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How will Comprehensive Clean Energy and Climate Legislation Move Us Beyond Petroleum?

Dan Lashof

Posted May 10, 2010 in Solving Global Warming

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In previous posts I have argued that it would be an historic mistake if our response to the disaster in the Gulf is limited to plugging the well and cleaning up the spill as best we can, and I have noted that the spill makes it more likely that Congress will enact some kind of energy legislation this year.

Now the question is: What will the legislation actually look like, and will it set us on a course to fundamentally change how we produce and consume energy so we can end our dependence on oil and other dirty and dangerous fossil fuels once and for all?

Faced with the need to show they are doing something in response to a crisis, the natural tendency of politicians is to pass legislation that does very little and then claim that it does very much. We just can’t afford to let that happen this time. As Thomas Friedman put it last week:

If we settle for just an incremental response to this crisis — a “Hey, that’s our democracy. What more can you expect?” — we’ll be sorry. You can’t fool Mother Nature. She knows when we’re just messing around. Mother Nature operates by her own iron laws. And if we violate them, there is no lobby or big donor to get us off the hook. No, what’s gone will be gone. What’s ruined will be ruined. What’s extinct will be extinct — and later, when we’re finally ready to stop messing around, it will be too late.

So what should be in any bill that is more than just messing around?

A comprehensive bill that limits carbon pollution would help end our oil addiction in three ways:  (1) it would reduce demand for oil (by holding oil companies responsible for the carbon content of their products and by creating specific incentives for efficiency improvements), (2) it would spur innovation in cleaner alternatives (by giving investors certainty that the clean energy market will grow steadily), and (3) as we make the transition away from an oil-based transportation system, it would promote safer sources of oil from wells that have already been drilled on-shore in the U.S.  (by creating an ample supply of CO2 captured from power plants and other sources that would be used for enhanced oil recovery).

The foundation of a comprehensive bill is limiting carbon pollution from all major sources; that will drive investments in clean energy and ensure that we transition away from dependence on oil and other fossil fuels.  Clear, enforceable pollution standards that get tighter each year would provide certainty that can’t be achieved in any other way. That certainty is essential to protect the environment, but it is equally important for the economy.  As Larry Summers, Director of the National Economic Council, pointed out last month, clear standards will allow businesses, both large and small, to make the long-term investments needed to produce the cleaner cars and cleaner fuels that will end our addiction to oil.

As important as they are, national carbon pollution limits will not cut oil demand fast enough by themselves. A recent analysis by EPA shows that we could reduce U.S. oil consumption by almost 7 million barrels per day compared to business-as-usual by 2030.  By comparison we currently produce only 1.6 million barrels per day off the Gulf coast. According to EPA, over 80% of new cars and light trucks could be hybrids, plug-in hybrids or pure electric vehicles in the next two decades. Communities could be more livable and less oil dependent because of expanded transit and other alternatives to driving. Freight trucks could also save oil with dramatically more efficient drive-trains, better operations and shifting some freight to rail and ship.

We could achieve a 7 million barrel per day oil savings goal by combining overall pollution limits, further progress on vehicle efficiency and emissions standards beyond 2016, and specific oil savings policies to develop the infrastructure and the domestic manufacturing capacity to ensure that oil-based alternatives are affordable, convenient and made in America.

Policies such as:

  • Incentives to retool Detroit to produce more fuel efficient vehicles
  • Investments in electrification of the car and light duty truck fleet
  • Development of sustainable domestic biofuels made from biomass feedstocks that don’t compete with food production
  • Efficiency standards and substitution of natural gas for diesel fuel in medium and heavy-duty trucks
  • Expansion of  public transportation options
  • Improvements in our air traffic control system and freight network that enhance efficiency

Meanwhile we can increase domestic production from existing onshore wells using carbon dioxide (CO2) captured from power plants and other industrial sources. The CO2 is injected to force additional oil out of fields that can no longer be tapped using conventional methods. After the enhanced oil recovery operation is complete the CO2 can be permanently secured in these depleted reservoirs. A recent analysis by the oil industry consulting firm Advanced Resources International shows that if the industry had access to ample supplies of CO2 it could produce an additional 3 million barrels of oil per day in this way by 2030.

Proponents of offshore drilling claim that we have to choose between endangering our precious coasts and relying on oil imports from dangerous regimes. It’s time to reject that false choice. Instead we can reduce our demand for oil and increase our supply from safer onshore fields. The Senate must pass comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation now so America can retake control of our energy situation.

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Ross LysingerMay 10 2010 08:38 PM

I agree that comprehensive legislation limiting CO2 emissions must be written and acted upon immediately with aggressive goals. These goals must include all CO2 emissions, not just vehicle emissions. By swapping vehicle fossil fuel emissions for electrical fossil fuel emissions - little is accomplished. Your excellent argument brushes aside these upstream emissions with a passing nod to alternative biofuels. Algae Biofuel is becoming quite viable and is carbon negative unlike most other agricultural feedstocks.
Furthermore, the US must push forward with Thorium nuclear power generation as well as wind, solar, etc..

Dan LashofMay 11 2010 10:27 PM

Thanks for your comment. I completely agree that we need to account for upstream emissions. In my post I say "The foundation of a comprehensive bill is limiting carbon pollution from all major sources." That definitely includes emissions from power plants.

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