James Hansen used to say he couldn’t imagine a better person to head the DOE than Stephen Chu.
Both men entered political life to do something about getting civilization to respond to the evidence for climate change.
Yet the Keystone XL issue has them on opposing sides. Hansen led those protesting the pipeline proposal on the streets in front of the White House to the point of being arrested. Chu’s position as an integral part of the Obama Administration has him saying he favors the project: he calls it a tradeoff involving environmental damage, economic prosperity and national security.
Keystone XL became the issue it is because of Hansen.
Hansen sees the various potential sources of fossil fuel that remain in the Earth’s crust somewhat differently than do economists or oil industry executives. Economists just classify deposits as “resources” or “reserves”, depending on market prices. As one class of “reserves”, such as conventional oil, runs out, higher prices drive the “invisible hand” of the market to direct investment and technological innovation to convert some new part of the “resource” i.e. tar sand, into new “reserves”. The ramped up development of tar sand oil which has resulted in the Keystone XL pipeline proposal illustrates this process.
Now it is true that Hansen does call for a carbon tax, which would have the effect of reducing the incredible power of markets to convert fossil carbon in the Earth’s crust into CO2 in the atmosphere. Chu agrees: he also supports politics that would force markets to price CO2 emissions.
But Hansen also sees the remaining fossil fuel resources that could potentially be turned into reserves in a way more like a friend of a drug addict might see things if their friend showed signs of experimenting with a more dangerous drug. It is this idea of his that led to the Keystone XL protest.
Hansen believes that committing the US more firmly to using tar sand oil by building Keystone XL, as opposed to just using up conventional oil and finding new energy from other zero or low carbon new sources, is like watching a friend move from soft drugs to heroin.
He sees the situation like this:
Note that the “methane hydrates” bar may actually be several times taller than depicted. Recent research indicates there may be as much as is shown here just in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.
And, Hansen cut the estimated size of the unconventional resources depicted by one half to reflect current skepticism about how much can ultimately be extracted.
This chart is slide 23 in an August 2011 PowerPoint presentation by Hansen
(For background on how serious Hansen takes the accumulation of CO2 that is ongoing as civilization uses fossil fuels: Hansen’s 2007 presentation to the largest gathering of planetary scientists that takes place annually in the world, i.e. the American Geophysical Union meeting held each year in San Francisco, stated that if all the fossil fuels depicted in this chart are converted to CO2 and allowed to enter the atmosphere, it is a “dead certainty” that Earth will experience a “Venus syndrome” where its surface temperature rises beyond the boiling point of water, the oceans boil away, and life on Earth ends. He doesn’t have a model that predicts this. He says that because the Sun has increased in power enough since the last time there was this much carbon in the atmosphere, and the amount of methane hydrates which are subject to become a positive feedback to this is greater now than prior to the PETM, he fears this ultimate worst case scenario will become true. He isn’t claiming he has solid science: he’s basically saying, he’s got a bad feeling about this.)
Back to the chart. He believes no one is going to be able to do anything about the conventional oil that is left. He usually cites two reasons for this: we are too committed to using this once cheap and easily obtainable oil for transport, and the countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia where most of what’s left of this oil is cannot be stopped from producing and selling it.
You won’t find Hansen saying that if any more of this “conventional” oil is used its “game over”, the way he is doing with tar sand oil. The only other part of the fossil fuel reserves he has protested to the point of getting arrested in the past has been coal. He’s granting a “free pass” to the producers and users of conventional oil. Once he’s granted a free pass into the atmosphere for the CO2 that will be emitted as civilization uses all this oil and gas, because he believes the CO2 accumulation that’s already there commits our descendants to life on a planet completely unlike and with less carrying capacity than the one we inherited, he’s left with condemning any further coal and unconventional oil and gas use in the harshest possible terms.
Hence the rhetorical heat generated over Keystone XL.
He seems to think it would be possible to arouse the population of North America to the point people would stop using the great fossil fuel resources of this continent except for the remaining basically depleted “conventional” oil and gas, while these same North Americans would stand by and allow the Saudis and the rest of the oil barons of the Middle East and Russia to do whatever they felt like because their oil is somehow different. It doesn’t seem realistic.
In some ways, therefore, I prefer the ideas of Chu. Chu wants a global agreement to put a price on carbon, urgent development of alternative energy supply such as nuclear and renewables, dramatic gains in energy efficiency, all aimed at capping the accumulated level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as low as conceivably possible.
Unlike Hansen, Chu does not dismiss the possibility, which Hansen thinks is now remote, that breakthroughs with renewables R&D could occur making these sources of energy more realistic. Chu sees the need to develop everything possible.
Chu, again unlike Hansen, is optimistic about carbon capture. He’s pouring DOE funds into R&D and deployment. Carbon capture is dismissed by most of Hansen’s “green friends”. Chu has studied the technology and is on record saying: “Energy efficiency is the lowest cost solution, but CCS is not far behind”. With carbon capture the political problem of how to persuade the powerful interests committed to the use of fossil fuels to address climate change becomes less. With a high price on CO2 emission and carbon capture available, drawing distinctions between fossil fuels depending on whether its tar sand oil transported via Keystone XL, “conventional” US oil, coal to liquids refined products, or whatever becomes unnecessary.
Chu favors any way to put a price on carbon, cap and trade, carbon tax, command and control, anything the political system can implement. On the other hand, Hansen actually called for the Copenhagen negotiations to fail because his favored idea, a carbon tax 100% returned to individuals, was not made the heart of the agreement. This was even though nothing the negotiators wrote down would have restricted any country bound to the overall provisions of the treaty from choosing a carbon tax implemented Hansen’s way as their method of meeting their national obligations.
And so, although Hansen must be taken seriously because of his distinguished record of being correct when he takes a controversial new position on how to interpret the scientific data on climate change, he appears to be on less sound ground when it comes to politics.
But I find myself very much an admirer of Hansen’s energy. He’s trying out his best ideas to get through to people that we are limiting the future of all our descendants on a timeframe as far ahead as we can meaningfully consider. What civilization is doing now to the composition of the atmosphere will have consequences stretching out for tens of thousands of years and longer.
This is just his latest tactic. He wants his descendants to know he did whatever he could. I love him for that. It may be that the sacrifice of thousands getting arrested over Keystone XL will help convince others this issue is serious. If so, I’ll be happy to concede Hansen was on the right track to inspire this protest.