David Fitzsimmons, the Arizona Star

Smart Energy

Another New Chapter in America’s Leadership on Climate Change?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013
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If you take into account the context of the hope and excitement that abounded among liberals in 2008 and contrast it with the tepid and sometimes downright silly policies put forward by the Obama administration thereafter, his most recent inaugural address should net little more than a raised eyebrow. However, I’m still getting pictures in my Facebook feed of a stunning and picturesque Obama coupled with strong words of climate change action. “My presidency will mark a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change … ”

Oh, wait, I’m getting my dates and events mixed up. That’s what the then president-elect said in mid-November 2008 at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Governors’ Global Climate Summit, when Obama took the initiative to send a special video message to all attendees, reassuring us that something would happen on this “urgent” issue. Back to the present.

Quentin Gee

Major energy and climate change issues are most likely headed down the wrong track. In 2012 the administration did put CO2 limits on new construction of power plants, effectively putting the kibosh on new coal plants, the dirtiest direct emitters in terms of greenhouse gases.

But that’s only half the story. Coal was already on the downhill due to market forces making natural gas cheaper, particularly because of the new natural gas “fracking” methods that have resulted in an oversupply and rock-bottom prices. Natural gas power plants emit less CO2 per unit of electricity generated, so are not covered by the recent regulation. Now there’s even talk of the United States exporting the “bounty” of natural gas, with energy companies grinning big at the prospect of selling to China and India.

There’s already a huge concern over these new fracking methods polluting groundwater, mentioned but sometimes glossed over by the Environmental Protection Agency. Perhaps more importantly, drilling a fracking well is not the easiest thing to do with a perfect seal, and most gas wells leak over time. Methane, the major component of natural gas, is an even stronger greenhouse gas than CO2, at least 23 times more powerful.

Some quick finger-tapping on your calculator can show you that all it takes is a tiny percentage leak in each natural gas well to make the greenhouse effect from natural gas worse than coal. Adding to that theoretical danger is actual recent data reported in the scientific journal Nature that points to leakage rates of up to 9% in some gas wells. But Obama’s recent regulation only restricts the burning that takes place at the power plant, not the leakage that goes into the air from the gas well.

So, while natural gas gets a VIP pass to make electricity and maybe even export to other countries, it’s perhaps the worst fuel to be using if you, like Obama just said a few days ago, are worried that failure on effective climate-change action would “betray our children and future generations.”

I don’t want to be a traitor to our future generations, so it’s important to know what we need and what we don’t. We need more wind, solar, and geothermal generation, which are getting cheaper by the year, but subject to topsy-turvy Washington politics and Solyndra scare stories. We need a tax on greenhouse gases at the source, including leakage potential.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to address our need to use less energy (which also means buying less stuff), including the problem of greater consumption cancelling out increased energy efficiency. Smart actions on these matters could result in economic growth – if we can keep Exxon, TransCanada, Koch Industries and others from dipping their fingers in the policy pie.

I couldn’t clearly parse that message out of Obama’s vague references to climate change and “technology,” which could include natural gas fracking and Canadian tar-sands oil just as easily as wind power and rooftop solar. I hope we get to see smarter and greener solutions in the next four years.

Quentin Gee is a graduate student at UCSB, and a teaching associate and assistant for the University’s Environmental Studies Program and Philosophy Department.


Independent Discussion Guidelines

" Perhaps more importantly, drilling a fracking well is not the easiest thing to do with a perfect seal, and most gas wells leak over time."

Please include some data in your article. What are the current regulations for leaks?

What is the amount of methane actually being released? Do dairy farms release just as much?

What about the California Air Resources Board? What are their rules about vehicle emissions and gas leaks?

The worlds solar and wind production is growing at an accelerating rate and some day it may be able to provide most of the energy we need. But until we get there, what is your alternative? How should we use less? What "stuff" is the least useful?

Georgy (anonymous profile)
February 6, 2013 at 1:46 p.m. (Suggest removal)

"Worst fuel" you say. Geothermal is little better; it may release carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, methane, and ammonia; it is also known to cause earthquakes; and, it may destroy geological sites observed no where else in the universe.

We like to imagine an energy as green or not green, but that isn't the case. It's really just a scale. Isn't it? The source of the energy plays a much smaller role than the care and responsibility we place in its use.

If we were really honest with ourselves we would admit that none of them are green: All create some negative impact to the environment and none create a positive one (in and of itself). For now I'll follow your best advice here, Mr. Gee, and buy less stuff.

ClayPilgrim (anonymous profile)
February 7, 2013 at 7:05 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I'm pretty sure Georgy that he means "your stuff", since I assume, from his frighteningly shallow and vapid editorial, that he has already transcended the consumer consciousness that constrains us less enlightened folks and taken care of "his stuff".
Oh yes, solar is sure getting markedly cheaper and more efficient by the year...thank goodness that paragon of social and environmental justice, China, has stepped up to take the lead in production...

italiansurg (anonymous profile)
February 8, 2013 at 6:07 a.m. (Suggest removal)

getting rid of corporate sponsored representatives would be a good start so that they have our best interests instead of the interests of 'people' who neither eat, sleep, or breathe. No politicians words = their actions. Expect to be betrayed.

spacey (anonymous profile)
February 8, 2013 at 5:40 p.m. (Suggest removal)

What me worry? Dress warmly, walk or bike everywhere and only eat local wild foods. I don't think it will happen. I do think we can slow down the rate of global warming increase but I don't think we can stop it. Better we figure out what catastrophes will ensue and prepare. Humans are not going to become highly enlightened in our lifetimes or our kids. C'est la vie.

Noletaman (anonymous profile)
February 10, 2013 at 7:58 a.m. (Suggest removal)

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