If you're a reader of U.S. newspapers, you may be wondering why you're seeing full-page ads sponsored by the natural gas industry telling you that "the success of wind and solar energy depends on natural gas." (It's because when the sun goes down and the wind stops blowing we need some other relatively low-carbon fuel to generate our electricity.) But you already knew that, right?
When listening to a Yankees game in New York City you'll find the action is often interrupted by plugs for the Indian Point Nuclear Power plant. That makes sense. We all know that reactors can melt down or even blow up, that their waste stays radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, that terrorists could extract weapons material from waste to make an atomic bomb or just use the waste raw to make a dirty bomb, and that wayward states like Iraq or Iran might build supposedly peaceful reactors for sinister military purposes. So the industry has an obvious stake in reminding us that nuclear energy can still be useful and a net plus under some circumstances.
The same goes for coal. Emissions from its combustion kill an estimated 30,000 people in the United States each year. At both the front end and back end of the fuel cycles coal creates enormous physical quantities of waste, which are often not adequately contained. Strip mining lays waste to West Virginia mountaintops and Montana vistas. Though there aren't a lot of people engaged in deep sub-surface mining any more, some of them still die every year. And generating electricity with coal accounts for two-fifths of U.S. carbon emissions. So it's scarcely surprising that the coal industry has been saturating the airwaves in recent years with ads telling us that dirty coal is really clean.
But natural gas? Why does the natural gas industry need to remind us that it's relatively clean and low-carbon?
The reason, I gather from scattered news commentaries and a barrage of direct communications from the natural gas industry, is that gas feels it is not getting a fair enough shake in prospective U.S. climate & energy legislation. Why does it feel that way? Don't ask me. I simply can't stand the thought of delving into the details. This is because, to manipulate a phrase of Bismarck’s that was once memorably mangled by former president George W. Bush, I've seen too much of what goes into the sausage of climate policy to voluntarily inspect any more.
That is, I'm fed up with policy that reflects a balance of contending vested interests rather than recognized national imperatives and proved best practices.
Once upon a time, back in the days when many Americans began to wonder what kind of president would succeed the younger Bush, I dreamt we might be blessed with one who had JFK’s knack for getting in front of a microphone and saying to the American public: This is what the situation is, and this is what the situation requires; and so this is what we are going to do, and this is how we're going to do it.
I dreamt the new president might say something like: "The evidence is in, the science is real. [Obama actually did say that shortly after taking office.] To protect the world and get into step with international efforts, we need to cut U.S. carbon emissions 50 percent by 2050. [That actually is the administration's stated policy.] To do that, we need to start cutting emissions sharply right now, so that they'll be 20 percent lower by 2020, in line with what Europe is doing. [Ouch! Is this getting too specific?] Accordingly, we are going to enact a carbon tax that will make the cost of coal-generated electricity about 50 percent more expensive and average retail electricity prices about 25 percent higher. [What??] Everybody will have an incentive to use energy more sensibly. Generators will switch from high carbon fuels like coal to low carbon fuels like natural gas and zero-carbon electricity sources like nuclear, hydro, solar, and wind. [Well, that could make sense.]
"We will recognize [the new president continues] that some regions and lower-income groups will be adversely affected, and so we shall take measures to protect them. But we will not make any special deals with industry groups or specific companies. The energy business has had a decade and a half to see this coming, and in many cases shareholders have told corporate directors to get ready. So industry groups need not use proceeds from energy sales to buy image ads. They can use that money, instead, to adjust to the new realities of the world."
Of course life is never so simple. Even in country like France, with its Napoleonic tradition of rational, scientific management, when its president introduced a carbon tax recently, instead of its being greeted as a logical conclusion from first principles, it was universally condemned as either too much or too little. Sarkozy, instead of reaping the credit he expected from environmentalists, was chewed to pieces by everybody from left to right.
Still, wouldn't it be nice if, just once and a while, we could make policy strictly on the basis of recognized ends and more efficient and effective means?