The BusinessMakers Radio Show

Episode #478: Kathleen Hartnett White

Audio for this transcript available

Russ: Well, I gotta tell you, I loved this, the moral case of fossil fuels. What triggered the idea to do this?

Kathleen: For at least 30 years, I have studied and written about the legal and scientific and policy issues surrounding environmental issues and energy issues in a very, hopefully, technical, accurate way. And as I watched over the last five years the initiative on which EPA has set itself and the quantity of rules, the stringency, the infeasible standards that they have imposed, the very, very inferior science; I said, "Wait. This needs to be looked at from a broader, broader, deeper, really palpably human perspective," by which I mean the moral case. And I really felt compelled, very worried actually, about a turn that a lot of the most intellectual minds of the world have taken away from the foundations of what makes our modern lives possible.

Russ: Well, the momentum against fossil fuels just almost seems unstoppable, and at the same time, I worry that the world doesn't seem to understand how important fossil fuels and energy is to the overall economy.

Kathleen: Modern life depends upon energy in every move and every product we use, and we're swathed in it. There's so much energy that we enjoy now in all kinds of ways, but that's just a very recent addition to human history. And so I think it's very important, and the paper tries to lay that history out to people to make them think about energy in a different way. A big mistake I have seen in all discussions about climate policy and global warming and regulations to reduce CO2 is it seems as an assumption that all energy sources are equal and all are interchangeable. And there are qualities that fossil fuel has that leads me to conclude they're unquestionably superior to the current alternatives. Perhaps human creativity will discover and develop a source comparable or superior, but renewable sources right now are not up to the job that fossil fuels have played and do play.

Russ: Well, and they're nowhere near, are they?

Kathleen: No, they're nowhere near. They're nowhere near. There's so many ways to talk about these issues, but a part of the paper tries to sort of carefully identify the qualities about fossil fuels that make them superior right now to the current alternatives. One of the main one is their density. They're concentrated, and that actually is a part of the history I try to sketch in the paper. Because before fossil fuels were first methodically harnessed for industrial manufacturing purposes, the total of energy available to all human societies was what the sun graced this planet with through photosynthesis in plants. Plants that we eat, plants that grow trees that we burn for heat, and for materials: clothing, shelter, et cetera. And I don't think that we reflect on that very much. There was an abrupt change when fossil fuels were first harnessed in England, mid-18th century where the uptake was. And then when the creative human mind developed devices or machines that could translate that heat energy in dense fossil fuels into mechanical energy, all of human history changed because we no longer relied exclusively on human muscle or animal muscle to do the basic work, and all of a sudden machines could do that for us. The versatility of fossil fuels is amazing. The number of products which derive from fossil fuels, whether they be asphalt or steel or 60 percent of all the fibers we use. Unbelievable variety of products which come from fossil fuels. They're reliable. They can be controlled, as opposed to renewable. Human beings are dependent upon nature for renewable energy to make. We all know that. When there's no sun shining, when there's no wind blowing, and you have to have the right kind of sun and the right speed of wind, and fossil fuels can be utilized and converted into all kinds of different forms of energy. Something not in the paper that I came across recently that maybe sets it in perspective for modern people today. The iCloud begins with coal.

Russ: Explain that.

Kathleen: A very, very capable scholar at the Manhattan Institute, his name is Mark P. Mills, has written a great paper on this and calculated the amount of electricity that is used in the entire global digital universe. And that's an area where now in other parts of our life, we're encouraged to be energy efficient and reduce the amount of energy we need. The amount of energy that's being used in this ballooning digital universe -

Russ: Huge data centers all over the planet. Yeah.

Kathleen: Yes. In 2012, Mark Mills estimates that the digital universe consumed more energy than all of global aviation. And believe me, planes consume a great deal of that. And I say coal because regardless of how vilified coal is, and I'm always hesitant to use phrases like "the administration's kill coal agenda" but that is what it is. It's to eliminate it, not to regulate it a little more. But it's still the dominate energy fuel in the world. And overall, 80 to 85 percent of all the energy we use in this country and across the world comes from fossil fuels.

Russ: Well, it's integrated totally, obviously, in our life. I mean you just explained a whole lot, and there's a lot more, too. I had a couple of personal experiences. One was I was caught in Manhattan during a three-day power outage one time.

Kathleen: Oh dear.

Russ: And it was unbelievable how terrible it was. Also experienced about a week without electricity - on the grid we're talking about, of course - during Hurricane Ike. And I worry that the rank and file citizenry doesn't seem to know this or understand it. That's what I like so much about your report. I hope they will read it. I hope that they will become familiar with the way you describe the industrialization of the whole economy and how important energy was. But also what struck me is the role that fossil fuels plays in food production, even the growing of crops. Share that with us.

Kathleen: That's probably the most amazing story of all of progress. You and I, I think, are old enough to remember Paul Ehrlich, the entomologist at Stanford University who had what became a bestseller called The Population Bomb. I wrote that in 1968, and he predicted mass starvation in the developing countries of the world before the '90s. Well, indeed the world population almost doubled from the early '60s to the '90s, and yet there was more food available per person than there was before because of the incredibly increased productivity in agriculture. And many people that study these issues specifically think that the lion's share of that increased productivity comes from natural gas. Natural gas-based fertilizer, also known as synthesized nitrogen, used across the world has led to incredible productivity. Has had fossil fuel inputs in mechanical devices instead of plows driven by oxen, refrigeration to avoid waste, the amount of jet fuel expended.

In our grocery stores, on any day of the year now, have products from who knows how many countries that are every day of the year flown and shipped and all of that. And that story is amazing.

Russ: But you also even mentioned that CO2 in the atmosphere has increased production.

Kathleen: If we think about it a little bit, it shouldn't surprise us. It's a plant food. I mean that's how it operates in photosynthesis. Without carbon dioxide, we would not have a habitable planet. And there are also many, many agronomists, long before the issues of global warming became such a current topic, that increased concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing plant productivity. CO2 is the compound by which plants build tissue. I believe that's called growth.

Russ: Okay. Right. All right. So you mentioned global warming. Being the head of the TCEQ and caring about the environment in general, what's your perspective? Are mankind causing global warming through the emissions of CO2 and other problems associated with it?

Kathleen: A question difficult to answer simply. I might say that I've viewed that issue and watched it evolve in the same way I do on other environmental issues about what I call real pollutants. And absolutely robust science is absolutely necessary. And what has happened with the global warming climate change issues is this is a process that's gone on for about 30 years through the official body called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change formed by the United Nations. It was politicized from the beginning. The program that inaugurated this research and that has been at the heart of it for all these 30 years assumed that human-made carbon dioxide was not only warming the plant, but that would warm it to catastrophic proportions. That was assumed. It's a theory, and then science uses models to verify the theory. You can't verify a theory with models. You have to verify a theory with physical evidence. That's the heart of the empirical science method.

And among other problems that science has besides that it has been manipulated and politicized is that physical evidence, now almost 18 years, the world has not warmed. It's stopped, and that's enough. Even that science - if this goes on for two more years, that science is to be put on a shelf and something more.

Russ: But isn't that why they've changed now to climate change, and they like to show all the weather every time that we have a fire.

Kathleen: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah.

Russ: Every time we have a flood, "Well, there it is. Proof."

Kathleen: No, exactly. And that is, in my opinion, it is absurd. Climate change? Yes, the climate always changes, but it is not weather. Climate is not equivalent to weather. Climate's a long-term pattern in a certain region. Weather is - I'd like to say that there's - to try to be succinct, the substance and the quality of the science now used to justify all these aggressive regulatory programs to mandate reduction of CO2 is not at all of the quality to justify that.

Russ: Well, the comment that they always make is that 97 percent of scientists, and sometimes they get more accurate and say, "97 percent of climate scientists say," as though that's proof.

Kathleen: Well, and also if you want to spend a lot of time on that 97 percent figure, which has been used by so many people, if you unwind that, it's not at all 97. It's 97 percent of those few scientists who believe in man-made catastrophic global warming. It was not all scientists. But I might add, when you go to consensus as a means of trying to justify the quality of your science, you're in trouble because you go to evidence, physical evidence.

Russ: Well, I worry, though, about how many people - the way people look at media these days. There's so much surface-level knowledge that extends into actual action from our government today. And there's a lot of people that believe, "The whole globe's getting ready to catch on fire. We better change it right now."

Kathleen: There are not only a whole lot of people. There's a whole lot of really educated people. And if you take - I stand to be corrected, but from what I know, in all our Texas universities, all those climatologists, science, are believers in man-made global warming. They have bought hook, line, and sinker. So our Texas taxpayer money is funding, and there's no balance. And there are plenty of skeptical scientists of extraordinary imminence. So right here in our state we have that problem, and it's something to worry about.

Russ: Well, I'm hoping something like "Fossil Fuels: The Moral Case" is the kind of thing that can sorta open people's eyes. I mean what do you see? Do you say, "Hey, I've published it. That's it. I'm out of here," or -

Kathleen: Oh no. And it's a story that I want to tell as much as I can because - and let me give you just a little example of what we can't let happen in this country. Germany, about 2005, initiated the most aggressive move away from fossil fuels towards renewable. Okay. What we are now, 2014. I know in the latter part of 2013, German media, some of their major media - Der Spiegel, Die Welt - were reporting that electricity is increasingly viewed as a luxury good. Their electric rates in Germany are three times the US average rate. And I would just ask everyone to imagine if you just tripled your electric bill every month. I don't think that would not only be an inconvenience, but there are media reports that hundreds of thousands of homes are no longer hooked up to electricity, and they're buying wood stoves again. And I know we're exporting wood pellets from this country to Germany and other European countries too. And to imagine that happening here. They have eased off a little bit.

In fact, Australia has repealed their carbon tax. Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, one of the milestone agreements on the climate change front. Europe is somewhat retracting. Our president is doubling down. Here's the positive reason for optimism and for why it's important to take this seriously even though it seems absurd. The US Congress never has passed legislation to force the kind of greenhouse gas mandates on that EPA and other parts of the federal government is doing, and I would surmise it never has and it never will. You have states like the president's home state, Illinois. I believe they depend upon coal for 80 or 90 percent of their electricity. There have already been the announcement of over 200 power plants fired by coal that will be closing in the next few years on the basis of EPA's aggressive rules, not about greenhouse gases, but on conventional pollutants. Now they've gotten to greenhouse gases. People predict maybe the closure of up to 400. You can't do that quickly. That's what happened in Germany, except these are maybe higher stakes here because of the amount of energy involved. The US Congress would never pass these things, and recent polls of the general public or voting public show almost no interest in global warming. They don't take it seriously as some catastrophe just beyond their nose. That's good and bad news. They need to take it seriously. Congress is the only party that can set this record straight 'cause even the Supreme Court has been timid about really restraining EPA. Because Congress gives EPA broad power that says, "Make the air healthy. You figure out the details, EPA." So the Supreme Court doesn't want to say, "It's absurd what you're doing." Congress needs to say that.

Russ: But since Congress has been authorizing the EPA and the EPA is taking this aggressive stance, aren't we still likely to slip back in -

Kathleen: Well, I think ____ political. I work for a foundation which is nonpartisan, nonpolitical. But as a matter of policy, the US Congress, the House has passed maybe 30, 40 bills to completely restrain EPA on this and also to mandate really vigorous science. The US Senate, because of a different majority party, won't even let bills get up for a vote. Once more, the American people can express their opinions in the voting box. I don't have a sense, actually, of how strong might be that, but many predict that, given the right candidates, this could be very different.

Russ: Well, Kathleen, thank you so much for what you do. I urge you to keep doing it. But before I let you go, I recently interviewed John Hofmeister on the show, and I'm interested to hear your perspective on this. He took the industry to task, the oil and gas companies, for not doing a better job of actually explaining what they do and how important it is and sort of taking a pro-active PR position. What do you think of that?

Kathleen: I really agree with him on that. I think that the industry, in all its different layers, has not been outspoken enough about the kind of things I write in this paper. About the value of fossil fuels, about the extent to which air quality has been improved by the elaborate control technology industry has developed. And I think that's very important that there have been, in the past, a typical response was to be, "Oh, we'll do some carbon dioxide reduction, just not as much as you want to do," and to not say, "This whole thing is without merit." And I think that's very, very important. There also has been times in all the years through this issue where one of the fossil fuels would want to take advantage of the downside of another fossil fuel. And I'll give you an example. A very large - this is public record. I'm not gonna use the company's names, but this is public record. A very large natural gas interest contributed $26 million to the Sierra Club for their kill coal campaign several years ago. The story goes on.

Within a year and a half, the national head of the Sierra Club, at some sort of press briefing, said the Sierra Club regrettably had concluded that natural gas would no longer be viewed as a bridge fuel to a non-carbon future, but that they would also add to their kill coal campaign a beyond natural gas campaign. So that particular strategy in industry did not pay off for that particular industry, and I hope that with great confidence and optimism that industry at all their levels, from those that work as roughnecks or those that work at plants to those in the boardroom, really tell their positive story. And it's not one just about wealth. It's about basic human well being still longed for by billions of people in this world.

Russ: Well, Kathleen, thank you so much for sharing your perspective with us. And let's say that we've got somebody that's been listening to this and would love a copy of "Fossil Fuels: The Moral Case" -

Kathleen: And it's easily available at our foundation's website

Russ: Really cool.