The Relative Comment

soothing waves of relativity

as the Politics has shifted, the dangers have remained the same

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It wasn’t that long ago that Americans on both sides of the political spectrum understood that burning fossil fuels was bad for the Earth. Coal and gas were understood as the root cause of climate change, they polluted our drinking water and our oceans and our skies. As a result, the idea that we should consume fewer hydrocarbons was widely accepted, the science of climate change was accepted, and moving towards a diversified, clean, home-grown energy portfolio was a plan everyone got behind.

But something else was also happening in that time of climate harmony. It was understood that alongside decreased consumption would come decreased production. We were running out of cheap sources of oil and gas in the United States anyway.

Fast forward to today. Consumption of coal and gas are still root the cause of climate change, they are still polluting our drinking water and our oceans and our skies. The science behind climate change has only gotten more sound. And yet, the bi-partisan acceptance that we should move to a clean energy future has eroded. Heck, even President Obama is calling for increased production of oil and gas. So what changed?

Technology. We could all get along on energy when we all thought we would be producing less. Now we can get a whole lot more of that out of the way, expensive hydrocarbon bounty that was just not worth it in the past–the “unconventional sources.” And if we can recover more oil, if we can successfully drill deeper and further and in more remote places, if we can continue to make money off oil and gas, then the arguments against consuming fossil fuels become much less impressive.

So the argument shifts, the new era of technology makes energy security and energy jobs and domestic production the holy grail of the political energy sector, on both sides of the aisle, and relegates what has not changed, the very real and potentially catastrophic environmental threat of continued dependence on fossil fuels, to the background.

For a clear, thoughtful, reminder that we are indeed reverting, read America’s Fossil Fuel Fever, by Michael T. Klare, at The Nation.

Advocates of the new techniques claim that the environmental risks are overshadowed by the greater benefit of economic gain and national security. “Even while the environmental argument rages,” Yergin wrote in the Washington Post in October, “oil sands are proving to be a major contributor to energy security” by lowering the nation’s dependence on Middle East oil. Increased domestic production, he adds, is generating jobs and reducing the nation’s dollar outlays for imported petroleum.

These arguments have great appeal and are attracting support. But they are deeply flawed. While highlighting some benefits to the nation’s security and well-being, they overlook detrimental outcomes of equal or greater significance.

The most important, of course, is the impact of these trends on global warming. By shifting the emphasis from renewables to fossil fuels, we can expect a significant increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—from the consump-
tion of oil and gas and from its production. The consumption aspect is well understood: all fossil fuels contain carbon and this carbon is released when the fuels are burned, so any increase in fossil fuel use will result in increased GHG emissions. But the production aspect requires closer attention. All drilling activity requires energy, which produces GHGs; producing unconventional oil and gas, however, usually requires far more energy than drilling for conventional fuels and so emits a correspondingly greater amount of GHGs.

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