Earth to API—It’s 2016 (not 1916) and “Energy Voters” Want Renewables

, senior fuels engineer | January 11, 2016, 3:18 pm EST
Bookmark and Share

I recently sat down to watch a presidential primary debate with my wife. Although we found the debate itself nearly unwatchable, the commercials were somewhat more interesting. The advertisements airing during this high profile event in the DC market articulate something about the priorities and framing for this year’s political campaigns by the oil and gas industry. A particular ad spot about “energy voters” paid for by the American Petroleum Institute (API) caught my attention. In this ad, a slew of diverse looking actors discuss leading the world in oil and natural gas (NG) production, highlighting perceived benefits to expanding domestic fossil fuel extraction (and here is the troubling part) “for our children and our grandchildren.”

The ad ends with the actors stating that they are “voting for American energy” and are “energy voters”—implying that voters interested in energy security and economic prosperity are inherently pro-oil and natural gas. API’s assumptions and implications, however, are rapidly becoming outdated and I hope that this year’s election season will present a new kind of energy voter—the renewable energy voter.

If it’s clean versus dirty, clean wins

Absolutely nobody (seriously N.O.B.O.D.Y) would ever seek to stymie jobs, opportunity, and economic growth “for our children and our grandchildren.” But, the suggestion that our energy security and job opportunities will be primarily and inextricably linked to fossil fuels such as oil and NG for generations to come is both short-sighted and dishonest; and in the context of global climate realities, it’s offensive. Luckily, our national discussion on energy security is evolving as more and more renewables achieve parity to fossil fuels. API’s “Vote4Energy” campaign, with its cheap nationalistic framing and reckless environmental disregard, may not get the same mileage during this election cycle, and it may, in fact, uncover that American energy voters are actually becoming clean energy voters. Although API is all-in on dirty energy, if the American public begins to see viable choices between clean versus dirty, clean wins and its game over for API. Perhaps this is the reason API left out any substantive discussion of renewables or energy efficiency in its annual energy outlook.

The climate baggage that comes with fossil energy is not easily overlooked anymore

NOAA has concluded that 2015 was second hottest year on record, just behind 2014—the hottest year in modern record. In fact, 8 of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred during the last decade. This is not breaking news to most Americans because it has become nearly impossible to turn on the news without hearing more about hotter seasons, stronger storms, melting ice, and rising tides.

Ironically, the venue that acquainted me with API’s latest campaign, a presidential debate, happens to be the only sanctuary where issues of energy security and climate change are sufficiently severed so as to allow candidates to pay lip-service to fossil fuels without having to acknowledge the very real climate implications associated with burning them. But, much to the chagrin of API, energy-climate disassociation is far less prevalent among everyday Americans than presidential candidates.

It’s going to be a bad day for API when it realizes that energy voters have become renewable energy voters since it depends on backwards-minded dirty energy support to survive; such support is truly a finite and diminishing resource.

Americans are for American energy – the clean, renewable and sustainable stuff

Renewables already represent the single largest source of electricity growth in the United States, and are expected to achieve similar primacy throughout the world in less than 5 years. Sure, API might point-out that renewable energy displacement from wind and solar is occurring rapidly in the utility sector, but what about liquid fuels for transportation? Well, demand for oil has also been lagging a bit as more efficient cars and larger volumes of biofuels are becoming available. And renewable fuel technologies being developed today will provide much more low carbon fuel for the transportation sector in the years to come—in-time for “our children and our grandchildren” to realize new opportunities and economic growth from clean and sustainable resources.

API has chosen to advertise its “Vote4Energy” campaign on TV, so it must not assume that its version of “energy voters” live in caves or under rocks. Such a campaign seems odd in this day and age. Following the historic global climate agreement inked in Paris last month, following the celebration of a new year during which people look forward optimistically to a better future, the energy equation is changing and these changes favor progress. Energy voters in this year’s election may not conform to an antiquated fossil hungry throng without regard for our earth’s climate or our future – after all, I am an energy voter. The campaign that API is running is both wrong-headed and out-of-step with a changing world and changing electorate. This narrow and futile push for more fossil fuel won’t work forever, and I hope 2016 is the election year that proves it doesn’t work anymore.

Posted in: Biofuel, Energy, Global Warming, Vehicles Tags: , , , , ,

Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.

Show Comments


Comment Policy

UCS welcomes comments that foster civil conversation and debate. To help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion, please focus comments on the issues, topics, and facts at hand, and refrain from personal attacks. Posts that are commercial, self-promotional, obscene, rude, or disruptive will be removed.

Please note that comments are open for two weeks following each blog post. UCS respects your privacy and will not display, lend, or sell your email address for any reason.

  • Cl1ffClav3n

    American voters want energy that is accessible, reliable, affordable, and safe. They want the lights to come on every time they flip the switch and the heat to come on every time they nudge the thermostat. They want cars that can go 300 miles and can be refueled in minutes. They want Walmart’s full of consumer goods made in Asia that must cross the vast Pacific ocean on huge ships that carry 15,000 cargo containers. They want to travel to see grandma on the opposite side of the continent at 500 mph and 30,000 feet. They want their social media and telecommunications that depend upon a constellation of satellites lofted to orbit on rockets that require the highest energy-density and power-density in their fuels and engines.

    Scientists (concerned or not), should recognize that the bulk of the kWhs of “renewable” energy today is generated in geographically remote locations, at times and amounts dictated by the vagaries of the weather, not coincident with peak demand and not dispatchable to follow load, in diffuse arrays with abysmal power density and huge land and environmental footprints, and requiring the concomitant construction of tens of thousands of line miles of new transmission and similarly profligate amounts of new natural gas generation to integrate them to the grid and buffer them and back them up. And all tremendous capital investment in duplicative capacity has been happening at a time when there has been no load growth in the USA, predictably resulting in only the second period in American history when national electric rates have risen faster than inflation (2005-present) — the first was during the Carter era when a similar subsidized fetish for intermittent energy was forced upon the nation at taxpayer expense.

    “Renewable” energy has resulted in increased brown coal consumption and GHG emissions and energy poverty in Germany, the bankruptcy of the Spanish government from unsustainable subsidies, and bread riots that became the Arab Spring in the Maghreb and Middle East from food prices spiked by biofuels competition for agricultural resources.

    Meanwhile, the Chinese, after completing a coal plant a week from 2006 to 2010, are now coal plant contractors to the rest of the world, funding them out of their own banks, making the anti-coal policies of western progressive governments and the IMF a meaningless impediment, and their promises to curb GHG emissions equally as hollow.

    The science I learned was about dealing with reality in an objective and pragmatic way. It is sad to see ideological activists appropriate the dignity of true scientists when ranting about religious orthodoxies such as catastrophic anthropogenic climate change, and demonizing essential and beneficial atmospheric gases like CO2, and mocking the industrial age fuels and technology that continue today to billions of people without electricity and sanitation and medical care and refrigeration from a cesspool of disease and hunger and poverty to some level of civilized existence. If only this union of bombastic fools would end their hypocrisy and live without
    their fossil-fuel-dependent blogs and smart phones and cars and synthetic fiber clothes and ammonia-fertilized food crops and lithium-alloy batteries, and mercury-filled CFL lightbulbs and anything plastic or metal or glass or cement (i.e., solar panels and wind turbines and Priuses) the world would be a much quieter and much more rational place.

    • David Babson

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my post.

      You are correct in noting that our current industrial, utility and transportation sectors are heavily dependent on polluting fossil fuels and old technologies developed at the dawn of the industrial revolution more than a century ago. I also agree that our civilization will not, nor should it, give-up the lifestyle and luxuries that reliable power and fuel provide. However, the premise that only unsustainable and dirty fossil fuels, which do in fact contribute to climate change, are the only resources that can provide us these luxuries is false.

      The real question before scientists and engineers is not if we need to transition away from fossil fuels (this most certainly needs to happen), but rather how should this transition occur and which technologies need to be developed and deployed to facilitate this transition? I am not so naive that I disregard the very real challenges of developing sustainable infrastructure and delivering renewable fuels and power. These challenges are substantial, but not insurmountable. Yes, the unique properties of the chemical fuels that power aviation, marine and heavy-duty vehicles can be difficult to synthesize, and the integration of renewables into our existing and expanding energy infrastructure is complicated too, but these challenges offer opportunities for future competition, innovation and economic development. These are challenges we must rise to; these are opportunities we must seize.

      • Cl1ffClav3n

        Modern civilization is energy intensive as you conceded. In fact, it is only sustainable with primary energy sources that yield energy returns on investment (EROI) of 6:1 or greater when converted into energy services (i.e., comfort heating, cooking, lighting, transportation, manufacturing, etc.). Pursuing energy sources with lifecycle EROIs less than 6:1 is to chart a trip back to the pre-industrial era. Liquid biofuels have EROIs of 2:1 and below. Wind and solar have EROIs of 4:1 and below when adjusted for the storage required to make them dispatchable and reliable resources. All of the above are critically dependent upon high EROI and high energy density and high power density fossil fuels for the mining, manufacturing, cultivation, processing, and transportation necessary to make them and refresh them on whatever recapitalization cycle they have. There are reasons why we don’t see wind-power making more wind turbines and solar power making more solar panels. EROI, energy density, and power density are fundamental.

      • David Babson

        I appreciate your continued interest on this subject, and that you brought up “sustainability”. The statement that serves as the foundation for your response: “it [modern civilization] is only sustainable with primary energy sources that yield energy returns on investment (EROI) of 6:1 or greater when converted into energy services”, is strange in its construction, provably false, and inconsistent with an appropriate application of the term “sustainable”. In fact, sustainability assessments incorporate far more than simple and narrowly constructed energy balances. They include accounting of carbon, water, land use, and nutrients as well. There is no thermodynamic justification for arbitrarily assigning a particular EROI ratio, assuming it is positive, to be sustainable” at the exclusion of other sustainability metrics, and I can assure you that finite fossil resources such as oil, natural gas and coal that contribute significantly to anthropogenic climate change, are absolutely not sustainable. Further, while new technologies (and time scale resolution) will drive the working energy return ratios for renewables toward their theoretical maximums, the energy returns for fossil fuels have already declined and will continue to decline as they become more difficult to find, extract and refine. Going forward we need to focus on developing and improving those energy technologies that are sustainable, and get over the fact that fossil fuels are not.

      • Cl1ffClav3n

        Linking a threshold EROI to the economic viability of an energy-intensive civilization is an empirical exercise in correlating historical economic contractions to dips in primary energy EROI. Many have done it. Dr. Charles Hall is the foremost authority on EROI, and he took up the mantle from famed biophysical economist, Howard T. Odum. Primary energy EROI < 6:1 is correlated with economic recession (i.e., contraction) in industrialized nations. Human civilization throughout most of its history was limited by agricultural EROIs of less than 2:1 when converted from crops to human and animal muscle output. Coal-powered steam engines were the first to break this barrier. I for one don't want to go back to the age of slave-power.

        Sustainability spans many metrics, including water footprint, land footprint, and biodiversity impacts, for which fossil fuels place less stress on the environment per BTU delivered than biofuels. And since biofuels and solar and wind all require enormous fossil fuel inputs for their creation and recapitalization, considering them to be magically renewable is hogwash. Their hardware must be refreshed every 20-30 years using huge amounts of fossil fuel energy, and we are going to be filling landfills with enormous quantities of renewable detritus from wind and solar plants.

        Your statement that EROIs for fossil fuels is declining is false. The EROI for fracked natural gas in Marcellus shale is upwards of 85:1. EROI is a function of both the resource and the technology used to extract and assimilate it. EROI has fluctuated as capital investment in exploration and production has waxed and waned. The historical price of crude today is below the inflation-corrected average for the 20th century, and the EROI is much higher. This is the result of the recent wave of capital investment that began in earnest when prices started up in 2003. There have been new discoveries of previously uncontemplated reservoirs of hydrocarbons including pre-salt oil and methane hydrates in quantities that dwarf global consumption to date. Hubbert's 1956 peak crude oil curve has been blown away.

        The world's known coal reserves are still relatively untouched, and much more is certainly to be found should anyone need to look. The first abiogenic natural gas has been discovered in the Pacific just below the Arctic Circle, and is the first evidence that the processes that form hydrocarbons are still at work and "fossil fuel" may actually be as renewable a resource as hydrothermal, and may represent a natural carbon cycling.

        Time to update your research and your paradigms.

      • David Babson

        There is indeed some research and some paradigms I need
        to update and clarify. First, it turns out that I was wrong to suggest in my
        post that 2015 was the second hottest year on record because, in fact, new
        research reported today suggests that 2015 was indeed the hottest year on
        record by far. So let me take this opportunity to avoid diving into the
        rabbit whole where we debate the relative merits of fossil fuel properties
        because frankly that is a non-issue. The fact of the matter is (and here is the paradigm) we cannot continue to use fossil fuels indefinitely because
        burning them causes global warming and climate change – end of discussion.
        Let’s move on, look forward and figure out how to develop and finance the
        renewable energy resources and technologies needed for a clean, safe and
        sustainable future.

      • Cl1ffClav3n

        When you and other alarmists say “hottest,” what you should say is “mildest.” The global warming that is measured is a lifting of the daily lows, while the highs are stable. This moderation of daily and seasonal temperature swings is having a beneficial effect. According to the 2,500 scientists who participated in IPCC 2013 AR5, as the earth’s climate has moderated through the industrial age, there has been no global increase in hurricanes, droughts, or floods. There is no evidence for pending abrupt climate change such as rapid deglaciation and inundation, and no evidence for irreversible climate tipping points. All the climate models forecasting rapid temperature rise based on CO2 were found to be so errant, that the scientists had to reject them and substitute their best judgement.. They also observed that green plant coverage of the Earth had increased 6% since 1982, that growing seasons were becoming longer and crop yields were increasing. Even human disease is forecast in the report to decrease, not increase. In other words, almost everything is getting better. That is why these interglacial warm periods are called climate optimums. We still have room to benefit from further warming. Worldwide, 17 times more people die of winter cold as from summer heat. A moderating climate would help to save more of the 95,000 Americans who die in the typical winter of excess winter mortality. The only empirically measured mechanism of climate change damage left is sea level rise, and the weight of evidence is that it has not accelerated in the industrial age, and is, in fact happening far slower than its peak rate since the last ice age (3 mm/yr v. 50 mm/yr). That slow pace is and will continue to be accommodated by the natural recapitalization cycle of real property. The world’s economy is benefiting from trillions of dollars of improved harvests, and the social cost of carbon is quite negative if both the benefits and costs are properly computed. We should be paying a premium to those who add plant food to our atmosphere.

        You also failed to understand from my comments that we make windmills and solar panels using fossil fuels. If fossil fuels run out, the low EROI and energy quality of these diffuse and intermittent sources will not be sufficient to recapitalize themselves and they will become derelict (EROI is also a metric of the reproductive efficiency of an energy source). However, long before that, we will die of starvation because fossil fuel energy and hydrogen from natural gas is essential to synthesizing the ammonia fertilizer that makers modern intensive cultivation possible. If you believe that fossil fuels are finite, then you should be arguing to use them most efficiently for their essential purposes and best applications, and not to waste them on low return uses such as building wind turbines and solar panels.

        BTW,
        whenever anyone says “end of discussion” or “the science is settled,” they reveal they are not a true scientist. Such authoritarian dogmatism is the realm of priests and ideologues and totalitarian regimes. Is this the Union of Concerned Scientists, or the Priesthood of Climate Apocalypse Scientology?