DC field trip: Returning to rational energy policies

This week your faithful scribe and civic activist John Nichols attended a conference in Washington, DC. Co-sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Crossroads III: Energy and Climate Policy Summit was held on December 8. Herewith some observations on the event.

1. Logistics - Attending a conference like this one requires a considerable commitment of time and effort. We left at 5:30 a.m. from Middletown, DE. Due to rush hour traffic into DC plus a search for parking (there isn’t much public parking in the area, except 2-hour street parking that isn’t suitable for an all-day conference even if you’re lucky enough to find a space), this was none too soon. We located a garage near Union Station, from which it was about a 3-block walk to the Heritage headquarters (214 Massachusetts Avenue NE), and arrived around the designated time (8:45 a.m.) for registration and continental breakfast.

The working sessions began at 9:15 a.m. and ran with breaks until 5:15 p.m. The group was then transported by bus to another building (Reserve Officers Association Building) near the US Capitol for a reception and dinner that ended around 8:15 p.m.

The bus took us back to Heritage/Union Station. We retrieved our car and drove back to Delaware, arriving home about 18 hours after our departure. Whew!

2. Overall program – Crossroads III was the third annual conference in this series, and the first one in DC. The Texas Public Policy Foundation sponsored similar events in 2014 and 2015. A Crossroads IV summit is envisioned in 2017, venue to be determined.

When Crossroads III was being planned, no one knew who would win the election – the sponsors took a chance by planning for a robust pro-energy message, which might have seemed out of touch if Clinton had won the presidential election. As things worked out, the message was fine. Both speakers and attendees seemed to be in a very positive frame of mind, and there were several comments about having some hope for a change and perceiving opportunities to go on the offense.

Trump’s decision to nominate Scott Pruitt (Oklahoma Attorney General) as administrator of the EPA was lauded. Announced the previous day, this choice had generally delighted conservatives while upsetting liberals who have strongly supported the current administration’s energy policies. EPA pick Scott Pruitt shows Trump is serious about shredding Obama’s climate regs, Tom Borelli, conservativereview.com,

•The Oklahoma AG is a vocal critic of the EPA’s regulatory overreach and disagrees with the claim that global warming science is settled. Instead, he believes the relationship between man’s activities and global warming needs vigorous debate. The selection of Pruitt should allay any fears that Trump was softening his stance on reversing President Obama’s climate change regulations by recently meeting with former Vice President Al Gore.

•The realization that Obama’s environmental agenda is going to be unwound has the Left in a fit of rage. To no [one’s] surprise Pruitt’s nomination is being blasted by radical environmental groups and Democrat politicians.

The question arose of who Trump would nominate to head the Department of Energy. If anyone knew they weren’t saying, but the consensus seemed to be that another conservative would be picked to help shield fracking operations from onerous regulations, speed exploitation of currently undeveloped oil and gas reserves, and enable the US to finally achieve the goal of energy independence that was set in the 1970s.

3. Leveling the playing field – For most attendees (perhaps 100 people), the material covered was rather familiar. The prime value of attending was to connect the ideas with the participants who presented and supported them (see seminar agenda), including personal interactions during the breaks and at the reception and dinner.

Energy industry firms were well represented, including both petroleum and coal. Prospects for the increasing and profitable production of these resources were described in glowing terms, provided only that government regulations be kept reasonable rather than continually tightened as a result of imposing ever higher environmental standards. Thus, with the advent of new technology for profitably extracting shale oil, it was said that the US now has more recoverable oil reserves than either Saudi Arabia or Russia.

Stephen Moore of Heritage, a Trump adviser, made clear (in remarks at the reception) that sensible energy policies are an integral part of the incoming administration’s game plan to boost economic growth, e.g., from 2% to 4% per year. And plenty of supporting information to this effect had been presented earlier.

No one suggested environmental standards are unimportant or should be lightly abandoned. Thus, in the first session (Congressional update), Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) reminded attendees that the GOP was the party of Teddy Roosevelt, which began the national park system. But when the EPA began issuing regulations like the Clean Power Plan, which according to Olson “smoked the law” and lacked congressional buy-in, it was time to restore the balance between economic and environmental considerations.

While it’s fashionable to view coal as a “dirty” fuel, the burning of coal has been cleaned up considerably over time. Thus, Patrick Forkin of Peabody Energy drew a comparison between 1970 and 2015 operations for the US coal industry. Production nearly doubled during this period; polluting emissions (not including CO2, more on that later) from burning coal were reduced by some 90%! Despite growing use of cheap natural gas (thanks to the fracking boom) to generate electric power in recent years, 1/3 of US power still comes from coal.

Nuclear power is also promising; care should be taken to encourage new power plant designs and avoid overloading the industry with heavy-handed regulations. Nor is there any reason to be resistant to alternative energy sources; indeed, Texas has made extensive use of wind power. Just beware of allowing power sourcing decisions to be determined by government mandates and subsidies (there are a host of them, including the wind production tax credit that was extended until 2019 in the year-end budget bill of 2015), which will virtually ensure that suboptimal decisions are made.

4. Key issue - The big uncertainty in the energy policy equation is the implications of CO2 produced as a consequence of burning fossil fuels. CO2 is a naturally occurring gas, which presently accounts for over .04% of the Earth’s atmosphere (that’s up from less than .03% at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution). This may not sound very alarming, but it’s been theorized that rising levels of C02 may result in accelerating climate warming, which over the rest of this century and beyond could have catastrophic consequences.

If the manmade global warming (aka climate change) theory were correct, decisive action might be indicated to curb the use of natural gas, oil, and especially coal (which has more carbon and less hydrogen in its makeup). Otherwise, restrictions on the burning of fossil fuels would be costly and essentially pointless. So the validity of the MMGWT is a pivotal question, which needs to be resolved for purposes of setting energy policies.

Opinion in the scientific community is divided re the MMGWT, and claims of an overwhelming (e.g., 97%) consensus in favor of the theory are highly suspect. First, scientific inquiry is not based on consensus; it is based on proof. Second, deceptive methods have been used to report a level of consensus that does not – in fact – exist. Third, scientists may be reluctant to identify as climate skeptics because this is likely to make it harder to get their work funded and published.

One of the best features of the conference was that it brought together a distinguished cast of scientists to talk about various aspects of the MMGWT, notably in session VI (Is CO2 really a pollutant? Update from the C02 coalition). All of the scientists at the conference took the skeptic’s side of the argument, which might seem somewhat unfair, but this wasn’t the fault of the meeting planners.

It was originally intended that Dr. David Legates from the University of Delaware would speak in opposition to the MMGWT after dinner, with an accompanying talk by a scientist who endorses the theory. This could have resulted in a stimulating exchange of views on the topic, albeit not formally a debate, but no scientist on the other side accepted the challenge. (As a result, Dr. Legates participated in session VI and Kathleen Hartnett White of the Texas Public Policy Institute gave the after-dinner talk.)

Guess they chickened out, a MMGWT skeptic might say, but one liberal observer (probably a gentleman who was displaying a "media" label; we didn't spot any coverage of Crossroads III in other publications) offered a different view – in the course of a lengthy diatribe about the conference that was loaded with distortions, half-truths and animus against conservatives. Fear and loathing at Koch-funded Trump “shadow transition team” event, Philip Newell, newsmedia.com,

[Dr. Legates] was supposed to be on another panel, debating someone about the case for and against catastrophic climate change. Apparently, they [climate alarmists] decided not to normalize the event and didn’t show up.

5. Loose end – The United States played a leading role in negotiating the Paris Agreement in 2015, which calls for signatories to implement their respective commitments to limit carbon emissions in coming years. Viewing this document as an executive agreement rather than a treaty, the administration didn’t consult with the congressional leadership about the matter or submit the document to the Senate for ratification after it was signed. Global warming alarmists go overboard, 12/14/15.

This year the US and most other signatories have confirmed their participation and the Paris Agreement is now considered in full force and effect. Furthermore, the president has backed longer-term plans for US reduction of carbon emission reductions (announced at the annual UN summit on global warming, which was held in Morocco in November) that are even more ambitious and would, in effect, force a phase-out of our use of fossil fuel energy. Obama undermines Trump with ambitious new climate change plan, Ben Wolfgang, Washington Times,

Implementation of the Paris Agreement by the US and other countries would make no sense unless the MMGWT was deemed correct, which as already discussed is debatable. In any case, the agreement is not restrictive enough (e.g., China has pledged to continue increasing carbon emissions until the 2030s) to have any measurable impact on global temperatures.

One might suspect, therefore, that support for the Paris Agreement is primarily based on the green energy slush fund that would be created by 2020 versus a sincere belief that implementation of the pact would alleviate a threat of dangerous global warming. And who would pay for the fund? Why the US and other developed countries, of course, probably excluding China.

Similarly, many of the US business backers of the battle against global warming are expecting to benefit from tax credits, etc. The existence of such handouts is undeniable, unlike the MMGWT, and may prove far harder to counteract. As Al Gore told Donald Trump . . . forget climate change. Green handouts have become a political end in themselves, Holman Jenkins, Wall Street Journal,

Details weren’t released but we can be pretty sure of the message Mr. Gore delivered. It’s the message he’s been delivering since President Obama’s election in 2008: Climate change no longer requires any painful root-canal actions. No need for unpopular energy taxes or giving up our energy-rich lifestyles. The problem can be solved with handouts to the green energy lobby. Who doesn’t like distributing handouts?

During the campaign, Trump talked about renouncing the Paris Agreement, but it’s not clear how he actually plans to proceed. Perhaps he will continue making plans to roll back the previous administration’s policies, including participation in the Paris Agreement, while making a show of meeting with noted climate activists. Or perhaps he will make substantive compromises, including some sort of support for the Paris Agreement. Inside Trump’s “open mind” on climate change, John Siciliano, Washington Examiner,

Some of Trump's moves are pure public relations, [DC attorney Frank] Maisano said. Trump "knows how to grab attention," and DiCaprio and Gore "fit into the celebrity model" that he has become accustomed to, being a reality television personality. "He senses the PR value in having Gore and DiCaprio come in. I am sure he listened intently" to what they both had to say.

Whatever is going to happen, there wasn’t much discussion about the future of the Paris Agreement at the Crossroads III conference.

6. Path forward – Fireworks lie ahead as the new administration attempts to reverse or at least temper the policy initiatives that have been set in motion. Conservatives should not underestimate the determination of the opposition, nor be content with halfway responses.

Energy firms who indulge their impulse to seek favors from the government and place their faith in free markets may find themselves picked off sequentially. Thus, some large oil companies have signaled acceptance of a tax on carbon based on the expectation that shuttering of the coal industry will benefit their natural gas operations. Imagine their dismay when the “keep it in the ground” attack is extended to natural gas because the other side is ideologically opposed to all industrial activity.

Administrative agencies must be brought to heel. Consider the arrogance of the claim that all but one of the 6,000 odd text messages on the cellphone that EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy used to conduct business were “personal” in nature, and of the EPA’s refusal to consult with Congress before issuing the Clean Power Plan.

Reversing executive orders and administrative decisions may seem expedient, but remember that any such actions can be countermanded if and when the other party returns to power. Don’t quibble about the legality of the CPP; destroy the basis for the EPA endangerment finding by amending the Clean Air Act to provide that it doesn’t apply to the regulation of CO2 emissions. Pass the REINS Act so that major regulations can’t be put into effect without explicit, prior congressional approval.

The media and schools have invested much time and effort in selling the MMGWT. Labeling the theory as unproven is not enough; skeptics should pinpoint what’s wrong with the supporting climate models and discredit them. Also, identify and publicize the positive benefits of more CO2 in the atmosphere, including bigger harvests and better use of water resources (Dr. Craig Idso’s talk in session VI).

Looks like a busy time ahead for climate realists!
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