Energy Terms To Retire In 2023

At this time of year, various media report on the main developments and some like to highlight a given word of phrase as being particularly important, from dictionaries (woman, goblin mode, gaslighting) to Google (wordle). So, it seemed like a good time to weigh in on which have been overused and should be retired.

‘People not profits’ heads my list of the most ridiculous phrases because it’s largely meaningless but regularly deployed to attack a wide variety of things, usually in an effort to imply that a development will mean pollution generated to increase corporate profits, but also employed in relation to contentious labor relations, environmental justice, and so forth. The meaning of the term ‘profits’ is clear, but the usage of ‘people’ can represent many different things aside from not meaning ‘lives’ and sometimes actually used in way that are contradictory, such as arguing against a natural gas fired power plant whose human impact is trivial, or a pipeline that actually reduces pollution compared to other transportation modes.

‘Climate hoax’ Does anybody still use this? I mean, a lot of people don’t believe that climate change will be as bad as some claim, or that the role of humans and/or fossil fuels is exaggerated, but the overall issue is not and never was a ‘hoax’.

‘Denialist’ or ‘denier’ can occasionally be accurate and useful, but in energy policy debates typically refers to someone who you disagree with. I was called a peak oil denier, for example, for daring to point to the bad science and math underlying most peak oil arguments, while others like Bjorn Lomborg and Matt Ridley have been called climate deniers because they express skepticism about some specifics of the science involved. It’s noteworthy that debates over various aspects of evolutionary science rarely sees participants called deniers, as opposed to those who literally deny that evolution is a real thing.

‘Cheap energy’ Okay, this is real but often misapplied, most especially in the term “cheap Russian gas” as a source of German economic growth. Russian gas was never cheap. Also, cheap is subjective and should be used in comparison to other objects as in “French nuclear power is cheaper than German renewable energy.” Similarly, “cheap renewables” is too often used to imply that all renewables are, by definition, cheap (or at least cheaper than competing fuels) as opposed to meaning that a particular renewable project is cheap. This matters because it disguises the fact that some fossil fuel uses are cheaper and more advantageous than renewables, and allows for absolutist arguments against any fossil fuel use.

‘Emission-free’ is often applied to wind, solar and nuclear energy as well as electric vehicles, primarily by their proponents. However, none is truly emission free as all involve mining, manufacturing and construction to some degree. Even nuclear power plants, with their significant amount of steel and concrete, have some emissions. This is why serious researchers rely on life cycle analysis (LCA) in describing carbon emissions for any given operation, and demonstrate the reduction of emissions, not their elimination.

‘Water is life’ A great example of something that’s true but irrelevant. Air is life too, but no one lives in an area where the air is completely ‘pure’. And none of those loudly proclaiming this slogan have protested against agriculture or automobile usage, both of which contribute more to water pollution than oil pipeline transportation, the usual target of the protesters.

‘The easy oil is gone’ This suffers from two drawbacks, the first being the vague nature of the word ‘easy’ which is vague and unquantified. Typically, speakers would show a clip of Jed Clampett ‘shootin’ at some food’ and oil comes seeping out of the ground, then juxtapose that with a multi-billion dollar deepwater oil rig. The reality is that early oil producers were using mule- or human-powered drilling rigs, and even after the conversion to steam engines, still needed mules or horse to move the rigs. And the reality is not that we have exhausted the easy oil, but that most places with easy oil, such as the Middle East, have severe restrictions on production to avoid a price collapse. Oil prices soared in the early 2000s following disruptions to supply from Gulf War II, Chavez’s firing of most Venezuelan oil company executives, the Arab Spring, etc., etc. Just as in the 1970s, the crisis was not resource scarcity, but just as in the 1970s, the problem was interpreted by many to be resource scarcity.

Finally ‘Existential’ Years ago, Gary Trudeau’s comic strip ‘Doonesbury’ lampooned the widespread application of the term ‘superstar.’ Like grade inflation (an existential crisis no doubt), advocates nowadays seem to feel that they have to sound the loudest alarm possible, instead of describing a challenge or problem. Aside from being misleading and tiresome, it threatens to desensitize the public and worsening policy-making.

The likelihood of this might seem small, but I embrace two words that should become more dominant: ‘hopeful’ and ‘moderation.’