PTC: Costly Climate Policy Dud

by Marlo Lewis on December 20, 2012

in Blog, Features

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The wind energy production tax credit (PTC) expires at the stroke of midnight, Dec. 31, unless Congress votes to renew the tax break. A one-year extension would add an estimated $12.1 billion to deficit spending over 10 years. A six-year extension, advocated by the wind industry, could add $50 billion.

The fiscal cliff looms and the national debt already exceeds GDP, but if Congress cared more about the general interest of taxpayers than about the special interests of campaign contributors, the nation would not be sliding towards insolvency.

Whether Congress should renew the PTC or let it expire is the topic of this week’s National Journal Energy Experts Blog. Twenty wonks weigh in, including your humble servant. I heartily recommend the contributions by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R.-Tenn.), Craig Rucker, Phil Kerpin, Benjamin Zycher, Thomas Pyle, James Valvo, and David Banks.

My contribution addresses the environmental side of the debate, in particular the claim that recent extreme weather events demonstrate “just how badly our nation needs to take advantage of our vast wind energy potential,” as one contributor put it.

Below is a lightly edited version of my comment.

* * *

Of all the lame arguments used to sell Americans on the proposition that wind power, an industry propped up by Soviet-style production quota in 29 states and numerous other policy privileges, deserves another renewal of the 20-year-old production tax credit (PTC), the lamest is the claim that the PTC helps protect us from extreme weather.

PTC advocates talk as if Hurricane Sandy and the Midwest drought were obvious consequences of anthropogenic global warming, and that subsidizing wind energy is a cost-effective way to mitigate climate change.

They are wrong on both counts.

Neither economic analyses nor meteorological investigations validate the asserted link between recent extreme weather events and global warming. When weather-related damages are adjusted (“normalized”) to account for changes in population, per capita income, and the consumer price index, there is no long-term trend such as might indicate an increase in the frequency or severity of extreme weather related to global climate change.

A 2012 study in the journal Climate Change  examined 370 years of tropical cyclone data from the Lesser Antilles, the eastern Caribbean island chain bisecting the main development region for landfalling U.S. hurricanes. The study found no long-term trend in either the power or frequency of tropical cyclones from 1638 to 2009. It did however find a 50- to 70-year wave pattern associated with the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, a mode of natural climate variability.

A recent study in the Journal of Climate similarly found no long-term trend in the strength or frequency of landfalling hurricanes in the world’s five main hurricane basins. The data extend back to 1944 for the North Atlantic, to 1950 for the northeastern Pacific, and to 1970 for the western North Pacific, northern Indian Ocean, and Southern Hemisphere. Among other inconvenient findings: “The U.S. is currently in the midst of the longest streak ever recorded without an intense [category 3-5] hurricane landfall.”

Sandy was not even a category 1 hurricane by the time it made landfall. New York has been hit with more powerful storms at least as far back as the 17th century. For example, the New England Hurricane of 1938 was a category 3 that killed 600 people. Carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in 1938 were about 310 parts per million (ppm), well below the level (350 ppm) advocated by NASA scientist James Hansen, activist Bill McKibben, and Al Gore as the upper limit consistent with climate stability.

What made Sandy so destructive was the hurricane’s merging with a winter frontal storm to produce what MIT climatologist Kerry Emanuel calls a “hybrid” storm. The usual suspects, of course, were quick to suggest that any such ‘freak of nature’ must be man-made. That is speculation, not science. In Emanuel’s words:  “We don’t have very good theoretical or modeling guidance on how hybrid storms might be expected to change with climate. So this is a fancy way of saying my profession doesn’t know how hybrid storms will respond to climate [change]. I feel strongly about that. I think that anyone who says we do know that is not giving you a straight answer. We don’t know.”

As for the Midwest drought, if it were a symptom of global climate change, then there should be a long-term positive trend in the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI). Instead, as Cato Institute scholars Patrick Michaels and Chip Knappenberger point out, the PDSI from 1895 through 2011 is slightly negative, i.e., the trend is towards a somewhat wetter climate.

But here’s the kicker. Even if one assumes fossil fuel emissions revved up Sandy and the Midwest drought, extending the PTC for another year – or even another six, as advocated by the American Wind Energy Association – would provide no protection from climate-related risk.

Using IPCC climate sensitivity assumptions, Knappenberger calculates that even if the U.S. eliminated all CO2 emissions tomorrow, the impact on global temperatures would be a reduction ”of approximately 0.08°C by the year 2050 and 0.17°C by the year 2100 — amounts that are, for all intents and purposes, negligible.”

The U.S. will continue to emit billions of tons of CO2 annually for decades whether Congress extends the PTC or not. Hence even under IPCC climate sensitivity assumptions, the PTC is climatologically irrelevant and can provide no meaningful protection from extreme weather events.

Extending the PTC for one year could increase the national debt by $12.1 billion. A six-year extension could add more than $50 billion to the debt. As global warming policy, the PTC is all taxpayer pain for no climate gain.

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