Follow-up to Alan Colmes’ Interview

During my interview last week with Alan Colmes (embedded below), a few points were discussed that warrant some elaboration.

The first is the conversion from winter to summer gasoline, which I have written about in more detail at Why Summer Gasoline Means Higher Prices. Just to be clear, this is an underlying reason that gasoline prices rise at this time every year, but it is not the reason that gas prices are higher today than they were at this time last year. We started the year at a higher level for other reasons, but summer gasoline explains why — even if you took the geopolitical factors out of the equation — that gasoline prices will normally rise from about February to May and then fall from August to November. We do notice this especially in election years, and use it to confirm our belief that politicians or oil companies are influencing prices to win elections.

The second point concerns the Keystone XL pipeline. I was asked whether I supported the pipeline, and I said that I did. This was also noted in the TPM interview I did last week. This has prompted multiple people to ask “How can you support renewable energy if you also support that pipeline?” The answer to that is pretty straightforward, and here is a thought experiment to help understand it. If you support renewable energy, do you also support current oil production operations? You might at first answer “No”, until the question becomes “Would you like to see all oil production stop today?” When the implications of what that might mean start to sink in, the answer will change to “I support phasing out oil production as we phase in renewables.” So the truth is, people who understand our dependence upon oil will support current oil production efforts, because without them large numbers of people would start to die as food can no longer be transported around the world.

So that explains my support of both Keystone and renewable energy. I foresee the possibility of a serious gap between the renewable energy we would like to produce and the energy we demand, and Keystone is an insurance policy that connects us to a friendly supply of oil. I hope that renewables ramp up and make the oil from the pipeline unnecessary, but it is there nonetheless if we need it. (On the other hand, I disagree with those who believe Keystone XL will provide any significant relief from high gasoline prices).

I also believe there has been tremendous misinformation about the pipeline, coming largely from pipeline opponents. I have discussed some of these issues in Pipelines and Tar Sands: Cure the Disease Not the Symptoms, but I will provide one example here to illustrate. Keystone opponent and NASA scientist Jim Hansen has said that the pipeline would be the “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet” and that if it is built it is “game over” for the climate. Frankly, I expect more from scientists than this sort of hyperbole, because it harms their credibility and makes it look like their decisions are agenda-based and not science-based.

Why do I say this is hyperbole? Scientific American reports:

Is the Keystone Pipeline a Shortcut to Catastrophic Climate Change?

new analysis by scientists at the University of Victoria in British Columbia suggests burning all those proven reserves would release enough CO2 to warm the climate by only one 20th of a degree Celsius. Global warming to date is 15 times that. And if humanity figured out a way to burn all 1.8 trillion barrels of bitumen in the tar sands? That would warm things by 0.36 degrees Celsius.

There you have it. The “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet” and “game over” for the climate? Give me a break. The paper notes — as I have maintained for a long time — that the biggest carbon bomb on the planet is coal, and most coal is burned in Asia Pacific. But since all of this hyperbole has been wasted on the oil sands, how then do you get people concerned about all of the coal being burned in Asia Pacific, the real “carbon bomb?” This oil sands stuff is small potatoes relative to the coal, but you have already argued that the oil sands are the biggest carbon bomb.

The third point is that during the interview, Alan asked me about my upcoming book (scheduled to be released a the end of this month), and I said “the theme of the book is that there is no free lunch in our energy options. Everything has a cost.” He followed up with “So, what is the cost with something like wind or solar power?”

One of the costs that these sources have in common is that a lot of space is required for a relatively small amount of intermittent power that in most cases must be backed up by fossil fuel power. (While farming can still be done around wind turbines, the land area around is compromised in certain ways by the turbines). As I said, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue both sources (and I indicated that I thought solar power is the long term answer), but this is in fact one of the costs. The recent controversy over the BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah solar power project was recently summarized by the Los Angeles Times in The Power Compromise (the title was originally Sacrificing the desert to save the Earth). In a nutshell the project is going to have a very large footprint relative to a nuclear power plant, for instance. That is a cost, and I strongly believe that we need to understand and discuss the costs and trade-offs of our energy options in order to make informed choices.

The fact is that energy can be a complex topic. Trying to characterize some of these issues in short sound bites might will inevitably mislead and confuse people. Some people see an issue like Keystone XL in black and white: You either support renewable energy OR you support Keystone XL. But it’s not that simple, and I just wanted to elaborate on some points from the interview to make my points clearer.