S&R interviews PCAP's Bill Becker, Part 4

Posted on September 11, 2008

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On Monday we introduced you to Bill Becker and heard all about PCAP’s policy suggestions. Tuesday we focused on how the United States could wean itself off of carbon using a cap-and-auction market system, and yesterday we talked about national security and how it relates to energy and climate.

Today, in our final segment, we talk about the science of global heating, the technology that can help address it, and it’s deniers.

S&R: How do you address the concerns of the person who just spent $4.30 per gallon to fill up their tank with gas, who is concerned that the price of gas for their furnace is going up, who sees their electricity prices rising because Chinese demand for coal is driving up coal prices, when you say that you’re going to make all of that carbon-based energy even more expensive?

Bill Becker: Well, first you tell them that the price has gone up not because of climate change or anything we’ve done to solve climate change, it’s gone up because these are fossil fuels, they’re finite fuels and it’s inevitable that they’re going to run out. There’s more people demanding them, the supplies are getting thinner, and the price is going up – it’s the old law of supply and demand. It’s not the fault of anyone who’s working in the environmental community or in climate change. I would tell them secondly that the price rises are going to continue – it’s inevitable. We may see little dips and that sort of thing but the general trend is going to be up, and so we need to deal with that right now. We can deal with it in a couple of ways.

One way is through energy efficiency and conservation. One of the best ways to mitigate the pain of energy prices is to use less energy, and as we heard today, efficiency is a way that you can get all the same benefit but use less energy. We need to have an unprecedented drive for energy efficiency – an energy efficiency surge in this economy that the President and the Congress can lead to help people reduce their energy bills from the get-go – and that can happen quickly. Energy efficiency is a very fast result-producing strategy.

The second thing we need to help people understand is that while fossil energy – coal and nuclear, gas, oil – all are going up, the cost of renewables are coming down, and there is a point – in fact we’ve crossed it some places already – where renewables – solar, wind, and geothermal – will be cheaper than the traditional energy resources we have. So what we need to do is get over the hump until that happens, until solar, wind, geothermal electricity, biofuels are relatively cheap forms of energy. They’re stabilizing energy prices because their supplies are infinite. The fuel costs for solar and wind are free. So we need to get through this transition period to the point where we’re based on renewable energy and prices stabilize. If people can see that future, I think they’ll be less afraid that we’ll see perpetual unaffordable increases in their energy costs, but we need to move to create that future – it’s not going to happen by itself.

S&R: So you’re not a fan of the “drill here, drill now, pay less” campaign.

BB: I’m not a fan of that. And the way I put it is that you can’t solve the addiction by changing suppliers. We just perpetuate the use of oil and carbon emissions by feeding more into the system. I’m not saying that we can go cold turkey. I understand that that kind of dislocation would be untenable, but we do need to have an intelligent, gradual, predictable strategy for backing our way out of that resource and replacing it cellulosic biofuels and other types of liquid fuels or electric vehicles and that kind of thing in our economy.

S&R: Here in Colorado we’re starting to hear the rhetoric of oil shale. Back in the 80’s, oil shale was big and then it crashed, and the communities that were depending on oil shale research crashed along with it. Naturally, most of those communities are now a little leery of jumping on the shale bandwagon again. What’s PCAP’s view on shale development?

BB: PCAP’s view is that we need to learn to solve problems, not switch problems – there’s a difference between problem solving and problem switching.

Let’s talk about liquid fuels from coal. Some people promote them as a way to reduce our petroleum imports; we’ll run our vehicles on liquids produced from coal. That’s a good thing from the standpoint of reducing our dependence on imports, but it’s a terrible thing from the standpoint of climate change because it’s a very carbon intensive operation. By getting into liquid fuels from coal we’re trading the import problem for the climate problem. We need solutions because this crisis is so urgent that solve both problems. We need to solve many problems at once. We need to multitask, so our solutions need to not create a whole new set of problems, they need to solve a whole bunch of problems all at one time. That’s what solar will do, for example, and wind, because they don’t have those liabilities. The same thing with nuclear – you’re producing what people call a low-carbon fuel in exchange for national security. You don’t want to make that trade-off.

Now, if there were no options that were not overall good and did not involve trade-offs, fine. But we have options. We have clean technologies that enhance national security, that are environmentally benign, economically good, job creating technologies. We need to actually exhaust those before we move into the more problematic options.

In terms of oil shale development, again, the oil industry is finding that more and more of the world’s oil is becoming harder to reach because oil is becoming nationalized. They’re not having as much access to the world’s oil fields as they used to, so they’re looking for new, non-conventional sources, they’re looking to drill in harder to reach places like offshore. They’re looking to oil shale as becoming a non-conventional source of oil so they can continue selling oil.

My argument is that, with the tremendous profits the oil industry is taking in right now, they should be investing in the energy technologies of the future, not of the past. They should spend less time defending the old economy, more time helping us build the new economy. And it’s not just me – the Rockefeller family, shareholders in ExxonMobil went to the last annual meeting and urged Exxon to begin investing more of its money in these renewable technologies of the future. We’re going to see more of that kind of pressure from the shareholders.

S&R: And yet Steve Milloy got up at the same meeting and was cheered for presenting a proposal that said “we have to stop shareholder activism” very much like what the Rockefeller family was proposing. How do you deal with that, or do you figure out a way to work around it?

BB: I think we’ll have the same disagreement and evolution in thinking among shareholders as we have had on the Hill in Congress. I don’t think because the Rockefellers sit up and said “we’ve got to go for solar” there’s suddenly a unanimous movement of shareholders. The battle’s going to have to be fought and minds changed in that community as well as the rest of America, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the smart thing for fossil energy industries to do is to take the wealth that they have now and, rather than turning it back into stock shares and high salaries for their executives, begin to invest it in the future so they have a future, so their shareholders have a future, so America has a future.

These guys know how to run a business, and we can use them. They need not be our enemy, the enemy of a new economy, I should say. They could be allies. We could build this new economy together, but I think right now they’re really caught in what they know, they’re caught in old patterns, and they need to come aboard.

S&R: This morning, Fred Palmer, Peabody Coal’s Senior Vice President for Government Relations and the other big energy panelists from the Energy and Climate Change roundtable this morning were proponents of the incrementalist approach: “It’s going to take us time to develop CCS, we need a government that’s going to give us the time we need and a policy that will give us the time to get there.” What’s your view on that?

BB: It’s not the government’s role to give us time. The time is out. The time has expired. What the government has to do is help us in a rapid turnaround. We can’t wait for research and development to figure out how to bury and sequester large amounts of carbon from the coal industry. We should continue researching that, and I hope it’s a technology that pans out, but we don’t have the time to wait 10, 15, or 20 years for that technology to become mature and move into the marketplace. We need to act now.

It so happens that energy efficiency, wind, and solar are very quickly deployed technologies. They’re things we can do very, very quickly. We’ve seen that again with the gasoline crisis and how quickly people responded to it, and we saw gasoline prices start to come down. We can’t wait for incremental approaches to this. In fact, Sam Walton of Wal-Mart said “Incrementalism is innovation’s worst enemy. We don’t want continuous improvement, we want radical change.” He saw that from a business standpoint. I think we’re seeing that from a government standpoint. Frankly, one of the statements that we heard this morning from the coal industry is that we have clean coal, that there is such a thing as clean coal. There is not such thing as clean coal.

S&R: And yet the ACCCE is standing outside the Denver Center for the Performing Arts passing out T-shirts and saying we’ve got the energy of the future. I take it you don’t agree?

BB: Uh, no. To be brutally frank, and you have to understand my bias because I worked my career in renewable energy and energy efficiency, so I’m a very biased person, but to be candid, what the fossil energy industries are doing is dressing up in new clothes for a new time. That doesn’t mean that underneath those clothes that they’re not still the same industries that they were before.

We may be able to achieve clean coal, but the way that they mean it is that we can capture and sequester the carbon, but clean really means what coal does to our economy and our people throughout its entire life cycle. If you fly over West Virginia and see what mountaintop removal mining has done, you’ll never believe it. You cannot call coal clean if you’ve seen mountaintop removal. If you’ve seen the water coming out of the wells in southern West Virginia, you’ll never call coal clean even if they manage to capture every atom of carbon and bury it underground.

So, as I talked about in the seminar this morning, when we talk about what needs to be on the table, we need to have a lot of options, but we need to pay most attention to the best ones that are truly clean over their entire life cycle in terms not just of energy, but water or carbon or the impact on the social well-being of the people who are in the mining regions, national security. All of those things need to be calculated so we can pick the options that do the least harm and the most good. Not all energy technologies are equal in this new economy at all. Some are better than others and we need to do the best ones first.

S&R: I have seen a lot of representatives of the nuclear industry claim that their industry is “carbon free”. In my experience, when they’re referring to their industry as carbon free, they’re talking about after they get the ore out of the ground and get it processed in the first place. Do you see a place for nuclear at the table?

BB: First of all, when they talk about it being carbon free or clean coal, they’re talking about the moment of combustion or the moment of nuclear reaction. Again, if you look at the whole lifecycle, you’ll see that nuclear does produce carbon. Not as badly as coal, but it does produce carbon. But the more serious consequences of using nuclear are at least threefold, and our position in PCAP is that we should not build nuclear unless the industry can solve three problems: non-proliferation of nuclear materials which result in nuclear weapons, permanent storage of the waste in a way that’s safe for generations to come, and how do we protect this nuclear plant that we’re building from becoming a terrorist target. When you think about proliferation these days, you think not only about someone acquiring the knowledge to build a very sophisticated weapon, but a dirty bomb. So those three things need to be solved before we move forward on nuclear.

What we say in PCAP is – we don’t oppose coal, we don’t oppose nuclear. We oppose carbon emissions, we oppose proliferation. What we need to do as a nation is set a performance standard for the technologies we’re going to promote and subsidize publicly. We need to meet this standard for net energy gain, net carbon reduction, national security impact, water consumption. We need to lay out the things that we can measure and know we need to measure and say “you need to meet these criteria if you’re going to be part of this nation’s energy solution, or at least the part we’re subsidizing with public money.”

S&R: There are a lot of very well organized and funded people out there who oppose making any changes. They either believe that climate change isn’t a problem, or they believe it’s going to cost too much. How are you going to counteract that message?

BB: First of all, that’s not unusual. Whenever we’ve had an economic transformation, and we’ve had some, there are people who are threatened by it, some of them very justifiably. When we switched from typewriters to laptop computers or PCs, the typewriter people lost their jobs. When we switched to cell phones, the people who made dial phones lost their jobs. We have to be sensitive to that. We have to help those people come into the new economy with economic security. We need to be sensitive.

But those who are opposing the science or who are that it’s “the sky is falling” rhetoric or that it’s a conspiracy by scientists to get more research money, the future is not on their side. I think events are going to prove them wrong. I think they’re arguing out of vested interests, and some of them are arguing just because they’re contrarians, I guess, but I think what happens in the next several years is going to eliminate most doubt except for the most intransigent people that this is an absolute real problem.

We’ve heard from the science. We’ve had the largest, collaborative scientific study in the world’s history conclude that this is a real and urgent problem, that we’ve just got a few years left to solve it, that we have to create a brand new economy, and I think that most people who are intelligent, well-meaning, and concerned about the future get that. I think the mainstream debate has moved beyond the science now and now the debate is about what we need to do to achieve that rapid turn around that the scientists say we need to achieve.

One thing I’ll say is that, in this project, we talk about needing to build a 21st century economy. The old economy isn’t working. The signs are all around us that it’s dysfunctional. There’s a bunch of new realities that we need to shape our economy to meet and to take advantage of. We say that the new economy needs to deliver security, opportunity, and stewardship, but when you say that to someone in the Rust Belt, when you say “we need a new economy”, what that means to them is “I’m going to lose my job – you’re phasing out my job.” We need to be sensitive to that.

There are things we can do. We can create enterprise zones, special places where a community, for example, that loses coal jobs or where an automobile plant goes down, heaven forbid, where federal incentives and state incentives combine to bring to bring new manufacturing businesses – wind power and others – into that community and retrain people for those jobs. We can take care of that problem if we’re sensitive to it, and I think the next President will be.

S&R: One last question. There has to be people out there who don’t like what you’re doing. Can you give me a basic rundown on who they are and why they don’t?

BB: I think everyone loves what we’re doing. I think we’re universally loved… I wish.

I tend to be more frontal, a little more aggressive than the diplomats on the hill about the need for this transition, and I’m sure that the fossil energy industries and the nuclear industry don’t like some of the proposals we’re putting forward, but I think they’re good proposals for the future of the country and actually for the future of these industries if they hop on board in creating this new economy rather than resisting it. And as I said, they spend a lot of time and money right now defending the old economy when they could help us build a new one.

But no, not everyone like it, but it’s something we need to do, and I think the more we talk about the opportunities inherent for the whole economy, the more people will understand this is not only the right thing, but is the right future that we need to work on. There’s always going to be deniers and there’s always going to be people who are afraid of change. We just have to counter the deniers with better information and help the people who are afraid to make it through the transition.

Monday:Part 1
Tuesday: Part 2
Wednesday Part 3

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