Fake and real news: Links between GHG reduction and alternative fuels

FT-emissions-graphicTurn on your local news every night and you’ll need a sleeping pill to get some rest. The format and content is the same around the country: a lot of tragic crime — ranging from sexual harassment, robbery and shootings — for about ten minutes; local sports for about 5 minutes; what seems like ten minutes of intermittent advertising; silly banter between two or more anchors for two minutes; and a human-interest story to supposedly lighten up your day at the very end of the show — likely about a dog and cat who have learned to dance together or a two-year-old child who already knows how to play Mozart. You get the picture!

Local news, as presently structured, is not about to send you to sleep feeling good about humanity, never mind your community or nation. National news is really only marginally better. Again, the first ten minutes, more often than not, are about environmental disasters in the nation or the world — hurricanes, volcanoes, cyclones and tornadoes. The second ten minutes includes maybe one or two tragically laced stories, more often than not, about fleeing refugees, suicide bombings, dope and dopes and conflict. Finally, at the end of the program, for less than a minute or two, there is generally a positive portrayal of a 95-year-old marathon runner or a self-made millionaire who is now single-handedly funding vaccinations for kids in Transylvania after inventing a three-wheeled car that will never need refueling and can seat twenty-five people.

Maybe this is how the world is! We certainly need to think about the problems and dangers faced by our communities, the nation and its citizens. Every now and then, Americans complain about the media’s emphasis on bad news. But their complaints are rarely recorded precisely in surveys of viewership. We criticize the primary emphasis on bad news, but seem to watch it more than good news. Somewhat like football, we know it causes emotional and physical injuries to players, but support it with the highest TV ratings and attendance numbers.

Jimmy Fallon, responding to the visible (but likely surface) cry for more good news, has added a section to The Tonight Show. He delivers fake, humorous news, which is, at times, an antidote to typical TV or cable news shows. Perhaps John Oliver, a rising comedian on HBO, does it even better. He takes real, serious news about human and institutional behavior that hurts the commonweal and makes us laugh. In the process, we gain insight.

This week’s news about carbon dioxide emissions “stalling” in 2014 for the first time in 40 years appeared in most newspapers (I am a newspaper junkie) led by The New York Times and the Financial Times. It seemed like good news! Heck, while the numbers don’t reflect a decline in carbon emissions, neither do they illustrate an increase. Let’s be thankful for what we got over a two-year period (in the words of scientists — stability, or 32.3bn tons a year).

But don’t submit the carbon stability numbers to Jimmy Fallon just yet. It’s much too early for a proposed new segment on The Tonight Show called “Real as Opposed to Fake, Good News.” Too much hype could convince supporters of efforts to slow down climate change that real progress is being made. We don’t know yet. Recent numbers only reflect no carbon growth from the previous year over a 12-month period. The numbers might be only temporary. They shouldnt lessen the pressure to define a meaningful fair and efficient strategy to lower GHG. If this occurs, yesterday’s good news will become a real policy and environmental problem for the U.S. and the world for many, many tomorrows.

I am concerned that the stability shown in the carbon figures may be related to factors that might be short lived. Economists and the media have attributed the 2014 plateau to decreases in the rate of growth of China’s energy consumption and new government policies, as well as regulations on economic growth in many nations (e.g., requirements for more energy-efficient buildings and the production of more fuel-efficient vehicles), the growth of the renewable energy sector and a shift to natural gas by utilities.

Truth be told, no one appears to have completed a solid factor analysis just yet. We don’t really know whether what occurred is the beginning of a continuous GHG emission slowdown and a possible important annual decrease.

Many expert commentators hailed the IEA’s finding, including its soon-to-be new director, Dr. Fatih Birol. He indicated that this is “a very welcome surprise…for the first time, greenhouse gas emissions are decoupling from economic growth.”

Yet, most expert commentators suggest we should be careful. They noted that the data, while positive, is insufficient to put all our money on a bet concerning future trends. For example, Hal Harvey, head of Energy Innovation, indicated, “one year does not a trend make.”

Many articles responding to the publication of the “carbon stall” story, either implicitly or explicitly, suggested that to sustain stability and move toward a significant downward trend requires a national, comprehensive strategy that includes the transportation sector. It accounts for approximately 17 percent of all emissions, probably higher, since other categories such as energy use, agriculture and land use have murky boundaries with respect to content. Indeed, a growing number of respected environmental leaders and policy analysts now include vehicle emissions as well as emissions from gasoline production and distribution as a “must lower” part of a needed comprehensive national, state and local set of emission reduction initiatives, particularly,if the nation is to meet temperature targets. Further, there is an admission that is becoming almost pervasive: that renewable fuels and renewable fuel powered vehicles, while supported by most of us, are not yet ready for prime time.

While ethanol, methanol and biofuels are not without criticism as fuels, they and other alternative fuels are better than gasoline with respect to emissions. For example, the GREET Model used by the federal government indicates that ethanol (E85) emits 22.4 percent less GHG emissions (grams per mile) when compared to gasoline (E10). The calculation is based on life-cycle data. Other independent studies show similar results, some a higher, others a lower percent in reductions. But the important point is that there is increased awareness that alternative fuels can play a role in the effort to tamp down GHG.

So why, at times, are some environmentalists and advocates of alternative fuels at loggerheads. I suspect that it relates to the difference between perfectibility and perfection. Apart from those in the oil industry who have a profit at stake in oil and welcome their almost-monopoly status concerning retail sales of gasoline, those who fear alternatives fuels point to the fact that they still generate GHG emissions and the assumption, that, if they become competitive, there will be less investment in research and development of renewables. Yes! Alternative fuels are not 100 percent free of emissions. No! Investment in renewables will remain significant, assuming that the American history of innovation and investment in transportation is a precursor of the future.

Putting America on the path to significant emission reduction demands a strong coalition between environmentalists and alternative fuel advocates. Commitments need to be made by public, private and nonprofit sectors to work together to implement a realistic comprehensive fuel policy; one that views alternative fuels as a transitional and replacement fuel for vehicles and that encompasses both alternative fuels and renewables. Two side of the same policy and behavior coin. President Franklin Roosevelt, speaking about the travails of the depression, once said, “All we have to fear is fear itself.” His words fit supporters of both alternative fuels and renewables. Let’s make love, not war!

Crude falls again, IEA cuts outlook for demand growth

The price of oil continued falling Friday: Brent crude, the international standard, dropped nearly $2, to $62. U.S. WTI crude dropped $2.14, to $57.81, its lowest price since May 2009.

A story by Reuters and CNBC notes that the International Energy Agency is predicting further downward pressure, owing to slack demand:

The IEA, which coordinates the energy policies of industrialized countries, cut its outlook for global oil demand growth for 2015 by 230,000 barrels per day (bpd) to 900,000 bpd on expectations of lower fuel consumption in Russia and other oil-exporting countries.

What Happened to Saudization? Bipolar Fuel Projections!

Just a few short months ago, newspapers, led by the WSJ, trumpeted, many on their front pages, the Saudization of America and the end of America’s and OECD’s reliance on Middle East oil. Do you remember?   Well maybe you don’t have to– at least after 2025. The IEA’s World Energy Outlook for 2013, published Nov 12, indicates that the “Middle East, the only large source of low-cost oil, remains at the center of the longer-term oil outlook.” Within about 10 years or so, it will provide the largest share of the world’s expanded oil supply.

I realize the fragility of projections and have in the past criticized the IEA and the EIA and other makers of global energy projections. At times, projection makers are more artists than scientists. The good artists, sometimes, come close to what actually happens. The not so good ones either get lucky or appear to mute their “over or under” reality numbers. They either provide ranges, permitting them to say they were right in the future, or they complain, perhaps over a good bottle of wine, about the complexity of the variables.

I believe it is important to read the IEA report because it lends a bit of skepticism to the idea that America and its friends are entering the golden era of energy abundance. Indeed, The New York Times on Nov 13 ran the IEA story under the headline, “Shale’s Effect on Oil Supply Is Forecast to Be Brief.”

Here is what the IEA said in their Executive Summary:

“The role of OPEC countries in quenching the world’s thirst for oil is reduced temporarily over the next 10 years by rising output from the U.S., from oil sands in Canada, from deep water production in Brazil and from natural gas liquids from all around the world.  However, by mid-2020, non-OPEC production starts to fall back and countries in the Middle East provide most of the increase in global supply. Overall national oil companies and their host governments control some 80 percent of the world’s proven-plus-probable oil reserves.”

America’s likely surplus combined with a slowdown in the increase of demand will not affect costs of oil and gasoline in a major way.  Escalating demand for both will be reflected in Asia and will place a floor under prices. America’s oil companies function in a global market and are not governed to a great extent by the laws of supply and demand in this country.  They will sell to the highest bidder worldwide.

IEA indicates that “the need to compensate for declining output from existing oil fields is the major driver for upstream oil investment to 2035…conventional crude output from existing fields is set to fall by more than 40 mb/d by 2035.Of the 790 billion barrels of total production required to meet our projections for demand to 2035, more than half is needed just to offset declining production. According to the NY Times, IEA conclusions are generally shared by the EIA; that is, today’s rapid oil production from shale will continue for a relatively short time and then slow rapidly. IEA indicated the slowdown will occur in the mid-twenties, EIA by the late teens.

IEA’s and EIA’s analysis should not generate a bipolar response or create a need for a regimen of pills to cure projection related manic depression. It’s only a projection. Take a deep breath and count to ten.  Next year it will likely change because of “complex variables ” including but not limited to changing world demand, Middle East tension, new technology and the use of alternative fuels.

Until we get better at projection, let’s applaud IEA and EIA’s professionals.  At a minimum, they are honestly and artistically responding to lots of unknowns.  Paraphrasing the comedian Ilka Chase (and changing a word or two) projectionist’s minds are cleaner because they change them so often…

Just kidding!

Their efforts should at least reinforce the need to think through transportation fuel strategies and act with all reasonable speed on what I would consider, at least, low hanging fruit. For example, a coordinated campaign by the public, nonprofit and private sector to encourage the federal government to approve methanol as a fuel would be a good first step.  Federal acquiescence, if combined with simultaneous certification of low cost kits to convert existing vehicles to flex fuel cars could provide the framework for an effective transitional fuel strategy.

It, likely, will take from five to ten years before electric and or hydrogen powered vehicles will be able to reach the budgets and driving needs of most low, and moderate income Americans.  Even when renewable fuel powered new vehicles reach a mass market, the technology will not be able to change the gasoline dependent older vehicles. In this context, alternative transitional fuels could, with the addition of an increased number of conveniently located fuel stations and stimulated by new demand, offer competition to oil company restricted gas-only stations and consumers a choice of fuels.  America would be better off economically and environmentally.  Consumers would secure a more predictable, probably lower price for fuel at competitive pumps and charging stations.  The nation would be less dependent on imported oil.