Last week I attended the 2006 Haagen-Smit Symposium, an annual conference on varying issues affecting air quality in California and more broadly, named after the Cal Tech professor who “invented” smog (that is, he figured out what it was and how it was generated, and whipped some up in the laboratory to prove it) and is deservedly a California science hero. The event is laid on by the Air Resources Board, a state agency with the interesting philosophy that public policy outcomes will be constrained by the realities of the physical universe as science reveals them, and that policy and management choices should recognize this.
This year’s meeting was about transportation fuels, and was pervaded necessarily by the political kerfuffle occasioned by $3 gasoline but also by the recent discovery by national politicians of the alternative fuels issue. The presentations were of the usual sort for a meeting of this kind: scientists and engineers presenting research results, staff from NGOs pitching better- and worse-conceived policies and programs, and flacks from oil and car companies with really slick slides telling us in the former case that “we get it, but of course that’s all in the future and now we need to drill and pump and stop subjecting refinery and LNG facilities to all these silly environmental rules” and in the latter, that “we get it, but of course we have to make vehicles people want to buy” and in both cases, “…and please don’t muss up our market with regulations and government meddling.” I should note that the Honda speaker cast a very dark cloud over the GM guy, who of course had a pretty weak hand to play.
It was a very interesting couple of days; I learned a lot and met some very smart folks. The big message for me, and for others as indicated by repeated recitation of the phrase, is that “there’s no silver bullet”: do not expect a one-shot, relatively painless, fix for the intertwined challenges of global warming, international trade balances, and petro-politics. Obviously all the petroleum in the ground, and maybe even all the coal, will be burned; the big task is to burn them much more slowly than we do now, partly so they last longer for what they’re really good for, and partly so the atmosphere can cope with the CO2 releases. No single fuel regime –and we heard about all of them, from hydrogen (made with one or another low-carbon source, like solar or nuclear) to ethanol and biodiesel (essentially biological solar collecting systems), will displace enough petroleum to arrest global warming or disentangle us from the wretched governments endowed with so much of the oil (perhaps the intelligent designer’s laptop had a virus on oil-allocation day?). Every one of these has a really daunting set of problems, whether economic, political, or technical, that will constrain its scope and brake its rollout.
One technology that’s a fur piece down the road but could really change everything is carbon sequestration. If we can catch the CO2 coal burns into and put it somewhere–the bottom of the ocean has some promise here–for a really long time (millenia) at manageable cost we could be in the combustion business (which in turn lets us make almost anything at a manageable price) for generations. But we won’t be in the $75/barrel oil combustion business; convenient energy will cost more than we’re in the habit of paying. Some technical challenges seem to be much more refractory than we expected: a “really good battery”, with two to four times the energy density of current chemistries, continues to be right around the corner as it has been for two or three decades, and one fears, always will be.
I have been looking in on energy issues since I started professing at MIT in the 70s, and a discouraging amount of current debate hasn’t moved far since. I can’t believe it’s still possible for an oil flack to show a slide with “demand” and “supply” represented as two lines diverging into the future, with the space between them labeled ‘shortage’ (and usually colored a scary red) to a roomful of educated adults and not be laughed off the stage. [In case you have been bemused by this intellectually reprehensible trick: demand and supply are not numbers but functions, especially functions of price. It’s meaningless to give “petroleum demand in 2040” as a number without stating the price assumed for it; same for supply.] For some reason, the hundred-odd attendees apparently included almost no economists or policy analysts, and the discussion frequently suffered for it. A lot of the discussion would have made sense if gasoline prices were historically high now, but of course they aren’t, only about where they were in 1980 in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars. Which are, of course, the only, um, real kind. Back in the day, we really didn’t know whether there was a price-elasticity of demand for any kind of energy, nor whether the relationship between energy and GNP was absolutely fixed. Now we do, but a surprising amount of the meeting’s policy discussions implicitly assumed (for example) that prices just don’t affect consumption. A big take-away for me was the value of teaching engineers more policy analysis and public sector economics– yes, and teaching my own students more real science. C.P. Snow would still wring his hands at the two-culture gulf.
Two things that oddly never came up were nuclear power, which would seem to be a very important way one might generate hydrogen without putting carbon in the air, and land use and development practice, which is obviously a central driver of vehicle fuel consumption. To live in, heat, and cool a big one-story house on a half-acre of thirsty turf, never encounter anyone you don’t intend to meet, drive alone wherever you’re going, and park free when you get there may or not be a basic human right, and it may or may not be what people [think they] want so badly that higher fuel prices can’t change anything. But they may also be physically inconsistent criteria that cannot be satisfied by building lane-miles or any other government program or private choices. They may also constitute the kind of desire the wise learn not to follow, like another helping of dessert or invading Iraq to prove you’re better than your daddy. In any case we need more public discussion like Joel Kotkin’s (wrong but thoughtful) op-ed linked above before we become really desperately trapped by an installed base of unlivable infrastructure.