Ex-NASA scientist says reindustrialising with fossil fuels makes no sense

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A noted climatologist and recently-retired NASA research chief has entered the EU’s energy policy debate, with a warning that any re-industrialisation strategy which increases fossil fuels use can only be short-term, irrational and economically wasteful.

In a wide-ranging interview with EurActiv, James Hansen branded the EU’s Emissions Trading System (ETS) “ineffectual” and flawed, and accused energy firms of preferring government bribes over investments in clean technology.

Hansen, whose Congressional testimony on climate change in 1988 first popularised the issue in the United States, also said that approving the proposed ‘Keystone XL’ pipeline to bring tar sands fuel from Canada to Texas would ‘gravely tarnish’ President Barack Obama’s legacy.

But it will be his words on the nature of any European ‘re-industrialisation’ that poke most ribs in the Brussels corridors of power, as business calls for a new energy competitiveness strategy continue to make inroads at the EU policy level.

“We do not make fossil fuels companies pay for their effects on human health, or on the climate, and we even subsidise them,” he said, “so it is a very short term argument to say that you should reindustrialise in a way that uses more fossil fuels.”

“It doesn’t even make economic sense from a long-term perspective,” he argued. “By any rational assessment those fuels need to be left in the ground.”

European industry groups argue that unilateral climate measures unfairly disadvantage them against competitors like the United States, which enjoy cheaper energy prices.

In its medium-term oil outlook report, the International Energy Agency said on Tuesday (14 May) that because of the shale gas boom, the US would overtake Russia as the world’s biggest gas producer by 2015 and become ‘all but self-sufficient’ in its energy needs by around 2035.

North American supply shock

"North America has set off a supply shock that is sending ripples throughout the world," said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven.

But environmentalists and, formally, the EU’s governments maintain that measures to reduce fossil fuels dependence and accelerate clean technology deployment now, can only advantage Europe’s industry in the energy economy of the future.

Fossil fuels companies could be nudged to invest in renewables technologies, Hansen said, but they currently only do so “in small amounts, because they know that they can bribe governments more easily than they can make the investments in clean energy.”

At the same time, “the science makes clear that we should not be going after these unconventional fossil fuels [such as shale gas and tar sands],” he added. “We cannot afford to put that carbon into the atmosphere.”

An inexorably rising price needed to be put on greenhouse gas emissions to provide future signals to businesses and consumers alike, he contended. Because the carbon price on the ETS fluctuated according the vagaries of the market, it was doomed to be “ineffectual”.   

Hansen was in Brussels with Mark Jaccard, a UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change author and Canadian former utilities regulator, for meetings with Commission officials about EU plans to label fuel from Canada’s tar sands – also known as oil sands – more polluting than conventional crude.

The EU plans to do this under its Fuel Quality Directive (FQD), which mandates a 6% reduction in the greenhouse gas intensity of EU fuels by 2020. On Tuesday (14 May), a public consultation on the issue closed, ahead of an impact assessment which had been expected in June, along with a final proposal. 

But divisions among member states have delayed the legislative process.

Emissions savings from the FQD would top 19 million tones of CO2 per year - over and beyond the directive's 50-60 Mt CO2 savings - according to a recent CE Delft report commissioned by the environmental group Transport and Environment.

This would be the equivalent of taking 7 million cars from Europe’s roads, the report said.

Keystone XL pipeline

Hansen said that the EU’s plan– and a possible presidential block on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline bringing tar sands fuel to Texas – would make it more difficult to develop Alberta’s tar sands fields. “That’s why [Canada’s Natural Resources Minister] Joe Oliver is getting so worried and running around,” he said, “because they’re afraid.”

Oliver and the Canadian environment minister, Peter Kent, have also been touring Brussels in the last week to promote Canada’s case for tar sands. 

Some analysts believe that Obama will try to balance any decision on the Keystone XL pipeline off against new Environmental Protection Agency rules limiting CO2 emissions from power plant emissions.

Like the Keystone XL decision, which has been kicked back until late 2013, the new plant emissions rules have been delayed.

Hansen, who until last month headed NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said US Secretary of State John Kerry and Obama would realise "that their legacy is going to be gravely tarnished if they approve that pipeline so I’m cautiously optimistic that they’re going to come to their senses on this.”

While he had been disappointed by Obama’s climate policies so far, Hansen added a rider that the US president still had time to back up his words on climate change with actions. 

“It is surprising we don’t have stronger statement from scientists [too],” he said. “Someone should be going in and pounding on the president’s desk saying ‘we have got to have policy changes’”.  

A recent US government study denying a link between climate change and last year’s severe drought in the country’s midwest was down to “a particular scientist in NOAA who always makes that statement with every extreme event,” Hansen said, referring to the US government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Positions: 

The European oil refineries association, Europia sent EurActiv a statement saying: "EUROPIA believes that DG Climate action’s [greenhouse gas emissions measurements proposal for the FQD] does not reflect the original intent of this 2009 Directive, whose main object was simply to set a reduction target of the CO2 content of EU automotive fuels by 6%. The Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) was not designed to influence the global utilisation of any individual crude feedstock and it is completely unrealistic to believe that the EU alone can do so. If FQD is used for this purpose, it will result in damaging consequences for the competitiveness of EU refining, complex administration for fuel suppliers and Member States, with resulting risks to the broader EU economy and its security of supply; all for no global CO2 benefit."

Timeline: 
  • 22 May: Extraordinary EU summit to discuss energy policies and broader taxation matters.
  • Before 2014: Impact assessment into the EU’s Fuel Quality Directive expected to be published, along with final proposal
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