Meet the new boss …

As has happened before, I was travelling when the Prime Ministership suddenly changed hands. I’m still on holiday, though I briefly appeared before the South Australian Royal Commission on the Nuclear Fuel Cycle yesterday. But even without following the news closely, it’s easy enough to see that the Turnbull LNP government is basically the Abbott government with the gratuitous culture war element removed.

On climate change, for example, we’ve seen the end of attempts to kill the highly successful Clean Energy Finance Corporation, but no major change to the absurdly misnamed “Direct Action” policy, and a doubling down on Abbott’s support for coal from newly promoted minister Josh Frydenberg.

In particular, contrary to suggestions that Turnbull is going to push for a more “market liberal” approach, Frydenberg is still touting the idea of subsidising the Adani Carmichael boondoggle. I doubt that anything will come of this (on this score, the supposed deal with Downer EDI to build Adani’s railroad seems to have quietly died), but it’s indicative of the government’s position. And the new coalition deal, handing over water policy to Barnaby Joyce, amounts to a repudiation of everything Turnbull stood for when he was Water Minister under Howard.

The abandonment of the culture wars looks like something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it was obviously necessary, given the extent to which Abbott’s absurdities discredited the whole enterprise. On the other hand, much of the LNP base and commentariat are so committed to culture war politics that they will have grave difficulty in supporting Turnbull even if they want to: most of their usual lines against inner city elites, latte liberals and so on are far more applicable to their own new leader than to Labor and the Greens.

My success as a pundit is notoriously mixed. Still, I find it hard to see how Turnbull can sustain his initial bounce in the polls without taking tougher decisions than those he has been willing to make so far.

44 thoughts on “Meet the new boss …

  1. It is true that Frydenberg’s assault on ecology demostrates that the Culture Wars are anything but over. The Adani attempt is going to be as much about reassertion of the Zombie Economics tendency and system and oppression of th eintelligent as anything to do with enviro or wisdom in commerciality, except that enviro is used as repressive tolerant club against those hoping for an end to the Dark Ages.

    It does seem they are destructive in a wilful cold blooded way that even the emotionally reactive and thus blinkered Abbott couldn’t sink to, but the plot thickens because we know not, out here in the boondoggles, precisely what or who the influences local and offshore are and to what extent local politicians are compromised by these.

    I do not think suffficient time has elapsed to judge the correctness of the contention of hc, et al, that the current PM and his government are an improvement on the Monk or merely an example of how an (apparent) change of bias to rationality is actually a disguise for emanation of a far worse irrationality.

  2. Surely the point is to reduce all fossil fuel use to zero. We know now that this is feasible. Special pleading for gas is keeping one foot in the fossil fuel camp.

    On a related issue, I detest those ads on TV where children are exploited to promote new internal combustion engine cars. They talk about a future they can look forward to. It’s sad. It’s not going to be a future to look forward to if we keep burning oil.

    I’ll believe we have some future when 100% of the land transport advertised on TV is bicycle or electric.

  3. @SamB

    On the first point, methane doesn’t stay in the atmosphere nearly as long as CO2. So, if you want to exaggerate the global warming effects of methane, you cite the impact over 20 years rather than the time frame we are actually concerned about (50-100 years or more). Robert Howarth, who’s one of the leading anti-gas campaigners does this all the time, which leads me to distrust everything he says.

    On the second point, the EPA has just released regulations which, they say will reduce methane leaks by 45 per cent over 10 years. The comparable technology for CO2 is carbon capture and storage which has gone nowhere.

  4. I was going by Anthony Ingraffea who said that Methane has some 90x greenhouse effects as CO2 and that leakage across the supply chain is >5%.

    Now I don’t know much about this, but it seems that even with the 45% reduction and allowing for the 20 years rather than 50-100 (call it 75 on the average) … 90 * 5% * 55% * 20/75 = 66%.

    So, in the best case quoted, gas has 66% of the effect of coal (admittedly, without allowing for the non CO2 pollution from coal and assuming 1:1 energy yields from gas and coal).

    BUT, it seems that when acknowledging the sources for most gas production, it is quite likely that the 5% figure is quite conservative … at 10%, any benefit from gas seems to vanish.

    I am not saying that these calculations are correct … but it certainly seems less of an open and shut case than it is presented.

    The alternatives (solar, wind, etc) … are obviously a cleaner option … but not quite there yet, and there have been questions raised about the life cycle cost of those also (mainly regarding the cost of battery production).

    So, as it seems this is a field you spent some time looking into, more expansive analysis overall would (I’m sure) be welcome to all.

  5. @John Quiggin
    I think the real problem with methane will eventually come from dissociation (melting) of CH4 clathrates from warming permafrost and submerged continental margins. While the residence time of CH4 in the atmosphere is short compared to CO2, as you say, the clathrate reservoir size is very large.

  6. @JKUU

    I agree. The argument that methane – whilst far more potent as a greenhouse gas – is short-lived compared to CO2 is a furphy. It’s like saying that a week of 40c temperatures would be the same as just one day of 280c temperature.

  7. It’s wrong to pretend that methane emissions can be simply mapped into CO2 equivalence by comparing the total extra energy capture per kg over lifetime of each gas in the atmosphere. If we had hundreds or thousands of years up our sleeves to get back to 350ppm (or lower) then that would be a reasonable approach.

    If you think that more urgent measures are needed – did someone mention Arctic clathrates? – then methane’s higher immediate impact is more relevant than its shorter atmospheric persistence. If CSG is meant to be a “transition” fuel allowing us to translate the urgency of deep CO2 cuts into action, then fugitive methane becomes a deal breaker.

    It’s also worth noting that the US shale gas industry is more about oil replacement/independence than as an alternative to coal used for electricity generation – and so the CO2 equivalence needs to be considered against other petroleum sources and emissions abatement in the transport sector.

  8. If one kilogram of carbon in the form of black coal is burned to generate electricity it will produce about 3 kilowatt-hours and result in the release of 3.67 kilograms of CO2. If I burn one kilogram of methane with the same efficiency as the black coal it will produce about 5.1 kilowatt-hours and result in the release of 2.75 kilograms of CO2.

    So for every kilowatt-hour of coal electricity generated about about 0.33 kilograms of carbon are burned and 1.22 kilograms of CO2 is produced. And for every kilowatt-hour of natural gas electricity about 0.2 kilograms of CH4 are burned and 0.55 kilograms of CO2 is produced.

    One estimate is that over a 20 year period methane results in 72 times more warming than an equal amount of CO2. So if methane leaked into the atmosphere equal to 5% of what was burned then that would be 10 grams of methane per kilowatt-hour which would be the CO2 equivalent of 0.72 kilograms of carbon dioxide, which would make the warming effect from burning coal and natural gas roughly equal after 20 years and as methane in the atmosphere has a half life of about 7 years its warming effect would soon be less than generating electricity from coal.

    However, leakage from burning methane to generate electricity is not 5%. It is under 2%. A lot of leakage of methane comes from domestic distribution for heating purposes. So at 2% leakage using methane to generate electricity results in significantly less warming than burning coal and will continue to decrease over time from that point on.

    Now I have noticed that people can be amazingly stupid and fail to understand that just because one thing is worse than another thing it does not make the less worse thing good. So I will specifically point out that just because burning methane to generate electricity is not as bad as burning coal, that does not mean it is a good idea to generate electricity from burning methane. It only means that it is better than burning coal.

    Everybody got that? Or do I need to state it again, but simply this time?

    Efficiency note: For black coal generation I used 33% efficiency. The efficiency of gas generation varies much more from generator to generator than for black coal, ranging from about 26% to 50% for electricity generation and potentially 90% efficiency with cogeneration. Obviously the most efficient turbines are preferenced over the less efficient ones, but assuming an average efficiency of 33% for both coal and gas is not unreasonable for the simple comparison I have done here.

  9. is better than burning coal..

    Or, it might be “less bad than burning coal”, but still bad.

    Cracking open coal seams (or shale seams) to let the methane out isn’t a good idea.

    Harvesting methane from our rubbish tips is a much better idea – since we’ve already “created” it and should therefore deal with it.

  10. @Megan

    The U.N. has historical statistics but they don’t seem to reach into recent years. IMF supposedly has data too but I can’t find it. As an uninformed layperson all I can say is that recent or up to date statistics in this arena seem to be hard to come by. I guess it takes a while to data collect.

    I suspect recent stats (like 2014) are unavailable, as in not collated yet, but I might be wrong. I wonder if any of the data is reliable anyway. I mean, who would believe China’s figures? Who knows what really happens in China? And even the USA figures, does anyone trust US data about anything these days? I don’t.

    Maybe I am too cynical, but I have little trust that this sort of data is all that accurate. Bottom line, in my uninformed opinion, it would take at least a decade to sort the wheat from the chaff and to have a reasonable idea of what production actually was. So currently I don’t think we know what is really happening. Others might say I am wrong. This is a non-professional, very biased and jaundiced opinion on my part after all.

  11. This;

    is an example of why, if you don’t do a real physical inventory of everything, you simply cannot trust any numbers out of China… and maybe out of a lot of other places too. We are well into late stage crony-gangster capitalism. It’s a giant ponzi swindle scheme now and it’s very hard to figure out what the real economy is actually doing. A safe assumption is that it is doing a lot less than the numbers claim.

  12. This;

    indicates that world industrial production has trended to flat (no growth) following a recovery of sorts after the GFC or Great Recession. Whether this trend to flat is an indicator of a new state of the economic system (maybe even presaging decline) is too early to say. How this publication derives its figures I do not know. I suspect we will only know what 2015 means when we in 2020/2025 and able to look back at it.

  13. Ikon,

    Thanks for digging that up. I’ve tried and also drawn blanks on finding a source for “global per-capita industrial output”. I think you’re right that it will be more clear several years down the track where we are (or were) today.

  14. Megan, extracting coal seam gas is definitely bad for the planet. It’s just better than actually extracting the coal itself. If we wanted to we could produce methane (and ethane) for plastics and chemical feedstocks from sewage and other waste (or treasure as we call it in the sewage treasuring business) but plastic production and so forth is only a quite small portion of natural gas use compared to electicity generation, process heat, and heating builldings and water. Fortunately we are on track to massively reduce our natural gas use in Australia through expanding rooftop solar and wind power capacity and presumably home energy storage. We’ve already made a good start. The doubling or so of natural gas prices in Australia means that households are generally much better off installing solar or potentially a heat pump rather than getting the gas on, so domestic gas and its many leaks will probably gradually disappear from Australia. (The distribution of LPG is considerably less problematic due to it not being a powerful greenhouse gas like methane.)

    However, Australia has been shameful when it comes to methane leaks from its main pipelines. In the past they would just let them blow out methane for months and only fix them when it was convenient to get workers out there on account of how our stranded natural gas wasn’t worth very much. But now that it has increased in price so much I would expect holes in pipelines to be fixed in much fewer months.

    Secrecy about pipeline leaks is necessary when they are occurring to prevent curious people going there and blowing themselves up, but it has also allowed the shameful damage to the environment they cause to be swept under the rug afterwards since no one involved is ever in a hurry to advertise that fact that there was a massive leak.

  15. most of their usual lines against inner city elites, latte liberals and so on are far more applicable to their own new leader than to Labor and the Greens

    The “elites” slur was, I believe, invented by the Republican Party in the US for use in their electioneering strategy and subsequently adopted by John Howard’s campaign for use in his election.

    I always found the term supremely ironic. If any party represents elites then it is the Liberal Party’s conservatives that represent wealthy constituents. It was a masterpiece of re-denotation to assert that the Labor Party was the party of elites. But it worked so well for the Republicans in the US that it was a golden opportunity for the Liberal Party in Australia.

  16. @Megan

    It’s like saying that a week of 40c temperatures would be the same as just one day of 280c temperature.

    Yes but we’re not going to suddenly get 7 times as much methane in the atmosphere as the long term average (barring any large scale release from clathrates, which is extremely unlikely). The level of methane in the atmosphere is the weighted average of emissions in the past discounted by the decay rate which has a half-life time of 7 years. So any methane emitted now is only half as important as methane emitted 7 years from now and only one thousandth as important as methane emitted 70 years from now. Our present methane emissions are far less significant than future methane emissions when the world will be much warmer.

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