Energy: Cheaper in the Long Run

Technology is amazing. In the last few years, new technologies have vastly increased American reserves of natural gas and are making North Dakota a leading oil producer, so much for peak oil. The term “game changers” is thrown around in both these cases. I might paraphrase the Godfather about fossil fuel, “Just when we think we’re out, technology pulls us back in.”

Environmentalists have been predicting the end of the age of hydrocarbons ever since I was a kid. Their predictions have a kind of plaintive, even pathetic tone, sometimes a hopeful one. Actually, the resource depletion prediction is a lot like the old Malthusian predictions and wrong for the same reasons. They have consistently made their predictions by simply projecting past trends forward and assuming limited technological progress. In other words, they underestimated the power of human intelligence, innovation and imagination. As Yogi Berra used to say, “Predicting is hard, especially about the future.” It is just impossible to predict discontinuous changes but we are usually aware of things that could go wrong with what we already have.

Back in the 1970s experts predicted that by now, or more commonly by around 1980 or 1990. Yet we persist. Usually such successes would be all to the good. We really don’t have to worry about running out of energy and we can probably expect real energy prices to drop in the next decade. What is not to like? Nothing, except the potential problems of global warming. The problem with switching to alternative energy is price. It has always been price and will always be price. Until people talk about price, it’s only some people talking. As long as fossil fuels are cheaper, they will be preferred. Why would a rational person choose to pay more to get less convenience? Petroleum based fuels such as diesel and gasoline, for example, are nearly perfect fuels for a car. They are very dense (i.e. a lot of energy per gallon. Hydrogen has more energy per pound, but it has such low density that takes up more than three times the space; ethanol is much denser than hydrogen, but not as dense as gasoline and less efficient). Natural gas is great for stationary energy production. It is very clean burning, easily distributed via underground pipes & remarkably efficient.

So let’s be clear. The reason we rely so much on fossil fuels is that they are generally cheaper than the alternatives, convenient to use, easily produced and readily available. When you pit low price, convenience and availability against something that cost more & is harder to use, which do you think wins most of the time? This is the place for some government intervention in the form of a carbon tax . Prices of carbon based fuels will naturally DECLINE as technology increases exploitable reserves. As the prices of carbon based fuels declines in real dollar terms relative to other products, we should tax them back up. The ratchet is a relatively painless way to phase the tax in.

Lest this become merely another source of tax and government waste, we should make this a revenue neutral venture. A good idea here is tax plus dividend. Whereby ALL of the new taxes collected on carbon would be paid out the individual Americans as dividends. To make it simple, every American man, woman or child alive on Dec 31 would get a check for whatever the tax revenue divided by the population. I would make this clean and honest. Everybody gets an equal piece of the action.  I  don’t think politicians will go for it, since it cuts out their opportunities to turn the money to their own purposes, but it is a good idea and if we are serious about addressing climate change, raising the price is one of the only things that really work.