Sunday, June 1, 2008

S. 2191, The Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act of 2007

This Senate bill is the main legislation under consideration in the US for dealing with greenhouse-gas emissions.

Cap and Trade
Its most important feature is cap-and-trade covering utilities, industries, and motor fuels. It's aggressive enough, with ambitious goals, but it has so many escape clauses and offramps that its value has to be deeply discounted. Moreover, the emission rights will be auctioned off to support favorite causes, so it is actually a tax. Many analysts believe taxing carbon emissions is the only way to reduce them. Maybe they're right, but if it's a tax it won't fly. That's a given in US politics. People want the services and benefits that come from government largesse, but they won't vote for any politician who makes them pay taxes.

That pretty well makes the rest of the subject moot, but we'll proceed anyway because some other points have to be part of future discussions.

Carbon Sequestration
Another major feature is an emphasis on CO2 sequestration. It seems that CO2 producers will get credit for pumping CO2 into the ground. The bill contains provisions for determining the capacity of storage locations, but not for evaluating whether or not the CO2 will stay in place.

To date, no sequestration site in the world has been tested for leakage. Furthermore, no one knows how to conduct such a test.

On the subject of sequestration, Senator Jeff Bingaman makes this remark: "Currently there are no formal site selection criteria for carbon dioxide injection wells that will be used for carbon storage." He goes on to explain that the EPA has no clue how to set the criteria. That reflects the impossibility of sequestering CO2 with any confidence.

Under the terms of this bill, utilities can pump CO2 into the ground and act as though it never was generated, without any assurance it won't leak into the atmosphere some decades later. If it does leak, utilities will have paid large amounts for this program, all for no purpose.

Energy Supply
The US Energy Information Administration did a
study to compare the effects of the bill, under various scenarios. What the study showed is especially instructive.

The results seem obvious, but prove that nuclear opponents are wrong. Even under the most optimistic conditions, renewables won't provide the energy the country needs. The simple fact is that if nuclear energy isn't developed to its full potential, then the US will depend more on natural gas, a substance in great demand and short supply, and coal. Moreover, some of the coal combustion would have to be subject to carbon sequestration, an untested and dubious concept.

One hesitates to criticize. The world faces an enormous challenge and it's only natural that practical people would turn to easy-sounding solutions such as carbon taxes and sequestration. Sadly, those won't succeed; one is political poison and the other is imaginary.

Instead, we have to commit ourselves to the hard work of reshaping our energy usage. Instead of auctioning off pollution rights, we have to outright ban the installation of fossil-fueled generating plants, either new or replacement capacity. New electricity demand must be met by a combination of renewable and nuclear sources, and offset by efficiency and the curtailment of low-return energy use. Vehicle efficiency has to be raised much more than the feeble changes Congress has mandated. Bureaucratic obstacles to synthetic fuels like Green Freedom should be cleared and, if it's necessary, subsidies that currently go to fossil-fuel producers should be directed toward offsetting the cost difference between petroleum fuel and synthetic fuel.

That's what it will take to beat this problem.

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