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Yale 62

Our Climate Conversation

Climate Conversation

What began two weeks ago as an email thread has come out into the light of a page here at The participants thought other classmates might like to add their own points of view. Any of us may do so by using the Comment box at the bottom of this page. What you see immediately below is the lion’s share of the recent email exchange on this topic.

In the first message, Bill Reilly references Biden’s approval of ConocoPhillips’ massive Willow oil drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope. The dialogue continues from there.

Bill Reilly: …the Willow decision is fully consistent with the Administration’s well-publicized requests of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela to produce and export more oil. The novel element is the interest in increasing US production. Both the IPCC and IEA models show worldwide consumption of 75 million barrels per day in 2050 (IPCC), or 30 mbd (IEA) so the Administration concluded that US output has a role to play.

Jim Wechsler: I am in complete agreement with Bill Reilly and anyone else who is not interested in debating whether climate change is real and its anthropogenic origins. I like the idea of a few stories, but I think the Willow Project is not worthy of a stand-alone discussion. Instead I would suggest discussing whether the Willow Project or Yucca Mountain is most worthy of newsprint and how either of them might be likely to affect the pace of climate change.

Subject line from Jim: “atomic power and the compilation of climate change/environmental issues”

The data clearly show that climate change is a direct consequence of global warming and that global warming is a peril that we and our fellow human beings have and are continuing to cause by adding CO2 to the atmosphere. If we are to have a discussion on combating climate change, discussing power sources that do not emit carbon dioxide is a good place to start. Seriously discussing this topic should be illuminating.

Of the “clean” sources available, solar and wind are the safe, default foci of recent news articles. Hydropower, which has been used, perhaps most notably and extensively in the American West, is not an environmentally sound option except in rare instances. Mention nuclear power among many people concerned about climate change and their minds slam shut. I am suggesting that we should keep ours open to this topic.

The US gets about 20% of its power from nuclear reactors. France began building an extensive nuclear power infrastructure in the 1970’s and now gets more than 70% of its power from nuclear power plants. Nuclear waste is a problem, but reactors in Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, Germany, and the U.S. have been operating for years. Yet, the mention of nuclear power is more likely to engender fear and opposition than interest. The objections raised are the waste, Three-Mile Island (where everything went wrong and nothing much happened), Fukushima (which engendered a chaotic, somewhat disastrous, and in retrospect possibly unnecessary evacuation), and Chernobyl, which is quite different and is probably a topic for the U.N.

A recent book which certainly is in favor of nuclear power is, “A Bright Future” by J.S. Goldstein and S.A, Qvist. 2019.

Rud Platt: Who would have imagined when JFK addressed our graduating class that some of us six decades later would be conferring on how to save the Earth from human self-destruction! As unforeseen then as the disappearance of the Antarctic ice pack!

If you can stand a jolting dose of reality, last night’s NOVA documentary on “Arctic Sinkholes” was really alarming — more from what was not said than the carefully scripted narrative and interviews with a variety of climatologists (which should have included my UMass Amherst colleague Julie Brigham-Grette — an expert on arctic permafrost and former Chair of the Polar Board of the National Research Council). The immensity of methane waiting to be released from thawing permafrost (sometimes explosively) could far outweigh our best efforts to curtail CO2 emissions — the ultimate tipping point?

Gary Richardson: Stan Robinson’s novel The Ministry for the Future begins with a week-long heat wave that kills 20 million Indians in Uttar Pradesh. That tragedy kicks off a series of revolutionary disruptions that save civilization from global warming.

This week’s issue of The Economist offers a sobering analysis of the increasing rate at which global warming is killing Indians and Pakistanis and questions the likelihood that the enormity of the situation will trigger the sorts of climate actions that Ministry envisions as necessary:

…Year by year, parts of the poor and crowded Indo-Gangetic Plain will become increasingly difficult to live in for days or weeks on end. Even the most capable government would struggle to prevent that leading to catastrophe. And India’s, much less Pakistan’s, is not the most capable.

This is in fact where Mr. Robinson’s dystopian novel goes off the rails. He imagines the heatwave he describes spurring transformative climate action around the world. That was “ludicrously unrealistic”, concluded Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist. Yet without such action, it is hard to see what will stop one of the most dire threats of global warming becoming a horrifying reality.

Jack Merrick’s March 20th note to Bill Weber: Here’s my take on the oil situation. The driving force is, of course … MONEY. Who makes or loses money is dependent on supply and demand (which, for oil, is highly unpredictable.) The supply of oil is determined by uncontrollable and unpredictable factors: natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes); epidemics (COVID), negligence (a ship getting stuck in the Suez Canal); willful actions (OPEC’s manipulations, wars, releasing oil from the national reserve, etc.) Perish the thought, but if one of those Iranian speedboats fired on a U.S. ship in the Gulf of Hormuz, oil prices would skyrocket.

Biden’s decision to permit drilling on federal land in Alaska is another example of his lack of a coherent oil policy. First he caved to the “woke” crowd that calls for banning fossil fuels immediately. (As George H.W. famously did with taxes, he said NO more drilling on federal land.) This view of his – and the crowd’s — is absurd. The world will need a lot of oil for the near future (10 years, at least, I think). There is no adequate alternative energy source currently to replace it. There will be someday. But not until electric cars are cheaper and the infrastructure is in place to conveniently fuel them will gas-powered cars be phased out. And one must also consider airplanes and the production of plastics, which depend on fossil fuels.

So, with lofty intentions, the anti-fossil fuel movement made it almost morally wrong to support oil production. Yale and Harvard have, between them, almost $100 billion – none of which now can go to drilling in the Permian Basin. Similarly, other big investors (universities, big banks) have been scared away. Of course, this will lead to shortages and high gas prices. But did Joe turn to Texas … no, he asked Saudi Arabia for more. Makes no sense whatsoever.

No doubt that Biden is still smarting at the reaction to the high gas prices. Most of those people filling their tanks at the pumps will be voting in 2024. So … he decides to placate the oil interests by opening up Alaska (even though it will take years for production to have an effect). But it still comes down to Money. If China “opens up” if inflation comes down, if there’s great summer weather for traveling, we’ll see investors return to the oil fields.

Tony Carbone: …I was shocked that Biden approved the Willow Project which seemed to be totally inconsistent with his promise to eliminate fossil fuels. But as the article Between a Rock and a Cold Place suggests, reality is beginning to set in. As we over-commit to renewable energy over the next 5-10 years, and the US energy balance proves insufficient to support a growth economy let alone our standard of living, our green-espousing politicians will be the first to bail out leaving their fully indoctrinated supporters with a severe case whiplash. My point….Biden is a dress rehearsal for what is to come. He is starting to construct a Shit Shield by approving Willow to distance himself from the true believers when the blame game begins.

Gary Richardson: At the appropriate juncture, as someone who’s actually “been to the mountain” (Yucca) I’d like to chime in. I first visited Yucca Mountain with a delegation of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability under the auspices of DoE, when the tunnel-boring machine was being assembled. On my second visit, I climbed the mountain with tribal leaders of the Ruby Valley Shoshone, on whose ancestral lands the Nevada Test Site resides.

By that second visit, the tunnels into the mountain had been completed, and tests revealed that the mountain “leaks.” Yucca cannot provide the dry conditions that would ensure 10,000 years of integrity for casks containing “spent” but highly radioactive nuclear fuel. Plutonium-239, one of the isotopes in spent fuel, has a radioactive half-life of more than 24,000 years.

We’d like to hear from you! Have you any thoughts you’d like to add to the mix? Please put them in the Comments area below. Thanks.

4 comments to Climate Conversation

  • Ken Merkey

    The Electric Car Snow Job

    By: Andrew I. Fillat & Henry I. Miller

    August 22, 2022

    The United States is being taken for a very expensive ride by an unholy alliance between climate ideologues and business opportunists, who have exerted undue influence over public opinion and government institutions in the name of climate change. The misnamed Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law by President Biden last Tuesday, allocates $369 billion to climate initiatives – a hugely expensive exercise in virtue-signaling that can be expected to reduce global warming by the year 2100 by only 0.0009 to 0.028 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s a tour de force of political showboating, and the electric vehicle (EV) aspects may be the bill’s most egregious example of non-cost-effective spending.

    Pushing EVs is essentially selling snake oil with limited benefit at astronomical cost. To start with, U.S. passenger vehicles produce less than 1% of global greenhouse gases because the U.S. accounts for about one-seventh of global emissions of which the transportation sector is 14%, with passenger vehicles well below 40% of that. This calculation renders the potential benefit for even universal EV adoption essentially meaningless, even before accounting for the offsetting emission of CO2 (around 95% of greenhouse gas emissions) in EV battery production and recycling. Manufacturing an EV battery produces from 10 to 30 tons of CO2 (depending on battery size and manufacturing considerations), which offsets two to five years of emissions savings from EV adoption. And that ignores the environmental impact of producing the required charging electricity, but more on that below.

    Then there are the serious implementation problems. Critical elements that are components of batteries are in short supply. Lithium prices have surged 750% since the start of 2021. Neodymium and other rare earths are in short supply. Seventeen critical battery minerals are 100% imported, often from hostile suppliers like China, the Republic of Congo, or leftist Latin American countries. Talk about supply chain challenges.

    As to costs, it is a fantasy to expect there to be sufficient charging infrastructure to successfully replace gasoline vehicles. In 2021, approximately 3.2 trillion passenger miles were driven in the U.S., of which 1.5 trillion were by passenger cars. A Tesla consumes about 35 kilowatt hours (kWh) per 100 miles driven (trucks would be much higher due to weight), so the total annual electricity required if all U.S. vehicles were EVs would be somewhere around 1-2 trillion kWh. This represents nearly half of today’s total US power generation.

    We won’t hazard a guess as to the costs, but they will be gargantuan. Consider all the generation, centralized transformers, transmission facilities, and local distribution networks that would have to be replaced or upgraded. (Note that some parts of the country already have rolling brownouts.) There has been no viable plan yet articulated for bringing charging to cities dependent on street parking. But what’re another few trillion dollars among friends?

    Renewable energy sources for charging are not an answer, either ecologically or economically. A typical wind turbine produces 6 million kWh per year. This implies the need for about 300,000 wind turbines just to charge EVs, which would take up 25 million acres of land. We would need about a billion tons of concrete and almost as much iron. And consider the required rare minerals and lithium: As just one example, we would need to find and mine as much as 100 times more neodymium than the total amount of that mineral that is mined today. Solar is even less land and material efficient.

    And who pays for these EVs? Profits to industry, if any, come from luxury EVs too expensive for average Americans (absent government subsidies much larger than those offered today). It is well known that the mainstream auto manufacturers subsidize less-expensive EVs by selling gas-powered SUVs and trucks (which would disappear), and that Tesla profits handsomely from selling carbon credits. Luxury car makers like BMW, Mercedes, and Audi can simply raise prices for EVs to eye-watering levels by capitalizing on their cachet. But increasing the penetration of EVs among the general population is fraught with unintended consequences: It can bankrupt mainstream car makers trying to keep prices affordable as battery costs skyrocket due to component constraints, or add significantly to consumer and government debt as carmakers raise prices to effectively capture ballooning government subsidies to survive. (Ford just raised their F-150 e-truck prices by $6,000-$8,500.)

    Pushing electric cars as a panacea may be the most brazen and expensive scam ever perpetrated, trading trillions of dollars for trivial climate benefits. And this is courtesy of climate ideologues who are, to be charitable, ignorant of the facts and indulging in delusional virtue-signaling.

    It is high time for government and taxpayers to get out of the electric vehicle morass and redirect the flood of wasted resources toward research and strategies that could actually make a difference for the climate, most notably nuclear power.

    Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. They were undergraduates together at M.I.T.

  • Ken Merkey

    Just a few additional thoughts. When Congress passed PURPA in 1978 they should also have told the utilities how much to pay for alternate energy. I built a small hydro facility in 1979 and the local utility, CL&P, offered me 1.5 cents/kwh. Needless to say, that does not work so I wheeled the power to a coop miles away. My point is that government sometimes has good intentions but falls short on implementation.
    Of course, politics plays a large role. 50 years ago, the DOE built a demo project in Yermo, CA to demo concentrated solar technology. This is where hundreds of mirrors direct solar energy to a central heat exchanger where steam is created to drive a TG set. The project did not work and was dismantled. Many years later, the DOE approved the Ivanpah project near Primm, NV using the same technology. The $2.2 Billion project, having killed hundreds of birds, has failed, and is shut down. Does anyone ever read history? As with Solyndra, a bunch of Democrats got very rich.
    I was on the financing team for the El Dorado Canyon concentrated solar project (CS) near Boulder City, NV. This technology uses solar collectors to heat fluid to 700 degrees which is then used to flash water into steam and drive a traditional TG set. It is also a hybrid project. If power is needed after the sun goes down a simple steam generator using fossil fuels can be used to drive the TG set. For whatever reason, photovoltaic (PV) technology has taken over. No one knows the life cycle of a PV system. The DOE and everyone else seem to have gone all-in on PV. Time will tell but I am not confident that we should ever go all-in on anything (including EVs).

  • The 1978 Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA) says that utilities must pay qualified alternative power facilitiess the utility’s avoided cost. The rates utilities pay for alternative power reflect the cost they avoid by obtaining energy and capacity from these sources. Those rates are usually determined by state public utility commissions. When I was spokesman for the Idaho PUC (1986–1996), a lot of rate disputes between utilities and alternative generators were settled by the commission.

    Recently, Idaho Power has filed to lower the amount it pays their customers (like me) who feed their excess solar power into the utility’s distribution system. Previously, our solar energy was “net metered”; the meter ran backwards when I fed power into the grid at the same rate as it ran forward, when the utility was powering my home at night or when cloudy. Centralized solar is inefficient, at least until all of our rooftops and parking lots are covered in solar arrays connected to our local distribution systems.

    In re the PRI opinion piece: There’s nothing wrong with initial incentives to help get promising technologies up and running. Governments worldwide continue to prop up uneconomic fossil-fuel production by more than five trillion dollars ($5,000,000,000,000) a year—some $640 billion by the US. Biden’s $369-billion climate initiative is negligable. The EV industry will continue to grow as will the infrastructure to support it.

    Mssrs. Fillat and Miller leave the punchline to the very end: Instead of electric vehicles, invest in nuclear power. I vote for nuclear fusion; with quantum computing, AI, and the National Ignition Facility, it should be a no-brainer!

  • Ken Merkey

    Like I said, giving the utilities the ability to set pricing at their discretion is not pricing at all. They should pay the highest cost that they would back off. Probably it would be a diesel topping unit. In 1978 that would have been about $.08. Small companies like ours did not have the resources to sue the utilities to obtain fair pricing.