At the last meeting (presentation and recording) of the Climate Action Council, Dr. Robert Howarth’s statement supporting his vote to approve the Scoping Plan described the genesis of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act). This post uses two children’s tales to illustrate my concerns about his claimed basis for the plan.
Everyone wants to do right by the environment to the extent that they can afford to and not be unduly burdened by the effects of environmental policies. I submitted comments on the Climate Act implementation plan and have written over 250 articles about New York’s net-zero transition because I believe the ambitions for a zero-emissions economy embodied in the Climate Act outstrip available renewable technology such that the net-zero transition will do more harm than good. The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.
Climate Act Background
The Climate Act established a “Net Zero” target (85% reduction and 15% offset of emissions) by 2050. The Climate Action Council is responsible for preparing the Scoping Plan that outlines how to “achieve the State’s bold clean energy and climate agenda.” In brief, that plan is to electrify everything possible and power the electric gride with zero-emissions generating resources by 2040. The Integration Analysis prepared by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and its consultants quantifies the impact of the electrification strategies. That material was used to write a Draft Scoping Plan that was released for public comment at the end of 2021 and approved on December 19, 2022.
I believe that two children’s fables illustrate the false presumptions of the Climate Act. According to Wikipedia, the Pied Piper of Hamelin is a Middle Ages tale from the town of Hamelin, Germany. The pied piper, dressed in multicolored (“pied”) clothing, was a rat catcher hired by the town to lure rats away with his magic pipe. When the citizens refuse to pay for this service as promised, he retaliated by using his instrument’s magical power on their children, leading them away as he had the rats. The phrase “pied piper” has become a metaphor for a person who attracts a following through charisma or false promises. The other fable is the Emperor’s New Clothes. This Danish fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen was first published in 1837. In this story, swindlers convince the emperor, who spends lavishly on clothing at the expense of state matters, that they can provide magnificent clothes that are invisible to those who are stupid or incompetent. The emperor and his court don’t see any clothes but pretend otherwise to avoid being thought a fool. When the emperor marches through the city to show off his new clothes the townsfolk uncomfortably go along with the pretense, not wanting to appear inept or stupid, until a child blurts out that the emperor is wearing nothing at all. The people then realize that everyone has been fooled. The phrase “The Emperor Has No Clothes” is often used in political and social
contexts for any obvious truth denied by the majority despite the evidence of their eyes, especially when proclaimed by the government.
The Pied Pipers of the Climate Act
The statement of Robert W. Howarth, Ph.D., the David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology & Environmental Biology at Cornell University was very illuminating relative to the motives of the Climate Act authors. He reiterated his claim that he played a key role in the drafting of the Climate Act, developed the irrational methane requirements, and credited one politician for getting the Act passed:
Assembly Person Steven Englebright was hugely instrumental in the passage of the Climate Leadership & Community Protection Act that established the Climate Action Council. I thank him for his leadership on this, and particularly for his support of the progressive approach on greenhouse gas emissions that is a central part of the CLCPA. I originally proposed this to Assembly Person Englebright in 2016, and he enthusiastically endorsed and supported it through multiple versions of the bill that finally led to passage of the CLCPA in 2019. In this accounting for greenhouse gases, a major government for the first time ever fully endorsed the science demonstrating that methane emissions are a major contributor to global climate change and disruption. Further, in passing the CLCPA New York recognized that consumption of fossil fuels (and not simply geographic boundaries) is what matters in addressing the climate crisis. New York wisely banned the use of high-volume hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) to develop shale gas in our State. But since the time of that ban, the use of fossil natural gas has risen faster in our State than any other in the Union. Methane emissions from this use of shale gas are high, but much of that occurs outside of our boundaries in the nearby states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. Through the CLCPA, the citizens of New York are taking responsibility for these out-of-state emission caused by our use of fossil fuels, particularly for fossil natural gas. The way to reduce these emissions is to rapidly reduce our use of fracked shale gas.
Based on the work of David Zaruk I recently wrote an article describing his analysis of the motives of people like Englebright and Howarth who insist on reducing their perceived priority risks to zero. One of Zaruk’s articles explained that the use of definite articles is “abused by activists needing definite truths to win policy debates on complex problems.” Dr. Howarth’s monomaniacal vilification of natural gas is well described by that statement. During the discussions at the Climate Action Council meetings, he constantly referred to the science and his background as a scientist. Zaruk writes:
In declaring: “This is the science on XYZ” an activist is attempting to own the issue and shut down any discussion or analysis. In a policy framework where there may be uncertainty or grey areas, imposing a “the” provides a wedge between others’ false opinions and “the” truth.
With all due respect to Dr. Howarth, it is appropriate to consider why a “Professor of Ecology & Environmental Biology” is qualified to be an expert on methane emissions from fracking. In my opinion, scientists getting paid to deliver a specific result from trust fund philanthropic organizations, no matter how noble the perceived motive, is the same as the much vilified “tobacco industry” scientists. The funding stream ends when the results don’t match the funder’s requirements so their arguments are biased. They may be right but the arguments must be considered in that context and debated.
As a member of the Climate Action Council, Howarth was considered a saint and most unquestioningly accepted whatever he said as gospel. This deference to his concerns is also apparent in the Integration Analysis and Scoping Plan. However, his views are not universally accepted. For example, the Climate Act requires New York to account for upstream emissions from fossil fuel used in the state because Howarth has claimed in a 2020 paper that “Some evidence indicates that shale-gas development in North America may have contributed one-third of the total global increase in methane emissions from all sources over the past decade (Howarth 2019).” This paper and other similar papers claim that “methane emissions can contribute significantly to the GHG footprint of natural gas, including shale gas” and form the rationale of the Climate Act vilification of natural gas.
Despite the Climate Act mandate to provide a “detailed explanation of any changes in methodology or analysis, adjustments made to prior estimates, as needed, and any other information necessary to establish a scientifically credible account of change” any contradictory information has been ignored. No comments on the Integration Analysis numbers that formed the basis for the Scoping Plan were mentioned at any of the Climate Action Council meetings. For example, I noted that there is a high quality, long-term monitoring network that measures methane (Lan et al., 2019) over the period when Pennsylvania shale-gas production increased tremendously. According to the plain language summary for the report:
In the past decade, natural gas production in the United States has increased by ~46%. Methane emissions associated with oil and natural gas productions have raised concerns since methane is a potent greenhouse gas with the second largest inﬂuence on global warming. Recent studies show conﬂicting results regarding whether methane emissions from oil and gas operations have been increased in the United States. Based on long‐term and well‐calibrated measurements, we ﬁnd that (i) there is no large increase of total methane emissions in the United States in the past decade; (ii) there is a modest increase in oil and gas methane emissions, but this increase is much lower than some previous studies suggest; and (iii) the assumption of a time‐constant relationship between methane and ethane emissions has resulted in major overestimation of an oil and gas emissions trend in some previous studies.
The fact that the relevant high quality, long-term monitoring network does not show a trend consistent with the work of Howarth is a fatal flaw in his claims. In addition, those measurements unequivocally support another contradictory analysis by Lewan that concludes his ideas, perspectives, and calculations on methane emissions from shale gas are invalid. The bottom line is that two pied pipers are responsible for the Climate Act’s irrational war on natural gas. The Climate Act’s elimination of natural gas is based on the false promises of one biased individual supported by one charismatic motivated politician. These pied pipers are going to lead New York over an energy cliff.
The Climate Act Has No Clothes
Howarth’s statement went on to claim that the Scoping Plan development process ”brought in a large number of experts and key stakeholders who worked diligently to advise the Council on our Scoping Plan”. After extolling the success of the stakeholder process and the staff members who contributed, he explained why everything will work out:
I further wish to acknowledge the incredible role that Prof. Mark Jacobson of Stanford has played in moving the entire world towards a carbon-free future, including New York State. A decade ago, Jacobson, I and others laid out a specific plan for New York (Jacobson et al. 2013). In that peer-reviewed analysis, we demonstrated that our State could rapidly move away from fossil fuels and instead be fueled completely by the power of the wind, the sun, and hydro. We further demonstrated that it could be done completely with technologies available at that time (a decade ago), that it could be cost effective, that it would be hugely beneficial for public health and energy security, and that it would stimulate a large increase in well-paying jobs. I have seen nothing in the past decade that would dissuade me from pushing for the same path forward. The economic arguments have only grown stronger, the climate crisis more severe. The fundamental arguments remain the same.
I believe that this is the fundamental basis for the Climate Act’s aggressive schedule. The Jacobson analysis approach unfortunately is pretty much the same as the Integration Analysis modeling approach for the Scoping Plan. Both modeling efforts project future load requirements, then list a bunch of control strategies, estimate the energy they could produce, and presume everything will work together if we cross our fingers. Neither includes a feasibility analysis that considers reliability, affordability, or cumulative environmental impacts.
Howarth appeals to the authority of peer-reviewed science to provide credibility to the Jacobson analysis. However, science is a continuous process where hypotheses are constantly challenged and confirmed. In this instance Howarth neglects to mention the analyses that discredit the Jacobson work.
The Jacobson analysis cited was a continuation of previous work. For example, in a widely publicized November 2009 Scientific American article, Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi, suggested all electrical generation and ground transportation internationally could be supplied by wind, water and solar resources as early as 2030. However, other contemporary projections were less optimistic. Two examples: the2015 MIT Energy and Climate Outlook has low carbon sources worldwide as only 25% of primary energy by 2050, and renewables only 16% and the International Energy Agency’s two-degree scenario has renewables, including biomass, as less than 50%.
Howarth’s statement cites a specific plan for New York (Jacobson et al. 2013) that he and Jacobson laid out a decade ago. He says that “In that peer- reviewed analysis, we demonstrated that our State could rapidly move away from fossil fuels and instead be fueled completely by the power of the wind, the sun, and hydro.” Table 2 from that report follows. This analysis includes power from exotic resources such as waves, geothermal, tidal turbines, and concentrated solar power but no energy storage. It is significantly different than the projections in the Integration Analysis and the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO) 2021-2040 System & Resource Outlook that exclude all the exotic renewable generating capacity, contain significant amounts of energy storage, and include a new dispatchable, emissions-free resource for a set of resources that they think can provide sufficient electrical power for the future. Furthermore, it claims that end-use power demand can be decreased by 37%. In my opinion, any analysis that suggests that concentrated solar power is a viable source of energy in New York is simply not credible because that resource would never work in New York. It is too cloudy to operate enough to cover costs and the environmental impacts would be too great.
There was a formal rebuttal paper to this analysis. The rebuttal paper argued that:
The feasibility analysis performed by Jacobson et al. (2013) is incomplete and scientifically questionable from both the technical and economic perspectives, and it implicitly assumes, without sufficient justification, that social criterion would not produce even larger feasibility barriers.
Jacobson et al. responded to that rebuttal claiming that “The main limitations are social and political, not technical or economic.” Given the significant differences between that analysis and the most recent projections by the organization responsible for keeping the lights on, I agree with the conclusion cited above. I do not believe that the 2013 analysis includes a defensible feasibility analysis.
Using Jacobson as the basis for the Climate Act transition gets worse. Unmentioned by Dr. Howarth is that in a 2015 article for a different iteration of the wind, water, and solar roadmap Clack et al, 2017 discredited the Jacobson approach:
In this paper, we evaluate that study and find significant shortcomings in the analysis. In particular, we point out that this work used invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions. Policy makers should treat with caution any visions of a rapid, reliable, and low-cost transition to entire energy systems that relies almost exclusively on wind, solar, and hydroelectric power.
In the scientific process, when issues with your work are noted, the proper response is to provide more evidence supporting your modeling tools, explain why the claimed errors are not errors, and defend your assumptions. Instead, Jacobson filed a lawsuit, demanding $10 million in damages, against the peer-reviewed scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the authors for their study showing that Jacobson made improper assumptions in order to make his claims that he (and by extension Howarth) had demonstrated U.S. energy could be provided exclusively by renewable energy, primarily wind, water, and solar. In my opinion this is an appalling attack on free speech and scientific inquiry but want to emphasize that the bad actions by Jacobson in no way should be attributed to Howarth.
In February 2018, following a hearing at which PNAS argued for the case to be dismissed, Jacobson dropped the suit. The defendants then filed, based on the anti-SLAPP — for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation” — statute in Washington, DC, for Jacobson to pay their legal fees. In September 2022, he was ordered to pay the defendants’ legal fees based on a statute “designed to provide for early dismissal of meritless lawsuits filed against people for the exercise of First Amendment rights.”
In my opinion Jacobson’s attempted lawsuit was because his work could not stand on its own. Therefore, it is unsettling that it is claimed to be the basis of the Climate Act. Howarth’s statement explicitly lays out his position for the Jacobson analysis:
We further demonstrated that it could be done completely with technologies available at that time (a decade ago), that it could be cost effective, that it would be hugely beneficial for public health and energy security, and that it would stimulate a large increase in well-paying jobs.
Unfortunately, Howarth’s technology demonstration is not supportable. Nonetheless, it forms the basis for the Climate Act schedule and zero-emission electric system by 2040 mandate. The Climate Action Council has embraced it despite the projections in the Integration Analysis and the NYISO Resource Outlook that reject it. The Council is denying the majority opinion despite the evidence presented in their own analysis. The Climate Act has no clothes.
Pied piper Dr. Robert Howarth stated that “Our final Scoping Plan from the Climate Action implicitly endorses the vision of the Jacobson et al. paper and is quite clear: we can meet the goals of the CLCPA and we can and will do so in way that is affordable and that will benefit all New Yorkers.” Unfortunately, that vision has no clothes. The implementing regulations and additional legislation necessary to implement this vision must include independent, unbiased feasibility analyses to determine if the proposed plans can maintain current standards of reliability, will preserve the affordability of energy, and not create environmental impacts to New York State that are greater than the alleged impacts of climate change. Failure to do so will ensure that the state ends up as badly as the children’s stories.
I highly recommend the post by Russel Schussler Academics and the Grid because it does a good job explaining why academic studies of the energy system (like the work of Jacobson and Howarth) need to be considered carefully. It concludes:
Academic research that promotes improvements to the power greed needs to be evaluated carefully with the understanding that the grid is a complex system full of interactions. Changes to the grid involve numerous hurdles. Language is often imprecise. For instance, when readers see a statement stating “Solar and wind could attain penetration levels of X”. What the statement really means is “Based on the factors I looked at and ignoring a vast number of critical requirements I have not looked at, solar and wind may be able to replace fossil resources at a level of X. But probably not.” Unfortunately, the statement is often interpreted as “Solar and wind can attain penetration levels of X with no significant concerns.”
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