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Mr. President: For Next Energy Czar, Choose More Carefully

Secretary Steven Chu’s replacement needs a practical approach to climate change and energy.

by
Tom Harris and Bryan Leyland

Bio

February 11, 2013 - 12:00 am

President Barack Obama and the Senate must not repeat the mistake of choosing another climate activist for U.S. secretary of energy. Although well-qualified in his field of physics, outgoing Secretary Dr. Steven Chu brought a dangerously naïve vision of both climate change and America’s energy future to Washington.

Not a climate scientist himself, Chu had faith in the validity of Al Gore’s position on global warming, and even said just prior to becoming energy secretary: “Coal is my worst nightmare … there’s enough carbon in the ground to really cook us.” Such unscientific and biased comments should have immediately eliminated Chu from consideration for a Cabinet position.

As a professor of physics, he should have known that the idea that carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted from the combustion of coal and other hydrocarbon fuels is causing a climate crisis was, and still is, an unproven hypothesis, one that is appearing increasingly improbable as the world fails to warm as predicted. While we need to reduce real pollution where it is a problem, Chu must have known that CO2 is not a pollutant. It is essential to life on Earth, and its increasing concentration has led to greater agricultural productivity.

Chu should have also known that coal, properly mined, prepared, and used, is anything but a nightmare. Coal played a major role helping power America to prosperity and world leadership during the 20th century. It still provides about 50% of all electric power generated in the United States today. The U.S. has enough coal left in the ground to last for centuries. It is by far the least expensive source of power, and modern pollution control has made coal-fired electricity stations cleaner than ever before.

Even if Chu did not know these things before becoming Obama’s head on energy, he should have learned them on the job. Yet he maintained his climate activism and an often unrealistic approach to energy throughout his tenure as secretary. Even Chu’s February 1 resignation letter is riddled with sensationalism and basic errors. Here are some corrections to what he wrote to Department of Energy (DOE) staff in that letter:

– The world has not warmed for the last 16 years, and, according to the British Met office, temperatures will not rise until at least 2018, even though CO2 levels continue to rise quickly. If Chu really believes that “the final arbitrator of any point of view are experiments that seek the unbiased truth, not information cherry picked to support a particular point of view,” as he told DOE employees in his letter, then he must realize that the dangerous global warming hypothesis is disproved by such a long period of no warming.

– The incidence and severity of extreme weather events across the globe have not increased in recent decades, although damage costs have risen due to inflation and a massive increase in infrastructure over the past century. Chu seems unaware that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) now asserts that recent extreme weather events are not due to climate change.

– There is no convincing evidence that an “overwhelming scientific consensus” exists concerning the impact of human activities on climate. Also, any competent scientist should know that even if a consensus did exist, it has no significance. Science is about examining the evidence, not a majority vote. Unpopular minority views often prove to be correct. Consensus is all about politics, not science.

– Industrialized societies have no chance of successfully replacing significant amounts of conventional energy supplies with the wind and solar power promoted by Chu. We need a steady and reliable power supply to run steel mills, Internet servers, and our transportation system, not one that fails when the wind drops or a cloud passes in front of the sun. Trying to base a modern energy-intensive society on Chu’s favorite “sustainable energy sources” is not sustainable.

– “Energy independence” is not a good reason for these technologies either. Energy independence is more easily and cheaply attained by exploiting abundant national fossil fuel and uranium reserves and those of close allies such as Canada.

Secretary Chu’s resignation letter indicates that he still does not understand that plentiful, inexpensive, and reliable energy is the key to continued improvement in our economic and social well-being.

Currently, more than half the global population lacks access to adequate energy supplies for clean water, heat, and light. Each year, over 1.5 million people die from “energy poverty.” The International Energy Agency estimates that 2 billion people will be added to our numbers over the next 20 years, and largely thanks to the efforts of those who still believe that CO2 causes global warming, only 200 million of them will have access to electricity.

The UN human development index shows unambiguously that low-cost energy is the key to improving the quality of life across the world. Every ten-fold increase in electricity correlates with a ten-year increase in lifespans. Energy poverty will almost certainly be the greatest crisis humanity will face in the 21st century.

Yet instead of focusing on this problem, one suffered by billions of the world’s poorest people, Chu concentrated on the computer model-predicted impacts of man-made global warming.

“Ultimately we have a moral responsibility to the most innocent victims of adverse climate change,” asserted Chu in the letter. “Those who will suffer the most are the people who are the most innocent: the world’s poorest citizens and those yet to be born.”

In a vain attempt to control the climate, Secretary Chu allocated billions of dollars to subsidize renewable energy companies. Chu boasted in his resignation letter that “installations of solar photovoltaic systems have nearly doubled in each one of the last three years,” and “last year 42% of new energy capacity in the U.S. was from wind —  more than any other energy source.” He didn’t mention that the actual output of wind turbines averages only about a quarter of their capacity, since wind speed is highly variable.

The Energy Information Administration shows that in 2010, non-hydroelectric renewable electricity generation was only 3.6% of all generation, even though it received 53.5% of all federal financial support for the electric power sector. Chu has set the stage so that this dangerous trend will continue for some time to come. He boasts that the U.S. will soon have “wind farms, solar photovoltaic and concentrating solar power plants that will be among the largest in the world.” And billions more will be wasted trying to find ways to capture CO2 and uselessly sequester it underground, a program Chu trumpets as one the U.S. is now working on with China.

It is not just in America that Chu has been pushing this dysfunctional energy plan. Through the newly launched Clean Energy Ministerial, the U.S. Department of Energy is working to “speed the spread of renewable power and mobilize talent from around the world to advance the clean [i.e. low CO2] energy revolution.”

Scientific studies, many of which are summarized in the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, demonstrate that none of this will have significant impact on our planet’s climate. But it will certainly have a devastating impact on the U.S. and world energy situation if it is not stopped soon.

Despite having had decades to mature, wind and solar power are far too expensive for widespread use, even in rich countries. They cost three to ten times the price of reliable energy from conventional sources such as coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear. Pushing expensive wind and solar power over well-proven technologies such as coal-fired electricity generation will not help the U.S. “maintain our economic vitality” as Obama claimed in his inaugural address. It will result in soaring energy prices, and with that, unemployment and poverty. In developing countries, such policies deprive poor people of the opportunity to improve their lives.

As natural climate change continues with both warming and cooling, everyone, rich and poor alike, will continue to need reliable and affordable energy. More electricity will be needed to handle greater demands for air conditioning and heating. More power will be required to irrigate lands, build dikes, strengthen public infrastructure, and relocate populations living on flood plains or at risk from tornadoes and hurricanes.

So Obama was right to say in his inaugural address that we have a responsibility to “respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” Many societies collapsed because they were unable to respond to warming and cooling cycles. The Greenland Vikings and the pre-Incan civilizations in South America died out because of natural climate change. While modern societies are more robust due to technology and international trade, we too must prepare for whatever nature throws at us next or suffer the consequences. A practical energy secretary will advise the president that the government should make it as easy as possible for energy suppliers to upgrade their most dependable energy sources, not shut them down in favor of fashionable but futile sources like wind and solar power.

The next secretary must be a sensible, real-world manager, someone with the strength to stand up to activists in the Environmental Protection Agency bent on destroying coal, America’s leading energy source. And he or she has to effectively challenge those who refuse to accept that nuclear power is comparably safe and environmentally friendly. The new secretary also needs to boost the development of new, more efficient technologies to convert existing abundant resources of coal, gas, and uranium to even lower cost, reliable supplies of electricity.

Finally, the new energy czar should be someone who can help Obama understand that today’s fixation on controlling the planet’s climate through energy policy is a dangerous diversion from addressing genuine problems. It is real-world energy poverty, an urgent situation that is well within our power to solve, and not the improbable climate crisis predicted by computer models that is the most serious threat to humanity in the 21st century.

Tom Harris is the Executive Director of the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC) and an advisor to the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Bryan Leyland is a New Zealand-based Consulting Engineer specializing in electricity generation and power systems. Mr. Leyland is ICSC’s founding secretary and Energy Issues Adviser.
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