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Trifecta September 24, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, clean energy, football, politics.
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It’s been a good six months. If you took the fossil fuel disaster three team teaser. What? Vegas doesn’t give odds on such things? Are we sure? Each of the big three fossil fuels has experienced a major US calamity in the past six months. April 4th, an explosion at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch coal mine in aptly named Montcoal—that’s coal mountain for the Franco-unwashed—West Virginia kills 25 miners. April 20th, an explosion on the Beyond Petroleum/TransOcean/Halliburton Deepwater Horizon rig 50 miles southeast of the Mississippi delta in the Gulf of Mexico kills 11. September 9, a PG&E gas line in San Bruno, California ruptures starting a fire that kills six, including an acquaintance of an acquaintance and her eight year old daughter.

Shortly after the Deepwater Horizon disaster I posted that there are two costs associated with fossil fuels. There is the slow and certain, low-margin-but-high-probability, frog-in-a-boiling-pot-of-water cost of CO2 emissions. This cost is much talked about. But there is also the awful but random, high-margin-but-low-probability, shock-and-awe cost of disasters. This cost is usually much talked about in the immediate aftermath of the disaster—”if it burns, it earns”—but soon forgotten as the “cost of doing business” or the “price of progress.” And it is rarely if ever mentioned in the fossil vs. renewable fuel as a major point for renewables. And why not? Because of the rare and random nature of the disasters themselves and because blame is always assigned to the companies rather than to the fuel. It’s not coal’s fault, Massey Energy ignored safety regulations and preferred to appeal fines than to bring its mines up to code! It’s not oil’s fault, Beyond Petroleum didn’t install the acoustic blowout prevention valve and Halliburton used sub-standard concrete to seal the well! It’s not natural gas’ fault, PG&E didn’t properly inspect the pipes! Well, that may all be true but the deeper truth is that no company, however earnest and by-the-book can avoid disaster indefinitely. Disasters happen. Screws fall out all the time. The world is an imperfect place. And to the degree that molecules can be at fault, coal, oil, and natural gas are themselves the problem. The thing that makes fossil fuels useful is that they burn. But this same property is also responsible for disasters—sometimes they burn prematurely and spectacularly. And yes that is the cost of doing business … with fossil fuels. Perhaps it’s time we take our business elsewhere.

The same dichotomy plays out on the grander scale of climate change. The kind of climate change that gets the bulk of the press is the high-probability-but-low-impact kind—and here I am using the adjective low in the relative sense, specifically relative to the climate change not talked about. There is a one hundred percent chance that global average temperature will increase by one degree Celsius by mid-century. A one hundred percent chance that floods, droughts, heatwaves, hurricanes, and wildfires will increase substantially in both frequency, duration, and intensity. A one hundred percent chance that ocean levels will rise by about 20 inches displacing 500 million people and robbing the world of 20% of its food producing river deltas. A one hundred percent chance that we will lose between 10 and 20% of all plant and animal species on earth. A one hundred percent chance that climate change mitigation will eat as much as 3% of world economic output. That’s the climate change most Americans know about and the kind that frankly probably doesn’t sound that bad to most Americans who don’t live in Florida and Louisiana—8% of Florida’s land area and 24% of Louisiana’s is within 20 inches of sea level. But there’s the climate change almost no one talks about, the low-probability-but-high-impact kind. There is a one percent chance that global average temperature rises by five degrees Celsius by midcentury. A one percent chance that we lose all the ice in Greenland and Western Antarctica and sea level rises by 43 feet, displacing two billion people and robbing us of 60% of all arable land. A one percent chance that we lose as many as 50% of all plant and animal species including … maybe … humans. I made up the one percent number. I don’t know what the probability of climate disaster is. No one does. The earth’s physical, chemical, and biological systems have too many non-linear feedback loops. But the point is that this kind of climate change—climate disaster—is also part of the equation. The price of progress. The cost of doing business. And while there may be a way to rationalize the risk of the occasional mine explosion, oil spill, and gas main rupture, is there a way to rationalize this kind of risk?

P.S. The DC Metro vs. Philly Bluejay score is now 2-1 Metro. On vacation at my sister’s a few weeks ago and out of reading material, I borrowed her copy of David Sedaris’ “Naked.” I generally do not read fiction—one of my mottos is “real life is fiction enough”—but “Naked” is not really fiction. It’s autobiography. And it’s pretty funny. My favorite short was “A Plague of Tics” or any mention of David’s mother. I was about 20 pages from the end when I left “Naked” by the SmarTrip machine at Friendship Heights. When I returned that evening, it was gone. And so was my faith in mankind.

P.P.S. Speaking of DC Metro. Anyone else notice the geometrical theme of the stations? Federal Triangle. Judiciary Square. Pentagon. Dupont Circle. Ballston.

P.P.P.S. I wasn’t planning on running my streak of sports related items to whatever it is now—four straight posts? five?—but I feel that I have to comment about the situation currently going on with the Philadelphia Eagles. Six months ago, head coach Andy Reid jettisoned 11-year quarterback Donovan McNabb to division rival Washington, largely on the strength of two spot starts by backup Kevin Kolb. This despite repeated proclamations that Donovan would be the Eagles quarterback in 2010. The move was seen as a slap in the face to McNabb—who along with late defensive coordinator Jim Johnson “made” Reid—but not as knee-jerk, or self-serving. After all, Donnie 5 had ample opportunity to get the Eagles a Lombardi trophy. Now, two quarters into the Kevin Kolb era Reid has effectively jettisoned Kolb, largely on the strength of two spot appearances by backup Michael Vick. This despite repeated proclamations that Kolb would be the Eagles quarterback in 2010. This move is a slap in the face to both Kolb and a slap in the face to McNabb and knee-jerk and self-serving. Not to mention self-destructive. Will Kevin Kolb ever be a starter in the NFL? I hope so. He deserves a shot. Can he ever play for Andy Reid? I don’t think so. Would you ever play for someone who threw you under the Liebherr T282B? For that matter, will anyone play for Andy Reid having seen what he’s done to McNabb and Kolb in the span of six months? Andy, this better work or this year will probably be your last coaching in the NFL. Mike Kafka, get your helmet ready!

P.P.P.P.S. Kolb/Vick-gate happened late Tuesday night. Too late for TMQ to weigh in. Tune in next week.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Rumors are flying that Philly Bluejay icon and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel may be stepping down after the elections to run for mayor of Chicago. Who will replace him? What about moi? I’m Israeli. I’m a ballbuster. I will cut off my finger if I have to!

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