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William O'Keefe
CEO, George C. Marshall Institute

William O'Keefe

William O'Keefe is CEO at the George C. Marshall Institute, a think tank that promotes better use of science in public policy. He is a former COO at the American Petroleum Institute.

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Climate proposals fall short

Why, after a deadly explosion at a West Virginia coal mine and a massive oil spill in the Gulf, does climate legislation appear to have so little momentum in the Senate? Why haven't these signals of the downsides of fossil fuels created more political support for the cause of fighting climate change?

The suggestion that two accidents should generate more support for climate change legislation implies that legislation could reduce risks associated with energy production without damaging our economic wellbeing. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We rely on coal and oil because they are abundant, reasonably priced and essential to our economy and lifestyle. Further, there are no alternatives that don't have risks as well as benefits. Thousands of wells have been drilled safely in the Gulf of Mexico before this tragic accident and the same is true for coal mining.

The Energy Information Administration outlook for 2030 concludes that oil and coal will continue to be major sources of energy for electrical power and transportation. Recent increases in natural gas reserves are encouraging power generators to switch from coal to gas which is one reason why emissions have declined recently. But, no manufacturing activity is without some level of risk.

The alternatives to gasoline or diesel powered vehicles are neither cheaper nor sufficiently advanced to replace light duty vehicles. Hybrids are more expensive than their gasoline counterparts and plug-in hybrids are a long way from being commercially viable. Significant advances in battery technology have to be made before hybrids or all electric vehicles are competitive with the internal combustion engine.

The lesson of the Gulf accident is not to turn our backs on a valuable energy source but to take the necessary actions to make offshore drilling even safer. The tragedy of this accident will spur innovation and new technology, especially in the clean up phase. Another lesson is that life in the modern world involves risks as well as benefits. Our goal should be to minimize one and maximize the other as efficiently as possible.

All of the climate change proposals currently being considered in the Senate involve mandated scarcity by imposing unreasonable and uneconomic caps on fossil fuel use. The consequences of any variation of cap and trade would be much higher costs to consumers and business and more lost jobs. The Kerry-Lieberman alternative which will be unveiled tomorrow will probably set a target of 17 percent below 2005 emission levels by 2020. That would require removing about 1 gigaton of carbon from our economic and energy system. There is no practical way to do that because it is the equivalent of doubling the miles per gallon of every car on the road or building over 100 nuclear power plants according to DOE.

By William O'Keefe  |  May 11, 2010; 3:00 PM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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