Hedges and Priorities

The earth's supply of fossil fuel and its carrying capacity for greenhouse gases are finite.  If we are to continue to move forward as a species, and not descend into a dystopian sci-fi (or cli-fi) scenario, we need to find energy alternatives to fossil fuels at very large scale.  If not now, then eventually, and maybe quite soon.  As I suggested in Limits, we should be thinking seriously, and urgently, about ways to hedge the risk.

At least with currently imaginable technologies, we will continue to need the high energy density of petroleum to power massively consumptive products like jet engines.  They needs lots of power, and they need it immediately.  Only petroleum products can provide it.  If we want the ability to fly from Washington, D.C. to, let’s say, Seoul, then only jet fuel will do the trick, and it comes from petroleum.  Coal, nuclear, solar, wind and other power sources just don’t pack enough punch to put a plane in the air and keep it there. 

(OK, I know that two guys are currently trying to fly around the world, taking turns to reduce weight, in an ultralight plane powered by solar panels.  I think that is very cool, and I wish them luck, but they won’t get me to Seoul in time for my son’s wedding.)

This places a near-term premium on using other energy forms, such as electricity generated by coal or nuclear fuels, or even less dense renewable sources like solar and wind generation, to power products that don’t have such massive requirements.  This would include cars and trucks, ships, machinery, computers and air conditioners, lights, etc.  For automobiles, in particular, on-board energy alternatives such as hydrogen fuel cells are a promising technology. 

Prioritizing alternative sources for uses that have less-dense energy needs is critical.  This would allow us to save as much of the highly energy-dense fossil fuels as we can for applications where they will really be needed -- including by our children, and theirs, for at least some of the relevant moral time horizon discussed in Generations.  With innovation, and luck, perhaps we would buy enough time to develop some more powerful energy breakthroughs that we cannot fathom presently. 

Establishing priorities along these lines strikes me as a blindingly obvious hedge against having our collective tank run dry.  

What would this hedge look like as a public policy matter?  The most important element would undoubtedly be a carbon tax that would make energy-dense petroleum fuels more expensive and thereby use market forces to steer energy consumption toward other sources.  The tax would also provide funds to offset inequitable social impacts of energy shifts and climate change, and encourage investment in energy alternatives.

Another significant element of this hedging strategy would be to leave at least some fossil fuels in the ground for now.  They won’t be going anywhere if we do. 

If this idea sounds familiar, it is because I am channeling, among many others, President Obama, who has said:  "We're not going to be able to burn it all."   

I came across the acronym "YOLO" recently.  It means You Only Live Once.  Well, let me introduce "YODO":  You Only Drill Once.  When oil and gas have been removed from geological storage, there is no going back -- the process is irreversible.  But if we leave them in the ground now, future generations can make their own decisions, based on their technologies and existential circumstances, about whether to extract the fuels, if ever.  A hedge strategy includes the creation of future options.

What are the best candidates for being left alone, either permanently or as a hedge against future needs and technologies?  I would suggest that we start with the fuels located in places that embody other important values, such as wilderness esthetics and respect for the cultural traditions of indigenous peoples, that would be placed at risk by unbridled development. 

Can you say "Arctic Refuge"?


This week's post continues my Small Bites series exploring principles that are foundational to my analysis of public policy issues.  See Limits and Generations.