The writer was chair of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities from 2010 until January.
Did the president think we wouldn’t notice?
This month, the Obama administration gave conditional approval to Shell Gulf of Mexico’s plan to drill for oil this summer in the Chukchi Sea, off the coast of Alaska. Industry and environmental groups agree that this is one of the world’s most dangerous places to drill, given its huge waves and the difficulty of reaching it in the event of an accident. The administration had previously granted Shell a permit to drill offshore in the Arctic but in 2013 refused to give it permission to continue operations in light of serious safety problems.
News coverage has understandably focused on the safety issues associated with drilling in the Arctic. This is an important concern but is not the most important one, which is the direct contradiction between extraction of oil in the Arctic and the administration’s goal of keeping the increase in global temperatures below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
As if to highlight the contradiction, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced — just days before the drilling decision — that the monthly global average concentration of carbon dioxide had surpassed 400 parts per million for the first time. There is no magic to the 400 parts per million metric, but there is a broad consensus that this is about the level necessary to keep global temperatures from rising more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (equivalent to 2 degrees Celsius) since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Scientists agree as well that exceeding this temperature increases the risk of catastrophic or “runaway” warming. In other words, we’re playing with fire.
Further, a January study led by researchers at University College London and published in the journal Nature estimated the amount of fossil fuels that would have to be left in the ground to keep the world below the 3.6-degree rise. Using well-established economic models and assuming use of the cheapest fuels first, the study determined that all Arctic oil and gas would need to remain unused. It reached a similar conclusion for most Canadian tar sands, a significant share of potential shale gas and more than 80 percent of the world’s coal reserves.
Even before the study, it was known that there is much more fossil fuel in the world’s reserves than can be exploited without crossing the 3.6-degree threshold. But the study was the first to identify the specific resources that would need to be abandoned.
Reflecting on that finding, Michael Greenstone, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and chief economist of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers from 2009 to 2010, calculated the projected rise in temperature attributable to all fossil fuels extracted so far and the amount that would result from the use of all fossil fuels that could be extracted with today’s technologies. The total was 16.2 degrees.
According to Greenstone, fossil fuel extraction since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution accounts for only 1.7 degrees of that increase. Using all of the reserves of coal, natural gas and petroleum recoverable at today’s prices and technologies would warm the planet by an additional 2.8 degrees. That comes to 4.5 degrees, almost a whole degree higher than the 3.6-degree target. The remainder of the 16.2 degrees comes from fossil fuel recoverable with today’s technology but not at current prices.
One can argue with the details of Greenstone’s calculation — undoubtedly the number is not exactly 16.2 — but there is no escaping the conclusion: The news is bad.
But more to the point, there is a glaring contradiction between the administration’s decision allowing Shell to drill in the Arctic and its goal of reaching a treaty on emissions limiting the rise in global temperatures to 3.6 degrees at the international climate talks to be held in Paris late this year.
Obama seems committed to addressing climate change and certainly understands the issues, but his actions suggest that he is unwilling to follow the logic of the problem where it leads.