Cap and trade not the solution

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We don’t know what will emerge from the United Nations climate conference, presently under way in Copenhagen. Nor, not being climate scientists, do we know whether concerted international action to slow or stop global climate change is necessary or advisable.

We do know what the president’s science adviser, John Holdren, told a congressional committee last week.

“Global climate,” he said “is changing in highly unusual ways compared to long experienced and expected natural variations.”

President Barack Obama is wedded to the scientific method. He seems more likely to base his decisions on the best science available rather than relying upon his own political instincts. Good politics, especially during these recessionary times, might suggest putting climate change on the back burner, while good science might mandate immediate and decisive action.

As leaders here and abroad consider their options, they should be sure that the policies they endorse do not overly penalize certain sectors of the economy, do not encourage the very actions they hope to discourage, and do not create a creaky, inefficient and possibly corruptible enforcement agency.

Discouragingly, “cap and trade” regulations, which many activists favor, seem likely to do just that.

Such regulations impose significantly disparate costs upon different groups, while failing in their primary goal of curbing carbon emissions.

Here’s how Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, an enthusiastic supporter of “cap and trade,” explained the proposed legislation. “… (B)usinesses won’t be told what to produce or how, but they will have to buy permits to cover their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. So they’ll be able to increase their profits if they burn less carbon — and they’ll be clever and creative about finding ways to do just that.”

Krugman then notes that “there are many ways to reduce emissions at a relatively low cost (including) greater use of wind, solar and nuclear power.”

That’s fine in theory, but let’s get specific.

Colorado Springs Utilities owns two coal-fired power stations, from which it produces most of the city’s energy needs. These plants have been in service for many decades. That’s not unusual — in fact more than two-thirds of the coal-fired generating units that were in service nationally during 1975 are still operating.

If “cap and trade” laws are enacted, CSU will pay millions annually to compensate for the CO2 emissions from those plants. Those costs will be passed on to the ratepayers.

It’s all well and good to make predictions about “clever and creative” ways to burn less carbon, but the laws of physics and chemistry still apply: burn coal, emit CO2.

Couldn’t we just junk those ancient coal-burners and build solar, wind and nuclear units to replace them?

Solar and wind are intermittent (and relatively expensive) power sources, which can’t be relied upon for base loads. To provide constant uninterrupted power to businesses, homes, office buildings and energy-hungry data centers, utilities must turn to natural gas, coal, hydroelectric or nuclear facilities.

Forget being “clever and creative” — those nasty laws of physics tell us that, absent hydroelectricity, nuclear is the only carbon-free source of base load power.

And while it might be carbon-free, it’s hardly cost-free.

Asked whether CSU might consider building a nuclear facility to replace its coal-fired units, chief energy services officer Tom Black cited one roadblock.

“I don’t think that (City Council) would let me write a check for $3 billion,” he said with a wry smile.

His estimate might be conservative.

And here’s a tip for the administration: remember a recent, wildly successful government program, which actively rewarded folks for helping the environment? Just do it on slightly larger scale.

Cash for coal-fired clunkers!