A Rebuttal to “The Social Benefits of Fossil Fuels Far Outweigh the Costs” Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, June 18, 2018, page A17

The Wall Street Journal periodically publishes perspectives of climate issues by individuals and/or institutions that disagree with the prevailing scientific consensus, but who raise issues for consideration.  The reference article was written by Messrs. Joseph Bast and Peter Ferrara of the Heartland Institute; following are comments on what I believe to be half-truths and invalid reasoning in the op-ed.

The authors make six assertions to support their perspective that benefits will outweigh the costs.  Some of these assertions are factually correct, but more limited in scope than their conclusions warrant; others are open to question; and other significant social costs are simply omitted as they are neither raised nor addressed.  In all, the authors attempt to make their case through selectively picking topics and making unsubstantiated inferences.  Let’s consider these assertions individually.  I hope Judge Alsup to whom these were submitted sees through some of the artifice.

1. Fossil fuels have indeed lifted billions of people out of poverty and improved health (in many ways). I’m delighted they start with the quote from Vaclav Smil who is dense to read, but very astute and extremely well reasoned. Matter of fact, Dr. Smil is quite clear in recognizing the need to transition fuels.  I’ve just been reading his 2017 book “Energy Transitions” in which he says right up front (Introduction, page x), “Modern civilization could not have arisen without the massive combustion of fossil fuels” (note, rather similar to the 2003 quote in the OpEd, yet Dr. Smil continues), “but that very dependence has been the source of rising atmospheric CO2, and the leading cause of anthropogenic global warming.  That is why the principal concern of the unfolding energy transition is with decarbonization, displacement of fossil fuel combustion by increasing reliance on carbon-free flows of renewable energy.”  (Italics in original.)  Extolling the historic benefits of fossil fuels does not allow us to ignore the need to mitigate the problems it has created. This first assertion is irrelevant to our current problem and incomplete as a summary of its author’s thinking.

2  The second assertion is that “alternative energy sources environmental activists favor are generally more expensive.” This is supported by a study conducted by Stacey and Taylor. A couple problems here.  First, interesting that most of the investment in new powerplants by energy providers in recent years has been in alternative (primarily wind and solar) sources.    Let’s look at the largest US Energy company based on market capitalization, NextEra Energy.  “We continue to be the world’s largest generator of renewable energy from the wind and sun,”   “In 2016 we achieved our lowest ever emissions rates of SO2, NO2 and CO2—rates that were 94%, 74% and 53% lower, respectively, than the average U.S. utility sector”   (http://www.nexteraenergy.com/sustainability/environment.html ).      OK, let’s try the second largest, Duke Energy.  Duke Energy’s renewable energy portfolio grew almost 20 percent in 2017, according to new report the company added more than 1,000 megawatts of wind, solar and biomass; almost 40 percent of the company’s electricity produces no greenhouse gas emissions.”  (Press release dated April 30, 2018, at https://news.duke-energy.com/releases/duke-energy-s-renewable-energy-portfolio-grew-almost-20-percent-in-2017-according-to-new-report?  ) Hmm, let’s try number 3, Southern Company,Wind power is a commercially proven, rapidly growing form of generation that provides clean, renewable and cost-effective electricity.”  (https://www.southerncompany.com/our-companies/southern-power.html )  Darn, these “environmental activists” sure are showing up in unexpected places—who would have thought they’d be setting the policy at the country’s leading power companies.

OK, let’s forget that the corporations whose future is based on carefully choosing cost-effective investments are investing heavily in renewables, Stacey (sic, I believe it’s actually Stacy) and Taylor say alternative energy is more expensive.  Their 2015 study does make this claim for new wind resources versus existing nuclear and coal facilities.  But wait, isn’t comparing an existing facility to a new-built facility apples and oranges;  isn’t it like asking how much does it cost to run your existing car versus a new car (being sure to include the new car purchase price in the calculation)?  If your existing car is paid-off, it will be cheaper per mile than your new car (amortizing the new-car purchase price over miles driven) unless the new car is enormously more efficient.  Again, apples and oranges.  This second assertion is not supported by the examples above of industry investments and only by a study that compares apples and oranges.

3. The third assertion is that an increase in electricity prices (of 10%) would decrease GDP by 1.3%. Indeed, after searching through the referenced Dr. Bezdek’s study, “The Social Costs of Carbon? No, the Social Benefits of Carbon.” This conclusion (page 74) is drawn from dozens of studies spanning 30 years and many countries.

A major problem with the application of this conclusion to the current situation is that fails to account for affects that don’t appear in Dr. Bezdek’s summary of studies.  Two specific concerns.  First, the share of imported energy generating the electricity is not identified.   Rises in energy import prices are shown to reduce GDP; the more dependent a country is on imported oil, the more likely its electricity costs will rise and GDP will decline as oil prices rise.  As US electricity has been less dependent on imported oil (yes, thank you historically, coal), it’s not clear how this multinational GDP elasticity applies to the United States.   The second concern with the inferred conclusion (that “higher priced” (not proven, see #2 above) renewables will reduce GDP growth) is that it fails to account for substitution effects elsewhere in the economy.  Specifically, if the assumption of higher prices is accepted (which is not proven, but for the sake of argument), and these prices rise as a result of infrastructure investment in newly built powerplants and transmission systems, these higher prices are offset by their stimulus effect on the construction sector.  In a similar vein,  Dr. Bezdek’s conclusion does not take into account savings realized from lower carbon emissions from reduced health care costs, reduced climate/storm damage, avoided increases in food prices due to increased harvest uncertainties and moderated sea level rise.   In conclusion, this third assertion while factually correct if “all other factors are equal,” does not acknowledge the uncertainty of any price rise, nor the many savings and possible positive stimulations to other parts of the economy that arise by replacing carbon-based energy sources with renewable sources.

4. The fourth assertion appears to be the suggestion that the benefits of modernity are uniquely tied to “cheap energy from fossil fuels.”  This is historically correct, but does not obviate the need to now move toward “decarbonization” as refered to by Dr. Smil in comment #1, above.  Nor has it been shown whether energy from renewable is any “less cheap” (comment #2).

5. The fifth assertion highlights the historic beneficial impact of fossil fuel on agriculture.  Same response as in comment #4, above.

6. The sixth assertion is that mortality rates from cold weather are higher than those from warm weather, therefore “global warming” should reduce weather-related mortality.  There are indeed numerous studies that document cold weather is associated with higher mortality rates than is warm weather, and a few that show the reverse to be true.  The process of classifying cause of death and the affects of air conditioning, heating and similar measures complicate these results.  But charts from an extensive British medical Journal Lancet-reported study (2015) copied in a post at https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2018/1/17/16851398/cold-snap-heat-wave-deaths-human-health and other studies cited show steeper rises in mortality rates on the “hotter” side than on the “colder side.”  As a result of this asymmetry, national differences in health care and infrastructure and the classification problems, the application of current findings to a warming globe remains widely debated.  Similarly ambiguous and controversial is the authors’ inference that recent research suggests vector-borne diseases will not contribute to expanding health-related problems.  Some portions of a mosquito’s life cycle and geographic range are enhanced by increasing temperatures; some life-cycle portions are suppressed.  A lot depends on the starting point, but the widening geography of Lime Disease points toward an overall expanding risk.

When considering health-related areas of impact of global warming studies raise about seven topics of concern, of which only two (temperature impacts and vector-borne diseases) are addressed in this op-ed.  The op-ed does not address adverse air quality impacts (particulate matter, smog, ground-level ozone effects on asthma and related respiratory conditions), extreme events (infrastructure disruptions, stress), water-related illnesses (runoff contamination, damage to waste water treatment facilities), food safety and nutrition (increased food spoilage and contamination) nor mental health (stress (again) with increased incidence of interpersonal violence, and reduced ability of persons taking some mental health medications to respond to regulate body temperature).  Taken together, for its selection of sub-topics and their inconclusiveness, this sixth assertions of benefits is not supported.

Though generally citing research, the six assertions apply these findings in a manner not in accord with the original research focus or by selective inclusion and omission.  It does nothing to prove fossil fuel benefits.

Gerald Bernstein
Editor, CaliforniaSolar.org

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