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NYT Breaks with Greens on Carbon Tax

Last week, the New York Times told its readers something they didn’t want to hear. Unions, for all they accomplished in the past century, will fade into irrelevance in this century if they don’t embrace dramatic change.

This week, Times is saying something similar to another devoted section of its readership: the greens. A feature on climate change argues that it may be time for the green movement to rethink some of its core policy goals—most notably, carbon-trading schemes. Echoing a running Via Meadia theme, the author argues that plans to promote green energy by making “dirty” energy more expensive are misguided, as well as a political non-starter. Despite the fervent wishes of most greens, Americans haven’t warmed up to the notion that paying more at the pump is somehow virtuous and beneficial. Instead, we ought to try an “investment program” aimed at making cleaner fuels cheaper and more accessible to the average consumer. And what is the cheapest clean energy? Natural gas, which can be extracted via fracking:

Even natural gas, a hotly debated topic among climate experts, helps make the point. Thanks in part to earlier government investments, energy companies have been able to extract much more natural gas than once seemed possible. The use of natural gas to generate electricity — far from perfectly clean but less carbon-intensive than coal use — has jumped 25 percent since 2008, while prices have fallen more than 80 percent. Natural gas now generates as much electricity as coal in the United States, which would have been unthinkable not long ago.

The successes make it possible at least to fathom a transition to clean energy that does not involve putting a price on carbon — either through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program that requires licenses for emissions. It was exactly such a program, supported by both Barack Obama and John McCain in the 2008 campaign, that died in Congress in 2010 and is now opposed by almost all Congressional Republicans and some coal-state and oil-state Democrats.

To describe the two approaches is to underline their political differences. A cap-and-trade program sets out to make the energy we use more expensive. An investment program aims to make alternative energy less expensive.

Although a step in the right direction, the piece has its share of problems. We’re still not convinced that many of the flashier alternative-energy programs it touts are ready for prime time, and we’re even less convinced of its arguments about the role that government should take in funding green energy research. But it is good to hear voices in the green movement challenging the orthodoxy that expensive energy for all is the best way forward.

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  • Jim.

    Now this is a relief.

    I suspect that the Left in this country is going to gradually discover the wisdom that this site has to offer, out of sheer survival instinct.

  • thibaud

    The Timesman writes:

    “The two countries that have made the most progress in reducing carbon emissions, France and Sweden, have done so largely by supporting nuclear and hydropower, notes Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, Calif. The story of shale gas, a form of natural gas, is typical, in that it depends on both private-sector ingenuity and public-sector support. ”

    To which Mead responds:

    “we’re even less convinced of its arguments about the role that government should take in funding green energy research…”

    Why so, Mr Mead?

    Is it because you’re not familiar with the facts regarding how the federal government funded the research breakthroughs that made possible today’s shale energy windfall?

    Or Is it because you have different facts? If so, could you share those with us?

    The argument that federal funding of basic research and demonstration projects was critical to the development of unconventional gas and tight oil is overwhelming.

    Here’s a nice summary of the history, from those opponents of cap-and-trade, Nordhaus and Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute:

    http://thebreakthrough.org/blog/Where_the_Shale_Gas_Revolution_Came_From.pdf

    “… if cheap gas is harnessing market forces to shutter old coal plants, the existence of cheap gas from unconventional places is by no means the product of those same forces, nor of laissez faire energy policies.

    “Our current glut of gas and declining emissions are in no small part the result of 30 years of federal support for research, demonstration, and commercialization of non-conventional gas technologies without which there would be no shale gas revolution today.

    “Starting in the mid-seventies, the Ford and Carter administrations funded large-scale demonstration projects that proved that shale was a potentially massive source of gas. In the years that followed, the U.S. Department of Energy continued to fund research and demonstration of new fracking technologies and developed new three-dimensional mapping and horizontal drilling technologies that ultimately allowed firms to recover gas from shale at commercially viable cost and scale. And the federal non-conventional gas tax credit subsidized private firms to continue to experiment with new gas technologies at a time when few people even within the natural gas industry thought that firms would ever succeed in economically recovering gas from shale….”

  • http://fmpait.blogspot.com/ Felipe Pait

    It seems Paul Krugman scooped this blog by a few hours: http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/23/vsps-of-energy/

    And he did it by linking to a post with actual numbers, not just opinionizing. Facts really have a well-know, and growing, liberal-green bias.

    Thibaud, you are right as usual: real-world engineers know how slow technological and scientific progress would be without government support.

  • Corlyss

    We should find those 3 guys who bought GM Volts and put the screws to them until they tell us how much they were paid to buy them and tout them to everyone they know.

  • thibaud

    Apparently Mr Mead does not have different facts and is choosing to ignore the massive evidence that refutes his thesis.

  • Kris

    Felipe@3:

    Krugman’s “big scoop” is to link to a post noting that renewable energy has grown much more than predicted.

    Why is that? Well, as you yourself will not be surprised to learn, because of significant government subsidies.

    Krugman’s contribution to the discussion: The fact that experts did not take into account, ahead of time, these subsidies is an indication that they are in the pocket of Big Oil.

    Thank you, Paul Krugman.

  • Hubbub

    “…its arguments about the role that government should take in funding green energy research…”

    Felipe Pait and thibaud even with your statistics and facts (we know that there are “statistics and damned lies” and which we know concern the aim of the research)you should know and probably do that whatever the government funds and supports, the government will or does control.

    Nothing good lasts once the government gains control of it. It will manipulate the control to its own purposes and benefits. There are few things that the government should concern itself with – mainly those enumerated in the Constitution.

  • Glen

    It’s not so clear that this is actually a case of The New York Times telling its readers something that they don’t want to hear.

    Both explicitly and implicitly, this article reenforces the notion that government planning — and not market forces — are chiefly responsible for the success of natural gas. The Times all but credits President Obama for actually executing on the “All of the Above” energy policy on which he campaigned.

    Here’s the money quote:

    Governments have played a crucial role in financing many of the most important technological inventions of the past century. That’s no coincidence: Basic research is often unprofitable. It involves too much failure, and an inventor typically captures only a tiny slice of the profits that flow from a discovery.

    Although government officials make mistakes when choosing among nascent technologies, one success can outweigh many failures. Washington-financed research has made possible semiconductors, radar, the Internet, the radio, the jet engine and many medical advances, including penicillin. The two countries that have made the most progress in reducing carbon emissions, France and Sweden, have done so largely by supporting nuclear and hydropower, notes Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, Calif.

  • Jim.

    @Glen-

    So how many of those research projects were DoD?

    Yeah.

    So how much credit did the NYT give the DoD?

    Yeah.

    Oh wait, one of them, penicillin, was discovered by ACCIDENT. Go, military-skeptic central planning, go!

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