December 6, 2023

Green Column: Pragmatism Influencing Energy Debates

A theory of “peak everything” suggests the world is running short of vital assets like clean water, carbon-free air, some minerals, fish stocks and the cheap fossil fuels that have powered the world economy and helped rein in the price of food.

If countries want to secure domestic supplies and curb carbon emissions, too, then energy options are limited. And that fact has clearly dawned on governments.

Take, for example, the deadly blowout last year at BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, which all but stalled deep-water drilling in the United States.

Licensing there has now resumed, while other countries had dismissed a deepwater freeze from the start, including Britain, whose output is dwindling in the shallower North Sea.

The world’s response to the nuclear crisis caused by the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan on March 11 is still evolving, but a bump in the road looks more plausible than a full stop.

President Barack Obama, for instance, laid out a plan last week to cut oil imports by a third by diversifying toward renewable energies and relying on nuclear power.

Italy and China plan one-year moratoriums in new construction for nuclear power, and Japan intends to carry out a policy review. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives lost power in a regional stronghold last week, partly because of her party’s pro-nuclear stance.

Over all, the anti-nuclear sentiment is likely to be less strong than after the more serious Chernobyl reactor explosion in the former Soviet Union in 1986. And the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 in the United States caused a severe backlash there.

“In the United States, this is having much less of an impact,” said Robert N. Stavins, director of the environmental economics program at Harvard University. “It’s not just because it’s overseas. It’s because of climate change. That just changed the legitimacy of nuclear power in the U.S., the perception of it.”

Similarly, there is broad support for offshore drilling even after the gulf oil spill, Mr. Stavins said, because of Republicans’ concerns about energy security and Democrats’ desire to gather support for climate legislation.

Other observers said the driving force for offshore drilling, nuclear power and other resources was the simple need to provide for a global population set to reach nine billion by 2050.

“We could see some continuing support for nuclear, despite what is happening in Japan, but it won’t be fueled by climate change concerns,” said Emmanuel Fages, head of analysis of European energy at Société Générale in Paris.

“It will be because of economic and energy pragmatism,” he said. By that argument, nuclear power may be hit most by rising safety and insurance costs after Fukushima.

The International Energy Agency, the energy watchdog for industrialized countries, said global crude oil output had peaked in 2006, and the world is now forced to get oil from sources like oil sands and natural gas liquids.

Those alternatives, as well as renewable energy and nuclear power, are more expensive and would force the world into a more frugal future, according to Richard Heinberg, who coined the notion of “Peak Everything” in his 2007 book of the same title.

Fukushima could stall nuclear power, he added.

“The real upshot is — the strong likelihood is — we’ll have less energy in the future, and it will be more expensive energy. We’re really looking at a different kind of society,” at least for the next 20 or 30 years before new breakthroughs emerge, he said.

“This was the great benefit of fossil fuels in the early days: We had to invest trivial amounts, and we got this enormous return,” he added

Of course, theories of impending shortages have often turned out wrong, like the 1798 prediction by Thomas Malthus, the British scholar, that population growth would outstrip food production. At the time, the world population was just one billion.

The right strategic response could deal with the risks of resource scarcity, oil depletion and climate change, said Nick Mabey at the London-based environment group E3G. “No one actually is gripping the strategic consequences of these risks,” he said.

To manage risk, government spending priorities should be energy efficiency, interconnected grids to link up different power sources across wide regions, smart grids to smooth demand and absorb volatile wind and solar power, and electric cars.

“Energy policy is about balancing risks,” said James M. Acton of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who added, “all forms of energy carry risks.”

And the tsunami was beyond the design of the Fukushima plant. “The real challenge is to improve our ability to predict natural and man-made disasters,” he said.

Some green groups said that there was no trade-off and that renewable energy coupled with energy efficiency could solve the problems.

Sven Teske, director of renewable energy at the environmental group Greenpeace International, said big shifts were under way with developed nations closing more coal-fired plants than they opened.

“There is a phase-out of coal already. The reality is that everybody is moving towards renewables and gas. But some of the government rhetoric will remain in favor of nuclear,” he said.

Gerard Wynn and Alister Doyle are Reuters correspondents.

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