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Richard Martin

A View from Richard Martin

Recommended Energy Reads This Week

A roundup of the best stories on energy from other sites, collected by Richard Martin, MIT Technology Review’s energy editor.

  • October 30, 2015

Supply-Side Climate Policy: The Road Less Taken
You could think of climate policy as the converse of drug policy: Whereas the U.S. War on Drugs has traditionally focused on restricting supply (going after drug cartels, spraying poppy fields with pesticides, prosecuting dealers, etc.), climate policy has to date focused on demand: replacing internal combustion engines with EVs, and coal plants with solar farms. What if you restricted supply instead? That’s the question explored in a new paper from the Stockholm Environment Institute. “Removal of producer subsidies, compensation of resource owners for leaving fuels ‘unburned,’ or outright restrictions on resource development, could bring important benefits,” the study concludes. Of course that would provoke cries of outrage from libertarians—but we prevent, or try to prevent, people and governments from producing weapons-grade uranium, don’t we?

Buy Coal Now!
One way to restrict supply, of course, is to make something scarce and expensive. Matt Frost, a resource data analyst who lives in Bellingham, Washington, has come up with a “coal retirement plan” that is devilishly simple: buy up the stuff before it’s ever mined. “Frost thinks we should pay the organizations which own underground coal deposits—specifically, the U.S. government—for the right to never mine it,” writes Robinson Meyer in the Atlantic. (In coal fields east of the Mississippi, you would actually be paying private landowners to leave the coal in the ground.) More specifically, you would pay the Bureau of Land Management (whose leasing program for coal resources has been criticized as a giveaway to mining companies) a fair market value for mineral leases for coal-bearing lands. Given the sinking fortunes of U.S. coal companies, and the billions of dollars people like Bill Gates are willing to pay to fund R&D on new and speculative technologies, this could be a brilliant idea.

Hellish Fires in Indonesia Spread Health, Climate Problems
Arguably the least noticed natural disaster currently occurring in the world is the ongoing plague of wildfires across Indonesia. “More than 100,000 land and forest fires in Indonesia have engulfed the country in a hazardous smoke,” reports Time, “leading to an environmental and public-health crisis that has affected every element of society in this sprawling Southeast Asian nation.” But, as Brittany Patterson of ClimateWire points out, this is not a country-specific crisis: the wildfires are emitting as much carbon dioxide daily as the U.S. economy and have contributed 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions since they erupted in the summer. Indonesia’s conflagration is a terrifying example of how climate change becomes a vicious cycle, exacerbating the very conditions that produce more greenhouse gases.

Our Electricity Problem: Getting the Diagnosis Right
According to “Gail the Actuary,” who blogs at OurFiniteWorld after years of writing incisive analyses of energy economics at the now, alas, defunct site the Oil Drum, wildfire and sea-level rises are the wrong problems to worry about, because we may experience an economic collapse much sooner. The lurking disaster she foresees is “an affordability problem”: essentially, her argument is that falling commodity prices are likely to lead to a rash of bankruptcies (already happening in the coal industry) that will have a ripple effect through the world economy. If commodity prices are not high enough to enable producers to make a decent profit, utilities could find themselves unable to run their plants: “With our current affordability problems, we are in danger of losing the electric grid.” There are plenty of reasonable arguments against this conclusion: low energy prices have been a boon to consumers, and thus to the U.S. economy, for one thing. But it’s a provocative line of thought and one worth considering as gas prices start to fall below $2 a gallon.

The Sushi Project: Farming Fish and Rice in California’s Fields
Ending on a less dire note, e360 reports on an innovative effort in California to use flooded rice fields to rear threatened species of Pacific salmon. Since the early 1990s, when clean air laws outlawed the burning of rice straw, rice farmers in the Central Valley have been flooding their fields over the winter to decompose the debris left over from harvested rice. This practice “inadvertently produced a simulacrum of the vast 4-million-acre Central Valley wetlands that had existed two centuries ago,” reports Jacques Leslie, and now offers a huge aquatic nursery for the rearing of juvenile salmon—which tend to grow faster there than in the main channel of the Sacramento River. Now, Huey Johnson, the elderly environmentalist who first conceived the idea, is planning to use the flooded fields to grow forage fish for protein, reducing pressure on fish in the wild. 

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