Guest post by David Middleton
Note: The original version of this article included a significant error. The post has now been edited accordingly (DHM 3/21/2017).
On February 16, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center hosted a film screening of the “Rational Middle Energy Series.” The university promoted the event as “Finding Energy’s Rational Middle” and described the film’s motivation as “a need and desire for a balanced discussion about today’s energy issues.”
Who can argue with balance and rationality? And with Harvard’s stamp of approval, surely the information presented to students and the public would be credible and reliable. Right?
The event’s sponsor was Shell Oil Company. The producer of the film series was Shell. The film’s director is Vice President of a family-owned oil and gas company, and has taken approximately $300,000 from Shell. The host, Harvard Kennedy School, has received at least $3.75 million from Shell. And the event’s panel included a Shell Executive Vice President.
The film “The Great Transition” says natural gas is “clean” (in terms of carbon emissions, it is not) and that low-carbon, renewable energy is a “very long time off” (which is a political judgment, not a fact). Amy Myers Jaffe, identified in the film as the Executive Director of Energy and Sustainability at the University of California, Davis, says, “We need to be realistic that we’re gonna use fossil fuels now, because in the end, we are.” We are not told that she is a member of the US National Petroleum Council.
The film also features Richard Newell, who is identified as a Former Administrator at the US Energy Information Administration. “You can get 50% reductions in your emissions relative to coal through natural gas,” he says, ignoring the methane leaks that undermine such claims. The film neglects to mention that the Energy Initiative Newell founded and directed at Duke University was given $4 million by an Executive Vice President of a natural gas company.
Well… I guess this is not great news from the perspective of the Grauniad’s 97% Consensus Team and the two history department grad student who wrote this nonsensical article.
“You can get 50% reductions in your emissions relative to coal through natural gas,” he says, ignoring the methane leaks that undermine such claims.
Now, the reduction isn’t quite 50%; it’s more like 45-49%. However, there is no reason to account for the minuscule volume of methane that may or not be released in the production, transportation and consumption of natural gas.
In the chart below, I have plotted the following:
- Annual CO2 emissions from the burning of 100% of U.S. natural gas production.
- Annual ΔCO2 (coal minus natural gas) emissions assuming all of the natural gas was replacing coal consumption.
- Annual U.S. CH4 emissions from total U.S. energy production in metric tons of CO2 equivalent.
Even if I assume that all of the CH4 emissions from U.S. energy production came from natural gas (they don’t), it totals just 27% of the greenhouse gas emissions averted by switching from coal to natural gas. If all of the natural gas was offsetting coal, the averted emissions would be 1,235 MMT CO2/yr. According to the EPA, the natural gas component of methane emissions is 176 MMT CO2eq/yr. This doesn’t undermine the claim that “You can get 50% reductions in your emissions relative to coal through natural gas,” because coal operations also emit about 90 MMT CO2eq of methane per year. Accounting for the methane, so… “You can get 43% reductions in your emissions relative to coal through natural gas.”
Now, back to the idiotic article…
Fossil fuel interests – oil, gas, and coal companies, fossil-fueled utilities, and fossil fuel investors – have colonized nearly every nook and cranny of energy and climate policy research in American universities, and much of energy science too. And they have done so quietly, without the general public’s knowledge.
For comparison, imagine if public health research were funded predominantly by the tobacco industry. It doesn’t take a neurosurgeon to understand the folly of making policy or science research financially dependent on the very industry it may regulate or negatively affect. Harvard’s school of public health no longer takes funding from the tobacco industry for that very reason. Yet such conflicts of interest are not only rife in energy and climate research, they are the norm.
I don’t have to “imagine”…
The Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) was entered in November 1998, originally between the four largest United Statestobacco companies (Philip Morris Inc., R. J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard – the “original participating manufacturers”, referred to as the “Majors”) and the attorneys general of 46 states. The states settled their Medicaid lawsuits against the tobacco industry for recovery of their tobacco-related health-care costs, and also exempted the companies from private tortliability regarding harm caused by tobacco use.:25 In exchange, the companies agreed to curtail or cease certain tobacco marketing practices, as well as to pay, in perpetuity, various annual payments to the states to compensate them for some of the medical costs of caring for persons with smoking-related illnesses. The money also funds a new anti-smoking advocacy group, called the American Legacy Foundation, that is responsible for such campaigns as The Truth. The settlement also dissolved the tobacco industry groups Tobacco Institute, the Center for Indoor Air Research, and the Council for Tobacco Research. In the MSA, the original participating manufacturers (OPM) agreed to pay a minimum of $206 billion over the first 25 years of the agreement.
Setting aside the fact that this is a prime example of a false analogy fallacy and thoroughly moronic… The Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) was used to fund at least a fair bit of public health research.
Back to the Grauniad nonsense…
One way or another, the colonization of academia by the fossil fuel industry must be confronted. Because when our nation’s “independent” research to stop climate change is in fact dependent on an industry whose interests oppose that goal, neither the public nor the future is well served.
Dr. Benjamin Franta is a PhD student in the Department of History at Stanford University, an Associate at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and a former Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He has a PhD in Applied Physics from Harvard University.
Dr. Geoffrey Supran is a Post Doctoral Associate in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Post Doctoral Fellow in the Department of History of Science at Harvard University. He has a PhD in Materials Science & Engineering from MIT.
Way back in the Pleistocene (late 1970’s), when I was getting my B.S. degree in Earth Science at Southern Connecticut State College (now University, “that fine oil school” in the words of the president of the first oil company I worked for), our department chairman and at least one other geology professor had oil industry experience. A lot of what they taught me is still relevant today.
The notion that academia should confront “the colonization of academia by the fossil fuel industry” is mindbogglingly stupid. The colonization which should be confronted and eradicated is that of “invasive species.” Energy education departments are usually dominated by people with little or no practical energy industry experience (AKA invasive species). And the “the colonization of academia by the fossil fuel industry” is nothing new. Who the hell do these morons think funds programs like this?