Obama's oil fee

Feb. 15, 2016
When the President of the United States proposes to wreck what until recently had been a rare source of economic growth, his reasons should be sound and his prospects for success, solid.

When the President of the United States proposes to wreck what until recently had been a rare source of economic growth, his reasons should be sound and his prospects for success, solid. President Barack Obama's pursuit of a $10.25/bbl fee on oil fails those tests. It would eviscerate an oil industry reeling from market collapse and, coupled with his other appeasements to climate activism, raise energy costs painfully.

Level-headed assessment of what the sacrifice might accomplish is long past overdue.

Higher costs

Costs of Obama's oil fee would far exceed the 25¢/gal or so by which gasoline prices would rise. Monstrous as it is, the levy represents just a piece of the energy revolution for which Obama wants to be remembered. He promotes it as way to fund a "21st Century clean transportation system"—mobility not powered oil.

That vision begins fanciful and is made laughable by official myopia. It's fanciful because liquid hydrocarbons have form advantages other fuels cannot overcome economically. It becomes laughable from what the administration proposes for natural gas.

Indeed, gas can work as a transport fuel, although generally not as affordably as oil. But the administration wants to toughen regulation of methane, a greenhouse gas, in ways that would constrict production of natural gas and raise its price. This would not help the light hydrocarbon compete.

The effect would be even harsher for electrically powered vehicles. Cost increases for electricity are inevitable if the administration's Clean Power Plan survives legal challenges. The program is shuttering coal-fired power generation in favor of solar and wind, costs of which are falling but which still need economic subsidies and back-up generation fueled by hydrocarbons. To the extent of its reliance on electric power, Obama's transportation dream would raise demand for increasingly expensive energy supplemented in large measure by gas made costlier by unnecessary regulation. Costs would soar. Meanwhile, expectations grow that cheap oil will aggravate competitive problems of alternatives for many years.

Economically and politically, Obama's plan is untenable.

Even if the US absorbed the costs, moreover, it would receive nothing in return beyond adulation from the environmental fringe. The supposed payoff is defense against catastrophic warming. But that promise, like cost-free energy overhaul, is hollow.

Suppressed perspective comes from congressional testimony by John R. Christy, a professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, most recently before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on Feb. 2. Using a model developed by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Christy and a colleague have estimated the climatological effects of halting all US emissions of greenhouse gas. If emissions had fallen to zero last May, Christy says, global average temperature 50 years hence might be reduced by no more than 0.05-0.08° C.—less than natural monthly fluctuation.

Other observers note that costly cuts in fossil-energy use alone can't meet international goals for climate-change mitigation. Animal agriculture would have to be limited. So while forcing affordable energy out of economies, governments also would have to squeeze meat out of human diets. This element of climatological engineering hasn't received much press.

Is planet doomed?

Activists, of course, insist the alternative to these assaults on personal choice and welfare is planetary doom. In his testimony, Christy, who also is Alabama's state climatologist, challenges that assertion. Comparing the model predictions underlying climate alarm with temperature measurements taken from balloons and satellite over the past 37 years, he finds that "the models overwarm the atmosphere by a factor of about 2.5." If that's so, the problem doesn't warrant the radical precaution activists demand and Obama wants to foist on Americans.

The toxic roil of climate politics has no patience for questions about worst-case warming scenarios. Serious specialists nevertheless raise legitimate doubt about fear motivating Obama and his activist boosters. The president seeks historic sacrifice on the basis of theory increasingly challenged by evidence. His lunge commands a hearing for scientific findings too long hidden from public view.