, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The frantic rush to force transition to a zero-carbon future is unnecessary and destructive to both economic well-being and the global environment. I do not subscribe to the view that a zero-carbon goal is an eventual necessity, but even if we stipulate that it is, a rational transition would eschew the immediate abandonment of fossil fuels and adopt a gradual approach relying heavily on market signals rather than a mad dash via coercion.

I’ve written about exaggerated predictions of temperature trends and catastrophes on a number of occasions (and see here for a similar view from a surprising source). What might be less obvious is the waste inherent in forcing the abandonment of mature and economic technologies in favor of, as yet, under-developed and uneconomic technologies. These failures should be obvious when the grid fails, as it does increasingly. It is often better to leave the development and dispersion of new technologies to voluntary decision-making. In time, advances will make alternative, low- or zero-carbon energy sources cost effective and competitive to users. That will include efficient energy storage at scale, new nuclear technologies, geothermal techniques, and further improvements in the carbon efficiency of fossil fuels themselves. These should be chosen by private industry, not government planners.

Boneheads At the Helm

Production of fossil fuels has been severely hampered by the Biden Administration’s policies. The sanctions on Russian oil that only began to take hold in March have caused an additional surge in the price of oil. Primarily, however, we’ve witnessed an artificial market disruption instigated by Biden’s advisors on environmental policy. After all, neither Russian oil imports nor the more recent entreaties to rogue states as Iraq and Venezuela for oil would have been necessary if not for the Administration’s war on fossil fuels. Take a gander at this White House Executive Order issued in January 2021. It reads like a guidebook on how to kill an industry. In a column this weekend, Kevin Williamson quipped about “the Biden administration’s uncanny ability to get everything everywhere wrong all at once.” That was about policy responses to inflation, but it applies to energy in particular.

Scorning the Miracle

Fossil fuels are the source of cheap and reliable energy that have lifted humanity to an unprecedented level of prosperity. Fossil fuels have given a comfortable existence to billions of people, allowing them to rise out of poverty. This prosperity gives us the luxury of time to develop substitutes, not to mention much greater safety against the kind of weather extremes that have always been a fact of life. The world still gets 80% of its energy from fossil fuels. These fuels are truly a miracle, and we should not discard such valuable technologies prematurely. That forces huge long-term investments in inferior technologies that are likely to be superseded in the future by more economic refinements or even energy sources and methods now wholly unimagined. There are investors who will still wish to pursue those new technologies, perhaps with non pecuniary motives, and there are a few consumers who really want alternatives to fossil fuels.

Biden’s apparent hope that his aggressive climate agenda will be a great legacy of his presidency is at the root of his intransigence toward fossil fuels. His actions in this regard have had a profoundly negative psychological effect on the oil and gas industry. Steps such as cancellations of pipeline projects are immediately impactful in that regard, to say nothing of the supplies that would have ultimately flowed through those pipelines. These cancellations reinforce the message Biden’s been sending to the industry and its investors since his campaign: we mean to shut you down! Who wants to invest in new wells under those circumstances? Other actions have followed: no new federal oil and gas leases, methane restrictions, higher drilling fees on federal land, and a variety of climate change initiatives that bode ill for the industry, such as the SEC’s mandate on carbon disclosures and the Federal Reserve’s proposed role in policing climate impacts.

And now, Democrats are contemplating a move that would make gasoline even more scarce: price controls. As Don Boudreaux says in a recent letter to The Hill:

Progressives incessantly threaten to tax and regulate carbon fuels into oblivion. These threats cannot but reduce investors’ willingness to fund each of the many steps – from exploration through refining to transporting gasoline to market – that are necessary to keep energy prices low. One reality reflected by today’s high prices at the pump is this hostility to carbon fuels generally and to petroleum especially. And gasoline price controls would only make matters worse by further reducing the attractiveness of investing in the petroleum industry: Why invest in bringing products to market if the prices at which you’re allowed to sell are dictated by grandstanding politicians?

The kicker is that all these policies are futile in terms of their actual impact on global carbon concentrations, let alone their highly tenuous link to global temperatures. The policies are also severely regressive, inflicting disproportionate harm on the poor, who can least afford such an extravagant transition. Biden wants the country to sacrifice its standard of living in pursuit of these questionable goals, while major carbon-emitting nations like China and India essentially ignore the issue.

Half-Baked Substitution

Market intervention always has downsides to balance against the potential gains of “internalizing externalities”. In this case, the presumed negative externalities are imagined harms of catastrophic climate change from the use of fossil fuels; the presumed external benefits are the avoidance of carbon emissions and climate change via renewables and other “zero-carbon” technologies. With those harms and gains in question, it’s especially important to ask who loses. Taxpayers are certainly on that list. Users of energy produced with fossil fuels end up paying higher prices and are forced to conserve or submit to coerced conversion away from fossil fuels. Then there are the wider impediments to economic growth and, as noted above, the distributional consequences.

Users of immature or inferior energy alternatives might also end up as losers, and there are likely to be external costs associated with those technologies as well. It’s not widely appreciated that today’s so-called clean energy alternatives are plagued by their need to obtain certain minerals that are costly to extract in economic and environmental terms, not to mention highly carbon intensive. And when solar and wind facilities fail or reach the end of their useful lives, disposal creates another set of environmental hazards. In short, the loses imposed through forced internalization of highly uncertain externalities are all too real.

Unfortunately, the energy sources favored by the Administration fail to meet base-load power needs on windless and/or cloudy days. The intermittency of these key renewables means that other power sources, primarily fossil-fuel and nuclear capacity, must remain available to meet demand on an ongoing basis. That means the wind and solar cannot strictly replace fossil fuels and nuclear capacity unless we’re willing to tolerate severe outages. Growth in energy demand met by renewables must be matched by growth in backup capacity.

A call for “energy pragmatism” by Dan Ervin hinges on the use of coal to provide the “bridge to the energy future”, both because there remains a large amount of coal generating capacity and it can stabilize the grid given the intermittency of wind and solar. Ervin also bases his argument for coal on recent increases in the price of natural gas, though a reversal of the Biden EPA’s attacks on gas and coal, which Ervin acknowledges, would argue strongly in favor of natural gas as a pragmatic way forward.

Vehicle Mandates

The Administration has pushed mandates for electric vehicle (EV) production and sales, including subsidized charging stations. Of course, the power used by EVs is primarily generated by fossil fuels. Furthermore, rapid growth in EVs will put a tremendous additional strain on the electric grid, which renewables will not be able to relieve without additional backup capacity from fossil fuels and nuclear. This severely undermines the supposed environmental benefits of EVs.

Once again, mandates and subsidies are necessary because EV technology is not yet economic for most consumers. Those buyers don’t want to spend what’s necessary to purchase an EV, nor do they wish to suffer the inconveniences that re-charging often brings. This is a case in which policy is outrunning the ability of the underlying infrastructure required to support it. And while adoption of EVs is growing, it is still quite low (and see here).

Wising Up

Substitution into new inputs or technologies happens more rationally when prices accurately reflect true benefits and scarcities. The case for public subsidies and mandates in the push for a zero-carbon economy rests on model predictions of catastrophic global warming and a theoretical link between U.S. emissions and temperatures. Both links are weak and highly uncertain. What is certain is the efficiency of fossil fuels to power gains in human welfare.

This Bartley J. Madden quote sums up a philosophy of progress that is commendable for firms, and probably no less for public policymakers:

Keep in mind that innovation is the key to sustainable progress that jointly delivers on financial performance and taking care of future generations through environmental improvements.

Madden genuflects to the “sustainability” crowd, who otherwise don’t understand the importance of trusting markets to guide innovation. If we empower those who wish to crush private earnings from existing technologies, we concede the future to central planners, who are likely to choose poorly with respect to technology and timing. Let’s forego the coercive approach in favor of time, development, and voluntary adoption!