Less activist chum, more focus on stuff that matters
When used as a baseload to phase out coal, natural gas causes a reduction in CO2 footprint of 50%+, but only assuming that natural gas is being used for base load.
The thing that the environmentalist movement seems not to understand is that gas-fired peakers are the only technology which let us roll out intermittent renewables as fast as we can build them right now. We are waiting for completely green energy storage technologies to catch up; in the mean time, a peaker plant is functionally identical in terms of how it interacts with the grid. So we can leverage gas to make renewables cover maybe 60-70% of our energy needs with present-day technology, if we implement the necessary permitting reforms to make grid updates. With existing nuclear and hydro baseload, that puts us in shouting distance of decarbonizing the grid already.
To transition fully, all that will be left is to replace peaking power plants with storage facilities as they become economical, and that's a plug-and-play task vastly easier than trying to overhaul the whole system on the fly.
The environmentalist opposition to gas basically boils down to the movement consisting of a bunch of people with little or no real-world expertise who have no idea what is actually necessary to accomplish their goals, and having alienated *everyone* who has that expertise, no matter how environmentally-minded those folks may be.
Wanted to put in my two cents about why climate activists have adopted the strategies they have. I buy everything that was already written, but I feel like we should add in that there is genuine animosity amongst these groups toward fossil fuel companies, and that animosity is well-earned. Fossil fuel companies have behaved in demonstrably heinous ways throughout the living memory of everyone involved in politics today. I think a lot of the energy on blocking pipelines and that sort of thing is about a genuine desire to screw these companies for the pure joy of sticking it to ruthless villains.
I’m not saying that constitutes good politics; I think it is bad politics. But it is a totally predictable and understandable way for humans to behave. Lots of people are willing to forego a benefit or even harm themselves for the joy of harming a villain.
The best thing about being an activist is feeling and being seen as righteous. Confronting villains is the archetypal form of righteousness. Civil rights activists understood this. They had the guile to bait villains into attacking them with dogs and bombing churches and killing kids. This shifted northern opinion materially and worked because the psychological needs of the activists aligned with a good PR strategy.
Todays climate activists aren’t taking many physical risks. They are playing a rather decadent intra-left status game. The most prominent activists get salaries from liberal donors and/or get laid by fawning co-eds. In any event, the audience for these performances is far left of the median voter, so there’s nothing to impose political discipline on activists’ tactics.
The podcast king is dead! Long live the podcast king!
Reading this article about pipeline blocking reminds me of similar things like obsession over pandemic masks, canceling student loans, among many others. Big problems usually require long, complex solutions that are not as easily seen. But what activists want are quick, simple, highly visible actions so that they can proclaim that we're Doing Something, even if that something is minimal or even counterproductive.
It is definitely true that activists are against permitting reform because of the need of organizing chum. But I think there is something more here, in that many people of the activist Left are against technological progress in general. They are really neo-primitivists and neo-barbarians. They want society to largely abandon technological progress and go back to subsistence farming and hunter-gathering ways, all with a much lower population. Except for them of course. They get to keep the fancy technology because they are righteous.
There's a lot more going on here, and I look forward to listening to the episode of Bad Takes.
When an organization or movement is behaving so unstrategically, it's worth figuring out why.
The main environmental groups, the Big Green like LCV or Sierra Club or NRDA, have been dealing with the impacts of the Great Awokening for some time. Even smaller but prestigious groups like Audubon have to address the legacies of their founder, not a woke dude. John Muir, problematic. Lots of early conservationists also embraced ideas associated with colonialism and eugenics. And on top of that, historically these groups were very, very white.
Environmental justice groups, focused on the activism of people of color, are newer groups coming out of the Great Awokening and they came in very hot against the IRA. They were opposed not only to Mountain Valley Pipeline, but to all permitting reform, and even criticized the IRA itself with insane arguments that the deal wasn't a big climate win.
Big Green was too smart to embrace this take, but the pressure and criticism from woke Twitter activists, environmental justice groups, and the like have made them feel bad for celebrating IRA, leading them to doubling down on opposition to the permitting bill.
The EJ groups are running the show on opposition to the permitting bill. There are lies about the origins of the proposal, lies about how bad it is, extremist rhetoric, and no strategy on finding ways to support a package that can pass.
I live in Virginia and have been to a couple of environmental group meetings just to see what all the fuss is about. At both meetings, the Mountain Valley Pipeline was a big boogie man who's mere mention would chorus boos from all in attendance.
I was skeptical the project was really that bad, but did try to understand from why they were so opposed to it. Your average attendee seemed very animated by the fact that the pipeline's construction was disrupting the natural environment it was flowing through. "Clear-cutting trees" and "dumping mud into streams" were the most common crimes committed by the pipeline. I think a lot of this comes down to the difference between the old environmental movement which is focused on preservation and the newer environmental movement that is focused on climate change. A lot of attendees looked retired.
When I talked to speakers at the events, the "smart" steelmanned case against the pipeline seems to be that access to more natural gas in Virginia would encourage Dominion Energy - the government monopolized energy provider in Virginia - to build a whole bunch more gas power plants. This of course would reduce Virginia's reliance on coal (good) but would also come at the expense of investments in off-shore wind and solar that the group thinks Dominion would make in absence of the MV pipeline. Both of these projects represent big fixed investments in capital with low marginal costs after the initial investment. The decision on MV pipeline would likely bias the state's energy profile towards one power-source or the other for decades.
Complicating this discussion is that because Dominion is a government sanctioned monopoly they are payed a fixed % profit above the cost of providing some unit of energy. This creates a misaligned incentives between Dominion and the public as Dominion can increase their operating profits by choosing more expensive forms of power production.
I found this somewhat compelling. Paired with the energy source chart Matt referenced in his post, it does appear that between existing Gas and Nuclear sources in VA a lot of the base-load capacity already exists here in a way that renewables might be able to supplement even without more advanced battery tech.
I personally don't really feel that strongly one way or the other. Energy abundance is good. And demand in VA and nearby states might rise as EVs gain popularity. And it sounds like we have the means to transport this gas to other states/countries as well. Manchin came through for us with IRA and if he wants the MV Pipeline I say give it to him. Even if it does mean the streams get a little muddier.
Also, I was very frustrated by David Roberts subtweeting Matt not so subtly regarding the permitting reform discussion. He had podcast episodes in which he addressed climate activist claims that the leases in IRA were a drop in the bucket relative to the overall package, but then seems to be pretending those groups don't exist when he starts his thread with "everyone agrees we need permitting reform!" No David, the point is these groups reject that premise!
Yglesias, you are doing the lord's work here fighting against the leftwing advocacy/funding blob. Keep it up. It's a tragedy so much money and effort is being poured into politically destructive activity.
I am not up on the whole story of protesting Keystone and how it became the main climate issue for a while, but it seems like a lot of indigenous activists did not like it one bit, more for sovereignty and ecological reasons than for climate, and this was why this issue got such a surprising amount of support from the left.
Of course like any set of activists, indigenous activists don't always speak for their groups as a whole, but it seems like there was opposition from a pretty wide spectrum of actual leaders, not just self-appointed spokespeople or non-indigenous environmentalists.
It really is a shame that the idea of a carbon tax has essentially become a joke and I'd be curious to read a history explaining how we got here. Obviously, part of the story is public support for climate change prevention is tepid, which has made pursuing the policy through state level initiatives (see WA state's I-732 and I-1631) nonviable. And another part is that the left-wing activist class loathe it as a potential solution, for a host of reasons. But at the same time, we've been able to apply market reforms to curb pollution before. The Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 were able to create a market in NOx and SOx, in the form of the Acid Rain Program, that received near unanimous bipartisan support in congress and was also very effective. Is it really so impossible to imagine something like that happening again?
Matt has written before about the demographics of Congressional staffers influencing policy and I wonder if the educational background of activists impacts the behavior of their orgs. Specifically, my anecdotal experience with activists shows a noticeable tilt away from educational backgrounds in all the fields need to build a carbon free economy (all types of engineering, hard science needed for R&D, Community college trained electricians, etc) and towards the fields that enable or encourage political and social organizing. That may be typical of activist groups, but given that moving to clean energy requires lots of inventing/building stuff, that educational mix does not seem optimal.
But maybe my anecdotal numbers are wrong. I have no idea where to find stats to support or dispel my impression of their backgrounds.
Is this really about organizing chum? Seems to me like the truth is blocking keystone was at a convergence of different ‘left’ goals and ‘climate’ activists were excited to be pursuing these non climate goals. Now that people are in the habit of chasing Twitter clout you even see this ‘don’t let a crisis go to waste’ reasoning directly articulated quite regularly.
The thing about Keystone XL is the objectors got a ton of sympathy - including from me - for their whole "This runs through a sacred lake of the native people" thing which frankly seemed kinda bad.
I don't have a problem with pipelines per-se; so really they just need to run them alongside highways or the service entrances to abandoned K-Marts or whatever, and not as many people will raise sympathetic sounding objections.
Matt I want to make a pointless technical quibble with the podcast that dropped this morning. When you said blue hydrogen is the lowest carbon steel, that's not technically true. EAR steel with 100% scrap and pure renewable power is lower carbon. What you can say is that the lowest carbon ironmaking is done with DRI and blue hydrogen pathway based on current grid conditions.
I'm in a grad course on this very topic as we speak, and I'll drop my profs paper on this: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11663-022-02463-z