Will fracking lead to a UK energy renaissance?

Jared Meyer, policy analyst for Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute, wrote an op-ed for City AM detailing the barriers that still prevent the UK from taking full advantage of fracking:

For the first time in six years companies are able to bid for natural gas exploration licenses in the United Kingdom. The UK became a net importer of petroleum and natural gas last year and domestically-produced natural gas now accounts for only a third of consumption. Prime Minister Cameron’s decision to go “all out for shale” is a welcome sign and will aid in reversing the trend away from energy independence. If done correctly, increased energy exploration will also help the economic recovery gain strength.

Three problems still inhibit the UK from taking full advantage of potential gains from fracking. First, the energy exploration permitting process is far too time-consuming. Second, private landowners do not own the mineral rights beneath their lands, leaving them with little incentive to support energy exploration in their backyards. Addressing both these issues will help overcome strong environmentalist opposition, the third obstacle.

This article was originally published in City AM. Read the full article here

Climate change is three times worse than we thought, apparently

A new paper tells us that climate change is actually three times worse than we thought. For there may be tipping points, catastrophic changes, that cannot be worked back from and this shows that the carbon price should actually be three times higher than it is:

Climate policy aims to internalise the social cost of carbon by means of a carbon tax or a system of tradable permits such as the Emissions Trading System set up in the EU. But how do we determine the social cost of carbon? Do we take everything into account that should be taken into account? Most integrated assessment models (Nordhaus 2008, Stern 2007) calculate the net present value of estimated marginal damages to economic production from emitting one extra ton of carbon caused by burning fossil fuel.

However, global warming has many non-marginal effects on both the economy and on the carbon cycle. Climate catastrophes can occur that lead to sudden flooding, hurricanes, desertification, water shortages, etc. Many of such changes may be irreversible. Other catastrophes such as reversal of the Gulf Stream or sudden release of greenhouse gases from the permafrost lead to a sudden and long-lasting change in the system dynamics of the carbon cycle. Such changes in the system dynamics of the economy and/or the carbon cycle are called regime shifts. When such a shift takes place, this is called a tipping point. Scientists predict that at some point, structural changes will occur with effects that are very difficult or even impossible to reverse. The usual marginal cost-benefit analysis of existing integrated assessment models then puts us on the wrong track. The problem is much more serious than we think.

This argument seems, superficially, to have some legs. However, it doesn’t really hold up for their conclusion is:

If the potential tipping point is ignored, our calibration yields, in steady state, a social cost of carbon of $15 per ton of CO2, which is about the same as in well-known integrated assessment models. If the potential tipping point is not ignored, the social cost of carbon increases to $55 or $71 per ton of CO2, depending on whether we take a constant or an increasing marginal hazard rate as a function of the stock of atmospheric carbon. These are big potatoes, we would say. The precautionary returns are 0.6% per year and 0.5% per year, respectively. The need for precaution indeed decreases when emissions are reduced more with a higher tax on carbon.

Splitting the social cost of carbon into the three components provides additional insights. For example, the $71 per ton of CO2 is split into $6 for the marginal damages, $52 for the risk-averting component, and $14 for the raising-the-stakes component. The risk-averting component is by far the largest, and it is clear that ignoring potential tipping points is putting us on the wrong track when discussing climate policy to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The problem here is that public policy is not based upon a carbon cost of $15. Rather, it’s based on the Stern Review result of $80. Which means that we’re already doing enough to cover the new findings of this paper.

In fact, we’re actually doing too much. The fuel duty escalator has led to us taxing petrol as if the correct carbon price is $160 a tonne CO2-e. The truth is we’re doing too much to avert or mitigate climate change even if (or perhaps especially if) we take all of the scientific consensus about the subject entirely seriously.

The solution to climate change killing all the little fishies

News today that climate change is going to kill off all the little fishies off Alaska. The rise in atmospheric CO2 leads to a similar rise in the ocean where it forms carbonic acid and thus reduces the alkalinity of the water making it hard for various species to operate. This ending up with a reduction in fish as the lower parts of the food chain suffer. The part of all of this that we might have difficulty getting our heads around is that there’s a known technique to deal with this problem: it’s just that the UN insists that we don’t use it. Odd that we’re not actually allowed to do something that will mitigate both climate change itself and also alleviate one of the effects of it.

The story about the fishies is here:

Alaska’s fishing industry could soon be threatened by increasing ocean acidity, says an NOAA-led study to be published in the journal Progress in Oceanography. The acidification is due to increasing carbon dioxide release, which is absorbed by the ocean

Molluscs, such as the aforementioned Red King crab may struggle in acidic water, and find it difficult to maintain their shells and skeletons. As well as this, it has previously been shown in studies that Red King crabs die in highly acidic water, and both it and the Tanner crab grow more slowly in acidic water.

Alaska is particularly threatened by ocean acidification for a number of reasons: cold water will absorb more carbon dioxide than warm water, communities in certain parts of Alaska, namely the South-East and the South-West are reliant on fishing, and there are fewer other job opportunities in these areas than other parts of the state.

OK, is there anything we can do to deal with this?

When a chartered fishing boat strewed 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the ocean off western Canada last July, the goal was to supercharge the marine ecosystem. The iron was meant to fertilize plankton, boost salmon populations and sequester carbon. Whether the ocean responded as hoped is not clear, but the project has touched off an explosion on land, angering scientists, embarrassing a village of indigenous people and enraging opponents of geoengineering.

The iron did fertilise plankton, there was an algal bloom, fish numbers increased and at least some of that carbonic acid was removed from the local waters, all at the same time. There was even some amount of the CO2 being deposited as nascent rock on the ocean floor and thus it being sequestrated for geologic periods of time. All in all it sounds like a most wonderful technology really, doesn’t it?

The project was also on uncertain legal grounds. Ocean fertilization is restricted by a voluntary international moratorium on geo­engineering, as well as a treaty on ocean pollution. Both agreements include exemptions for research, and the treaty calls on national environment agencies to regulate experiments. Officials from Environment Canada say that the agency warned project leaders in May that ocean fertilization would require a permit.

Other than this, probably illegal, experiment the last official one was done 10 years ago. It’s just great that everyone’s working so hard to find even a partial solution to what we’re generally told is the greatest problem of our times, isn’t it?

We’ve spoken to one of those who studied, in detail, that last official experiment and there’s no doubt that it works, would be extremely cheap and is capable of not only increasing fish numbers but also of sequestering some 1 gigatonne a year of CO2 into rock. But the powers that be won’t let anyone actually do it and there are no further officially approved experiments in the pipeline either. It’s almost as if people don’t want solutions to climate change, isn’t it?

Government bans fracking in 25% of the country

The government has just announced that it’s pretty much going to ban fracking for oil and or gas in 25% of the country. This is not actually what they’ve said, of course not, but it is what they mean. For they’re saying that the rules will make fracking in national parks and or areas of outstanding natural beauty much more difficult. To the point that only if a deposit is of great economic importance will drilling be allowed.

We might think this is just fine: we’d not drill under Westminster Abbey after all and there might be parts of the country that are simply so beautiful that we wouldn’t want anyone to put a couple of shipping containers of equipment behind concealing hedges. That’s possible, even if unlikely.

However, the part that people will miss here is quite how much of the country this blocks off. Some 25% of it in fact.

National parks and other areas of important countryside will be protected from fracking, ministers will announce in a move that will head off anger in the Tory heartlands ahead of the election.

While stopping short of a total ban, the Government will unveil new planning guidance to make it harder to drill fracking wells in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty.

In a significant concession, the new rules state that fracking should only be allowed in the most precious areas of British countryside in “exceptional circumstances”.

Any will say “Oh, how sensible” to that. But then add in quite how much land this covers. National Parks cover some 10% of the country. Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty a further 15%. People don’t seem to realise quite how much of the country is already being pickled in aspic.

There’re very definitely people who don’t want us to have access to this lovely cheap energy for whatever reason. Sadly, some of them are currently in government and making the rules.

Sadly, Ed Davey still doesn’t understand carbon cap and trade systems

This is something of a pity of course, for not only is he the politician in charge of this area he’s also been in charge of it for some years now. You’d rather hope that someone would have clued him into how cap and trade systems work by now but apparently not. Perhaps people have tried and he’s not able to grasp it?

The problem is that Davey seems to think that a low price for a pollution permit is a bad thing: that because pollution is bad therefore a high price for the right to pollute would be better. This is, of course, the reverse of what is actually true:

The EU cap-and-trade system is the world’s largest. By putting a price on every metric ton of carbon emitted and allowing companies to trade allowances, the system enables carbon-reduction targets to be met at the least cost.

But the market currently has a surplus of about 2 billion emission allowances, equivalent to a year’s supply. As a result, carbon prices are at an unhealthy low. So what has gone wrong, and what can we do about it?

Some believe that a weak carbon price benefits business and the economy, but it does not. It undermines the low-carbon investment we need now to meet long-term targets. Ambitious emissions-reduction targets are here to stay, so delaying low-carbon investments just pushes the cost of achieving them later down the line and risks increasing it. It also means losing out on the potential growth and jobs that come with such investments.

Facepalm.

There is no surplus of permits: there’s exactly the same number of permits that there were when the politicians set up the system. That many of them are going unused does not mean that pollution is not being reduced: it means that reducing pollution was easier than the politicians thought it was going to be when they set the number of permits. And a low permit price does not mean that people are not working to reduce emissions: it means that it’s far cheaper to reduce emissions than we all thought it was going to be.

Davey’s simply got the wrong end of the stick here about what prices are telling us. If we were to have a carbon tax then yes, it would be the price which would be what limits emissions. The higher the tax the more emissions would be limited. But prices work the other way around in a cap and trade system. The limit on emissions is the number of permits. Price tells us not how many emissions will be limited but how easy or difficult it is to meet the permit cap. We would all very much prefer emissions permits to cost €0.01 per thousand tonnes CO2 than any thing higher. For it would indicate that reducing emissions is a great deal cheaper than anyone thought it would be.

Aren’t we lucky that people attempting to plan our lives can’t grasp even the most basic points about how to plan said lives?