Natural gas’s dirty secret

Photo by Caelan Borowiec from www.marcellus-shale.us

Natural gas has been touted as an environmentally friendly bridge between dirtier fossil fuels (coal and oil) and a clean, renewable energy future. While it is true that the average efficiency of electric power plants fueled by natural gas is superior to coal-fired plants, that comparison doesn’t account for drilling, processing and delivery to the site. Another popular claim is that natural gas is cleaner burning and should be substituted for oil wherever possible, whether for heating or transportation, thereby reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

The industry hype ignores a dirty secret: getting gas out of the ground and to the end user creates a volume of methane emissions that is not well documented nor is it widely regulated. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide that can dramatically increase the warming of the planet. Ignorance of the sources and effects of methane is leading industry and policymakers to make bad decisions that have far-reaching climate repercussions.

Robert Howarth and his colleagues at Cornell University were some of the earliest scientists to conduct research on the climate impacts of natural gas extraction, both conventionally and using hydrofracturing (fracking). Their 2011 paper was the first peer-reviewed report on methane and shale gas; it ignited a conversation within the scientific community and even generated some buzz in the mainstream media. The main takeaway is that natural gas extraction is far more damaging to the climate even than burning coal, when you factor in the effects of methane emissions from drilling, well completion, refining and transportation.

In an early presentation, both Howarth and his colleague Tony Ingraffea stress that their findings point to the dire need for further research, including on-site measurements of methane emissions. Howarth has continued to work in this area, publishing in April 2014 a thorough review of recent research by others, such as field measurements of methane releases from well sites. The evidence is mounting – and damning.

Once again, industry has gotten far ahead of the science and policy is lagging still further behind. Now that Howarth and others have gotten the conversation going, the EPA has recently updated their regulations to reduce methane emissions during well completion. These are slated to go into effect in January, 2015, twenty years after fracking began in the Barnett Shale in Texas, and ten years after it intensified in Pennsylvania.

This is a complex issue that’s finally being studied from many angles. For instance, the Post-Carbon Institute issued a gloomy report on the capacity of gas reserves in the U.S. to serve our ever-growing energy needs. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has also been working since 2012 to bring greater attention to natural gas and methane. They estimate that about 25% of the manmade global warming we are experiencing today is caused by methane. They fund research projects to track methane releases at every stage, from drilling to distribution, including the ancient gas lines under our city streets.

Ultimately, natural gas is just another fossil fuel with a better PR team than coal and oil. These scientific studies show that there’s no such thing as a climate-friendly fossil fuel. It’s time to get serious about weaning ourselves off them entirely and to embrace the clean energy conservation and generation technologies of the 21st century.

Blind to the bigger picture

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I recently read a piece in the Atlantic with the promising title, “How to talk about climate change so people will listen.” Although the author – Charles Mann, who wrote the excellent books “1491” and “1493” – characterized some sides of the argument, the piece didn’t live up to its title. With eerie postmodern irony, the comments on the Atlantic’s website perfectly illustrated the polarization Mann decried.

This wrangling over climate change reminds me of the story of the blind men describing an elephant. Each of the six has his hands on a different part of the animal: tail, ear, tusk, flank, leg. And each is correct, in his limited view of reality. The man holding the tail describes a rope. The one touching the leg says it’s a pillar. They all get into a heated argument because not one of them can see the bigger picture.

In the case of the climate change argument, what is the bigger picture?

Whether climate change is real or not, we are laboring under a dangerous misconception: that human beings are exceptional, superior and separate from the rest of nature. Our own economic models “externalize” the natural world, treating air, water, soil, weather and pollination as income rather than capital.

Ronald Wright, whose excellent 2005 “A Short History of Progress” I just reviewed here, raises the same question. He examines how four past civilizations failed or went extinct: all combined brutal social hierarchy with a failure to respect the limits of the local ecosystem upon which their very lives depended. Those were, by today’s standards, relatively small and local. Since our industrial economy is now a global one, its effects are also global.

Whether or not burning fossil fuels is wrecking our climate, eventually we will run out of them and be forced to find other ways to power our civilization. Before that, the more noticeable effects of climate change may begin to plague our generation with greater frequency. Either way, we are blindly repeating the mistakes of prior civilizations. Driven by our cult of progress, we have an irrational faith that technology and human ingenuity can solve any problem. This faith demonstrates a basic lack of understanding that there are limits in every closed system, the earth being an example of just such a system. The only new input into this system is sunlight, and humans have yet to figure out how to convert it as efficiently as plants do into energy and food.

Even if technology can save us, we are still faced with great uncertainty about climate change. “What’s the Worst That Could Happen” is a far more effective approach to decision-making in the face of uncertainty than any of the arguments in Mann’s article. This began as a middle school science teacher’s YouTube video back in 2007. Using a basic four-square decision matrix, he showed that we are better off treating climate change as real and getting down to business, than if we ignore it and it turns out to be real. The consequences of inaction are a far greater risk than the consequences of action, even if climate change turns out to be overblown.

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In other words, uncertainty is a given, so before we can talk about, and agree upon, solutions to problems, we would do well to look honestly at the bigger picture. Who do we think we are? Why are we here? And where are we going? These might seem like odd questions to inject into the already overheated, rhetorically charged climate change debate.

There’s no shortage of people on both sides pointing out how polarized and unproductive the argument is. Maybe that’s because we’re asking the wrong questions and defending positions that rise from the shaky foundation of a mistaken worldview.

 

 

 

 

We are caught in a “Progress Trap”

A Short History of ProgressA Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine of the Dark Mountain project recommended this book, and I am very glad they did. It has deeply affected the way I view history and our current times. The author tells the stories of four past civilizations that failed, two that went extinct (Easter Island and Mesopotamia) and two that declined and faded into other emerging cultures (Rome and Mesoamerica).

Wright likens his examination to studying the black boxes of crashed jetliners, looking for clues as to why they went down. The two consistent reasons that stuck most with me are 1) brutal social hierarchy that ensures there’s never enough to go around and 2) raiding the local ecology of the place to the extent that it can no longer support the civilization.

Sound familiar?

His history of how European discovery of the New World turbo-charged our present-day pace of technological development is fascinating. For example, it was disease that finally enabled the Spanish conquistidors (after 100 years of unsuccessful trying) to “conquer” the Mayans. And that gold and other resources from the New World flowed back into the Old, to finance the industrial revolution. Without that treasure, things would’ve been very different indeed.

It’s all written in an engaging and very readable style, with extensive footnotes taking up over 1/3 at the back – for those geeky sorts who must have all the details (guilty as charged). Wright is obviously a very learned man, but in no way stuffy or inaccessible – nor does he pander.

The most lasting effect of this book has been to loosen up my heretofore unexamined assumptions about “the way things are.” Human history goes back many thousands of years (actually, millions), and it’s quaint of us to believe that the last 200 are the pinnacle of civilization, just because they are the most recent. The assumptions about social hierarchy are especially dangerous, derived as they are from the (now absurd to us) notion that kings are direct descendants of the Divine.

Again, I am left wishing that everyone would read this book. It would certainly change the debates we are currently engaged in, debates that distract us from the real conversations we need to be having. Here are two snips from near the end, to give an idea of how Wright’s mind works.

“John Steinbeck once said that socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

“The great advantage we have, our best chance for avoiding the fate of past societies, is that we know about those past societies. We can see how and why they went wrong. Homo sapiens has the information to know itself for what it is: an Ice Age hunter only half-evolved towards intelligence; clever but seldom wise.”

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Down to the Wire

Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate CollapseDown to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse by David W. Orr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a must-read for anyone who cares (or worries) about our future and those who seek a) a clear-eyed history of where we are and how we got here, and b) inspiration to fuel the work ahead. Orr spares nothing yet he comes out cautiously optimistic that humanity (and especially our political structures) will rise to the great challenges ahead. Chapter 5 is luminous.

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Honey, I Changed the Climate

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New PlanetEaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My comments on David Orr’s book apply here. McKibben is unsparing in giving it to us straight in the first half. Despite my long work history in sustainability, I was still stuck in prevention mode. It was very hard for me to face the facts: climate change is not just real, it’s here and it’s time for us to rethink how we live and get ready for some big adjustments. I found his history of the last 20 years to be fascinating and have a much better understanding of how we went so quickly from “might be of concern in 50 to 100 years” straight to “honey, I changed the climate.” The second half of the book is full of great examples of good people rolling up their sleeves and doing the work of shifting to small, decentralized, local, practical, cooperative and aligned with nature. I wish everyone would just stop arguing and shopping at WalMart and read this book.

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