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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Vote for the Future: Cap Carbon, Cut Coal, Conserve for Great-Great-Great Grandkids

I've gone back and forth on the American Clean Energy and Security Act (you know, cap-and-trade, alternative energy, and more). People I respect on the left and right don't like it. A friend in the energy industry has argued that ACESA unfairly raises South Dakota's electric rates (maybe $38 a month, says that Sioux Falls paper) and doesn't do enough to support the development of carbon capture technology. And on alternative energy, Heartland general manager Mike McDowell tweets publicly that claims that South Dakota wind power could produce a majority of the nation's electricity are false. When someone so committed to the Power of Forward Thinking says wind can't solve the problem, what's an environmentalist to do? Maybe cap and trade really is a waste of time. Maybe there is no practical alternative to burning all the coal we can get our hands on until someone comes up with a better solution (like New Gen modular nuclear units?).

But you know what? Electric bills be darned, I think I'm still coming down in favor of ACESA, for the sake of the kids in the year 2143.

2143. What's so special about that year? That's the United States federal government's current official estimate of when the world could use up its coal reserves. (That assumes all nations play nicely and share.) That's how long we have to come up with energy technology that will replace a resource that currently provides 49% of our nation's electricity.

I like to believe in technological progress. I like to believe that if we just keep thinking and tinkering, someone will come up with fusion in a jar or anti-matter engines that will light cities and launch spaceships on a few drops of water.

But suppose we don't. Suppose we can't overcome the limitations of earthly materials and energy inputs to make fusion or other alternatives affordable and scalable by 2143. Our descendants look up from the flickering screens on their computers and see that last pile of coal being shoveled into Big Stone XVI. What do they do... besides curse us? "Dang it!" they'll grumble over candlelit dinners. "We were getting close on fusion. If we just had 20 more years of coal, we could have completed that work and built some reactors. Now we've got to spend all day digging for peat. But our ancestors in 2009 couldn't sacrifice a little bit of GDP to help us out. They just had to have their plasma screen TVs and leave their computers plugged in while they slept."

Now sharp readers will hear me echoing some complaints I get from fiscal conservatives about the Obama Administration's wanton spending. "Obama's spending our grandkids' money!" they cry. "It's tyranny! It must be stopped!"

There is some validity to the parallel. The massive deficit spending that Reagan and Bush accelerate, that Clinton almost fixed, and that Bush exploded reduces our and our descendants' fiscal options. Our increasing consumption of coal and other energy leaves future generations with fewer energy options.

Both are problems we need to reverse. But while neither money nor coal grows on trees, money is not a zero-sum resource. We can create more wealth, more value, more services to trade and tax to pay our bills. No one is making more coal. Our kids stand no chance of restocking the coal reserve.

My conservative readers occasionally bemoan the entitlement mentality. Perhaps the most dangerous entitlement mentality is our sense that we are entitled to cheap energy. Maybe coal power should cost more than hydro or wind. Maybe those of us living in sparsely populated, harder-to-power regions need to bear more of the cost of our energy-intensive lifestyles. Maybe our electric bills should reflect the full cost of developing new technology to capture carbon and other emissions and clean up coal ash waste.

Or maybe we need to just use less. If ACESA raises my electric bill $38, maybe I just need to use $38 less of electricity (wear warmer sweaters, build hand-crank generator for laptop, unplug everything at night... no one said this would be easy!). If Mike McDowell insists that South Dakota can't provide half of America's current electricity consumption, maybe America needs to reduce its energy consumption so that it can get all the power it needs from windmills here in the safest part of the continent.

And maybe that's what the American Clean Energy and Security Act is all about. Maybe it provides the market mechanism and the hard limits we need to put our feet to the fire (or just more buildings with August thermostats set to 78° instead of 72°) and build appliances and houses and habits that use less energy.

See? I'm still a conservative. The kids in 2143 need us to be.


  1. I'm not a proponent of cap and trade because it's ridiculously complicated for no reason. Seriously, we just need to throw taxes onto coal/oil/natural gas consumption that simply grow at 5% per year. Within 20 years (probably 12) of doing so we will be 95% Nuke/renewable with real energy security for the future.

    The second problem with cap and trade is that it's a system that can be easily gamed with "carbon offset" BS. Our no-till farmers here already play that game. Total garbage.

    The solution needs to be a long period of progressively more expensive fossil fuels at a predetermined rate. The free market can solve that type of problem very effectively.

  2. My chief concern is that even if we, here in the United States, cut our carbon emissions to zero starting tomorrow morning, the climate will continue to deteriorate until China and India get on board too.

    Haven't they publicly proclaimed that they will make no attempt to cut their carbon emissions?

    We have to find a way to really motivate (and, if necessary, force) China and India to help out with the global warming problem. Otherwise we'll burden our own economy (in a moral way, perhaps, but nature is amoral) while letting China and India get off -- and the whole planet will go to h*** anyway.

  3. Stan, I don't agree with your argument. China and India won't do it so we shouldn't even try? I think we should step up to the plate and do cap and trade first. Then we can show those other countries that our system is better on several levels. We're America, we should be leading by example.

  4. Jack,

    I didn't mean to imply that we should not try. We should! But once we get the moral high ground, we must demand that China and India follow our example, and we must put "teeth" into that demand.


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