Sunday, June 12, 2016

Researching cheaper fossil fuel extraction is unethical

That's not to say that researching fossil fuel extraction in general is bad. New technologies to make it safer, less environmentally damaging, and better understood in terms of environmental impact is fine. Research to make fossil fuel use cheaper also may not be a problem if the research improves the energy efficiency, in effect reducing the carbon emissions from fossil fuel use. The problem is research that provides no help with emissions but instead harms the low-carbon market in the future.

We need to transition away from fossil fuels, especially coal but not just coal. I don't know if emissions 15 years from now will be lower than today but it would be better if they were, and they must trend downward. Research that makes fossil fuel extraction cheaper has no immediate economic benefit, it just changes price levels down the road as it succeeds and spreads. Fracking is a good example of something that was decades in the making and is still spreading internationally.

While some research may be applied quickly, the more likely and widespread application of some bright new idea that arises today is 10-20 years in the future. Low-carbon power sources will be much more widespread then, so the alleged need for fossil fuels will be less, and the urgency to stop using fossil fuels will be even greater.

As usual, natural gas is the trickiest component, but just as new natural gas plants don't make sense, new research to make natural gas cheaper doesn't make sense. Any bridge argument for natural gas has little bridge left to cross in 10-20 years in the future, and becomes a liability instead. And as with new gas plants, investment in research requires a payback period. Researching cheaper fossil fuel now is an attempt to promote fossil fuel use over renewables 20 to 40 years from now.

I think ending this type of research at the university and governmental level should complement the current divestment movement. My alma mater, Stanford, did the right thing by divesting from coal but refused full divestment. I know that Stanford has some complicated investments that would take some time to unwind, and I believe they're in natural gas. The complication by itself isn't a barrier to divestment - I think no one would object if Stanford took a little more than the typical five years to complete divestment. What may be a barrier, though, is the research aspects.

Getting to a speculative level, I suspect that Stanford's complicated investments have a significant research component, and that the real financial value Stanford sees is in its research paying off - i.e., making fossil fuel extraction cheaper. That's problematic, and I don't think they have thought it through or even have been confronted with it.

As the link shows, Stanford is establishing a climate task force to examine operations, research and teaching (investment is somehow not mentioned, must just be an oversight). This could be an opportunity to examine whether Stanford should research or should invest in research that makes fossil fuels cheaper in the future, right at the time that we need to end using them.


William Connolley said...

What do you mean by "cheaper"? Do you mean "using fewer resources"? If so, your argument is obvious nonsense. But perhaps you mean something else.

William Connolley said...

For example, if by some accident of history it had happened that the USA got most of its oil from Canadian tar sands, would you now argue against trying to use Saudi crude, if that were unexploited?

Hank Roberts said...

Well, consider MTBE.
First it was a toxic waste requiring expensive disposal
Then it was an inexpensive, easily available oxygenator to be added to gasoline
Then it was a toxic waste polluting surface water and near surface aquifers.
Oh, the stuff could be spilled?
Who could have foreseen that?

Then, consider fracking chemicals
Are they using the same things otherwise called toxic waste?
How would you know?
Why are they inexpensive?

Each paving stone added to the path is not necessarily a step forward.
It may well be an inexpensive step in the current direction
If you go on in the direction you're headed, you will get there.
Which path are we paving?

Hank Roberts said...

To answer the question

> Saudi crude ... if it were unexploited

Let's see, compare the paths

Assuming starting from reliance on limited, expensive tar sands petrochemicals

1) build an industrial base adding oil tankers and suitable refineries for Saudi crude
2) build something else with the same money

What are the external costs? Gotta total up the costs.

Hmmmm ..... are we assuming anyone knows about climate change, for this exercise?

JohnMashey said...

I regularly attend Stanford meetings:
GCEP (next = Nov 2-3)
Energy Summits (except was away for 2016),
weekly Energy Seminars
tour of new central energy facility.

I see lots of work on batteries, PV, alternate energies, efficiency, policies, etc, etc. I don't recall ever seeing "make fossil cheaper", but I could easily have missed some.

I've also traded emails and/or talked in person about divestment with very senior people who have both serious climate concern and energy expertise ... who were happy to see coal divestment, but wouldn't sign off on a total fossil divestment, the latter considered to be too much of a blunt instrument. I.e., coal has to go away ASAP (decades), but gas/oil aren't going to any time soon, and they have to be managed down in a coherent way ... and that means developing criteria to selectively encourage better behavior and discourage bad behavior.
- divest from things like tar sands or maybe Arctic drilling (latter unneeded now, I guess)
- divest from companies with poor methane leakage or worst fracking behavior
etc ... and figuring all that out is nontrivial, given industry and financial structures.

EliRabett said...


Aaron said...

US-DOE lives by the politics of money. As long as there is potential funding from industry or congress, DOE will be proposing coal technology projects. If Trump becomes POTUS, and needs a plan to send to congress to save coal jobs, they will have a draft ready to polish and send over.

Russell Seitz said...

What of the ethics of research aimed at decarbonizing the coal economy?

There is presently no effort to reduce high C to H ratio cola burning by incentivizing the production of high hydrogen solid fuels, although they are as abundantly available as those that produce more CO2 per BTU . Moving away from existing mines on the basis of hydrogen rebates on carbon taxes could save half a wedge of carbon-burning in the US alone.

Russell Seitz said...

Sorry about the cola typo- no carbon-free diet crystal coal jokes , please.

Fernando Leanme said...

I did some consulting for oil companies researching oil recovery and processing techniques designed to reduce the amount of energy used to extract the oil. Some of these ideas are being applied, but we need to see how they pan out in the long term. Reducing energy use does involve reducing costs, as well as reducing emissions. If you don't like the fact that we do intend to be more efficient at what we do you can suggest the government use a carbon tax.

Brian said...

Probably worth an update in the OP, but by research I mean new technological approaches, e.g. what fracking was in 1990s, or the current foolishness of US government funding to mine methane from ocean floor clathrates. Fine tuning current methods doesn't really fit that bill, doesn't have as many long-term implications, and is less likely to be university and government funded.

Exploration for new fossil fuels isn't research IMO either, but for similar reasons it's a bad idea - the odds of finding cheaper ff sources then existing reserves are very low, and we have too many existing reserves as it is - why expand them.