Say This, Not That: “Solar Produces More Jobs Than Oil and Gas” Edition

Do you ever hear someone that you agree with use a terrible argument in a debate and shudder? Their position is the same as yours, but they’ve just used a questionable or downright misleading premise to back it up, weakening your position by association and opening you up to straw-man attacks. Now you’re locked into a debate within a debate, and nobody seems happy.

I’ve been there, on both sides. I’ve repeated some talking point I picked up without checking it first only to get called out, then furiously do 15 seconds of research on my phone that only confirms I’m wrong, then end up ashamed that I blindly accepted an argument just because it seemed to perfectly line up with the point I was trying to make. Why couldn’t I have just used a better argument?

I guess fake news is catchy on a Facebook feed, but that’s not the only culprit here. Real news, or “technically accurate” arguments presented in a way that is clearly misleading to people who are familiar with the area can be even worse. So I’ve decided I’m going try to call out some of these bad arguments and offer better substitutes in a series I’ll call “Say this, not that,” inspired by the popular healthy eating guide (Although more often than not I still choose “this” over “that” when it comes to their suggestions).

Today’s topic is a jobs-related talking point in favor of solar energy that has come up recently following President Trump’s recent decision to put a 30% import tax on solar panels among other things. I have discussed this topic before (these assertions are mostly based on energy job analysis that is a year old), but the headlines I keep hearing repeated seem to be particularly egregious now and increasingly cited without regard for the full content of the underlying articles or the broader energy picture.

Not content to merely indicate that the U.S. solar industry has created a lot of jobs (supporting a substantial 260,777 workers that spend greater than half their time on solar projects and an additional 113,730 jobs where people spend some portion of their time on solar projects), what I now hear is that Solar represents “more jobs than oil, gas, and coal combined.” This argument is not new and was already true last year, if limited to jobs relating to electrical power generation, as noted in this Forbes article. Other outlets such as like IFLS, ran with a headline reading “Solar Employs More People Than Oil, Coal, And Gas Combined In The US”. Other offenders were the Natural Resources Defense Council (U.S. Clean Energy Jobs Surpass Fossil Fuel Employment), The Independent (US solar power employs more people than oil, coal and gas combined, report shows).

Don’t get me wrong, that solar is employing such a large percentage of the electric power generation workforce is impressive, even if these jobs aren’t creating the most energy per job (that’s a different topic that I beat to death earlier and you can read about here). However, the number of solar jobs overall aren’t even close to the number of jobs that oil and gas creates because most oil and gas does not go into electric power generation. This is because, electric power generation only represents a relatively small slice of the US energy picture.

A few sources[i] peg the United States’ total electrical energy consumption from all sources at around 4,000,000,000,000 kilowatt hours (abbreviated kW-hr) per year. That’s the number four followed by 12 zeroes, and for reference a 60 watt light bulb would theoretically consume 1 kW-hr about once every 17 hours. Even converted to barrels of oil equivalent, this is an impressive 2,400,000,000 barrels per year, or about 6.5 million barrels per day. However, it is still important to note that despite creating a large number of jobs, for the 12 month period ending October 2017, Solar power in the US has had only produced 51,800,000,000 kW-hr, or a little over 1% of annual electric consumption in the US. Here’s a graph that show’s how production numbers break down[ii].

US_Electricity_by_type (1)

If my math is right, Solar’s production is the rough equivalent of 83,500 barrels of oil per day. For comparison, the U.S. consumes close to 20 million barrels of actual oil per day (about a fifth of the total world consumption) and is expected to produce over half that amount. In addition, the US consumes about 27.5 trillion standard cubic feet of natural gas, about 13 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, and is projected to produce even more gas than it consumes.

As for how absurd the lack of the qualifier “electric power” caveat skews the jobs argument: For US jobs overall, Oil supports 502,678 jobs, only 12,840 of which are associated with electric power generation. Natural Gas supports 392,869 jobs, only 88,242 of which are associated with electric power generation. If you want to see all the numbers yourself, they’re actually presented in a really clear fashion in the Department of Energy’s U.S. Energy and Employment Report published in January 2017 (link), which I would note is the same report on which all of the aforementioned articled were based.

This is where I should probably mention that article headlines are engineered to be clickbait, and in most media aren’t even written by the author of the story, but instead by people marketing the story in a way that attracts the most viewers.

So for this round of debate on the 30% tariff on cheap solar panels from China, please don’t tell me Solar generates more jobs than Oil and Gas, that is wrong. Don’t even tell me Solar generates more jobs within the electric power generation sector, which while technically correct sounds weak and opens the Solar industry to (unfair) attacks of lagging efficiency on a per job-basis. Instead, mention that the Solar industry already employs hundreds of thousands of Americans and is still growing incredibly quickly. Mention that solar power emits no CO2. Mention that Solar could provide a way to eliminate many of the environmental and safety risks associated with hydrocarbon exploration and production; Curtailing the need for energy firms to explore production of sources areas that are controlled by hostile governments, or that are environmentally sensitive, or contain oil that is costly or dangerous to produce.

Most importantly, acknowledge that there are no silver bullets to the world’s energy issues, and listen to the people you are arguing with, even if they seem like your ideological opposite. They probably have some good points and ideas too, and in my experience people are much more likely to consider your evidence if you hear them out first.


[i] Yeah, I’m feeling that lazy with the endnote references today.

[ii] By Wikideas1 -, CC0,


What is *Really* the Cheapest Source of Energy?

DSC05271 (2)

Spoilers: It’s not elephant power.

A friend of mine in college recently posted the following open question:

There has been a lot of brouhaha recently about “there are X times the number of jobs in ‘green energy’ than in coal.” Relating to the number of jobs, can someone tell me how many megawatts/gigawatts are produced on a per capita basis in each of these energy “sectors?”

My initial though was that this was really a loaded question, a fallacious argument that ‘green energy’ wasn’t as efficient because the cost to build out new capacity (often referred to as Capital Expenditure, or CAPEX) far exceeded the operating expenditures (OPEX) required to maintain power generation from existing plants. Of course coal plants are less labor and cost intensive, they already exist! I also knew from my previous research on this subject that overall costs of solar plants were approaching parity with traditional coal plants. My initial instinct was to pour cold water on the whole argument[i].

However, before I hit send, I thought about the question a bit more. I recalled what I knew about oil refiners in the US, and how building new capacity usually costs much more than simply buying or expanding existing facilities, and thus no new refineries have been built in decades. Maybe my friend was right, and reports of cost parity of green energy sources relied too heavily on a fallacy of their own, mistaking the alternative not as new coal plants, but rather maintenance and expansion of existing units.

I left a comment saying this might be something that would be interesting to look into. I assume Facebook’s algorithm took note of my reply because it then put a comment made by another of my friends five days earlier on the top of my feed:

It’s amazing to me that the solar industry flaunts its terrible productivity as a selling point. “We produce the least terawatt-hours using the most workers!” That’s not a benefit!

That comment was issued with a link to a Fast Company article trumpeting that in the US, solar energy now provides twice as many jobs as coal.

I do agree with both of my friends that claiming certain investments create jobs is dubious, and I would rather focus on the cost of each alternative in dollar terms to make sure these investments are economically sustainable or at least approaching sustainability to make sure any jobs they create do not suddenly vanish once political winds change or subsidies expire. For that reason, understanding how close green energy is to competing to legacy energy sources economically is the exercise I took on here. Note that when I say energy in the scope of this post, I am referring to electric power generation and not discussing fuels directly used for personal transport.

The Data

The first data point I wanted to explore was something that was said in the aforementioned Fast Company article, which stated:

While 40 coal plants were retired in the U.S. in 2016, and no new coal plants were built, the solar industry broke records for new installations, with 14,000 megawatts of new installed power.

If my hypothesis was that existing coal capacity would be more competitive than newly-built capacity, the fact that 40 existing coal plants were shut down with no new ones built would seem to indicate that this is not true. However, following the oil refinery model where refineries have been closing for decades without replacements being built, this could also just mean the lost capacity was being offset by increases in production in other units. Following the article’s source for the statement led me back to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), a reputable government source which I have used multiple times for other pieces on this blog. The EIA provides tons of data as well as projections, both of which can be used to infer how different technologies will compete for utilization now and in the future.

The EIA provides monthly spreadsheets tracking almost all US power generators with some exceptions, and each one appears to contain details for all individual US power generation plants with capacities over 1 MW[ii] as well as planned plant retirement times. There are 20,870 plants listed in the “operating” tab of the nearly 7 megabyte Excel spreadsheet that in all have 1,183,011 MW of total listed nameplate capacity.[iii]

By filtering the data for the most recent spreadsheet from March 2017, I can see that plants representing 26,614 MW of capacity have planned retirement dates between March 2017 and December 2021. Only 215.5 MW of this retired capacity represents ‘green energy’, and of this 215.5, 207.6 is the result of the planned retirement of some of the capacity of the Wanapum hydroelectric plant in Washington State, which has been in operation since 1963, although a quick Google search makes it appear that this capacity is actually going to be replaced and expanded. In terms of capacity, most of the retirements affect coal (12,163 MW), Natural Gas (9,320 MW), and Petroleum Liquids (778 MW) facilities.

While the total capacity being retired between now and the end of 2021 is very low in terms of total capacity, replacing this with renewable resources would account for over two-thirds of the EIA’s current projected green energy growth between 2017 (207,200 MW) and 2021 (244,630 MW)[iv]. The “Planned” plant tab of the EIA generator spreadsheet backs this up, with the 113,698 MW of planned capacity to be started up between now and 2027 much more heavily tilted towards green (or at least “Carbon-free”) energy sources than the existing energy mix. These plants include wind (22,570 MW, 19.9%), solar (9949 MW, 8.8%), nuclear (5,000 MW, 4.4%), as well as hydroelectric and geothermal combining for an additional 997 MW (0.9%).

This is good and bad news for the future of green energy. On one hand, it would appear to support my position that there is significant growth available for renewables to compete with other sources where new infrastructure is required. The downside of this is that following the EIA projections through 2050 only gives a total green energy capacity of 433,490 MW, well under 5% of the total electrical generation asset mix.

The Alternative

You might have noticed that the “Carbon-free” energy sources only represent about a third of the total planned capacity to be added. But there are no coal mines replacing the ones being shut down. Instead, almost two-thirds of the planned new plants utilize Natural Gas (72,659 MW, 63.9%).

If green energy has a real threat going forward, natural gas is a…uh, erm…natural choice[v]. In terms of price per unit energy, Natural gas has cost only a fraction of what oil does, even when oil prices crashed[vi]. The current price of Natural Gas is approximately $3/million BTU, and a barrel of oil contains about 5.8 million BTU, making the cost of Natural gas approximately $17.4 per barrel of oil equivalent (BOE).

From an environmental perspective, Natural gas is cleaner than coal and produces about half the amount of CO2 per unit energy produced. This is primarily because Natural gas has a higher heating value per unit weight of fuel than coal (Coal heating value is generally between 7,000 and 14,000 BTU/lb, while Natural gas is up to 21,500 BTU/lb). In fact, the US’s aggressive shifting to Natural gas-based electricity generation was cited by many as a reason the Paris climate accord was unfair to the US, as we had already reduced our Carbon emissions quite a bit because of technological advances that allowed the US to replace chunks of coal power with Natural gas:

As I indicated in my comments yesterday, and the president emphasized in his speech, this — this administration and the country as a whole — we have taken significant steps to reduce our CO2 footprint to levels of the pre-1990s.

What you won’t hear — how did we achieve that? Largely because of technology, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, that has allowed a conversion to and natural gas and the generation of electricity. You won’t hear that from the environmental left. –EPA Head Scott Pruitt, June 2nd, 2017

I don’t want to wander back into climate change again (although that is and will continue to be a recurring theme here), but I do bring this up because when judging renewable energy on its cost merits, I believe too much emphasis has been placed on coal and not enough on Natural gas.

And the Winner Is?

So, if you think the EIA has been pretty informative about this whole topic, you’re right. In fact, they basically have the answer to the cost question already spelled out, but that wouldn’t have made for a great discussion. Here’s what EIA says the CAPEX and OPEX numbers say for Natural gas compared to the most cost-effective wind and solar options (for those of you that did not bother to click the link above to see the raw data, EIA did note that these are unsubsidized costs based in 2016 dollars). The CAPEX and OPEX numbers are what I pulled from EIA, while the hypothetical CAPX and OPEX were calculated in Excel based on a theoretical 100 MW plant.

First up, conventional fired combined cycle Natural gas:

Natural Gas (Fired Combined Cycle)  Conventional  Advanced Natural Gas (Advanced with Carbon Capture and Sequestration)
CAPEX ($/kW) 969 1013 2153
OPEX (Fixed, $/kW-yr) 10.93 9.94 33.21
OPEX (Variable, $/MW-hr) 3.48 1.99 7.08
Hypothetical CAPEX, 100 MW Plant $96,900,000 $101,300,000 $215,300,000
Hypothetical Annual OPEX, 100 MW Plant $4,141,480 $2,737,240 $9,523,080

Fired Natural Gas Turbine (this is what we use on the FPSO where I work)[vii]:

Natural Gas (Fired Combustion Turbine) Conventional Advanced
CAPEX ($/kW) 1092 672
OPEX (Fixed, $/kW-yr) 17.39 6.76
OPEX (Variable, $/MW-hr) 3.48 10.63
Hypothetical CAPEX, 100 MW Plant  $109,200,000  $67,200,000
Hypothetical Annual OPEX, 100 MW Plant  $4,787,480  $9,987,880

Finally, Wind and Solar:

Wind, Solar Solar (Photovoltaic) Wind (Onshore)
CAPEX ($/kW) 2277 1686
OPEX (Fixed, $/kW-yr) 21.66 46.71
OPEX (Variable, $/MW-hr) 0 0
Hypothetical CAPEX, 100 MW Plant $227,700,000 $168,600,000
Hypothetical Annual OPEX, 100 MW Plant $2,166,000 $4,671,000

Based on the EIA numbers, the cheapest option by far is advanced or conventional Natural gas plants. However, if you include carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) costs, wind and solar would seem to come out on top (although solar only marginally so on the strength of its much lower OPEX in that scenario).

There is a significant cost differential created by the need for CCS that shifts the equation. However, given that even using Natural gas without CCS does significantly cut overall CO2 emissions when replacing coal facilities, there is still some environmental driver to employ that technology even without CCS, as a “stepping stone” to environmentally friendlier power generation.

For those looking for a talking point against Natural gas, from a long-term environmental viewpoint, the amount that cheap Natural gas will stall efforts to install permanent green energy solutions could stall and by some estimations could eventually leave us in a worse position than we are currently. Also, cutting our carbon footprint in half is great, but if a country like India increased their per capita electricity usage to even a quarter of the US using Natural gas than the net impact would be an increase in CO2 emissions[viii]. It may seem ironic that our great achievement in cutting CO2 emissions through the installation of Natural gas fired generation facilities would result in absolutely massive overall increases if replicated throughout the world, but that is a natural consequence of living in a fully developed country with energy demands an order of magnitude higher than that of the developing world.

In any event, EIA projects based on our current path that even the application both of these technologies will not result in a dramatic shift CO2 emissions by 2050, with or without adherence to the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP). The US per-capita carbon footprint will fall from its current 16.3 metric tons/year to either 12.7 (22.1% reduction) with CPP or 14.0 (14.1% reduction) without it.

I won’t be researching the projected external costs and consequences of climate change in this article, but I can state with confidence that investment in Carbon-neutral energy will have to accelerate at a much faster pace if we plan to effectively mitigate them. Of course, as is the case with emerging technologies, I’m not sure what green energy might look like in 5 or 10 years. I used to think that green energy was a great idea but an investment with costs an order of magnitude higher than conventional fuels. This isn’t the case, and if there are even a few marginal breakthroughs left to be found the field, the situation could easily be flipped on its head, with Carbon on the losing end. I don’t know how/if/or when this might happen, but I may take that on as a separate entry later.

How Does This Money Support Jobs?

Going back to the original question in this post, CAPEX money is generally a one-time cost for construction of a plant. As noted, this is very labor-intensive and why the solar and wind energy companies can boast about how many jobs they create compared to coal. Variable OPEX costs generally refer to fuel, which is why these are 0 for wind and solar. However, money paid for Natural gas will directly support jobs in the Natural gas industry. Fixed OPEX costs are more likely to include maintenance and repairs, which also require skilled labor.

For me, while I concur with my second friend that from an economic standpoint it’s generally better focus first on the per-capita value from the jobs you create than the quantity, I don’t necessarily agree that the idea that the only thing we get in this case is energy. Without an honest discussion about how to quantify the costs of externalities associated with CO2 emissions, we can’t really pass judgement.

Thanks for making it to the end. I didn’t make it easy this time, only one safari picture/sight gag (I may add some later if anyone has any ideas). As always, let me know what you think, especially if you think I screwed something up.


[i] It’s amazing how often I, and everyone else, mistake gasoline for ‘cold water’ when trying to end an internet argument. I’ll talk about that more in another post.

[ii] Although the notes on the file claim “Capacity from facilities with a total generator nameplate capacity less than 1 MW are excluded from this report.  This exclusion may represent a signifciant portion of capacity for some technologies such as solar photovoltaic generation,” there are some plants with a capacity of <1 MW in the list. Also, the word “significant” is misspelled in the report and this seems a suitable forum to issue a public service reminder that Excel doesn’t spell check cell text by default.

[iii] As mentioned in a previous blog post, US electricity consumption is 3,913,000,000,000 kW-hr/year, which converts to 446,689 MW on a continuous basis. It seems important to note that plant nameplate capacity is generally the highest designed usage, generally whatever the highest anticipated peak usage for the facility, which will be much higher than the average use.

[iv] From a separate projection provided by the EIA. You can find theire energy projections here:


[v] I can’t tell you how much I hate myself for this joke. Oddly, I can’t seem to make myself remove it.

[vi] US Natural gas has cost is currently about $3/Million BTU between 1 and 11 dollars per thousand cubic feet for decades (, and about 5800 cubic feet equal a barrel of oil equivalent (BOE). This puts the range of prices in BOE as approximately $5.80 to $63.80, well below the

[vii] EIA did not include estimated costs if Carbon Capture and Sequestration were to be applied to Gas Turbines. I’m not certain whether this is due to a lack of data or technical limitation that prevents CCS from being applied to gas turbines (I can’t think of one but if anyone knows this please let me know).

[viii] From the IEA (different than EIA), US per-capita electricity consumption is 13 MWh/capita compared to 0.8 for India. India also has 3 times the population of the US. Therefore if the US cuts the carbon footprint of electricity generation by a factor of two through the use of Natural gas, India could wipe out all of those gains by installing the exact same plants “more environmentally friendly” plants in order to lift their per capita energy consumption to 3 MWh/capita, less than a quarter of the US per capita demand. This is why I find it dishonest to claim that countries like India aren’t doing their fair share in multi-national climate accords that show their total emissions rising while countries like the US decrease.

[ix] I’ll get back to this in a later post. I’ve already written too much.

How Many Solar Panels Can You Make For the Cost of The Border Wall and Would They Even Fit?

This was originally something I looked at over the course of a few minutes and wanted to post on Twitter, but then realized there was no way I was going to make it fit. So here it is on the depository I created for the long-form version of my most boring-est thoughts.

A story broke earlier today that President Trump suggested adding solar panels to the border wall to help it pay for itself. In light of this and earlier accounting suggesting the price of the Border Wall as originally envisioned could be as high as US$66.9 billion, I was wondering how much electricity we could currently build in solar for that amount of money. As it turns out (assuming my math is correct), if we were talking about using that sum of money to build utility scale single axis tracking solar systems, we could  potentially build enough solar capacity to generate about 10% of the total electricity consumption of the US.

My 30 second Excel spreadsheet completed with a Wikipedia source is below.

Value Unit Source
1.49 $/Watt Solar Energy
66,900,000,000 Dollars (66.9 Billion)
44,899,328,859 Total Watts 66.9 billion/$1.49 per Watt

(393 billion)

kWh/yr (Total Watts/1000)*365*24

(3,913 billion)

US Electricity Consumption (kWh/yr)
10.1% % of Total US Electricity Consumption

In fairness to myself, that Wikipedia article did do a good job of at least listing its source, the CIA World Factbook.

Now, would the wall provide sufficient surface area for all that wattage? Google tells me that solar panels generate 10-13 Watts per square foot. Based on my total wattage number above, 44899328859, this means we would need about 4489932885.9 square feet of area using the conservative 10 Watt/square foot number (see what I did there?). My favorite source also tells me that the US-Mexico border is 1954 miles (10117120 ft). That would make the border wall need to be over 400 feet wide to accommodate the proposed wattage at 10 watts per square foot.


This doesn’t really belong here, but here’s a picture I took of an ostrich to break up all the boring text.

Yeah, so none of this seems likely for a bunch of reasons. On top of the behemoth panel width, I’m guessing the proposed panels were probably fixed and not tracking, which brings down the efficiency, and the installation costs would be massive and likely in addition to the actual construction costs of the wall instead of displacing any of those costs. As for how you tie in 1954 miles of 400 foot wide solar panels into a distribution grid and how much you would lose in transmission losses tying all that in, I’m just going to say that’s outside my scope. Not even I like math that much.

Feel free to check my work and let me know what I messed up if you find anything.

P.S.-After posting, I realized the formatting of the Excel table is terrible. I’m not fixing it, I just wanted to make sure you knew that I knew that it is terrible, that’s all.


Does The Methane Recapture Rule Make Sense?

I don’t intend to make every blog post here in my about climate change, but it’s such an interesting subject that sends so many numbers flying around that’s it’s hard for a math, science, and energy nerd like me to ignore. With that in mind, here’s something I came up with on the Methane Recapture Rule that might be wrong or right. Feel free to let me know how you think I did.

Back on May 10th, John McCain made news when he unexpectedly joined two moderate Republicans and 48 Democrats to maintain a last minute Obama administration rule on Methane recapture. While some have speculated that the vote may have been driven by spite over Donald Trump’s handling of the firing of former FBI Director James Comey, McCain himself had this to say about why he voted the way he did:

Improving the control of methane emissions is an important public health and air quality issue, which is why some states are moving forward with their own regulations requiring greater investment in recapture technology. I join the call for strong action to reduce pollution from venting, flaring and leaks associated with oil and gas production operations on public and Indian land.[i]

In terms of what this rule expected to accomplish, per a 2016 statement released by the EPA[ii], “The final standards for new and modified sources are expected to reduce 510,000 short tons of methane in 2025, the equivalent of reducing 11 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. Natural gas that is recovered as a result of the rule can be used on site or sold. EPA estimates the final rule will yield climate benefits of $690 million in 2025, which will outweigh estimated costs of $530 million in 2025.” For those of you playing along in the numbers game at home, a short ton is 2000 pounds, while a metric ton is 1000 kilograms, or approximately 2204.62 pounds. I’m not exactly sure why the EPA felt the need to mix their units between English and SI, but whatever, we can deal with that in an endnote later.

Methane and CO2 are both greenhouse gases. Although the effects of Methane aren’t as long lasting as CO2, it is generally considered about 20 times as effective of a greenhouse gas in the short term. That’s probably how the EPA figures cutting 510,000 short tons of Methane releases is roughly the equivalent of cutting 11 million metric tons of CO2 releases, unit goofiness notwithstanding. Assuming all this Methane was simply burned and released as COwould mean the savings were closer to 1.27 metric tons worth of CO2 releases.[iii]

My question is do these numbers make sense in the first place. The EPA release says the 510,000 short tons represent a 40-45% reduction of Methane releases based on 2012 levels, which would indicate that the US released somewhere around 1.2 million short tons of Methane that year. My first thought is to convert short tons to a number I care about, Standard Cubic Feet (SCF). To do this, we can multiply the number of lb-mols of Methane (63.75 million per footnote iii) by one of my favorite oil-industry conversion numbers that everyone should know: 379.5 SCF/lb-mol. This gives a seemingly crazy 24.2 Billion SCF of Methane releases in 2012. That number seems a little less crazy when you see that the US produced 25.3 Trillion SCF of gas in 2012[iv], in fact, a leak rate of <0.1% seems almost admirable. Of course, this also seems like a shamelessly SWAG’ed result which simply assumes a leak rate of 0.1%, especially since quantifying actual Methane leak rates is a notoriously difficult proposition – Almost as difficult as it would be to come up with the data to support the assertion 40-45% of those leaks can be recovered at a cost of 530 million dollars.

So how about those cost figures? If you assume that both the $530 million cost and $690 million benefit values are correct, then the rule has a healthy environmental profit margin of 30%. Of course, if I understand correctly, the O&G industry is footing the bill, so the only real case to be made is that this rule makes more sense than simply applying a $530 million dollar tax and deploying the proceeds towards carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) efforts.

Let’s start with the value driver, that $690 million dollars in 2025. Divide that number by the aforementioned 11 million metric tons of CO2 and you get a cost of about $63 per metric ton of CO2. If this is really the cheapest cost of CCS foreseen in the year 2025, then perhaps the rule makes sense economically. However, cut this cost down to $48/metric ton or less and your value driver vanishes, and you would be just as well off spending the 530 million on the cheapest available CCS technology.

Trying to Google the actual cost of CCS appears to be a difficult exercise, one that I don’t wish upon other people. Different applications of the technology in different scenarios will give many different results. The best resource I could find appears to be the IPCC Special Report on Carbon dioxide Capture and Storage, but it would suggest that for $48/metric ton you might find better value in applying CCS to new power plants. In addition to the IPCC work, a recently published Wall Street Journal article on peak oil demand showed that many oil companies are building in a cost of $30-$40/metric ton of COinto their future business plans, well below both the breakeven point of $48 that makes the rule profitable.

As for that $530 million number on the other side of the equation…I’m not even going to try to understand where that came from. I would be more inclined to believe the actual costs of compliance with the new regulation to be more than advertised, not less, but that’s just me editorializing on how I view the salesmanship of this particular rule. If you take the cost as stated, the math doesn’t seem to quite line up.

There’s obviously a bit of politics in play here as well (duh). It’s easier to pass a regulation advertised as low hanging fruit in the fight against climate change than to pass an actual Carbon (or in this case, Methane) Tax. The proof here is that the former was actually possible and done, while the latter appears to have very little chance at coming to fruition in the current political climate. With this in mind, an effort to do “something”, even if it does not make the most sense, trumps the desire to do the most correct thing. Also, not to be a downer, but while this number seems large, the actual carbon-offset potential of this regulation is equal to cutting Natural gas burning by less than 1% of the 2012 US gas production rate (40-45% of 20 times 0.1% of the US’s domestic gas production in in 2012). On a global scale, half a billion dollars, regardless of how it is deployed, doesn’t do a whole lot in terms of CCS.



[iii] 510,000 short tons equals 10.2 billion pounds of Methane, or 63.75 million lb-mols of Methane (molecule weight=16). Given that every lb-mol of Methane would stoichiometrically create 1 lb-mol of CO2, burning this amount of Methane would create about 28.05 billion pounds of CO2 (molecular weight=44), which converts to 1.27 million metric tons.



How Big is the Atmosphere, and How Much CO2 Do We Really Put into It?

Although the focus of climate change debates has shifted to the ability of climate models to accurately predict the impacts of CO2 in the atmosphere, surprisingly few people really have a firm handle on the much simpler question posed above. People love to debate and back themselves up with all sorts of information provided to them from other sources, but few actually want to put in any effort to make the transition from “knowledgeable” to “knowing” on any part of the subject. To be honest, this included myself, as I had always accepted that climate scientists had a pretty good handle and that a simple question lie this doesn’t need my analysis. Then I realized that as a chemical engineer who works in the oil and gas industry, this was a problem that I could find a solution to with a combination of Excel and Google in about two minutes. Although this also shows that this question really doesn’t need me to look into it, I needed something to do and Math can be quite a soothing activity.

random photo.JPG

This two year old photo of me pretending to turn a valve doesn’t actually have anything to do with this post, but there is a lot of math coming up so I figured I should put in a picture to liven it up. Photo credit to David Parham.

As with any scientific problem, the standard way to solve a question like this is to disprove that the opposite (usually referred to as the “null hypothesis”) could realistically happen. In our case the null hypothesis is that humans do not emit enough CO2 to significantly alter the makeup of the Earth’s atmosphere. Given that the increase in CO2 content of the atmosphere has been pretty widely documented as increasing at a rate of around 1 part per million per year since 1950[i], this should be a pretty straightforward exercise. No p value hacking or significance bands creation will be required for this one.

Having spent the last decade in the oil business, I know that the worldwide consumption of oil is about 90 million barrels per day, which translates to about 3.8 billion gallons per day, or 1.4 trillion gallons per year. To conservatively estimate the amount of CO2 this amount translates to, I will use an intentionally low estimate for the density of this oil (A lower estimate for density will give a conservative lower estimate for Carbon content). My assumption will be that this is all light crude with an API of 40, which is oil industry jargon for saying that its specific gravity is 0.825, which means each gallon will weigh about 6.9 pounds[ii]. I will also purposely assume that the carbon content of this oil is very low, using the same 75% carbon content as pure Methane (typically referred to as natural gas). In reality, both numbers will be higher, but in order to disprove our null hypothesis the best path forward is typically to make only assumptions that are clearly favorable would help the null hypothesis. This way, when the null hypothesis is disproved, there is very little wiggle room for it to fight back.

From chemistry, we know that every gram of Carbon (molecular weight 12) will yield about 3.66 grams of Carbon Dioxide (molecular weight 44). This is due to the weight of the two additional oxygen atoms added to the Carbon atom each weighing 33% more than the Carbon atom itself. Putting all this information together, I gather that from oil alone, about 26,100,000,000,000  pounds (2.61 x 10^13 pounds) of CO2 are released each year. This does not account for the fact that oil only represents between a quarter and third of the entire worldwide energy picture, and that the two other most significant chunks, coal and natural gas, would likely add a similar amount of emissions to the total.

Now while that amount of CO2 sounds huge, so is the atmosphere. One way you can tell the atmosphere is so huge is that it exerts a pressure at sea level that amounts to about 14.7 pounds of force for every square inch of the earth, because a 1 square inch rectangular prism stretching from the sea level all the way to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere will contain approximately 14.7 pounds of air. You can use this same trick to show that every 2.31 feet of water depth adds 1 psi (lb/square inch) to the water pressure. 1 square inch is 1/144 square feet. Multiply this by 2.31 feet and the density of water (62.4 lb/cubic foot) and you get one pound. This is why atmospheric pressure gives us a great way to simply calculate the weight of the atmosphere. If we can calculate the surface area of the earth in square inches, we can multiply this atmospheric pressure of 14.7 pounds per square inch to estimate the weight of the atmosphere. I should note that when I say this is a “great” way to calculate Earth’s atmosphere, what I’m really saying is that it is easy. In engineering easiness is tantamount to greatness.

Google tells me that the Earth has a diameter of 7915.5 miles. Assuming Earth to be a smooth sphere, the surface area would be equal to 4 times Pi times the square of the Earth’s radius (Area = 4 x Pi x R2). Of course, we will need to cut the diameter in half to get the radius, then multiply the radius in miles by 63,360 to convert it to inches (there are 5280 feet in a mile, and 12 inches in a foot, the product of which is 63,360). All of this math tells us the surface area of the Earth is about 7.9 x 1017 square inches, meaning the weight of the atmosphere is 14.7 times this number, or 1.16 x 1019 pounds. Dividing our earlier CO2 amount generated by this number and multiplying by a million would give us the amount of increase in annual atmospheric CO2 concentration that could be caused if all of the oil we burned simply stayed in the atmosphere as CO2. This ends up being 2.2 parts per million (ppm) per year on a weight basis, or 1.5 ppm per year on a volume basis. Gas concentrations are generally reported on a volume basis, and since CO2 is heavier than air (Molecular Weight of 44 compared to 29 for air), we’ll use the smaller number.

So there you have it, our conservative estimate says that our burning of oil on its own could theoretically increase the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere by 1.5 ppm per year, and since oil only represents a fraction of the fossil fuels being burned, the actual amount is likely several times greater, much higher than the 1 ppm per year stated earlier. I suppose the next question is “where is all that CO2” going? Or perhaps the next question is whether the rate of increase in CO2 content in the atmosphere is accelerating consistently with the increasing rate of global energy consumption. The data is out there, all we need to do is look at it to go from “knowing what climate scientists say about climate change” to actually “knowing a little bit about climate change.” Then again, maybe we’ll just keep having snowball fights on the Senate floor[iii]. That does seem more fun.

Feel free to check my work and conclusions above. This post has not been subject to peer review, and I can’t guarantee I didn’t mess something up horribly. I was a bit surpised by the result myself, so I would appreciate the feedback if someone cares to tell me how I went wrong if I did.

I’m still not sure what I want to do with this site, but I do like to write occasionally. If anybody has any suggestions for Engineering, Science, or Math related topics for future posts please leave a message in the comments or email me at


[ii] Water weighs about 8.34 pounds per gallon, so oil with a specific gravity of 0.825 will weight 8.34 x 0.825, or 6.9 pounds per gallon. API gravity is an archaic measurement of specific gravity widely used in the oil industry born out of a desire to have a measurement of density that increases as oil gets lighter, since lighter oil is generally more valuable. Specific Gravity is defined as 141.5/(API Gravity + 131.5).

[iii] I’m allowed to make a joke at Senator Inhofe’s expense, we went to the same university. However, I must note that the Senator went to the business school, and to my knowledge did not spend a lot of time in the engineering building.