fuels. He also believes fossil fuels should be cheap and plentiful, and has policies meant to lower the price of gasoline and drill more oil.