On natural gas, the climate, and cowardice

Tonight my Twitter feed was gushing over not one, but two editorials from respected media outlets calling on President Obama to do something about Global Warming. Which, given the way that the mainstream media has avoided this issue, could be seen as a positive development.

And it would be, if the media outlets in question – the New York Times and MIT Technology Review – were actually proposing real solutions to this issue. They weren’t. Which should not be surprising. Because it appears that few people in this day and age have the huevos to stand up to the fossil fuel interests and tell it like it is. And you won’t read those voices in the mainstream media, except as footnotes.

New York Times followed the line that it has taken from Economist and natural gas apologist Dieter Helm, and proposed that the first thing that Obama should do is further his embrace of natural gas.

I’m not going to go into the obvious detail that our current natural gas boom is driven by exploitation of shale gas deposits, which poses risks to our groundwater. I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that by the end of the 21st century, that groundwater will be more valuable to us than the gas. Like the gas, when it’s gone, we won’t be getting more of it. Unlike the gas, we need fresh water to live.

No, instead I’m going to focus on the blatant intellectual dishonesty represented by the widely promoted claim that we are going to solve our climate problem with natural gas, as burning methane (CH4) emits less CO2 per unit of energy produced.

That only counts burning, not extraction or transport. Because natural gas is a much more potent (if shorter-lived) greenhouse gas than CO2, any natural gas that is leaked is a serious problem and must be accounted for in any real assessment.

There have been a number of studies on this, and they provide conflicting data and uncertain conclusions. However, a study released led by a NOAA Scientist reported in Nature today suggested that some wells may have leakage rates as high as 9%, well over the threshold (3.2%) whereby natural gas extraction and burning becomes worse for the climate than burning coal.

The EPA’s figures come in at 2.4%. Which is not far from that threshold. The truth is that we don’t know. But the logical conclusion from all these studies is that even on a purely greenhouse gas emissions level, extracting and burning natural gas is either bad for the climate or possibly worse than burning coal in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

So why is the New York Times promoting the shift to natural gas as the top priority in combating Climate Change? Could it be the world’s largest oil companies are also heavily invested in natural gas?

I’m glad this approach is good for Exxon-Mobil. It isn’t good for my son or any of our children to have to live on our rapidly warming planet. I’m saddened by New York Times’ lack of intellectual honesty, but far from surprised.

I was much more disappointed by the MIT Technology Review’s call for dealing for Global Warming, which dismissed renewable energy as a solution, with the line “Renewable energy sources, like solar and advanced biofuels, are simply not yet ready to compete with fossil fuels.”

MIT Tech Review’s ask: More money for research. Which is fine. Except that their line on renewable energy not being market-ready is total horseshit. As I explored in a recent piece on Truth-Out, renewable energy – mostly wind and solar – currently supplies between 24-31% of electricity demand in Italy, Germany and Spain.

Of course, this is an easy lie for people who don’t know better. However, current EIA numbers put wind nationally at between 9 and 10 cents per kWh, slightly less than conventional coal and less than new nuclear power. I’ve spoken to wind developers who say they are selling wind for as little as under 3 cents per kWh from prime locations in the plains States.

Solar photovoltaic (PV) technology’s value is a little harder to calculate. The EIA puts it at 15 cents per kWh and change (about standard retail electricity rates in Boston), but solar PV also tends to produce electricity when we need it most, at times of peak cost, replacing the most expensive forms of generation, and reducing the need to buy power on the spot market, which got incredibly expensive during heat waves in Texas over the last few years.

Solar PV and water heating are viable technologies today, and we could easily deploy far more of them with minimal if any impact on retail electricity bills.

I expected more from MIT Tech Review.

Ten years from now we won’t be talking about natural gas as a replacement for coal. We’ll be doing something serious. Because by then the impacts of Climate Change will have become far too obvious for these sorts of games. In the interim, our though leaders in the mainstream media, and, yes, I am sorry to say it, much of the trade, alternative and scientific media, are selling us down the river through their sheer cowardice in the face of the reality that we face in the early 21st century.


One comment

  1. […] about a doomed future, or waiting for unproven technologies to save us (as the nuke boosters and MIT Tech Review would […]

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