The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, "hmm.... that's funny...." Isaac Asimov

Friday, July 5, 2013

Hope for cutting carbon emissions

I am feeling more optimistic about the chances of slowing and eventually halting emissions of carbon dioxide than I have for a long time.  This is because of an idea and an organization.  The idea is a revenue-neutral carbon tax.  The organization is Citizens Climate Lobby. 

A carbon tax makes huge sense.  See my previous post, and for more.  Making a carbon tax revenue neutral means many in Congress who are opposed in principle to new taxes could still vote for it.

Citizens Climate Lobby is a rapidly-growing grass-roots organization whose goal is to promote legislation that puts a fee on carbon based fuels and returns the revenue to households.  The Lobby held its annual meeting June 23-25, 2013, in Washington DC.  (See picture above.)  I was privileged to attend.  On the 25th and later that week, Lobby members met with about 400 members of Congress or their staffs.  In these meetings, the Lobby pushed for legislation that would:

·         Tax carbon-based fuels upstream, at the first point of sale (well, mine, or port of entry).

·         Start the tax at $15 per ton of fossil CO2 emitted, and increase it by $10 per ton per year so that it reaches at least $100 per ton of CO2 within ten years, making renewable energy less expensive than fossil fuel.

·         Protect American households from increased energy costs associated with the carbon tax by returning the revenue to them.

·         Protect American businesses with border adjustment tariffs that also encourage other nations to adopt equivalent carbon pricing.

Under this plan, a majority of households would break even or get more money back than they paid in carbon tax, protecting the poor and middle class.  A predictably increasing carbon price would send a clear market signal, unleashing development of a clean-energy economy.   

Sunday, May 26, 2013

It's Time for a Carbon Tax

A tax on the carbon content of fossil fuels has gained little traction so far. Few politicians have been courageous enough to propose or seriously work for implementing such a tax.  But support for a carbon tax is growing, and is coming from across the political spectrum. (1)(2)(3)  Why?  There are three obvious reasons:
First, it’s now incontrovertible that climate change is real, is driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, and is potentially disastrous for the environment and the future of civilization.

Second, none of the efforts so far to limit the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have worked.  Yes, there have been gradual improvements in energy efficiency and carbon intensity of industry, and there has been a recent lowering of carbon emissions in the U.S. (4) But humanity continues to dump carbon dioxide freely into the atmosphere, and the levels are building (see chart).

Third, of the various methods under consideration to cut back these emissions, a carbon tax is the simplest, fairest, and most direct.   Some of the reasons why this is so are listed below:  (Much of this material has been adapted from essays available from the Carbon Tax Center (5) and from the book, The Case for a Carbon Tax, by Shi-Ling Hsu (6).)   
Some reasons why a carbon tax is the best approach

1)  A carbon tax is more economically efficient than other approaches.  Other approaches include cap-and-trade (establishing a carbon emissions cap and emissions allowances, portions of the total allowed emission, that can be traded), and command-and-control (limiting carbon emissions for specific emission sources).  Each of these two would target and control emissions from a subset of all emitting sources.  A third approach, subsidies, would target for encouragement specific technologies or industries.   Proponents of these other approaches often seem to believe that these approaches would not impose costs on anyone but the entities directly regulated.  But in the long run, it is inevitable that virtually all of the costs of other approaches to cut carbon emissions will be passed on to consumers.  However, because the imposition of costs would be selective, the course of the passing on of the costs could be torturous and rife with possibilities for poor investments and corruption.
But a carbon tax, levied on all fuels based on their carbon content, and ideally, including methane as well, (7) would affect all processes and products that are made with the combustion of fossil fuels. It would send a clear and uniform price signal to a vast variety of carbon dioxide-emitting sources.

An important aspect of economic efficiency is the avoidance of excessive formation of capital that can become “stranded.”  Excessive capital asset formation is a risk when the government picks winners by subsidizing certain industries.  For example, recently, before the poor net energy of ethanol produced from corn was widely understood, ethanol production enjoyed large subsidies.  A number of ethanol production plants were built that today appear likely to have a poor economic future.  If these plants become of little value, they will be stranded assets; capital that is lost to the economic system.   Because it would send a direct and immediate price signal to all users of fossil fuels, a carbon tax is less likely than other approaches to lead to stranded assets. 
2) A carbon tax would not interfere with other regulatory instruments or jurisdictions.  Besides the other major types of carbon control that have been tried, as discussed above, additional methods of cutting carbon emissions and developing renewable sources of energy are likely to be developed.  A carbon tax could co-exist with these other approaches without causing conflicts or confusions.

3) A carbon tax would be relatively easy to administer.  Levying a tax is something that governments have traditionally done.  Administrative agencies are already in place that collect taxes on fuels.  Fuel taxes could be adapted to a broader tax on the carbon content of fuels, and should include a tax, weighted by global warming potential, on direct releases of unburned fuel (e.g. methane leaks, oil spills) to the environment.  Implementing a carbon tax would essentially require only the setting of tax levels and establishment of a phase-in schedule. 
4) A carbon tax will encourage innovation across all sectors of the economy.  As discussed above, a carbon tax will send a steady and predictable price signal to all users of fossil fuels.  Every user will have an incentive to cut carbon emissions by becoming more efficient in use of these fuels.  The power of the market to stimulate innovation will apply not just to a few large regulated entities, such as would be the case with a cap-and-trade program and with a command-and-control system, but to all users of fossil fuels.

5) A carbon tax appears more amenable to international coordination than other pricing mechanisms.  So far, efforts at such coordination have been stymied by opposing positions of important nations.  For example, China and India have balked at the idea of establishing a cap on carbon emissions that would apply to them.  But, there seems no reason why they might not impose carbon taxes of their own.  Another aspect of international coordination that could be problematic is the incentive to nations without carbon pricing to become “free riders.”   If, for example, goods manufactured in the U.S. rise in cost because fuel costs increase due to a carbon tax (or other carbon pricing mechanism), goods produced in countries that do not have such a tax could enjoy a competitive advantage.  However, such inequalities could be adjusted with border tax adjustments.  Although legal thinking is still evolving on the issue, it appears that such adjustments, e.g., fees levied on imports from nations without a carbon tax, would be legal under the rules of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs. Also, adjustments based on a carbon tax appear much more likely to be acceptable under World Trade Organization than adjustments based on a cap-and-trade program.(8)
6) A carbon tax will raise revenue.  (This is also true with a cap-and-trade program that auctions its allowances, with the important difference that fluctuations in the prices of cap-and-trade allowances make it impossible to predict, and count on, those revenues.)  This revenue could be used to offset other taxes, such as payroll taxes, and thus could make a carbon tax system revenue-neutral.  Much of the recent support of a carbon tax has focused on a revenue-neutral approach.  Given the palpable need for reform of the current tax code, a carbon tax could be the centerpiece of a new approach to taxation that would have many advantages over the current system.  If revenue neutrality was not insisted upon, some of the revenues of a carbon tax could be used for other purposes, such as reducing budget deficits, subsidizing research and development of low-carbon and renewable energy sources, and developing capabilities to adapt to climate change.

What about the cost of a carbon tax?
Despite the arguments of proponents of cap-and-trade, command-and control, and subsidy programs that these approaches would affect only the regulated, or supported, entities, it is certain that virtually all of the costs would eventually be passed on to consumers in some form, such as in higher electricity rates.  Subsidy programs are not immune; the money spent has to come from somewhere.   But, especially at the outset, costs of these other approaches are not as apparent, and can be hidden or disguised enough to make them seem innocuous.  A carbon tax, however, is up front and unmistakable.  Yes, it is a cost.  Yes, it will raise the price of gas, of heating oil, of food, of products and processes that are made with or otherwise involved with the combustion of fossil fuels, which includes just about everything in the 21st century industrialized world.

Yet this apparent weakness of a carbon tax is its fundamental strength. A carbon tax will put a price on carbon that is readily apparent and will propagate to every corner of the fossil fuel-using system. Unfortunately, the directness of a carbon tax plays into the naiveté and reactive aspects of human nature, and often stimulates knee-jerk negative reactions.  For example, carbon taxes are typically and summarily branded as “regressive.”  In fact any tax on consumption of essentials is capable of being regressive, because people with lesser incomes usually spend comparatively more of their money on essentials than the wealthy.  Payroll taxes, for example, are regressive.  Property taxes and sales taxes are regressive.  The regressive aspect of sales taxes is ameliorated to a degree by the exemptions of food and clothing.  It is by no means clear that a carbon tax would be more regressive than other ways of controlling carbon emissions.  And, there are many ways of minimizing the effects of a carbon tax on those least able to pay for it, for example, by a flat distribution of pro-rata shares of the revenue to every taxpayer (9). 
It must be stressed that the cost of a carbon tax is a cost on a pollutant that is already on its way to imposing a huge cost on all of humanity: the cost of potentially catastrophic climate change that cannot be remediated.   The costs of a carbon tax can be avoided by conserving fuel use and by developing ways to produce energy without using fossil fuels.  A carbon tax, more so than other approaches of controlling carbon emissions because of its directness and broadness, can unleash the innovative forces of the market.  And, to the extent that the costs of a carbon tax are avoided, the threat of irreversible climate change will be pushed back and possibly eliminated.  

When enough of us awaken to the real and present danger of climate change, and to the need to put a price on carbon emissions, we will realize that a carbon tax is the answer. There are signs that this is starting to happen. Some countries and jurisdictions already have a carbon tax, including Sweden, Australia, and British Columbia.  Several carbon tax bills have recently been introduced in the U.S. Congress. (10)

1) See 

2) Shultz, George, and Gary Becker, 2013, Why We Support a Revenue-Neutral Carbon Tax, Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2013 (on line), April 8, p. A19 (print);  
3) Gore, Al, 2013, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, Random House, New York

4) Some of this is because many coal-burning power plants have shifted to natural gas, which releases less carbon to produce a given amount of energy.  The sluggish economy and higher prices for gasoline, which have limited driving somewhat, have also played a role. 
5) See

6) Hsu, Shi-Ling, 2011, The Case for a Carbon Tax, Island Press, Washington, DC
7) Methane, the main ingredient of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas, with a global warming potential (GWP) 25 times greater than carbon dioxide when looked at over a 100-year time frame, and a higher GWP on shorter time scales.  Estimates of the percentage of natural gas that leaks during extraction and distribution activities vary widely.  If leaks are sufficiently high, natural gas has no advantage over coal in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, and could even be worse.  See  
8) Hsu, Shi-Ling, 2011, The Case for a Carbon Tax, Island Press, Washington, DC

9) Hansen, James, 2012, Storms of My Grandchildren’s Opa,
10) See

Thanks to Charles Komanoff of the Carbon Tax Center for helpful comments

Monday, May 13, 2013

Marcellus Shale Gas: Cumulative Production Trends

Data on the production of gas from wells in Pennsylvania are available from Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. (1)  I have just completed a preliminary analysis of some of these data, on horizontal wells in the Marcellus shale region of the state.  Well production data were separated into six groups.  The groups represent wells that started production in each of six different periods; the one-year period from July 2009 through June 2010, and the six-month periods from July 2010 through December 2010, January 2011 through June 2011, July 2011 through December 2011, January 2012 through June 2012, and July 2012 through December 2012.  Cumulative production records were developed for each well, and the average cumulative production curve for each of the six groups was determined.  The data are pictured in the chart above. 
Several things are clear from these data:

a. Although projection into the future of non-linear trends such as these is uncertain, if the trend of production per well continues in a consistent manner, average production per well is on track to equal at least 3 billion cubic feet (Bcf) over a 30-year period. 

 b. Production appears higher from wells that began production after the first period pictured, which ended in June, 2010.  Wells that show production for 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 periods show higher production than the first group, which has production data for 6 periods.  Perhaps this is due to increasing efficiency on the part of the gas companies, or to more recent wells being concentrated in better producing areas. 
c. Although not apparent from the chart, there is much variation among the wells.  For example, in the group that began production between July, 2010 and December, 2010, the 90th percentile total production, as of the end of 2012, was 4.25 Bcf, while the production total at the 10th percentile was only 0.62 Bcf.

d. Also not apparent from the chart, but clear from a closer look at the data, is that some companies’ wells are significantly more productive than the wells of other companies.  This could reflect greater expertise on the part of these companies, either in selection of drilling sites or in drilling and hydrofracturing methods, or both.
Are there implications of these data?  In my view, there are at least two conclusions that can be drawn:

1.  Actual production trends are consistent with predictions of significant long-term production of natural gas from shale formations.

2. Over the long term, increased production of natural gas could result in continuing increases of greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere.  Especially problematic could be leaks of raw natural gas, a potent GHG.
It is becoming clear that emissions of GHGs could result in potentially catastrophic climate change that cannot be remediated within a human time scale.  In the face of robust future production of natural gas, arguments for a carbon tax are looking better and better.  Bipartisan support for such a tax seems to be gaining momentum.  Former secretary of state George Shultz and Nobel laureate economist Gary Becker make a strong case for a carbon tax in an editorial that appeared in the Wall Street Journal last month. (2)  They argue that a revenue-neutral carbon tax would benefit all Americans by eliminating the need for costly energy subsidies while promoting a level playing field for energy producers.

I plan to discuss carbon taxes in more detail in future blogs. 


(2) Shultz, George, and Gary Becker, 2013, Why We Support a Revenue-Neutral Carbon Tax, Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2013 (on line), April 8, p. A19 (print);

Friday, May 10, 2013

Shale Gas EROI: Update

A while ago I posted “Shale Gas EROI: Preliminary Estimate Suggests 70 or Greater.”   I am happy to report that this analysis has been expanded, updated, and subjected to a rigorous scientific peer review.  It is now in the form of an article that I wrote with the help of a colleague, Jackie Melillo, which is now in press (1).  

The expanded analysis focuses on the Marcellus shale, and estimates that the EROI of horizontal gas wells in this region is in the range of 64:1 to 112:1, with a mean estimate of 85:1.  The EROI value is sensitive to a number of variables.  The most important of these is the total production of gas from a well.  In our analysis, Jackie and I estimated that a typical horizontal gas well in the Marcellus shale region will produce 3 billion cubic feet of natural gas over its lifetime.  Recent actual production data suggests that Marcellus wells are on track to produce at least this much.  These data will be discussed in a piece I will post shortly.

An EROI in the range of 85:1 for natural gas is surprising in light of other studies that indicate a much lower EROI.  For example, a recent article (2) depicts the EROI for electricity produced from combustion of natural gas as 7:1. 

How could EROI values for natural gas differ so much?  Although all EROI studies attempt to determine the ratio of the energy output (numerator) to the energy input (denominator), a key difference exists between natural gas and other fuels.  Approximately 8 percent of natural gas is burned, mostly at large regional compression stations (such as the one pictured), to provide the energy to process and compress the gas in order to get it to market.  How this “self-use” quantity is counted makes a big difference in the EROI calculation.  Two EROI calculation methods have been used with natural gas, the net energy ratio (NER) and the net external energy ratio (NEER).  The NER has as its numerator the net output of refined energy to society, and as its denominator the sum of all energy consumed in the energy production and refining process.  In contrast, the NEER’s denominator includes only those inputs that are consumed from the existing industrial energy system, and excludes self-use (i.e., natural gas used to process and compress the remainder of gas). 

If the NER approach is used with natural gas, the 8 percent that represents self-use is included in the denominator, and so the EROI can never be higher than about 12:1.  On the other hand, using the NEER approach, the self-use quantity is subtracted from the numerator, and only the energy actually consumed that could have been used elsewhere in society, such as diesel fuel and electricity, is included in the denominator.   For natural gas, with its large self-use component, the NEER approach leads to a higher estimate of the EROI.

The NER may be a more comprehensive measure of the total energy return from a production pathway, and likely correlates closely with environmental impacts, such as greenhouse emissions, of a pathway.  Conversely, the NEER is a more useful measure of the contribution of an energy source to the energy supply of society because it counts only the inputs that must be produced and delivered externally through the existing energy supply system.  In my preliminary study, and in the article that will soon be published, the NEER approach is used. 


(1) Aucott, Michael and Jacqueline Melillo, 2013, A Preliminary Energy Return on Investment Analysis of Natural Gas from the Marcellus Shale, Journal of Industrial Ecology, in press.

(2) Inman, Mason, 2013, The True Cost of Fossil Fuels, Scientific American, April, 2013, Vol. 308, No. 4, pp. 58-61.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Fuel Cost as Percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) Update

This is an update of the a chart presented in several earlier posts.  It is clear that the U.S. economy still faces the drag of significant energy cost, which represents over five percent of GDP.  In earlier periods of prosperity, fuel cost was consistently below four percent.  It is likely that this continued high cost has a lot to do with the current economic doldrums; money spent for energy cannot be spent on other things.  The energy cost would be noticeably higher were it not for the dramatic decline in the cost of natural gas, due in large part to the burst of production from the shale plays.  In 2012, coal consumption(1) was down significantly, while gas consumption was up.  If there's a "war on coal," natural gas is leading the charge.  Natural gas is not a ready substitute for liquid fuels based on petroleum however, and this cost remains by far the biggest portion.(2) 


(1) Coal price data for 2012 is not yet available from EIA; it is assumed the same in 2012 as in 2011

(2) The oil price for 2011 and 2012 is the Brent price, not the West Texas Intermediate price.  The cost of these two benchmark crudes, virtually identical from the 80s through 2010, diverged in 2011, with Brent consistently higher.  Brent essentially represents the cost paid by most U.S. refiners; the price trend of gasoline, for example, closely tracks the price of Brent. 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

VMT and Gasoline Price Trend Update

This is an update of earlier data presented in my May 17, 2011 post.  Although there are fluctuations, it looks as if the flat, probably slowly decreasing, VMT trend continues.  It's hard to see how this could not be related to the historically high price of gasoline.

Will this flat or declining VMT trend continue?  It likely depends to a large degree on the price of gasoline, which in turn depends on the price of crude oil.  Currently, U.S. oil production is surging because of the horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing that is unlocking tight oil from shales such as those in North Dakota and southwestern Texas.  Will U.S. production grow enough to offset flat or declining oil production in the rest of the world?  Time will tell. And perhaps some of us are finding ways to function well without so much driving, so the flat or declining VMT trend will continue regardless of the price of fuel.

A related issue is the Keystone XL pipeline.  Some argue it should be approved because it will lead to lower gasoline prices.  But, gasoline prices are linked to the world price of crude oil.  The XL pipeline would allow the current moderate surfeit of crude oil that exists in the central U.S. to reach the world market.  Unless the growing quantity of crude oil now being produced in the U.S., augmented by (carbon-intensive!) oil from the Canadian tar sands proves to be enough to lower world oil prices, the XL pipeline is unlikely to lower the price of crude or gasoline to U.S. consumers.  It could lead to higher prices because with the pipeline in place the oil land-locked in the central U.S. could be sold for the higher world price.

Could it be that the high price of gasoline will gradually make driving less important in our way of life?  Could we become increasingly efficient in moving goods, information, and ourselves in ways that don't require so many vehicle miles traveled?  Perhaps, at least to a slight degree, this is already starting to happen, and some carbon can stay in the ground.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The hope of trees, cont'd; Ginkgo biloba


Several years ago, driving to work on cold days, the tips of several of my fingers started turning waxy and bloodless.  This went away when they warmed up, but it was irritating and painful. These were the same fingers that, long ago, suffered painfully from exposure to cold as I rode around on my motor scooter.  It turned out I was suffering from Raynaud's disease, which is a spasm of the blood vessels causing loss of circulation to the affected parts.  I looked online and found there was an herbal remedy reported to work; extract of Ginkgo biloba leaves. (1,2)  I got some and started taking two 500 mg capsules of the powdered leaves daily.

Unlike all herbal remedies I’ve ever tried, this actually worked.  The Raynaud’s phenomenon went away entirely, and has not returned. Ginkgo is purportedly good for the memory as well.  It stands to reason; anything that is good for your peripheral circulation should be good for your whole body. 

Ginkgo now seems like a friend to me, an important fellow traveler on this planet.  Apparently others have felt this way, for ages.  Ginkgo has long been cultivated in China; some planted trees at temples are believed to be over 1,500 years old. The tree is important in Buddhism and Confucianism, and is widely planted in Korea and parts of Japan.  It’s also widely planted in North America and Europe, in part because it tolerates urban conditions so well. (3) The wonderful author Rutherford Platt, noting that Ginkgo is closely related to trees that lived 280 million years ago, wrote, “Ginkgo should be as exciting as a crocodile on a big city street… its leaves are fern leaves, from the age of reptiles… There is no other tree like it, delivered.. from the age of dinosaurs into the heart of our teeming cities…somehow a tree evolved in a bygone age can take our ruthless cities, creating trunk, leaf and fruit from miserable dirt below the scorching pavements.” (4)

My sister-in-law Carol spotted some Ginkgos growing near where she works, and they were old enough to be bearing fruit (which doesn’t happen until they are 30 years old).  She kindly gathered a whole pile of fruits this fall, and I squeezed the seeds out of the malodorous pulp.  The seeds (pictured) are now being stratified, mixed with moist peat moss in the bottom of the refrigerator, getting happy for spring planting.  They’ll go into the ground in April, and more Ginkgo trees should be on the way. 

1. accessed 2/8/13

3. accessed 2/8/13

4.       Platt, Rutherford, 1952, 1968, Discover American Trees, Dodd, Mead & Co., NY