“Coal is electricity. Electricity is life. Life is green…” Fred Palmer paused for a moment, enraptured. “Coal is green!” Applause from the audience. The man next to me said, “Yes, yes!” as he tapped his knuckles on the white table cloth. With this triumphant syllogism, Mr. Palmer had done the only damage control required the whole day. The speaker before him had let slip an unusual admission, saying that “Coal is dirty…or at least it is perceived as dirty…I mean by those who think carbon is a problem.” It was a sheepish gesture that maybe – just maybe – coal wasn’t, you know, entirely good. This was off message. And even though it was slight, it needed to be stamped out. So Mr. Palmer, former Senior VP at Peabody Energy and a leader in the coal industry, sternly objected: “Coal is not dirty!” No, coal is green.
The day began with the kind of bounty made possible by coal’s thankless work behind the scenes: a copious pile of bacon and bottomless orange juice. We took our seats and set our cloth napkins in our laps just in time for the video montage. There was the presidential candidate Donald Trump in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and North Dakota. He was talking about energy. The musical score evoked a glorious mood and managed to refine Trump’s crude campaign remarks (“Terrific. Great”) into a golden vision. There he was in a hard hat shoveling a pretend pile of coal. There he was with oil workers at a rig. We will build those pipelines and it will be with American steel. “Can you believe that?”
It was early, so the applause was still decaffeinated when Heartland Institute President Tom Huelskamp took the stage after the montage. Heartland is a libertarian think tank that worked with Philip Morris in the 1990s to question the health risks of smoking and now is the main American institution pushing climate change skepticism. It has played a leading role in making the U.S. Republican party the only major political party worldwide to deny the scientific consensus on climate change.
Mr. Huelskamp first cracked a joke about how they bought the “solar-powered wifi plan,” so we were out of luck if we wanted to check our e-mail. We had gathered, he then explained, for their America First energy conference. The goal was to assess the progress made thus far and identify the steps yet to be taken in realizing Donald Trump’s plan to make America a global energy super-power. It was Houston one year and two days after Trump’s improbable victory. It was also less than three months after Hurricane Harvey dumped a record-setting 64.5 inches of rain on the city and caused chemical fires and oil spills. There would be plenty of talk about the recently crowned World Series champion Houston Astros, but no mention of Harvey.
I scanned the room: almost entirely white men over fifty in dark suits. There was the occasional cowboy hat. Oil executives, coal mine operators, drilling engineers, conservative policy-makers, and libertarian opinion-makers. These were the bone-weary veterans of the long “war on fossil fuels” perpetuated by President Obama (set aside the fact that domestic oil production nearly doubled under the Obama administration). Haggard and worn by an eight-year tsunami of job-killing regulations, they had emerged victorious at long last. They had come to hear the good news from the brains trust behind Trump’s energy plan.
The plan is to achieve energy dominance, where ‘energy’ is understood to mean fossil fuels. The old goal of energy independence is for wimps. We don’t just want to have sufficient resources to satisfy our own needs. On top of that, we want to export enough oil, natural gas, and coal to impact global markets. The aim is to grab the world, so to say, by the pussy. The call for dominance, though, is about more than manliness. It is a manifest destiny. In Genesis, we are told that God created humankind in his image by calling on us to subdue the earth and to “have dominion…over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” We’re just giving that original command a patriotic twist. As Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry would later say at the lunch keynote in his Cajun drawl, “Move over Saudi Arabia. We number one now!”
But this was not just a policy conference, it was a morality tale. These embattled veterans, long demonized by the left, had come to reassure themselves about the righteousness of their cause. They are the good guys after all. They wear the white hats. Fossil fuels mean prosperity and only with prosperity do you get the luxury of caring for the environment. As Mr. Landry noted, it’s those oil wells off the coast of Louisiana that make the sleeping bag you lie in at night watching the stars from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Yes, there is money to be made – oh the money! – but it’s not about that. It’s about that single mom who will save on her heating bill. It’s about the 1.2 billion people around the world without electricity, begging for our coal, which is a carbon-wrapped dream of a better life. It’s about cars, and grillin’ out, and freedom.
Fossil fuels supply roughly 85% of America’s total energy demands. Heartland Institute CEO Joseph Bast assured us by the end of the long day that that would still be in case in 2050 and beyond. But isn’t that wrong? Renewables are the future, and there is a global consensus to decarbonize our economy…right? Not according to this group, the thinkers and storytellers behind the Trump administration energy plan. It is natural to assume that they are the 21st century equivalent of the last gasp of the whale oil or wainwright businesses. That could be a dangerous assumption, though. It is now open season for carbon extraction and combustion. That might lock us into path dependencies that delay a renewable future. And if the “global warming alarmists” actually happen to be right, the Trump administration might gleefully push us over the edge.
This summer, I received a little book in my university mailbox from the Heartland Institute titled Why Scientists Disagree about Global Warming. They had mailed it to 350,000 high school and college educators. It was a condensed version of earlier, thousand-page reports produced by the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC, pronounced ‘nipsee’). Most professors who received the book proclaimed it to be propaganda and tossed it in the garbage. But I ordered twenty-five copies and assigned it to my “Ethics in Science” class. It seemed like a timely case study in the way values and politics get tangled up with science.
They sent me the extra copies. They also sent me Sterling Burnett, Heartland research fellow, who delivered an hour-long lecture in our class on just why scientists disagree about climate change. Our class already had a couple of hypotheses about this. Our consensus was on the first theory: there isn’t really any important disagreement. Instead, what we have is a credible consensus position on one side and a handful of industry-funded denialists on the other side. We had watched the documentary Merchants of Doubt and read the work of Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway. We were not naïve; we understood how the tobacco industry prolonged uncertainty and disagreement about the dangers of smoking in order to keep their gravy train rolling as long as possible. Ditto for fossil fuel companies and climate change.
Of course, Dr. Burnett, who has a PhD in applied ethics, had a different story. He was no merchant of doubt and certainly no denialist. He was a defender of freedom, private property, and most importantly science. After all, there are other ways to explain disagreement among scientists. In the first instance, nature is complex. There is no possible way we could understand the climate system with anything approaching certainty. As the NIPCC report notes, “true science is never settled.” It is always provisional and open to falsification. Disagreement in science, then, is “the rule” and that is because “science is a process leading to ever-greater certainty, necessarily implying that what is accepted as true today will likely not be accepted as true tomorrow” (p. 9). We used to think illness was an imbalance in the humors and that fire came from phlogiston. We think we know better now, but give it time. Germ theory, the periodic table, plate tectonics…these are “likely” destined for the dustbin too. Science is a process, a fluid, and thus not suitable as a foundation for policy. But of course, the “formulation of effective public environmental policy must be rooted in evidence-based science” (p. 83), even though it probably isn’t true.
The NIPCC report doesn’t specify what ‘disagree’ means, which is its key epistemic move. Imagine all the variables involved in climate change: soils, the stratosphere, the role of water vapor and clouds, the human contribution, the placement of rain gauges, ice cores, polar bear populations, the right policy response, the proper estimation of uncertainties, the right inferences from this or that data set, etc. No scientist is going to agree with another scientist across the board on all of this. Thus, scientists disagree. Of course, according to this sweeping definition, so do the climate denialists. There are many different flavors of ‘skepticism,’ some reasonable and others loony. I sometimes think about writing a report titled “Why Climate Change Deniers Disagree about Global Warming.”
Thomas Hobbes already recognized in the 17th century that the empirical sciences could never fulfill their promise to transcend all religious and political factions to deliver the one true picture of nature. Science could not legitimately referee and resolve political debates, because scientists would never be able to agree among themselves. As Hobbes said, we will continue to “see double” and multiple truths will legitimate multiple claims to authority and multiple policy agendas. Hobbes, like Rene Descartes, didn’t put much stock in our senses – the frail and error-prone human apparatus is not a trustworthy source of knowledge about reality. We are so easily duped. You want me to ‘prove’ climate change? Hell, Descartes just barely proved that he existed.
Indeed, I don’t read the NIPCC report so much as an affront to the Enlightenment project as the fulfillment of it – as the working out of its own internal contradictions. Take Immanuel Kant’s answer to the question he posed in 1784, “What is Enlightenment?” It is the “courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know!” Enlightenment is when we mature and think for ourselves rather than rely on tradition and authority to do the thinking for us. Which brings us to page 59 of the NIPCC report. There they note that the complexity of climate makes it “difficult for unprejudiced lay persons to judge for themselves where the truth actually lies in the global warming debate.” Therefore, they turn to the “supposedly authoritative statements issued by one side or another in the public discussion.” But “Arguing from authority…is the antithesis of the scientific method.”
Kant set us up, that bastard. Science means thinking for yourself and questioning authority. But science also means expertise and authority. Am I really supposed to set all the textbooks aside and think for myself, from scratch, about the composition of matter, space, and time? To be scientific is both to distrust and trust. When to do one and when to do the other? There is no scientific answer for that. Note how the NIPCC report saws off the branch it is sitting on: if you can’t trust authoritative statements on either side, then that includes them. If doubt is your product, though, that is fine, because you don’t want belief. You want its suspension. You could call this a form of nihilism. The method is in some sense Socratic, because it is a negative dialectic, which questions all claims to truth. Socrates often talked his interlocutors into a state of aporia or impasse and puzzlement. They were paralyzed, which is why Socrates was known by some as the sting ray more than the gad fly. But in an industrial society the result of a negative dialectics is not paralysis, but the continuation of the status quo, especially drill and burn.
Dr. Burnett also had another theory about scientific disagreement. He quoted from Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous 1953 farewell address where he talks not just about the dangers of the “military industrial complex,” but also the scientific industrial complex:
the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity…The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded…public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.
Money dominates science. Did you ever notice how those global warming alarmists are all funded by the government? And what could be a greater boon for government control and research funding than a massive program to regulate carbon, the very lifeblood of our economy? Be alert. Dare to know.
(A picture of one of Mr. Leimkuhler’s slides)
After his visit, Dr. Burnett extended an invitation to me and my students to attend the America First energy conference. They would waive the $350 registration fee. My PhD student, Giovanni, jumped at the chance, because his dissertation is on energy ethics. We both grabbed our one decent suit and made the five hour drive from Denton to Houston the night before the conference. Room rates at the conference hotel were over $1,000 per night, which was slightly north of our budget. We stayed at a three star place outside the city center and shared coffee the next morning with a construction crew that was staying there in order to be close to their work site: another new building tacked onto the sprawling waistline of an already obese metroplex. Gio, who is from Italy, was overwhelmed by the scale of the city, the beating asphalt-smothered heart of modern petro-culture. “Why do you Americans need such massive lots for new cars?”
The morning keynote was delivered by Joe Leimkuhler, Vice President of drilling for LLOG Exploration and former head of Shell’s Gulf of Mexico operations. He spends his days helicoptering from Louisiana to offshore oil rigs in the Gulf. Leimkuhler delivered a sober analysis of what Gio and I took to be a punch-drunk plan to achieve fossil-fueled energy dominance. It is a reminder that rationality, as an instrumental operation, can operate anywhere. Once the ends are assumed, the means can be logically scrutinized. This is what the philosopher Leo Strauss called “retail sanity and wholesale madness.” We are clever with means and blockheaded with ends. Houston itself is a good illustration of how millions of small rational choices give rise to big irrationalities. In terms of energy dominance, once we take it as a given that we should drill and mine more, the questions become susceptible to Leimkuhler’s engineering expertise: just how much is still buried in the crust of the earth, how can we get it out, and how much will it cost to ship it to Asia?
He walked us through the state of American oil, coal, and gas. Can we be energy dominant in these fields? The answer is mostly yes. Nuclear power is less certain, but hopeful. Then he turned to that tiny remaining portion of our energy portfolio, which he first labeled “renewables” (in quotes) and then subsidy energy (not in quotes). Suddenly the logic of the analysis changed. For coal, oil, and gas we had assumed their unmitigated beneficence. The question was not whether, but how to get more. For renewables, though, the question was whether to become dominant. The answer was no. The first slide on renewables left the engineering realm of charts to show a picture of a wind turbine menacing a bird. Renewables kill birds. They also pollute his beloved Gulf. The hypoxic dead zone from all that agricultural runoff from the American heartland down the Mississippi is the fault of ethanol, which is lumped in with “renewables.” (Forget the contribution of fossil-fuel derived fertilizers to the dead zone.) Then he went even further from the universal language of data to tell a story about his own disappointing experience with costly and anemic solar panels on the roof of his house. The story drew howls of laughter. Solar! What a joke! (Forget that it created three times as many jobs as coal in 2016.)
The conference then broke into two parallel sessions, which established the foundations of the energy dominance paradigm. The first panel took up the theme of “energy and prosperity.” The upshot: increases in energy production lead to increases in human well-being. To form consensus around a policy strategy like energy dominance, you need foundational articles of faith and this is one: more energy equals better lives. Yet this is true only to a certain point. As the energy analyst Vaclav Smil points out, there are clear “saturation levels” beyond which further energy consumption fails to produce additional gains for quality of life. The people in Gio’s home country of Italy consume one third the energy of Americans per capita and in many ways enjoy life so much more.
Our desires (say for that new phone) become needs that distract and shackle us. If the Trump populists had really understood the ur-populist Rousseau, they would realize that our desires increase in proportion to our weaknesses. They are not peddling freedom; they are selling slavery and spreading “garlands of flowers over the iron chains that weigh men down.” Just look at those strained faces of the commuters stuck in Houston’s traffic. Consider how the very makers of our most sought-after technologies are looking for ways to escape their addictive grip. According to the 2017 World Happiness Report, Americans were just as happy in 1960 as we are now, despite the fact that we now have three times the per capita income as back then.
The other morning panel featured two climate scientists who rehearsed what had by now become a tired act: human impacts are a signal lost in the noise, models require so many fudge factors that they are meaningless, data gathering is drenched in methodological errors, ‘climate’ is itself an arbitrary construct… The room was surprisingly low-energy. I talked to an energy economics professor from Rice after the presentations who calmly dismissed the entirety of climate science: “I lost faith when all those weather balloons failed to show any warming above the tropics.” It was the confession of a lapsed Catholic who had given up on the church, i.e., the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He had found his new home in the protestant institution of NIPCC that professed its own truths. Such are the dynamics of what the philosopher Steve Fuller calls “protscience” or protestant science.
It dawned on me that climate denial had entered a new phase for this crowd. The heady days of feverish counter-studies were the stuff of what the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn called a “crisis,” which happens when an old paradigm falls under attack. But for this group now, the crisis had been resolved and the new paradigm had been entrenched. It is like when the American scientists dispelled those zany French theories about the presence of N-rays. Once you know they don’t exist there really isn’t a need to continue attacking them. The revolution is over and we can get on with the business of “normal science.” That carbon is simply not a problem can now be assumed and projects built atop that foundation. Thus, the other pillar of the energy dominance paradigm. Life is good and carbon is good. This is the story underneath all the data; it is the interpretive framework, the paradigm, through which everything is filtered.
Kuhn talks about a paradigm as a worldview or gestalt. Indeed, the conference left me feeling as disoriented as those psychology test subjects who put on goggles with inverting lenses. Up is down and down is up. The scary thing is that “after the subject has begun to learn to deal with his new world, his entire visual field flips over…” We get used to it, that is, the new normal. Once you have a new paradigm, you “see different things when looking at the same sorts of objects.”
“Insanity is a word I am going to be using a lot!” It was Jay Lehr’s turn at the podium. Science director for Heartland, Princeton-educated, Ph.D. in hydrology, author of over 1,000 articles and 36 books, Lehr has all the trappings of sanity. He pulled out a CO2 monitor from his pocket and told us that the level in the room was presently at 715 ppm. The atmospheric level is only at 400 ppm. On submarines it regularly tops 1,500 ppm and those guys are fine! There is no limit to this, “well okay I’ve heard that at 18,000 ppm some people get a little woozy.” That’s it, though. Just buy one of these monitors! Pull it out of your pocket when you talk to those crazy environmental zealots. “I have found it really calms the nerves.” We are alright. Don’t be so hysterical!
He was practically hopping with energy on stage, betraying his grey hair and advanced age. “We are so fortunate that we have driven up atmospheric levels of CO2, and I pray that you all will live to see the day when it stands at 600 ppm.” Life will be so grand then. It is insane to demonize carbon. Carbon is life. Just google satellite images of Africa, there is more forest cover there than ever before in human history. Grasslands are eating away the Sahara. “We are greening the earth!” I looked at Gio, whose jaw was dropping. Somebody was insane alright. But that’s the problem. When you encounter someone from an alternative reality you don’t have any shared standard to judge whose reality is the real one. All standards derive from one or the other reality and thus any debate is hopelessly circular. Who took the blue pill and who took the red?
Kuhn called this the condition of incommensurability. When this happens, the possibility for rational exchange is over. Today, this phenomenon goes by the name of “tribal epistemology.” Indeed, NIPCC should be seen as just one instance of the right-wing alternative info-verse. The IPCC is part of the mainstream media that traditionally police the boundaries of discourse, setting the parameters for acceptable and honest speech. NIPCC is the Fox News of climate science. As their report makes plain, the IPCC is “not a credible source” because it is corrupt, agenda-driven, and a political rather than a scientific body. In other words: fake news.
Rather than attempt to salvage the institutions that govern a shared space for debate, Heartland and other right-wing organizations just created their own source of information. This is the sort of balkanization invited by the internet with its endless alleyways of terrabytes delivered at petaflop pace. So much for those early dreams of a “global village,” our future is much more likely to resemble Neil Stephenson’s world of Snow Crash, where gangs (or tribes) partition both the real and digital worlds into a menagerie of war zones. Through our solipsistic newsfeeds we are already fractionating into the “big sort.” There goes the whole dream of “one nation, indivisible” with each swipe of our slot machine social media.
At lunch I confessed to a lawyer that I was “outside of my bubble.” He works in Wisconsin helping sand mining companies and the oil and gas industry win permits from local governments. A modern fracking operation takes 100 car loads of sand per well to help prop open the fractures in the shale created by pressurized water and trade-secret chemicals. The best sand is in Wisconsin, although 20 new sand mines have opened just this year on the re-booming Permian Basin in west Texas. I asked the lawyer if he had read the recent book When the Hills are Gone, which laments the erasure of Wisconsin’s bucolic, rolling landscape in the rush for glacial sand. He scoffed, “yeah.” I asked, “What did you make of it?” In between bites of shrimp tortellini he replied, “I guess some people don’t own hills and they don’t like what other people do with their private property.” “But,” I said, “aren’t hills more than just private property? Aren’t they also part of a shared landscape, a sense of community and place?” He acknowledge that’s part of it too. I said, “But your job is to get local permitting organizations to overlook that part, right?” He smiled, “yeah.”
So much is overlooked with the free market environmentalism that forms the intellectual backbone of the energy dominance paradigm. At the end of his impressively smart talk, I asked Todd Myers, the head of a free market think tank, if he saw any legitimate role for the government in environmental policy. He admitted that, yes, there is a role. Lead pollution control is a story of government success. The free market turns out to be another article of faith that could stand a dose of Socratic questioning. Indeed, Myers had cited the work of Noble Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom as an example of how government is not necessary to solve environmental problems. That’s true, but her work was not about the free market either. Her work derived from examples of pre-modern and non-capitalist “common pool resource” institutions that depend on cooperation more than competition. Indeed, her path to sustainability requires the very kinds of cooperation prevented by tribal “deep disagreements.”
Myers’s talk articulated the eco-modernist strains of the energy dominance paradigm. The basic story is this: though modern technology creates environmental problems, it also eventually solves those problems. He put it in terms of the Kuznet’s Curve, which tracks pollution on the y-axis and economic growth on the x-axis. For a while, the line curves upward as pollution increases from our economic activity. But then we reach the “turning point,” which is what the eco-modernists call “peak impact.” The line then curves downward and pollution actually decreases as economic growth continues to increase. In this way, we “decouple” negative environmental impacts from positive economic gains.
This is the formula behind the push to eliminate – er, “right size” – the EPA. When Myron Ebell, head of Trump’s EPA transition team, took to the podium, he repeated the basic story. Air quality in Pittsburgh was horrible in 1960. The Cuyahoga River burned in 1969. But the air and water are clean now! We don’t need the EPA. Mission accomplished. To continue its irrational growth would be like an anorexic woman intensifying her diet regime; it will starve us. As Mr. Bast put it, we have to remove “the foot of environmental radicals from the neck of our economy.”
Let’s assume that the eco-modern gamble on modern technology is the right move. That doesn’t absolve the energy dominance paradigm, because it commits the same logical fallacy of composition made by Mr. Palmer in his syllogism about coal. Coal is not electricity. It is one primary fuel from which the secondary fuel of electricity can be derived. So too, fossil fuels are not modern technology. It is true that fossil fuels drive our economy. But unlike, say, the iPhone, nobody actually wants coal, oil, or natural gas. A lump of coal in your Christmas stocking is not the ideal gift.
People want the commodities that fossil fuels provide, the power, heat, light, and cool air. Those commodities can, however, be provided in other ways. That’s the thing about modern technology in a capitalist society. The ends (commodities) will be provided through whatever means are cheapest and most efficient. Thus, because they are peddling mere means, the fossil fuel industries are remarkably vulnerable despite all their power. And what they are vulnerable to is the very thing they so often praise: the free market. The kind of capitalism they claim to support is as blind as justice – it has no favored sons, not even fossil fuels.
Just before lunch, a tall, gaunt man with intense and deeply-set eyes shook my hand and introduced himself as an engineer living in Vegas. With a wink, he told me, “I am in hog heaven!” What does that mean? I was pondering that when the next speaker was introduced. It turned out to be my new acquaintance, Dr. Alan Chamberlain. He hunched over the microphone and proceeded over the next fifteen minutes to whip the crowd into a frenzy. There is a shale play in the Great Basin under Nevada and Utah that makes the Ghawar (the largest conventional oil field in the world) look tiny. A reservoir that size is known in the industry as an elephant and Chamberlain is the elephant hunter. “Come take a ride with me on my helicopter and I will show you the rocks! You can smell the oil…I love the smell of oil, don’t you? It smells like money!” The Trump administration is opening up the leases on all that federal land out there. Get in on the bottom floor. He has all the maps drawn up. Exxon is drooling over his seismographic work. The room buzzed and Chamberlain was swarmed after his talk.
Chamberlain was a big hit, but by far the most well-attended panel was on the endangerment finding. “December 7th, 2009,” one panelist said, “is a day that shall live in infamy.” That was the day the Obama administration succeeded in getting CO2 listed as a threat to the “public health and welfare of current and future generations.” Yes, we have ditched the Paris climate agreement, we’ve tossed the Clean Power Plan, we’ve opened up more federal lands and water to fracking, we’ve rescinded WOTUS (the Waters of the United States rule), and we’re putting climate skeptics on the EPA science advisory boards. But there is one major obstacle remaining, one last den of thieves: the endangerment finding, as one panelist put it, that “monument to regulatory onanism.” We must overturn the legal standing of CO2 as a threat to health. A picture was shown comparing smoke stacks on a coal power plant to the left with the papal smoke stack (used when a new Pope is being selected and the ballots are burned) on the right. The left side is clean, the right is the real pollution.
This panel was ghastly in its surgical precision. We must target the Office of Science and Technology Policy, because the finding is rooted in bad science. “We can then have a red-team, blue-team thing to get honest science in there.” A Harvard-educated independent consultant walked the room through the rules on information quality. Here is the sword developed by the federal government that we can turn around and use against it. The environmentalists tried to turn their crazy policy agenda into science. Very well, then, we will turn the science into information, we will then turn the information into a process, and turn the process into a legal hearing. With patience and exactitude we will succeed in getting a judge to pull the rug out from under the whole house of cards. One panelist put up a quote from Isaac Asimov on the screen: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” I agreed with the sentiment, but I suspect for different reasons.
The next slide was a cartoon of Trump in a scene from Casablanca saying, “We’ll always have Pittsburgh.” That’s what this was all about. Those in the American heartland who dig, make, and grow things with their bare hands are suffering under the California model. Sure, it’s good for Silicon Valley, but those in the Central Valley suffer under “Third World conditions.” We have to get rid of costly regulations. (Never mind the absence of regulations that led to the 2008 recession, from which the American economy has never fully recovered.)
Speaking of the Third World, it holds the key to coal’s future. In one of the last panels, we heard from Heath Lovell, the clean-cut Vice President of Public Affairs at Alliance Coal. He assured us that he would much rather be in one of his Kentucky mines digging coal, but alas he had to put on a tie and go on the road to save the family business. Sure, the coal fleet has suffered tremendously, but this is less the result of market forces than unfair regulations promulgated by the Obama administration. Coal is now set for a resurgence and its primary market is not at home, but abroad. “We have a moral obligation,” Mr. Lovell said, “to help the rest of the world live like we do.” Over one billion people don’t have electricity and as a result they live short and miserable lives. Through coal exports, we won’t just keep our mines open, more importantly we will fulfill our ethical duty toward the world’s poor. Not just Americans, but “all the people of the world deserve the lowest cost energy.”
The only problem is the left coast. Oregon and Washington have both banned coal export facilities, which unsettled this group and its usual bullish defense of state’s rights. “Maybe we can go through the Gulf of Mexico,” a member of the audience suggested during the Q&A. Yes, that might work. And in the meantime we should consider acknowledging the fact that coal provides grid reliability or resiliency. Because you can stockpile it, unlike wind and solar (though no one mentioned the grid-scale batteries Tesla is developing), coal provides an added benefit that may not be fully recognized in market prices.
The room, however, got uneasy with such talk. After all, aren’t we supposed to be fans of the free market? And worse, doesn’t this kind of smell like a subsidy – a resiliency subsidy – and aren’t we opposed to those…in fact, weren’t we just laughing at how weak solar and wind would be without all those subsidies? Worse yet, what about that populist narrative about people mining things with their bare hands? That sits awkwardly next to the fact that the biggest killer of coal jobs is not wind, natural gas, or even regulations but automation, which is something the industry imposed on itself in keeping with the dictates of capitalism. Maybe the robots will have Pittsburgh.
The dinner panel opened with steak and a video message from Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma. He had just returned from a ceremony in Lithuania to commemorate the opening of their first liquefied natural gas import facility. America would liberate our European allies from their energy dependence on Russia, even though Russia isn’t really that bad. He concluded with a charming request: “Let’s enjoy energy independence together again, okay?” Maybe he didn’t get the memo that we were shooting for all out dominance now.
The headline spot belonged to Vincent DeVito, who holds the rare distinction of occupying a new government position created by President Trump. Agencies are being slashed and perennial positions left unstaffed in Trump’s version of a Ron Swanson government. National parks are even being downsized. But DeVito sits in the brand-new job of Counselor to the Secretary for Energy Policy. He was hyper-aware of this embarrassing position, and spent the first several minutes of his remarks defending his choice to take the newly-created federal post, which is “not a trophy job.” He is “not a swamp creature.” This is not about his professional resume.
No, this is about distributing the spoils of their victory in the war on American energy. The globalist war against our way of life in the name of a phony climate crisis has been defeated. As a result, we can now reap a “peace dividend” as American families enjoy the lower prices that will result from our new commitment to energy dominance. DeVito, working in concert with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, is tasked with managing the allocation of our bounties. All those resources under our federal lands and waters “belong to the taxpayers, not the government.” Of course, the taxpayers don’t know how to turn shale into usable energy, so we’ll have to first auction things off to the private sector. But then the transformation of private greed into public good will assuredly follow. Americans will have cheaper gas to get them through those morning commutes.
The DOI is the second largest revenue generator for the federal government, behind only “our friends at the IRS.” It is time, DeVito said, “to add value to the taxpayer’s portfolio.” For him, our public lands are ‘public’ in the same way a corporation is public: they are assets to be managed in a way that maximizes the profits of the shareholders. Forget the preservationist agenda of John Muir, this isn’t even the conservationism of Gifford Pinchot. That, at least, was a vision of stewardship. This is a vision of return on investments. Of course, we are managing our public lands in the most responsible way possible. “In no other country… is energy produced in more environmentally friendly ways,” DeVito said in a broken cadence as he attempted several times to unsuccessfully stray from the remarks prepared for him by his speechwriters. On the other hand, there are lots of countries that permit energy extraction activities more quickly. We can learn from other countries.
DeVito’s slow and rambling cadence drained the energy from the room almost as rapidly as a shale oil well depletes after being fracked. Mr. Bast tried to re-frack the audience in his closing remarks, injecting them with a sense of our historical moment and instilling in them an appreciation for just how nuts the enemy really is. “Can you believe what they have done to language?!” Mr. Bast said, exacerbated, “carbon pollution?!” For a moment he was rendered speechless by this obvious grammatical mangle. Carbon. A pollutant?! Carbon is the basis of all life on earth.
Yes, carbon is life. It is also a threat to life. As Hegel noted, for every affirmation there is a negation. In The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, the ethical handbook for energy dominance, Alex Epstein argues that we are not taking a safe climate and making it dangerous through greenhouse gas emissions. Rather, we are taking a dangerous climate (prone to floods, fires, etc.) and making it safe by using fossil fuels to build shelters from the storms. But in fact, we are doing both – increasing and decreasing risks. The whole energy dominance paradigm is built atop these single-minded, and simple-minded, views. More energy is good, sure, but only to a point. Free markets are fine, yes, but only within limits. Fossil fuels have done lots of good, granted, but they are also horribly destructive. This is the appeal of the Trump administration in a nutshell: simple answers to complex realities. A black and white world of certainties. Hegel wrote that the owl of Minerva flies only at dusk. Wisdom occupies the both/and spaces where it is neither clearly night nor clearly day.
But we should be both for and against this both/and business. It would be good to play the Socratic sting ray for this group; to get them to stop and think that perhaps they don’t have it all figured out. I would settle for a little aporia to slow the carboniferous onslaught. But, to put it mildly, the conditions are not presently ripe for philosophy. Deep introspection is not exactly our zeitgeist. In which case, what we need may be philosophy of a different variety: not the theoretical monkey wrench of Socrates, but the more material kind once wielded by Ed Abbey out there atop the elephant hiding under the great American West.