A Race to the Truth, Part 1

We have come to a point in the election season where the courage of the candidates and the intelligence of the voters are being severely tested. So far, the candidates are flunking.
The public’s grade is pending.

The test is about oil and national security. Over the past several months, consumers showed their smarts by recognizing that a gas-tax holiday was pandering and by responding to high gasoline prices with conservation. Conservation is one of the factors that have resulted in the drop in gasoline prices.

Now, it appears that public opinion has shifted in favor of drilling for more oil, even though the experts say it will have no short-term impact on prices or long-term impact energy security. (I say “appears to have shifted” because at least one expert — David Moore, the former head of Gallup — thinks public opinion is not so clear-cut. When asked a question that gives them a choice, Moore says, half or more of the respondents favor conservation over drilling.)

It’s disappointing, but no surprise, that the candidates’ positions have swung with the pro-drilling polls. John McCain has reversed his opposition on off-shore oil drilling, so passionately that he wants to drill whenever and wherever he’s standing at the moment.

Barack Obama has reversed his opposition, too, so long as offshore drilling is done with environmental protections and as part of a broader energy package.

Nancy Pelosi promises that Democrats will have a drilling bill waiting when Congress returns to work. And in the nation’s hottest U.S. Senate race, Colorado’s democratic candidate, Mark Udall, has changed his position on drilling as the voters in that important swing state have warmed to more oil production.

For his part, McCain is promising that more drilling will mean “energy independence” for the United States. Someone might ask him how prolonging our participation in a world oil market brings independence — or whether energy independence is possible under any scenario in a global economy. The fact is, the United States could stop importing oil tomorrow and our economy still would be vulnerable to vicissitudes of the world market. For example, last time I looked, six of our top 10 trading partners were net oil importers. When they suffer from spiking oil prices or declining supplies, we feel their pain.

Of more interest to me, however, is this question: How do McCain, Obama and the other candidates who profess to understand the climate problem reconcile the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions with their support for more fossil energy production?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that the world must stabilize carbon dioxide emissions by 2015 in order to keep atmospheric concentrations at levels that give us any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.

In other words, CO2 emissions in the U.S. must level off and start to decline only six years after the next president and the next Congress take office — six years to accomplish the type of radical energy transition that in the past has taken 50 years or more.

After nations met in Bali last December, the head of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, said that even 2015 is soon enough. “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late,” he said. “What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”

So, how does their support for more oil production (and by extension more oil consumption) define the political candidates? Is there a leader among them who will step forward to shape public opinion rather than catering to it, and to tell voters that we must face some difficult truths? For example:

  • This is the moment that the world must shift to a new energy economy. We’ve known for more than 30 years that this was coming. We have little or no control over oil supplies or oil prices, and therefore no control over our own economic security. That must be fixed.
  • This is the moment we must make dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. There is no more wiggle room or time for procrastination. Every year we delay makes solutions more expensive and more difficult. Soon, there will be no solutions left because climate change will beyond our influence.
  • This is the moment we must get control of our own security. Our foreign policy, and the foreign polices of other nations, have been corrupted for generations by our addiction to oil. One doesn’t have to go back to the Shah of Iran or even to the wars in Iraq to find oil’s perverse influence on world affairs and American foreign policy. Look at what Russia is doing now that its energy supplies give it visions of returning to superpower status; look at the restrained response from Europe, which wants Russia’s natural gas.
  • We don’t need candidates who dumb-down our predicament, or who treat each problem as though energy, climate and national security are not interconnected. We need a rapid shift to an energy economy that quickly cuts carbon emissions, gives us economic stability with infinite energy supplies, reduces the massive flow of American wealth to oil-producing nations, stops subsidizing terrorism, and doesn’t require that we send our children to war once or twice a generation to secure foreign oil fields. Like all of those families trying to get along in our broken carbon economy, our solutions must work more than one job at a time.

    So with all appropriate humility, I issue a challenge to this year’s candidates for public office: If you want to drill for more oil or burn more coal, tell us how that squares with the need to address climate change. If you want to build more nuclear power plants, how does that square with the need to stop rogue nations and terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons and dirty bombs? Or with the need to have fewer targets for terrorism here at home? If you want the United States to continue relying on global oil and gas markets, how does that square with economic stability?

    If you want to prevent terrorism, how does that square with keeping a deeply offensive military presence in Islamic lands to protect oil fields and oil routes? If you’re the candidate to protect national security, how does that square with failing to prevent runaway climate crises in some of the most volatile regions in the world?

    We’re not getting those answers today. Instead, as the candidates shift toward more drilling, they’re tacitly endorsing the situation described by John Deutsch, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency:

    The United States has been unwilling to adopt and to sustain policy measures that would slow the trend and begin the long process of a transition to a post-petroleum economy. Our citizens and their elected representatives do not wish to sacrifice, in the short-run, the convenience and economic benefits of low-cost energy.

    Even if that were acceptable policy — and it’s not — it’s based on a fallacy: Oil is no longer low-cost energy. It hasn’t been for a very long time and it never will be again. We’re paying with our defense budget; with the lives of our young men and women in the military and with the welfare of their families; with the extraordinary monetary costs of the Iraq war; and with the emerging costs of coping with extreme weather and the other consequences of climate change.

    We need more than a presidential race; we need a race to the truth. As former U.S. Senator and former presidential candidate Gary Hart puts it: “The first presidential candidate to introduce into the public dialogue a new understanding of security and the means to achieve it will have demonstrated the kind of leadership worthy of election and of governance.”

    — Bill B.

    17 Responses to A Race to the Truth, Part 1

    1. charlesH says:

      “Now, it appears that public opinion has shifted in favor of drilling for more oil, even though the experts say it will have no short-term impact on prices or long-term impact energy security. (I say “appears to have shifted” because at least one expert — David Moore, the former head of Gallup — thinks public opinion is not so clear-cut. When asked a question that gives them a choice, Moore says, half or more of the respondents favor conservation over drilling.)”

      A couple of points

      1) Most people believe (correctly I think) that its far better to our pay fellow citizens for oil than foreign countries, irrespective of the impact drilling might have on near term prices.

      2) Conservation always sounds good as a concept. “Do with out you already waste too much – its good for the planet” doesn’t play so well with the electorate when the political class in not “doing without”.

    2. John Hollenberg says:

      Charles, conservation does not necessarily mean “doing without” (although that is one method of conservation). It can also mean “doing with”: using CFL instead of incandescents, getting a new energy star refrigerator if yours is more than 10 years old (will probably pay for itself in saved electric costs over 10 years), keeping your tires properly inflated, buying energy efficient appliances, unplugging the energy-sucking vampires around the house that don’t really need to be plugged in, installing insulation in older houses, etc. Many of these things can be done with little effect on lifestyle, but if everyone did them there would be a profound effect on energy use.

      That is just on a personal level. On the state level, laws that encourage conservation of energy can make a huge difference (see Joe’s article on California’s work on conservation of energy). The utility decoupling that has been written about a lot on this blog is another example, where utilities profits are not tied to how much energy is used.

    3. Robert says:

      For all the billions of words written and spoken about climate change, once in a while its worth remembering that we are making absolutely no progress whatsoever in cutting emissions. In fact, the graph of atmospheric CO2 concentration just keeps getting steeper.

      This tells me that whatever we are doing just plain isn’t working. The political setup at all levels could not have been designed better to ignore the problem. Politicians become unelectable if they propose to do anything meaningful, so all are reduced to frustrating greenwash tokenism. We are seeing this now in the US Presidential elections and have seen the same pattern most other places around the world.

      I get particularly irritated on blogs like this one, which seem to suggest that the problem can be solved by a few well chosen “technofixes”. It won’t be, and suggesting it will is the worst form of denial.

      Until the world finds a way to put emission control first and everything else second this CO2 chart WILL keep rising. This would probably require some form of draconian George Orwell-style world government. I’m not sure I want that any more than climate change. But lets stop mucking about pretending that raising CAFE standards and changing lightbulbs will make any difference.

    4. charlesH says:


      Nothing is stopping personal conservation. We already have utliities telling users how to save electricity if we can’t figure it out on our own.

      What we are talking about is $4 gas. People are free to chose to spend more, drive less or get a more fuel efficient car. All three choices are morally acceptable.

      However, the electorate doesn’t like it ($4 gas) and will vote out of office those who propose higher energy prices or mandated restrictions as a matter of public policy. The only way to get cleaner energy is to push low cost clean energy. High cost clean energy will never achieve broad public support (witness what is going on in Europe, India, China etc).

    5. Robert says:

      When the going gets tough the tough give up…

    6. John Hollenberg says:

      Robert, I hear your frustration. However, the situation may not be as bleak as you describe. Here are quotes from James Hansen from August, 2008:

      “I contend that readily available oil (the big pools, being tapped already) inevitably will be used, and this oil-CO2 will end up in the air, because it is used in vehicles, where CO2 cannot be captured.”

      “Regardless of actual reserves, Fig. 1b shows that if CO2 emissions from coal were phased out over the period 2010-2030, and if use of unconventional fossil fuels (tar shale, tar sands) remained negligible, atmospheric CO2 would peak at 400-425 ppm.”

      You can read the entire letter here:

      Dr. Hansen is suggesting that all oil and natural gas will be used, but since we are running out of them the problem is likely to be self-limiting before the climate consequences get too bad. This is not the case with coal, which he estimates may peak around 2077 (perhaps not in this letter, but in one of his studies). Thus the key focus on stopping coal use and leaving coal in the ground. This is still a daunting problem, but not as severe as trying to focus on everything including oil and natural gas. Note that with this scenario, cutting electricity use is paramount (in addition to not building coal plants, and finding renewable sources of energy to replace the existing ones).

      There is an article by Dave Rutledge on suggesting that Peak Coal may come as soon as 2025. Dr. Rutledge is chairman of the department of engineering at Cal Tech, so he certainly has the credentials. You can search for the exact reference.

    7. John Hollenberg says:

      > However, the electorate doesn’t like it ($4 gas) and will vote out of office those who propose higher energy prices or mandated restrictions as a matter of public policy. The only way to get cleaner energy is to push low cost clean energy.

      Charles, it seems to me that $4 gas won’t be around too long, since the price will continue to rise as we hit Peak Oil and demand from China and other countries in the developing world. I expect that the price will continue to go up no matter who is elected to office. How do you propose reversing this situation? What do you suggest will replace the $4 gas?

    8. Robert says:

      John, From a technical point of view the problem could be solved. My concern is that, politically, we have a global system that effectively prevents us doing anything about it. The basic capitalist system (and the concept of democracy) seem to be an extension of our survival of the fittest origins, in which we blindly compete, consume and grow.

      Burning fossil fuels is the easiest way to make energy. When oil and gas become sufficiently scarce we will find that the easiest way to keep our transport network running and heat our buildings is to make liquid fuels from less convenient feedstocks (coal, oil sands). Left unchecked this process will continue until these sources are too scarce to be worth the candle.

      The only ‘ray’ of hope is that solar will become cheap enough to out-compete all fossil fuels. If that happened it is conceivable that solar (and its associated technologies) would displace coal, oil and gas worldwide as the primary source of energy. It is after all very convenient that we have a massive fusion reactor right on our doorstep. Lets hope we find a way to take advantage of it.

    9. Ronald says:

      It will be hard to come up with leaders who will shape public opinion. Events shape public opinion, leaders just take advantage of those events to change the opinion the way they want it.

      For World War II, Roosevelt as candidate for president in 1940 had to pledge to keep the United States out of fighting in Europe and Asia, otherwise he would not have been elected. Japans attack on Pearl Harbor changed all that. He just took advantage of an event, he couldn’t talk the United States into World War II.

      The ability to attack what politicians say is to good now, no one can stand up to well moneyed opposition. They now tell military people who get captured by the enemy to just surrender to torture. The torture has gotten so good that resistance is futile. The only thing that militaries can do is to not let people who have a chance of getting captured in a military campaign, to not have any information that can hurt. The same thing with political campaign, just get elected. With new methods of polling and campaigning, you can’t stand for what is actually true but against popular opinion because you will lose the campaign. Leadership is futile. Campaigns are not the place for leadership, but for getting elected.

      It is for the rest of us to help shape public opinion. Politicians are like weather vanes, they will turn the direction the wind blows. It’s our job to change the direction of the public opinion.

    10. charlesH says:


      As gas and nat gas prices rise the electorate will opt for the lowest cost replacement. Too often that is coal. A better alternative would be nuclear and the even better alternative would be “green” nuclear (thorium LFTR). Wind and solar can certainly play a role but by themselves they cannot sufficiently displace coal. That is Dr Hansen’s observation in a previous post.

    11. Dano says:

      This comment thread reads like the 4th stage of climate denial: we’re causing it, but golly, we can’t do anything about it!!!!! *heart*!!!

      We’ve seen this script before. It rises again, zombie-like, and as equally thoughtful.



    12. John Hollenberg says:

      Charles, I haven’t seen anything on this blog suggesting that nuclear will be cheap. As a matter of fact, the cost estimates keep increasing. Do you have other data that suggests that the life-cycle costs of nuclear (including captial costs) will be less than wind/solar CSP?

    13. charlesH says:


      I am seeing nuclear at about $4B/GWe ($8B/1.6GWe). CSP data is quite sparse. What I have seen is estimates close to nuclear. Then for the same investment one get ~4x the electricity for nuclear because of capacity factor of >90% vs 25%.

      One good clue is to track how many CSP plants are being built vs nuclear WW. Are any of the CSP plants being build without mandates?

      CSP may work for CA (mandates) to offset expensive natural gas (CA has many nat gas plants). But if we want to compete with coal cost wise, nuclear has the best track record. Thats why there are quite a few new nuclear plants being proposed in the US.

      One thing to keep in mind is that older fully depreciated nuclear plants have turned out to be very profitable to utilities. So even though capital costs are higher than coal utilities like the idea of 20-30 yrs from how having fully depreciated nukes in their energy portfolio.

      [JR: Don’t know where you’re seeing that? Nukes are at $6000 to $8000/kw + fuel + monitoring. CSP is already as good as that, and it’s only been (back) around for 3 years!

      Old nukes got sold off too cheaply. That’s why they are profitable.]

    14. charlesH says:

      I don’t know of any CSP plant being built without a mandate. Are you aware of any?

      I’m having a very hard time finding any good info for CSP.

      [JR: I have not seen the contract details myself. That said, I don’t know of any nuclear plant being built absent subsidies — both direct and indirect.]

    15. Earl Killian says:

      A study done by EThree for the California Energy Commission had the following electric power cost estimates in cents per kWh:

      Biogas: 8.552
      Wind: 8.910
      Gas Combined Cycle: 9.382
      Geothermal: 10.182
      Hydroelectric: 10.527
      Coal Supercritical: 10.554
      Coal Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC): 11.481
      Solar thermal: 12.653
      Nuclear: 15.316
      Biomass: 16.485
      Coal IGCC with Carbon Capture & Storage (IGCC with CCS): 17.317

    16. John Hollenberg says:

      Thanks Earl. These numbers are in line with what I have read in various places. Nuclear is just too expensive.

    17. I totally agree, sad part is that this option is totally being sold to the public. Its really quite sad. Thanks for a great post, it sorta inspired mine!

      […]But here’s the half-empty: offshore drilling is not a solution, it’s not even a quick fix – it’s a mistake, plain and simple. The only thing it has to offer is false hope and more environmental damage.[…]