Take Your Foot off the Gas

  • January 22, 2023
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In 1991, a year after his controversial firing as men’s basketball coach at North Carolina State University, Jim Valvano published a book titled They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract, and Then They Declared Me Dead. It’s a great title.

The past few weeks’ convergence of energy and environmental news reminded me of the irony of that book title. Rolling blackouts, which the 2022 State of Reliability report by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) had previously warned about, affected several states on Christmas Eve. Days later, a White House announcement on December 29 hailed Pres. Joe Biden’s “goal that 50 percent of all new passenger cars and light trucks sold in 2030 be electric vehicles” and advertised new and revised tax credits for people buying electric vehicles (EVs). Then on January 9, a Biden appointee to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) openly talked about possibly banning gas stoves, which are used by an estimated 40 percent of households across the country.

So half of all new cars and trucks sold in the future would have to be electric? Nearly half of households (not to mention so many professional kitchens) in America would have to switch to electric stoves? We’d need to generate much, much more electricity to fill the void of all that power once produced by millions of gasoline-powered engines and gas-fired stoves. 

If environmental zealots in the Biden administration were to get their way, then something would have to answer the call for such a huge increase in electricity demand. Do they have an answer for this challenge?

No. They declared natural gas the bridge fuel to renewables, and then they declared pipeline projects dead.

No new pipelines means no new supplies of “bridge fuel”

The “bridge fuel” conception of natural gas promotes it as a reliable baseload generator with significantly lower emissions than coal (a reliable baseload generator). From there, this view envisions natural gas serving as an emissions-lowering stopgap until sometime in the future when zero-emissions renewable resources and battery storage will be able to meet electricity demand reliably, to the extent that they can replace natural gas to scale. President Barack Obama talked about it in his 2014 State of the Union address, for example, and last year Biden’s “Special Envoy to the Climate” John Kerry talked about it (with some caveats) to the US Chamber of Commerce. Some environmental extremists dislike it on principle, of course, or they suspect that even when renewables and storage were finally ready for the big time, utilities would choose instead to continue favoring low-cost, efficient electricity from natural gas.

The natural-gas bridge is alluded to in the NERC report: “natural-gas-fired generators are now necessary, balancing resources for reliable integration of the growing fleet of variable renewable energy resources and can be expected to remain so until new storage technologies are fully developed and deployed at scale to provide balancing” (emphasis added). Furthermore, “With the continued retirement of coal and nuclear units and a growing reliance on natural-gas-fired generation, the interdependency of the electricity and natural gas industries has become more pronounced.”

In other words, the existing demand for electricity in this country is more dependent than ever on natural gas. NERC warned of an increasing risk of energy shortfalls as “the resource mix evolves” away from “flexible generation (i.e., fuel-assured, weatherized, and dispatchable resources)” such as natural gas and toward weather-dependent, fickle sources such as solar and wind.

Note that this risk is growing before an increased demand for electrification to power cars, trucks, and buses, and possibly also stoves. The Biden administration seems oblivious to the risk, however. Biden’s day-one cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline permits set the stage, cementing his campaign promise to stop pipeline infrastructure. By May of last year, the Biden administration and Congress had taken over 100 separate actions that make it harder to produce oil and gas in America.

On March 24, 2022, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) proposed changing its policies regarding pipeline approvals, no longer relying on precedent agreements and also adding “adverse impacts” (including such things as “environmental interests” and “environmental justice communities”) for which it could deny an application. FERC also proposed a new greenhouse gas policy that would require FERC’s oversight of natural gas pipeline projects’ “reasonably foreseeable” greenhouse gas emissions. Those, however, could include future emissions, construction and operation, and even upstream and downstream effects.

Both of those changes would increase the uncertainty surrounding the viability of pipeline projects, which would at best increase their expected costs and at worst prevent new natural gas pipelines from being built.

Federal efforts to delay and block pipeline projects compound the efforts of environmentalists filing expensive lawsuits and of state regulators withholding or slow-walking permits until the projects become too expensive to finish. The Institute for Energy Research described it as the “‘death by a thousand cuts’ approach to stopping pipelines.”

Leaving people worse off while getting in their own way

By stopping pipelines, however, federal overseers are also standing in the way of their own goal of seeing electricity generation transition to zero-emissions resources without dangerous power disruptions. (Of course, they could simply advocate for the only baseload zero-emissions resource out there, which also happens to be the most efficient, reliable generation resource: nuclear power. That they don’t is a great mystery.)

It should go without saying that government taking popular consumer choices away from people leaves them worse off, as consumers as well as makers and sellers. The drive to deprive people of gas stoves and conventional cars and trucks is fueled by the same environmental extremism that opposes gas-fired electricity. It betrays an impatience with people making choices that best address their own needs, and it also shows an inability to wait for entrepreneurs and innovators to solve the riddle of zero-emissions reliable electricity generation (other than nuclear, for whatever reason). 

Instead, regulators would rather force changes through government that not only level serious harms against people, but even cripple their own long-term goals.