Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Will Wayne Stenehjem and North Dakota sue you for becoming more energy efficient?

Earlier this year ND AG Wayne Stenehjem took a trip to St. Paul to try to rattle the cage there and intimidate Minnesota into reversing the Next Generation Energy Act of 2007, which aimed "to bolster investments in renewable power, increase energy conservation and decrease Minnesota's contribution to global warming."

Stenehjem has also decided that the North Dakota stance is that pollutors should not be regulated, and this is shown by his joining a legal challenge (pdf press release) to the EPA's endangerment finding on greenhouse gases. Stenehjem trots out the tired canards of "massive regulation" and "unelected bureaucracy". He says Congress should be in charge of such regulation, even though he is most certainly another who says that but really means that he wants no regulation at all.

The $500,000 the legislature set aside for Stenehjem to challenge Minnesota's Next Generation Energy Act of 2007 seems to be burning a hole in his pocket because now Stenehjem has his mind on a similar attack on California's efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The excuse Stenehjem uses to support doing fossil fuel industry bidding is that attempts to limit greenhouse gas emissions violate the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution. But basically the reasoning is that clean and sustainable energy have to be fought because they are bad for coal companies.

What might be the next step? If you decrease your energy bill by increasing your energy efficiency, are you also making business too hard for those angelic coal and oil industries and need to be sued too? Would a solar panel on your house or electric car hinder pollutors abilities to make profits across state borders and necessitate hauling you into court to litigate you into buying more dirty energy?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Great Plains Energy Expo 2010, Day 1

Today marks the end of Senator Dorgan's Great Plains Energy Expo & Showcase, and in the Herald we got a taste from two of the main speakers from the first day - Clarence Cazalot Jr. (president/CEO of Marathon Oil) and Arun Majumdar (director of the DOE Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy).

Both Cazalot and Majumdar said about the best you could reasonably expect considering the venue and the mindless state energy mantra of "all of the above". Both hit on how we need to shift away from fossil fuels, find ways to use energy more efficiently and less of it, and cut greenhouse gas emissions. Of course we got reminded also how addicted we are to fossil fuels (not surprising coming from the head of a by-definition dirty fossil fuel company, though in that category Marathon is about as good as it gets) and how we need technological breakthroughs in energy (not surprising coming from someone who is basically tasked with shepherding them).

Granted I cannot say exactly what else there is at the Expo, but that at least shows it is not all "drill, baby, drill", coal-hugging, salivating over oil sands, and ignorance to denial of climate science. There is something to cheer in what Cazalot and Majumdar said, but that is not enough to shield it (or at least between the lines) from any criticism.

My concern over what Majumdar says is that it could re-enforce a vague mindset of some techno-magic that will save us if we throw a little bit of money into research. We certainly need to innovate and invent, but that does not replace mitigation efforts, which we should be undertaking now. We are not in some movie where just when we see and widely understand how bad things have gotten some scientist will walk out of the lab with a new solution that immediately reverses all the damage and returns things to "normal". The longer we basically do nothing the more very long-term damage we are doing and the more we redefine "normal" away from what we have known.

Again, obviously Cazalot is going to sing some praises of oil and gas, but saying we need a "environmentally sustainable energy future" is definitely appreciated. Yet, especially if one is thinking some techno-fix will do the hard part, it is easy for many to not want to think of weaning from fossil fuels. Besides the climate issues associated with fossil fuel usage though, there are simple supply issues that preclude indefinite dependence on fossil carbon for energy.

I am going to continue to rip on fossil fuels, but I do understand that like Cazalot says we cannot just wake up one morning and be transitioned away from them. Coal power plants and oil-fueled internal combustion engine transportation will not simple be gone one day. I understand and accept that. However, that is precisely a key reason why we need to be pushing the envelope on the transition to clean energy. That cancer treatment would take a while is not a reason to delay it. That should compel to take action aggressively as soon as possible since the problem is only going to grow the longer the wait.

Our decades of established infrastructure tell us coal, oil, and gas are here for now. Fossil fuels do not need cheerleaders. We need cheerleading, meaning energy policy and actions, geared toward the shift to clean energy.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Thinksee Nosebetter - confusion over small numbers and CO2

Today I introduce someone. This is someone in general, not in particular. This is someone you can find a lot, especially on the internet. He (yes, it can be she, but I simplify with just "he") believes his knowledge and understanding surpasses that of the trained experts in a field. He thinks he knows better. Thinksee Nosebetter.

The one thing you can generally say about Thinksee Nosebetter when he shows up in discussions about climate is that he is at least trying to use logic. The logic is flawed, warped, incorrect, irrelevant... but the attempt gives one hope he can be taught reality and have that replace his misconceptions. He is actually exceedingly unlikely to accept being corrected, but it at least gives one hope.

Typically a Thinksee Nosebetter tosses out very simple things that on the surface may sound reasonable but that supposedly unravel an entire well-established field of science. He knows just enough to be dangerous and wrong. The phenomenon of people lacking skills or knowledge but believing they a much higher level of that skill or knowledge has been labelled the Dunning-Kruger effect, and it is quite common in the climate "debate".

The Thinksee Nosebetter appearance I want to highlight and correct involves what I saw in the comments of a Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune article discussing how public planners are looking at ideas for adaptation to a warming world. That is worthy of discussion, but here I focus just on the Thinksee Nosebetter who thought he was overturning climate science and proving it all a hoax at least partially by talking about how relatively little carbon dioxide (CO2) there is in the atmosphere.

Indeed, while the atmosphere is about 99% nitrogen and oxygen, current CO2 concentration is around 390 parts per million (ppm). In other words on average only about one molecule out of every 2500 in the atmosphere is CO2. Human activities have so far increased CO2 concentration by about 40%. So previously CO2 was about 1 in every 3500 molecules.

Granted, that may sound at first like a trivial change. But it is very wrong to assert that since the change looks like a very small amount that it cannot have a significant impact on climate as that Thinksee Nosebetter did. The first flaw is in assuming that small numbers necessarily mean insignificance, but there is also misunderstanding about how small the relevant numbers really are.

It is quite simple to point out the fallacy in dismissing small numbers. Arsenic is toxic at a level of only about 1 part per million by mass. For some reason I doubt that the Thinksee Nosebetter who dismisses a one part per 2500 concentration of CO2 would willingly ingest a comparable amount of arsenic (about an ounce). Likewise, I suppose he would not want 1 out of every 2500 cells in his body to be replaced by cancer cells. Small numbers do not necessarily mean small impact.

But the numbers when it comes to CO2 are not really that small. I mentioned that about 99% of the atmosphere is nitrogen and oxygen. About 90% of the remainder is inert argon. What this overwhelming majority of the atmosphere have in common is that unlike CO2, the molecules of nitrogen, oxygen, and argon have no role in the atmospheric greenhouse effect. It is not hard to find an explanation of the greenhouse effect online at the level you would like. Basically, only certain molecules including CO2 and methane can absorb the energy that warms the planet above what it would be without them - these are the greenhouse gases.

All of the non-greenhouse gases are irrelevant in this context. Suppose there are thousands of choices at the bottle shop (to those not from around here, that is a local term), but only a few that you actually purchase. If all the others stayed the same price, but the price on just that handful you purchase went up, then your bill will be higher. It would be wrong to say that almost all prices stayed the same so your cost must not change much. All those others are irrelevant to you, and so it is with the non-greenhouse gases and the greenhouse effect.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dorgan maybe not done trashing climate before handing off to Hoeven

Previously we looked at Rick Berg. He is obviously in favor of climate-devastating pollution, but we cannot tell if we would merely be about as bad Pomeroy or whether he is out on the lunatic fringe either dismissing or calling a hoax the wide and virtually unanimous scientific agreement the climate change is a real threat that we should address.

Governor and Senate candidate John Hoeven paints a somewhat similar picture to Berg. Hoeven though at least acknowledges warming is occurring. But then he takes the cowardly out of saying, "There’s different opinions of exactly what’s causing it." Of course those opinions that human activities lead by greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels are not the dominant driving force behind the current long-term warming trend are predominantly from people merely using some combination of political wishful thinking and scientific illiteracy. Again though it is unclear whether Hoeven actually is aware of this and that those other opinions should carry no weight and is simply playing politics with the climate or whether Hoeven is simply ignorant about the issue. Philosophical question - does it matter which it is?

Anyway, let us not forget however about Byron Dorgan who has not yet been replaced by Hoeven in the Senate. So Dorgan still has time to inflict more ecological debt and environmental damage. Dorgan made news (not that you would hear most anywhere, but still...) this week declaring again his potential willingness to continue to make excuses and postpone attempts to maintain the climate that civilization has known and loved.

Talking about the potential of amendments to appropriations bills that would block implementation of climate-protecting rules from the EPA, Dorgan said, "I'd like to see what amendments are offered, and I'll make a judgment about that. I do think that it makes sense to have some time here to have Congress make the ultimate decision rather than EPA."

Wait, 'have some time here to have Congress make the ultimate decision rather than EPA'? Where has Dorgan been the last 30 years? Oh yeah - in Congress doing approximately squat to seriously address climate change.

Another philosophical question like the one posed above - does it matter whether my Congressmen acknowledge climate change and that humans are driving it (and could avert some of the worst consequences) or whether they ignore or deny the issue if either way they do nothing?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Rick Berg and climate

North Dakota GOP House of Representatives nominee Rick Berg has not (yet at least) been among the many Republicans across the country jumping off into the murky deep end of unmitigated climate change denial, ignorance, and anti-science rhetoric. See these examples from Wisconsin, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Alaska just from the latter half of August. Of course when the Democrats are countering with Earl Pomeroy, then opposing action to fight climate change would not really distinguish the Republican. By Pomeroy's logic on climate he would also oppose curing cancer because of the subsequent medical and research job losses. But where does Berg stand?

Today's Herald gives some clue. We find out that Berg supports propping up Social Security using funds from oil extraction from federal lands like Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Berg cannot get enough of energy production, but there is no indication he has a clue about climate and the danger of continued fossil fuel use. Try an internet search including 'Rick Berg' and 'climate'. You might get the impression that Berg does not even know there is any climate besides 'business climate'.

We do find that recently Berg signed a pledge (PDF) to "oppose any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue." The pledge is being circulated by the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, which would be better labelled Americans For The Prosperity Of Koch Industries or Americans for Climate Devastation.

He gives no sign of considering, much less considering addressing, the issue, but is unclear if Berg is in the kook pool when it comes to climate change. His pledge signing at least makes it clear that he does not believe there should be any cost to polluting and that the atmosphere is a dumping ground for carbon emissions from fossil fuel use regardless of how that damages the environment and thus costs us.