California’s Crude Oil Production and its Climate Change Policies

California is among the most aggressive jurisdictions in the world in its pursuit of public policies to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), linked with climate change. At a time when the Trump administration in Washington is working to reverse the Obama administration’s climate policy achievements, California and other sub-national entities are taking the lead in the development and implementation of meaningful domestic policies to mitigate the impact of human activity on the climate.

At the same time, California is a producer of crude oil.  Is this inconsistent, or even counter-productive?  In a recent report, advocates have criticized Governor Jerry Brown, and proposed a ban on crude oil production within the State, in furtherance of California’s climate policies.  The thinking goes, crude oil production leads to environmental impacts, so how can it be allowed?

The logic is flawed, and the prohibition – if adopted – would impose tremendous costs on the State with little or no environmental benefit.  As California has developed its climate policies, the need to balance the benefits of these policies with their economic and human consequences has always been a challenging issue.  Achieving aggressive climate goals will not be cheap, so designing sensible, effective policies is critical.  Simply adopting any and all restrictions that might achieve some emission reductions would unnecessarily raise the human cost of limiting GHG emissions.  This is no doubt obvious to some readers of this blog, but for others, let me explain.

At its heart, the climate problem arises because of CO2 emissions associated with the use of energy and related services.  We heat our homes in the winter and cool them in the summer using electricity and natural gas.  We use gasoline to get to work and take vacations.  As each country or state – including California – tries to reduce its GHG emissions, the policies and regulations adopted to achieve this end nearly always target the activities that lead to GHG emissions – the generation of electricity, the use of transportation, and the heating of living spaces.

The proposed ban on crude oil extraction would flip this on its head, focusing instead on the supply of a fossil fuel.  But the simple reality is that the sources of fossil fuel supply are so ubiquitous that crude oil from other regions of the world will replace supplies from California, if California chose not to supply its own on-going needs.  Oil and gas used to heat homes and to power vehicles comes not only from California, but from most every region of the globe.  Many of these regions have expanding supplies of crude oil due to technological improvements, including the Bakken shale of North Dakota, and vast supplies available with relatively little effort, such as in the Middle East.

Advocates claim that reduction of California crude oil production would reduce global consumption of crude – a claim of questionable validity.  But that is not even the right question.  There are many things that can be done to reduce GHG emissions, and a sensible, affordable, and sustainable policy will be one that achieves reductions at the lowest cost.  Even if restricting California’s oil production might reduce global crude consumption, California would certainly bear all of the economic consequences of this policy, as the state would then rely solely on crude oil imports.

In fact, a restriction on California’s crude production is unlikely to reduce GHG emissions within California. The State’s total GHG emissions are limited by the cap of California’s GHG cap-and-trade system.  The most a restriction on California’s crude production can do is to increase costs, while achieving little or no incremental improvement in GHG emissions.

Moreover, supply-side restrictions can limit technological progress that can have very positive economic and environmental consequences.  The same advocates oppose shale “fracking,” but the innovative combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling has led both to tremendous economic benefits by expanding supplies of low-cost domestic energy and reducing energy imports, and to environmental benefits by allowing lower-carbon natural gas to displace higher-carbon coal in the generation of electricity across the United States.

By focusing on policies aimed at achieving the appropriate policy goal of reducing GHG emissions – rather than trying to choose winners and losers among technologies and energy sources used to achieve those goals – California can achieve its climate policy goals in ways that are environmentally effective, economically sensible, and ultimately sustainable.  In my view, Governor Brown merits compliments rather than criticism for California’s progressive environmental and energy policies.


In the past, I have periodically advised the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), although on a very different issue, namely the design of California’s CO2 cap-and-trade system.  That was about two years ago, and neither WSPA nor any of its member companies are aware of my writing this essay.  As always in this blog, I am expressing my personal views, and not speaking on behalf of any of the institutions, organizations, or firms with which I am or have been associated.


Reflections on Economics and Policy Making in the Environmental Domain

This past week, I was privileged to participate in a workshop, “Climate Science in a Time of Political Disruption,” sponsored by the Harvard Program on Science, Technology and Society.  The workshop began with a keynote address by former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, now Professor of Practice at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.  Following Gina McCarthy’s down-to-earth but quite inspiring remarks (with her usual Yankee humor adding spice to the proceedings), the others on the panel were asked to comment on the topic at hand.  The panelists included Joe Goffman, Executive Director of the Environmental Law Program at Harvard Law School; Peter Huybers, Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences; Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School; Lucas Stanczyk, Assistant Professor of Philosophy; and myself.

Given the subject of the workshop, most of the panelists focused their comments on the current political scene and the current U.S. administration’s apparent disdain for climate science.  I took a broader, somewhat historical view, and as the only economist on the panel, I commented on the relationship of economic research to policy making.  I did this via reflections on experiences I’ve had over the past three decades.  I tried to make three points:  first, economic research results can be used as a light bulb or a rock, and either can be effective; second, it is important to move quickly when windows of opportunity open in the policy world to implement research ideas; and third, politics matter, and should not be ignored.

  1. Research Results Can be Used as a Light Bulb or a Rock

I cannot speak for the natural sciences, but it is clearly the case that economic evidence can be used either as a “light bulb” – to illuminate an issue and possibly persuade policy makers of the wisdom of a particular course of action – or as a “rock,” that is, as ammunition to support a policy maker’s predisposed position.  Is this cynical?  I think not, because such economic ammunition can help win a policy battle.  I was just reminded by Paul Krugman in his New York Times column of a somewhat less charitable metaphor, where he characterized some politicians as using economists “the way a drunkard uses a lamppost:  for support, not illumination.”

Related to this reality was a session I chaired in 2001 at the annual meetings of the American Economic Association – a roundtable of former chairs and members of the U.S. Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), including George Eads (Charles River Associates), the late William Niskanen (then of the Cato Institute), William Nordhaus (Yale University), and Joseph Stiglitz (Columbia University).  A repeated theme from this set of economists was the reality that CEA typically had more influence by helping others in the Executive Office of the President in their efforts to stop bad ideas than by itself promoting good ideas.

  1. When Windows of Opportunity Open, Move Quickly

Two examples stand out for me of the importance of moving quickly when windows of opportunity open in the policy world to implement research ideas.  One is the work I carried out in the late 1980s under the sponsorship of the late Republican Senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania and former Democratic Senator Timothy Wirth of Colorado in the form of research that led to a report, “Project 88:  Harnessing Market Forces to Protect the Environment.”  One of the proposals in the report was to address the then politically prominent problem of acid rain with what is now called a cap-and-trade system.  This idea resonated with the incoming administration of President George H. W. Bush, particularly with the Counsel to the President, Boyden Gray.  In parallel with work being carried out by Joe Goffman and Dan Dudek (both then at the Environmental Defense Fund), I followed up the Project 88 report with numerous White House and other Washington meetings (commuting weekly from my Harvard perch), which eventually contributed to the Bush Administration’s proposal (to an initially resistant Democratic Congress) of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, including its path-breaking sulfur dioxide allowance trading program.

The other example I mentioned to highlight the importance of moving quickly when windows of opportunity open in the policy world is associated with the negotiations carried out annually under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  At the seventeenth Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC in Durban, South Africa, in 2011, the delegates agreed to the “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action,” which broke with nearly twenty years of UNFCCC policy by mandating a new approach in which all countries, not just the richest nations, would participate in addressing the need for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions.  The key challenge for climate negotiators was how to meet this new mandate while still observing the fundamental UNFCCC principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” which had previously been interpreted to mean that rich countries alone would shoulder the burden of reducing emissions.

At the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, we recognized that negotiators around the world were suddenly open to outside-the-box thinking.  Indeed, in Science magazine, my colleague, Joe Aldy, and I wrote an article, “Climate Negotiators Create an Opportunity for Scholars.”  Over the following months (and years) we worked hard to help key negotiating countries develop a new policy architecture that could meet the challenge before them.  The result was a hybrid approach that combined elements of top-down architecture with a healthy dose of bottom-up “pledge-and-review,” which led eventually, of course, to the Paris Agreement of 2015.

  1. Politics Matter

For the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), I served as Coordinating Lead Author (with Dr. Zou Ji of China) of the chapter on “International Cooperation:  Agreements and Instruments.”  I was surprised to find that the process was highly politicized – in two distinct ways.  First, whereas I had assumed that the Lead Authors (LAs) serving on our writing team were there only to represent their respective scientific expertise (in economics, legal scholarship, international relations, etc.), some of the LAs seemed to represent the interests of their respective countries.

Second, I was very naive about the final step of the process, when the governments of the world are asked to approve the IPCC’s Summary for Policy Makers line by line.  The controversy associated with our chapter on international climate agreements resulted in that entire section of the SPM being eviscerated of all meaningful substance at the Government Approval Sessions for Working Group III (WG III) in Berlin in April, 2014.  I was disappointed and dismayed by the process and its outcome.

Fortunately, I learned from that experience and my attitude (and behavior) was quite different just six months later, when I found myself in Copenhagen for what was essentially the final stage of the entire five-year enterprise of research, writing, and government approval of the various reports of IPCC AR5, namely the government approval sessions for the Synthesis Report (SYR), which summarizes and synthesizes the key findings from all three Working Group reports.  I had learned my lesson.  Rather than disdaining the politics of the occasion, I embraced it and spent the week in Copenhagen in careful negotiations with the key national governments, the result of which was that all of the essential text on international cooperation and agreements was preserved in the Synthesis Report.

Ironically, by recognizing, accepting, and indeed participating in the fundamentally political aspects of the IPCC government approval process, I was able to keep the report of research from itself being politicized.

Summing Up

So, the three points I made regarding the relationship between economic research and policy making at last week’s Harvard workshop were these:  first, economic research results can be used as a light bulb or a rock, and either or both can be effective; second, it is important to move quickly when windows of opportunity open in the policy world to implement research ideas; and third, politics matter, and should not be ignored.

I left it to others at the workshop – and I leave it to readers of this essay – to judge whether any of this applies more broadly to “Climate Science in a Time of Political Disruption.”


Placing U.S. Government Views on Climate Change into Historical Context

In this year of 2018, the Europe Union, China, India, Brazil, Korea, Canada, and other countries are negotiating the details for implementation of the Paris Agreement, and are developing domestic policies to achieve their respective Nationally Determined Contributions under the Agreement.  At the same time, the United States – under the leadership of President Donald Trump – has announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement as soon as permitted (November, 2020), and has taken significant steps to immediately roll back domestic climate change policies put in place by the Obama administration.  This may be a good time to place this quite deviant U.S. government behavior into historical context.

Where to Begin?

This blog is dedicated to an economic view of the environment, and my essays here typically feature analyses of existing or proposed policies, with a look to the future, particularly in the realm of global climate change.  Today, however, I take a look back, with an examination of the early history of deliberations in the U.S. government about climate change.

Of course, the history of climate change science goes back at least to Svante Arrhenius, the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish physicist and chemist, who in 1896 calculated how increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) would increase the Earth’s temperature through the greenhouse effect, a finding that was picked up many years later by Guy Stewart Callendar, Charles David Keeling, Roger Revelle, and others.  But my focus is not on the history of the science, but on a very specific dimension of the policy history, namely the history of discussions within the U.S. government regarding climate change and potential policy responses.

Some might think that the starting point would be the 1988 Congressional hearings – led by U.S. Senators Timothy Wirth and Albert Gore – which the New York Times covered in a long article.  That was during the last year of the Reagan administration, but the story really begins more than two decades earlier – in 1965.

Before going further, I want to give credit to two people who have written about this – David Hone, Chief Climate Change Advisor for Shell, and Jairam Ramesh, formerly chief negotiator for India at the conferences of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

President Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee, 1965

More than fifty years ago, on November 5, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson released a report authored by the Environmental Pollution Panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, pictured here.


Remarkably, the report included a 23-page discussion of the climatic effects of increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), due to the combustion of fossil fuels, and – interestingly enough – concluded with a proposal for research on a specific approach to responding, namely with what is now called “geoengineering.”  Below is the table of contents of that section of the report – on “Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide,” and you can read that section of the report here.

In his introduction to the report, President Johnson emphasized that “we will need increased basic research in a variety of specific areas,” and then went on to state:  “We must give highest priority of all to increasing the numbers and quality of the scientists and engineers working on problems related to the control and management of pollution.”  What a contrast with the anti-science approach of the current resident of the White House!

A Striking Nixon White House Memorandum – 1969

Daniel Patrick Moynihan – surely one of the leading public intellectuals of the twentieth century – was a Harvard professor (1966-1969, 1971-1973 ), advisor to President Richard Nixon (1969-1970), U.S. Ambassador to India (1973-1975), U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (1975-1976), and U.S. Senator (1977-2001).  On September 17th, 1969, while he was working in the White House, Moynihan sent a memorandum to John Ehrlichman, then a key Presidential assistant (who subsequently served 18 months in federal prison for his role in the Watergate conspiracy).  The original memorandum is in the Nixon Library, but you can also read it immediately below.  It is well worth reading!

Historical Context and the Path Ahead

From the perspective of 2018, as we enter the second year of the Trump administration, it may – or may not – be comforting to recognize that scientific and even policy attention by the White House to climate change goes back more than five decades, to the administration of Lyndon Johnson.  Since then, there have surely been ups and downs – through the administrations of Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush (I), Clinton, Bush (II), and Obama, but the current administration is an outlier in its utter disdain for sound science and related hostility to sensible public policy (in this and other domains).

The list of Presidential administrations above should remind us that whether a single four-year term or the maximum eight years, administrations are relatively short-lived when judged in historical context.  And they tend to swing back and forth between the two political parties.

All of which reminds me of a true story.  In November, 2016, just days after the U.S. Presidential election, I was in Marrakech, Morocco, for the annual U.N. climate negotiations.  I was speaking on a panel assembled by the government of China in their Pavilion.  Those who preceded me voiced their dismay about the election and their very low expectations for the climate change policy that would likely be forthcoming from Donald Trump and his administration-to-be.

Our moderator from the Chinese government then introduced me to speak, and as I listened with headphones to the simultaneous translation, I heard him say, “And now Harvard’s Professor Stavins will bring us some good news from the United States.”  I was dumbfounded.  What could I possibly say?  I walked to the lectern, sipped some water, took a deep breath, and said to the audience, “When you get to be my age, you recognize that four years is not a long time!”

That will have to suffice as an “optimistic” conclusion to today’s essay.