Normative Narratives

Conflict Watch: Oil Sand and Renewable Energy, a New Case for a Carbon Tax / Cap and Trade

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An interesting piece in the NYT about how a less incentive-laden renewable energy sector in Europe is actually helping the industry grow “sustainably”:

“Europe used to be nirvana for companies in the clean-energy business, but in the past couple of years it has become a much tougher place. With economies anemic, electricity demand is down; and, not surprisingly, once-generous subsidies that encouraged installing swaths of solar collectors in sun-poor Germany or wind farms in relatively calm areas of France are either being reduced or look as if they could be.

But for some people and companies, the harsher environment is fostering a tough-minded approach that may be healthy for the effort in the years ahead to curb the greenhouse gases that are blamed for global warming.

Europe’s struggles, for instance, pushed Enel Green Power, one of the world’s largest electricity generators from renewable sources like wind and solar, to explore markets like Brazil, Chile and Mexico, that may turn out to be a lot more promising than Europe.”

“Contrary to the practice in much of Europe, where subsidies are used as a lure for renewables projects, developing countries like Brazil often award contracts to build new power capacity through competitions that sometimes pit clean energy against fossil fuels like natural gas and diesel. For instance, Enel Green Power recently won wind power deals in Brazil in bake-offs that included proposals for natural gas-fired stations.

‘There was a competitive approach to renewables that we liked a lot,’ said Francesco Starace, the company’s chief executive'”

“Mr. Starace especially likes long-term deals like the ones he has worked out in Mexico with Nissan and Nestlé to build wind farms to supply factories with power. He hopes to replicate this sort of arrangement across emerging markets, including east Africa. These private, one-on-one arrangements are more sustainable, he figures.

You don’t run the risk of a regulator or a state coming back at you and saying, ‘Guys, the good days are over, now we have to talk about reducing this and that,’ he said.”

“The goal of the renewables business, Mr. Murley said, should be to be competitive eventually on costs with other energy sources and not to rely on subsidies. He also believes in building businesses like his clusters of Swedish wind farms that have the scale to engage a team of managers and the clout to cut better deals with suppliers. His organization tries to buy turbines and other equipment that are reliable rather than cheap and does not skimp on spending money on maintenance.

The closer you are to the wholesale price of power, the less you are at risk,’ he [Tom Murley of HgCapital] said. He is also investing in onshore wind projects in Ireland, where the operating environment resembles that of Sweden.”

Talking about the “sustainability” of the renewable energy sector may be an interesting choice of words, but how the renewable energy sector matures is yet to be decided. Perhaps a rethinking of the subsidy approach to developing renewable energy would be a good think, if a more efficient complimentary / substitute path is proposed. Subsidies distort markets, so governments must have a credible threat that they will stop providing subsidy support if companies in the industry do not mature as they are  supposed to. But pulling the plug on subsidy programs is a bad move politically–it is always difficult to find politicians that are willing to let jobs leave their municipality.

What you get is subsidies and tax-breaks that are not at all linked to any real C-B analysis or long term commitment from companies (Another reason that making MNC themselves finance sustainable energy infrastructure makes sense as it locks the company into a longer term commitment–the cost of closing up shop is greater).  Some tax breaks and subsidies are good ideas, but they should be based on adequate C-B analysis and should contain long-term legally binding commitments. Additionally, tax breaks and subsidies for “dirty-energy” have to go, so that these two competing industries can actually compete on common ground. If we are considering an approach to scale back subsidies for an “infant industry”, removing subsides for a more mature competing industry must be part of that approach.

Ending tax breaks for “dirty energy” brings us to the next point of this article, which is the argument for some sort of carbon-tax or cap-and-trade system. If we are not going to reward the renewable energy industry for its implicit positive externalities, we should make dirtier forms of energy pay for their negative externalities. An article about “petroleum coke” highlights the need for something to keep emissions in check:

“Assumption Park gives residents of this city lovely views of the Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit skyline. Lately they’ve been treated to another sight: a three-story pile of petroleum coke covering an entire city block on the other side of the Detroit River.

Detroit’s ever-growing black mountain is the unloved, unwanted and long overlooked byproduct of Canada’s oil sands boom.

And no one knows quite what to do about it, except Koch Carbon, which owns it.

The company is controlled by Charles and David Koch, wealthy industrialists who back a number of conservative and libertarian causes including activist groups that challenge the science behind climate change. The company sells the high-sulfur, high-carbon waste, usually overseas, where it is burned as fuel.”

““What is really, really disturbing to me is how some companies treat the city of Detroit as a dumping ground,” said Rashida Tlaib, the Michigan state representative for that part of Detroit. “Nobody knew this was going to happen.” Almost 56 percent of Canada’s oil production is from the petroleum-soaked oil sands of northern Alberta, more than 2,000 miles north.”

“Detroit’s pile will not be the only one. Canada’s efforts to sell more products derived from oil sands to the United States, which include transporting it through the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, have pulled more coking south to American refineries, creating more waste product here.”

“And what about the leftover coke? The Environmental Protection Agency will no longer allow any new licenses permitting the burning of petroleum coke in the United States. But D. Mark Routt, a staff energy consultant at KBC Advanced Technologies in Houston, said that overseas companies saw it as a cheap alternative to low-grade coal. In China, it is used to generate electricity, adding to that country’s air-quality problems. There is also strong demand from India and Latin America for American petroleum coke, where it mainly fuels cement-making kilns.

“I’m not making a value statement, but it comes down to emission controls,” Mr. Routt said. “Other people don’t seem to have a problem, which is why it is going to Mexico, which is why it is going to China.”

“It is worse than a byproduct,” Ms. Satterthwaite said.“It’s a waste byproduct that is costly and inconvenient to store, but effectively costs nothing to produce.””

“Lorne Stockman, who recently published a study on petroleum coke for the environmental group Oil Change International, says, “It’s really the dirtiest residue from the dirtiest oil on earth,” he said.”

–Here we have an example of billionaire industrialists selling oil and shipping the dirty byproduct around the world to be burned, releasing even more emissions. And how much does all this profit-generating business pay for it’s emissions? Essentially zero. Oil sand creates 3rd degree pollution (burning of the oil, transportation of petro-coke, and burning of the petro-coke), and because of their lobbying power, industrialists are able to shift the cost onto future generations.

It is appalling our government, and other governments, let companies do this without paying anything for the emissions they produce.  Companies claim they cannot deal with a carbon-tax or cap and trade, while posting billion dollar profit margins. At the end of the day, a carbon tax is a small blip on the companies cost-function. Cap and Trade would initially not even make emissions more expensive, as the market is depressed (due to lower energy demand following the Great Recession) and swamped with low-price / free vouchers. For these reasons, a carbon tax would likely be more effective in the short-run, but having either system in place would be better than what we have now (which is essentially having no system in place to check emissions).

Corporate interests will always claim the sky is falling, and that any additional cost will bring that industry to it’s knees, forcing  them to outsource jobs and close operations. What we would see , I imagine, is that if you call this bluff, often companies will decide the cost and uncertainty of relocation is not worth the small price of paying for emissions (especially if that company had to install, say, a wind-farm when it started operations). If companies want access to developed countries markets, they should have to pay for their emissions. If America and Europe came up with a strong carbon-market (perhaps part of a larger U.S.-Europe FTA?), the rest of the world would join in. The ultimate goal would be a global carbon-market, which would eliminate the threat of companies to move operations to a lower regulation  area.

A double sided approach–ending subsidies / tax-breaks for both renewables and “dirty-energy”, combined with a carbon-tax / cap-and-trade system, could allow market forces to help renewable energy prices converge towards the price of more traditional forms of energy. It would do so while creating a more resilient renewable-energy industry, create a cleaner environment, and open up fiscal space for spending on important social programs.

This approach is different, and theoretically sound–it would be very interesting to see how effective a pilot version of this program could be.

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3 thoughts on “Conflict Watch: Oil Sand and Renewable Energy, a New Case for a Carbon Tax / Cap and Trade

  1. After I initially left a comment I appear
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    Like

    • Korey,

      Unfortunately I have no control over that. I would suggest checking the email for a remove from email list, or contacting WordPress customer support.

      Good luck and come back soon!

      Like

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