If Left to Its Own Devices

In response to the Going Green on Accident post Aaron Gallagher, A But if Nots reader and engineer, excellently commented

The fact remains that the oil companies still have a huge influence on Washington DC and their agenda is contrary to what we REALLY need to do in this country and thats stop using oil and gas and all other fossil fuels and start using and perfecting other clean energy sources. Until the govt. gets fully on board with this idea I can’t see things changing quickly and that 2050 timeline might be ambitious. Unless of course all the “experts” are correct and we run out of fossil fuels by 2030.

There is a lot packed into his comment.  This provides an opportunity to explore this topic a bit further. 

I agree violently that the government ought to cease all energy market distorting subsidies.  Earlier this week there was a terrific article in the Washington Monthly detailing the extent of energy subsidies; surely tilted toward oil, but distorting all parts of the energy market and innovation.  But why let my inferior words get in the way.

Energy subsidies are the sordid legacy of more than sixty years of politics as usual in Washington, and they cost us somewhere around $20 billion a year. To put that sum in perspective, that’s more than the State Department’s entire budget.  . . .

Oil lobbyists like to warn of dire consequences if petroleum subsidies are cut—fewer oil sector jobs, higher gasoline prices. But that’s nonsense.

I could not have said it better myself.  And the nonsense isn’t limited to the petroleum industry.  Somehow, despite the fact that we know that corn ethanol is an environmental disaster and a poor energy vehicle, the $6-$7 billion dollar annual subsidy was extended in the tax cut compromise.   From a 2008 time magazine cover story

Corn ethanol, always environmentally suspect, turns out to be environmentally disastrous

All of these market distorting subsidies are hampering innovation and market adoption of otherwise more efficient energy, namely nuclear.  From The Rational Optimist

But the Obvious way to go low-carbon is nuclear.  Nuclear power plants already produce more power from a smaller footprint, with fewer fatal accidents and less pollution than any other energy technology.  The waste they produce is not an insoluble issue.  It is tiny in volume (a Coke can per person per lifetime), easily stored and unlike every other toxin gets safer with time – its radioactivity falls to one-billionth of the starting level in two centuries. . .  Modern nuclear reactors are already as different from the inherently unstable, uncontained Chernobly ones as a jetline is from a biplane.

As for the “what we really need to do” part of Aaron’s comment, I can’t get there.  I don’t know what we “really need to do.”  Whether we “need” to get off oil or not, we are going to . . . and are already on our way.  The stone age did not end for lack of stones and the carbon age will not end for lack of oil.

Cesare Marchetti has graphed the ratio of carbon atoms to hydrogen atoms in human energy use over the past 150 years.  We have gone from 10:1 carbon to hydrogen in 1800 to now less than 50:50.   Similarly, Jesse Ausubel has graphed the carbon intensity of primary energy.  Both graphs represent the voluntary adoption of better, cleaner technologies.

The point of this post, and today’s But if Not is stated succinctly by Jesse Ausubel.

If the energy system is left to its own devices, most of the carbon will be out of it by 2060 or 2070

Amen brother. . . if only we could leave it to its own devices.  Thanks Aaron for the comment.  Keep doing what you do friend.

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2 Responses to If Left to Its Own Devices

  1. Sean O'Brien says:


    Safe travels to you and Jason.

    As for the strikes, they apperar to be in response to an ending of regional subsidies (a financial transfer from one region, the north, to another, the south). It is not surprising that people prefer not to have money taken away. And this is the challenge our politicians face as we confront our many transfer program imbalances. See the post on Japan for an example of a nation taking the adjustment well (on the surface anyway).

  2. Julie Hall says:

    Just read this and isnt it ironic Jason and I are stranded in Southern Chile right now because of all the roadblocks by the protestors of oil subsidizing rates being lowered (and price going up) – our flight was cancelled because the flight crews cannot get to the planes, etc — not sure when we will be back in the neighborhood but in the meantime Jasons parents are at our house with the kids! and we are stuck in one of the most beautiful places on Earth (Tierra del Fuego, Puerto Williams) look up protests in Punta Arenas for the latest

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