As a business strategy, the legitimate conversion of a liability into income is the most successful possible outcome.
Creative accounting is not new to the energy sector as witness Enron’s inflation of revenues through a model that failed to record the cost of goods sold. This and like aggressive accounting tactics confused both shareholders and analysts alike with the result they were ultimately burned by the biggest bankruptcy in American history to that point.
Overhanging the planet today is a far greater potential calamity based on inadequate disclosure of the liabilities associated with the burning of fossil fuels and the attempted concealment of the bad news.
Steve Cicala, an assistant professor in the Harris School of Public Policy, argues in a recent Forbes article that it is “theft” when a third party suffers costs without compensation, as a result of a mutually beneficial exchange between two other parties such as the purchase of electricity by a consumer from a power company.
The “externalities” or effect on third parties resulting from the burning fossil fuels is estimated in the trillions by the end of this century. By 2070 it could be as high as $35 trillion as a consequence of just a half meter of sea level rise, which is but one of eight ways climate change puts the world in peril.
The laundering of part of the revenue from the sale of fossil fuels through the political capitals of the world and the world’s advertising agencies insures that the workings of the fossil fuel industry carry on apace inspite of the mayhem they are creating.
Even Milton Friedman, one of the 20th century’s most prominent advocates of free enterprise, admitted in a 1979 interview on the Phil Donahue show, that there is a case for governments to do something about pollution. What that should be is to impose a tax on the cost of the pollutants so that their producers are incentivized to keep the amount they produce down.
The cost of this tax would of course be borne by the energy consumer.
The extent to which the fossil fuel industry has to lower its production was outlined in the paper, “Greenhouse-Gas Emission Targets for Limiting Global Warming to 2C,” published in the April 2009 edition of Nature by a team led by Malte Meinshausen, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact. Two degrees Celsius is the upper limit the parties to the Copenhagen Accord of 2009 agreed atmospheric temperatures can be allowed to rise if the worst effects of climate change are to be avoided. The paper suggests burning all of the world’s proven fossil fuel reserves isn’t an option if that goal is to be attained.
The 2012 World Energy Outlook published by the International Energy Agency refined the situation by pointing out: “No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal, unless carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is widely deployed.”
So this leaves fossil fuel producers, investors and users to say nothing of politicians in a tough spot.
Leaving two-thirds of their assets in the ground means industry and its investors would have to a write-off as much as $28 trillion and exploration for new reserves would cease in view of the fact that industry could not sell all that it already has discovered.
CCS on the other hand is all overhead thus energy costs will rise for consumers, while the climate benefits to them and uninvolved third parties of the implementation of these technologies will remain uncertain.
What if energy producers though could continue to produce all the energy they needed to thrive; some of it even from fossil fuels, even as they mitigated past and future climate damage?
The essence of global warming is ocean warming. About 93 percent of the heat trapped due to greenhouse gases has gone into the oceans; mostly the upper 750 meters, leaving 3500 meters of a massive and benign heat sink unused.
Stephen Rahmstorf, one of the lead authors of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, points out in a recent RealClimate article, “Ocean heat content has increased by about 2.5 X 1023 Joules since 1970 (IPCC AR5). What would be the impact of that? The answer is: it depends. If this heat were evenly distributed over the entire global ocean, water temperatures would have warmed on average by less than 0.05 °C (global ocean mass 1.4 × 1021 kg, heat capacity 4 J/gK). This tiny warming would have essentially zero impact. The only reason why ocean heat uptake does have an impact is the fact that it is highly concentrated at the surface, where the warming is therefore noticeable (see Fig. 1). Thus in terms of impacts the problem is surface warming.”
Since the problem is surface warming, the obvious solution is to move that heat away from the surface and into the deeper ocean where the impact would be virtually zero.
A heat pipe is the fastest and most efficient way to move large volumes of heat. It also is a device that lends itself to the production of energy by the movement of vapor through a turbine. Estimates are the oceans can produce at least as much energy as is currently derived from fossil fuels with enough of these systems. This energy has a commercial value that would offset the cost of climate remediation and these costs are bound to decline with economies of scale and developmental experience as opposed to the ever increasing costs of harder and harder to obtain fossil fuels.
This is a legitimate and productive conversion of a liability into income.
It is the conversion of the greatest liability the world faces into an equally colossal opportunity.
Energy companies, their investors, consumers and third parties who stand to be harmed by climate change need to take note of this solution to the predicament they face.