WSJ’s California blind spot

(Featured image: Cars drive along the San Francisco Bay Bridge under an orange smoke-filled sky at midday in San Francisco, California. AFP)

Wall Street Journal writes about California often. They write about all of California’s problems, but in particular they are fond of writing about California’s wildfires and power outages. In short, they believe all of our problems are caused by our progressive policies.

California is a pretty progressive state!

In particular, WSJ is perturbed by our choices for renewable energy. It takes skill to find a way to connect everything back to our long divorce with fossil fuels, but WSJ’s writers are pretty skilled. So let’s see how they do it.

Background: California is on a long slow road to wean itself from fossil fuels. It started in 2002 and proceeds by setting percentage targets for renewable energy by certain years. The first target was a mere 20% of energy from renewable sources by the year 2017. But the utilities have consistently beaten these targets because, all told, they have been pretty conservative. So every few years we have had legislation ratcheting up the targets, pulling them earlier, and becoming more ambitious.

We are now shooting for a target of 100% carbon neutral energy by the year 2045. Think of what that means. If all goes well, in about 25 years, the world’s fifth largest economy might be running entirely on a carbon neutral energy grid. That’s not small potatoes. It’s an even larger potato that California’s efforts spark innovation that are then available for other states and countries to use.

Now. Clearly this has been, and continues to be, a massive undertaking, full of fits and starts, internal squabbles and politics. It is these fits and starts, squabbles and politics that WSJ uses to cast doubt on the entire enterprise.

For example: solar and wind don’t produce all the time. This means that sometimes the grid will have too much power, and has to actually turn off production, and other times not enough. The solution to this is energy storage of some kind, but this is all path-breaking technology, and the storage side has not yet ramped up.

Earlier this year, during a heat wave, this imbalance led to blackouts. Naturally, WSJ jumped on it, as we will see below.

If heat waves caused outages this year, last year it was high winds: when utilities turned off power for some customers to avoid high-voltage wires running through dry tinderbox forests. This led to a battle between California’s governor and the utilities. Naturally, WSJ jumped on that too, somehow managing to blame PG&E’s aging equipment on the mandates for renewable energy.

PG&E is undoubtedly caught in a pincer. On the one hand, while we are investing in the future, climate change is causing record-breaking heat and drought in the present. Desiccated forests can be set ablaze by electrical wires in high winds, with the utility companies required to pay damages. On the other hand, they signed contracts with solar and wind suppliers when those forms of renewable energy cost a lot more than they do now.

Caught between antiquated contracts, and antiquated electrical equipment, it is no wonder that PG&E has sought bankruptcy.

Despite all these problems, most California voters and their representatives feel an enormous urgency. We feel the climate changing here. Heat waves each year have broken records. Our drought never seems to end. Entire city-sized forests light up each year in blazes bigger than ever before. Each year, we deal with smoke from the fires; for example, on September 9th, through much of California , we had the surreal experience of a dark orange dim day, when the sun never showed itself, blocked out by smoke.

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For the WSJ, however, climate change either does not exist or is better left unmentioned. But how can you write about California’s energy policy while not acknowledging what problem it is designed to solve? Badly.

Fires and Blackouts blamed on Renewable Energy

Consider this WSJ editorial Fires and Blackouts made in Sacramento from last October. Our largest utility, PG&E, shut down power for tens of thousands of customers in order to avoid the risk of aging electrical equipment amidst trees causing wildfires. The outage unleashed a blame game between California’s government and PG&E and various other stakeholders. I don’t have a dog in this fight; I’m happy to blame them all.

But WSJ manages to draw the conclusion that it is the clean energy mandates that are to blame for PG&E’s antiquated equipment. The logic is tortured, but I guess the point made is that if PG&E didn’t have to spend money on complying with California law, they might instead have upgraded their equipment:

I have no idea if this is true, but this is like arguing that if we didn’t have to save money for college, we could have gotten that remodel done.

Both are important! The only way this form of argument makes sense, is if the clean energy mandates are a frivolous expenditure: all cost, no benefit.

And indeed, this is how WSJ frames the issue: as it being a mere matter of Democrats imposing their political agenda on the utility:

Or as a form of political obeisance:

Or as “serving their political overlords”:

Not once do they show any awareness that this “political agenda” is California’s attempt to mitigate one of the most urgent problems facing humanity: climate change. Throughout the piece, this urgency is treated like a boutique issue that California’s voters push for some inexplicable reason.

California’s Green Blackouts?

We had outages again this year. PG&E announced a power emergency during a heat wave that spread across the Western states, and over a million Californians lost power. Our grid, in the process of grinding out the old plants, and splicing in the new, fell short. A combination of bad planning and some unfortunate circumstances (a natural gas plant saved for backup failed) were to blame.

Naturally, the WSJ blamed it entirely, as might be expected, on California’s move to renewable energy.

In this editorial from August, California’s Green Blackouts, they simply assert as an undeniable fact that if a grid depends on renewables, it must, with iron logic, be unreliable:

There is a half-inch deep plausibility to this that WSJ takes advantage of. Yes, wind and solar do not produce consistently. And yes, fossil fuel is ever present below-ground, and tapping into it is always going to be more convenient, the way grabbing a bag of chips is easier than cooking a meal.

But this isn’t news. I promise you the engineers who work in this space are aware that the wind does not always blow and that the sun sets in the evening. There are ways around this: batteries, of course, but also others: one widely-used solution is pumping water uphill using renewable energy when available, allowing it to flow and run turbines when needed.

That doesn’t mean there’s no debate. There is a loud and sometimes acrimonious debate between technologists about whether a 100% renewable target is achievable in a cost-effective way, or whether and 80% renewal target is more realistic, with the rest made up through other zero-carbon means. The 2018 California bill SB-100 was fought over along those lines; eventually, it settled on the 100% target being for zero-carbon, rather than specifically from renewables. This means other forms of power can pitch in: nuclear someday, geothermal, or other.

But even the skeptics in this debate—those who strongly doubt California can meet 100% of its energy needs with renewables alone—often point out that setting ambitious goals might push innovation and deployment and we’d get farther than we would otherwise.

Former Obama DOE Adviser

To make an analogy, consider a family that heatedly argues about whether it is wiser to clean the house themselves, or hire a cleaning service—while the drunk uncle sprawls on the couch buried under empty pizza boxes and an overflowing ashtray, belching, “let it take care of itself”. In case it isn’t clear, WSJ is that drunk uncle.

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WSJ doesn’t like California’s Ideas

Holman Jenkins’s editorial California Needs Ideas on the topic of our wildfires deserves a fuller treatment because it is so full of logical fallacies and clever sophistry.

Image source: Forbes magazine

First, Jenkins sets up a strawman: that Californians imagine that their renewable mandates will mitigate climate change instantly. Since the mandates can’t solve wildfires tomorrow, they must be a failure:

Second, he lumps together California’s disparate problems into one single bucket of “bad governance”, and uses that to discredit anything that California’s elected officials might want to do (honestly, I want Jenkins to show me a government that doesn’t have governance problems, I will send him my firstborn):

Next is his jab against the “greens”. But it confuses so many issues that it needs some unpacking.

California’s forests propensity to burn is a problem a hundred years in the making. No one understood how to properly manage them—not the loggers, intent on clear-cutting; nor the environmentalists who fought the loggers for forty years; not the home builders who kept edging into forests; and not even the Forest Service who followed a policy of instantly suppressing all fires. Before this, Native Americans had managed forests with controlled burns. The result of a century of mismanagement is that California’s forests have become overfilled with dry kindling.

Although environmentalists back then fought tooth and nail to preserve forests for the Spotted Owl and other endangered species, it turns out that these species are adapted to thrive in forests that occasionally burn.

There is now a lot of regret; but also ferment about some better forest management ideas. Most environmentalists now understand that prescribed burns are needed. What, then, is the argument about?

It is a form of subterfuge. An actual argument hidden underneath the surface argument. The surface argument is that the greens are to blame for California’s wildfires, because they fought the loggers. As we have seen, that argument is tendentious. The hidden argument is that we should, therefore, throw out all of the environmentalists’ ideas, including—and especially—the Endangered Species Act.

Wouldn’t that be nice! Make logging trouble-free again!

To be fair, Jenkins does not bring up the Endangered Species Act; he merely casts blame for the wildfires on clueless greens. But his editorial is part of a concerted effort from Republicans to blame California’s wildfires on the forty-year battle to save the forests for endangered species. We know this from direct statements from President Trump, then Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and Central Valley Rep Tom McClintock.

Next, you might do a double-take when you read this paragraph, where he not only recommends we allow the utilities to police themselves (!), but also comes out in favor of a carbon tax:

Surely that is off-brand? What would be the purpose of a carbon tax, if mitigating atmospheric carbon isn’t even a worthy goal according to Jenkins? One doesn’t impose taxes just in order to make a statement, as he claims. In fact, even other right-wing policy shops have noticed Jenkins’s heresy on this issue.

Well, it turns out that there is a burgeoning move among the right to promote some version of a carbon tax. For some, it is a market-friendly approach to a problem that there is no longer any scientific dispute over; for others, it is a way to relieve pressure and divert away from more comprehensive solutions, such as the Green New Deal. For Jenkins, it appears to be little more than a talking point added to look reasonable. How do I conclude that? Because, while he has written favorably about a carbon tax at other times too, when a stellar group of conservative economists actually proposed one in the pages of WSJ, Jenkins pooh-poohed it.

The rest of Jenkins’s essay is a transparent attempt to somehow blame the Democratic VP nominee Kamal Harris for California’s wildfires. It doesn’t make much sense, since she was Attorney General before her brief tenure as California Senator, and had little to do with forest management. But why let a good wildfire go to waste?

Jenkins spends a lot of words making us think that California’s clean energy mandates are a bad idea without clearly explaining why (because they won’t solve climate change instantly? Because environmentalists have sometimes been wrong? Because California has other, unrelated problems?) “California will need ideas,” he ends, without supplying a single idea of his own.

WSJ’s Climate Denialism

It is a remarkable fact that out of all conservative parties in the Western world, America’s GOP is the only one that minimizes climate change.

Even though according to conventional thinking, the Republican Party tends to be the pro-business party, this is not a pro-business stance per se. Pro-business parties in most of the Western world take climate change extremely seriously. Most businesses, too, would be better advised to take climate change seriously (for the actuarial industry, for instance, it is a matter of life and death) and perhaps, like Tesla, invest in green technology as representing the coming boom.

What explains the GOP’s climate denialism, then?

It is that the Republican Party no longer represents business interests at large, but rather the interests of extractive industries in particular—such as mining, logging, oil and gas—industries that have the most to lose from action on climate.

The Wall Street Journal used to be the premier pro-business newspaper of America. However, since Rupert Murdoch bought it 2007, it has shifted its coverage away from business in general to being the Republican Party’s state organ, a Fox News for the reader rather than the viewer. As such, it’s climate denialism has followed the GOP’s. By reputation and by readership though, Wall Street Journal still remains the most widely-read newspaper among the business class.

It is not a stretch, therefore, to say that the WSJ is the means through which the extractive industries propagandize American capitalists on climate denialism, and lead them astray.

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