Putting the Mental in Evironmentalism

A good friend of mine once leveled that phrase at me and I thank him for it. Here I hope to adhere to it exactly; thinking deeply about environmental struggles and how we choose to react to them. Whether to simply count carbon reductions (which globally are insignificant year to year in an upward trend) or to see the big picture.

Coal to Gas

This all started with some hoopla over the US showing a positive trend in coal to natural gas switching which was equated by a few folks as at least partly responsible for a reduction in US CO2 emissions over roughly the same period. (7.7% down 2006-2009)

I’m not going to disagree with that really. Except that ..

“natural gas displaced around 89-96 million MWh of coal electricity and 19 for petroleum. The two together generate a savings of »50 million metric tons of CO2—that seems significant at first glance, but total CO2 emissions declined by 446 Million metric tons between 2006 and 2011.

The 50 million metric ton savings from natural gas accounts for just 11% of that. In other words, nearly 90% of the decline in the total CO2 emissions during the period 2006-11 should be attributed to other factors that slashed the consumption of both petroleum and coal.” (http://co2scorecard.org/home/researchitem/24)

So, 11% between 2006-2011. Hardly something to get excited about when talking about emissions reductions between 2006-2009 which happens to encompass the start of a recession.

Can it be a positive emissions reductions trend ?

I would love for it to be, I have no trouble with the concept of coal to gas switching. In theory. Except that I have a couple of hesitations, one economic and one linked to the competency of energy companies to reduce methane emissions as scientists continue to build a picture of how widespred those could be.

Methane leakages could be a small problem or they could be a huge problem, we don’t know yet. We have a recommendation from folks at Cornell that this situation should be studied nationwide and we have NOAA in the field.

Methane is 25 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse agent, leakages should be taken very seriously by industry and scientific communities alike.

Once a picture of leakage has been built then industry must comply (as some already are) with monitoring and maintenance on wells and pipelines. We all know that its a certainty that nationwide compliance is a forgone conclusion and will be applied with the utmost concern for accuracy and safety of people and planet. We’ve seen that before. Obviously.

Boom Economics

Now to the economic hesitation. Quite frankly it seems as if most people have forgotten what the term “boom” refers to when it comes to shale oil and gas. I don’t care if the boom lasts 10 or 50 years, its a boom. Basing an emissions reduction trend on coal to gas switching is in my opinion short sighted. Applying this nationwide to the US is one thing, but as we’ve seen its global emissions which matter, and I don’t see a shale gas revolution happening in China. (yet, and will they do the coal to gas dance? or just increase generating capacity?)

Hydrofracking is barely at break even price with natural gas prices so low. What is a driver behind coal to gas switching ? low gas price, rising coal price. Energy companies are betting the farm on shale gas plays and employing some less than ethical schemes to keep investors buzzing the honey pot. (http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/energy-futurist/the-questionable-economics-of-shale-gas/243) (thanks to the SEC also)

Gas and energy companies have no other option but to go all in. Tight/Shale gas and oil are pretty much all that are left in this country. In 2040 we might look back in anger, the extractive business models with which our economy was built, lain to waste. And we chose to embrace the promises and lies.

Jevons Paradox and gas demand.

I’m just going to throw this in here. The Jevons paradox states that “technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jevons_paradox)

With the promise of eternally cheap gas (snort) national electricity prices will likely take some sort of dip which means what in Econ. 101 as referring to the above paradox ? usage will increase. Demand will up and could possibly outstrip our 100 years of gas in under 40.

If the economy rebounds (hey, why wouldn’t it ?) demand will increase and not just from electricity generation. The oil part of our energy problem is likely to spur a large increase in demand for natural gas fueled transportation capacity and electric vehicles. (driving an emissions reduction?!!? sigh.) This would be a huge energy demand.

As gas price increases, either from scarcity or from energy companies dialing back production, gritting their teeth losing money and leases, then wouldn’t we see a shift back to coal ? Hopefully not, maybe we can see the holy grail realized in a gas and renewable only grid. But cheap gas can choke that off too.

“If anything, natural gas will likely play a far greater role in our energy mix than it currently does, whether by displacing coal-fired generation, utilization in natural gas vehicles, increased use in manufacturing, or by outcompeting renewables as the cheapest source of power.” – http://e360.yale.edu/feature/natural_gas_role_in_us_energy_endgame/2561/

Basically the bridge fuel might not be used to support a much cleaner grid, it might be all burned up before that in a … sort of clean grid because that’s cheaper. The bridge might collapse half way over it too.

Looking to fossils to help climate mitigation

Means you’re not even attempting to look at the bigger picture. As always, whether talking about peak energy,  food supply issues or cotton candy, the demand side of the equation is always the growing one and the supply side, if its not the shrinking side now, it will be very soon.

We should be abandoning fossil fuels entirely and not giving a shit how much is left in the ground. Looking at an increase in gas use for electricity generation and an emissions reduction and seeing a trend … in a recession, is looking at the wrong end of the stick. The recession is the useful and exemplary emissions reduction tool, its a big fat clue.

A transition is in progress and it means living with less energy. We can switch to gas whoopee, but if that isn’t also accompanied by huge reductions in usage, NOT phrased as “increases in efficiency” these are two separate things, then its a bit pointless. Sure update the CAFE standards to 54mpg, but also DRIVE LESS. Sure, knock down the old coal plant and transition to gas, put up solar, but also USE A LOT LESS ELECTRICITY.

Conscious reductions in usage and a winding down of  an energy dense lifestyle is what will reduce emissions decade upon decade. Simply burning something different and watching as demand increases is a fools errand.

Un-Mandatable

That’s all well and good Dave, but it’s un-mandatable.

Its not a problem our legislating systems can deal with, we can set efficiency standards and emissions targets, but if you’re not controlling demand, its for naught.

Controlling demand, what do you mean ? why are you smiling at me like that ? wait NOOOOOO !!

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