Last week, during the climate-change talkathon held by Senate Democrats, Al Franken of Minnesota said, “I rise to suggest that we in this body talk more about climate change so that we can agree on taking action to address it.” Franken’s fellow Democrats offered similar pleas. Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal described climate change as “implacable, relentless,” and said that “only we can stop it.” Hawaii’s Brian Schatz said, “Climate change is real, it is caused by humans, and it is solvable.”
Fine. If the Democrats are correct, and if it’s true that we “can agree on taking action,” that “we can stop it,” and that climate change is “solvable,” then what, exactly, are they proposing? Hand-wringing is not a climate-change plan. And yet, that’s all the Democrats did during their 15-hour tag-team filibuster.
The Democrats’ all-nighter, which was quarterbacked by Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse and the newly formed Senate Climate Action Task Force, kept the Senate open for only the 35th all-night session since 1915. It gained coverage from all the major media outlets. But the senators offered no specific plans or even any hints as to what they might propose. Ed Markey of Massachusetts allowed that the effort was “aimed toward the day when something more concrete can be legislated.”
The Democrats avoided concrete proposals because if they were candid, they would have had to acknowledge the three biggest stories in today’s energy market: Europe’s economy-crushing renewable-energy policies; the ongoing boom in global coal use; and, with Russia’s invasion of Crimea, the growing strategic role that natural gas is playing in Europe, and indeed all over the world.
For years, left-leaning politicians and their allies have been claiming that renewable energy can create jobs and boost the economy. For instance, back in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama claimed during a speech in Golden, Colo., that his planned investments in wind, solar, and biofuels would create “5 million new jobs that pay well and can’t ever be outsourced.”
But in January of this year, both the European Union and the German government announced separately that they were rolling back aggressive subsidies and mandates for renewable energy because of the staggering costs those efforts have imposed. Spain has racked up some $35 billion in debt thanks to excessive renewable-energy subsidies. In Germany, renewable-energy subsidies are now costing German consumers and industry about $32 billion a year. The costs have become so onerous that Germany’s economy and energy minister, Sigmar Gabriel, has said his country is risking “dramatic deindustrialization” if it doesn’t reduce energy costs.
Last month, in a report I wrote for the Manhattan Institute, I estimated that if Congress were to pass legislation that imitates the EU’s renewable-energy policies, it would increase the monthly energy bill of an average household by $31 per month, or about 29 percent.
Given the high costs that renewable-energy mandates are imposing on European consumers, it’s no surprise that Democrats are reluctant to talk about imposing similar programs here at home. Nor do the Democrats want to discuss Europe’s increasing use of coal.
In 2012, according to the BP’s 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy, coal use in both Spain and the UK jumped by 24 percent over 2011 levels. In France, coal consumption rose 20 percent; in the Netherlands, by 8 percent; and in Germany, by about 4 percent. On March 10 this year, the same day that the Democrats ended their all-night focus on climate, Maria van der Hoeven, the head of the International Energy Agency, said that coal use in Europe is rising because natural “gas prices are high” and “coal is cheap.”
The Democrats don’t want to discuss coal even though it is the world’s fastest-growing source of energy. Between 2002 and 2012 — a period during which coal consumption in the United States fell by about 21 percent — global coal consumption soared by nearly 55 percent, or about 26.5 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. The growth in coal demand nearly matches the global growth in consumption of oil, natural gas, nuclear, and wind energy combined over that time period. That surging coal use is a key reason that global carbon dioxide emissions have been rising by about 500 million tons per year since 1982.
Although the Democrats don’t want to talk about coal, here’s the reality: Unless or until someone can come up with a new source of energy that can compete with coal on cost, the black fuel will continue to dominate the electricity-generation business. We can see this by looking at China, which has one of the world’s fastest-growing electricity markets. Between 2002 and 2012, coal use in China grew by about 23 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. For comparison, in 2012, coal consumption in the U.S. was about 8.8 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. Thus, between 2002 and 2012, just the growth in China’s coal consumption was equal to more than 2.5 times the amount of coal burned in the U.S. in 2012.
Finally, there’s Russia’s invasion of Crimea, a move that has pushed natural gas to the front of the global conversation on energy. In the wake of the invasion, European countries aren’t boasting about renewable energy or their climate-change policies. Instead, they’re scrambling to reduce their dependence on Russia and its state-controlled behemoth, Gazprom, which provides about 30 percent of Europe’s gas needs.
Poland imports about two-thirds of its natural gas, most of which comes from Russia. Last week, authorities in Poland, a country with big shale-gas potential, announced that it would not tax shale-gas extraction through 2020. Germany gets about 40 percent of its gas from Russia. Earlier this month, German authorities announced that they will delay talks with Russia over the future of the $45 billion South Stream pipeline, a long-discussed project that, if built, would carry gas from Russia under the Black Sea to Bulgaria, then on to Western Europe.
Natural gas has become an essential fuel in the effort to cut carbon dioxide emissions. During combustion, gas emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal. In January, during his State of the Union speech, President Obama rightly pointed out that over the past eight years, the U.S. has cut its carbon dioxide emissions “more than any other nation on Earth.” Those reductions are largely due to the surge in domestic natural-gas production, which has helped gas steal market share away from coal in the electricity-generation sector.
Climate change is among the most difficult issues of our time. If you are going to be serious about it, you must be specific. You have to explain where you will get the massive amount of energy that the world demands, and you have to prove that your low- or no-carbon energy sources are affordable and scalable. Unfortunately, last week, the Democrats in the Senate were more interested theatrics than they were in taking action.
Last month, during a visit to Indonesia (a country that has nearly tripled its coal consumption over the past decade) Secretary of State John Kerry declared that climate change is “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.” If Senate Democrats agree with Kerry, they’ve revealed themselves to be unwilling or unable to muster even a pistol shot in reply.
— Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His fifth book, Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong, will be published May 13.