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Friday, August 2, 2013

UCS fracking forum video now available

Last week, I participated in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ forum on Science, Democracy, and Community Decisions on Fracking in Los Angeles. The full webcast of the event is available on-line: Part 1 and Part 2. The videos are worth watching.

I was a participant in the Regulatory/Policy working group.  We had a rich, day-and-a-half-long discussion of the complicated issues that surround fracking, yet – and I’m sure this is true of the other working groups – were only able to scratch the surface in the time available.

The dizzying array of issues and recommendations from the working groups will be more fully discussed in the forthcoming summit findings.  I've been asked by UCS to serve as a reviewer of that and other forum documents.

I want to highlight a talk by one forum speaker.  Jose Bravo, Executive Director of the Just Transition Alliance, spoke simply and movingly on environmental justice - on the impacts of industrial activity on vulnerable people, communities, and the planet; and of the responsibility that scientists, companies, policymakers, regulators, and citizens share to protect them.  His talk begins about the 1:31:00 mark of Part 1.

Mr. Bravo’s central message on unconventional oil and gas developoment (and I think it's fair to say on other methods of resource extraction, energy production, manufacturing, and waste disposal as well) was this:

“If it harms our health or if it harms our environment, it is not sustainable.”

No form of energy production is without consequences.  Can the harms of unconventional oil and gas exploration be avoided, minimized, and mitigated?  Can natural gas serve as a truly effective tool to combat climate disruption?  Can it provide a net improvement in, and not compromise, public health?  In seeking more rational, definitive, science-based answers to these and other questions - and the means to put those answers into practice - Mr. Bravo’s admonition should guide us all.

The UCS event lent an important voice to what urgently needs to be a robust national dialogue – about science, data, community engagement, regulation, policy, practice, and our energy sources.  Our energy future, and the future of our planet, depend on it.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Energy Secretary: Natgas will need CCS to be more than a short-term climate tool

As I've argued over and over (and over),  if natural gas is to have more than a short-term role in combating global climate disruption, it must be coupled with carbon capture and storage technology.  There is a huge opportunity in that union for the natgas industry - to make natgas a near-zero carbon form of energy.  

Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz agrees.  He said this week, “Eventually, if we are going to get down to really low-carbon emissions, natural gas, just like coal, would need to have carbon capture.”

With many hurdles for CCS to overcome, what will it take - besides political will - to get there?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Beware oversimplifications on energy and climate

Cornell University Professor Anthony Ingraffea has gained notoriety for his vocal opposition to natural gas development, though his earliest work claiming that natgas-fired electricity has worse CO2 emissions than coal-fired power has been debunked so many times that I've stopped counting.

Ingraffea and his colleague Robert Horwath do, however, deserve great credit for raising the crucial issue of methane emissions from natgas production - and area which needs more study and urgent action beyond even what U.S. EPA has ordered - to minimize those emissions across the entire natgas value chain.

Now, Ingraffea writes in a New York Times op-ed that natural gas is "a gangplank to more warming and away from clean energy investments." 


The year 2012 saw both historic lows in natural gas prices AND record years for solar and wind power installation (the latter,  part, due to a rush to get projects built before the expiration of the Federal wind power production tax credit).  And renewable energy installations doubled between 2009-2012, in the midst of a low natgas price regime.

They are the facts.  Yet the claim of natgas hurting renewables continues to be made. 

Ingraffea says that "We have renewable wind, water, solar and energy-efficiency technology options now. We can scale these quickly and affordably..." 


Renewables investments are projected to triple by 2030.  Still, that tripling is still far below the levels of investment needed to combat global climate disruption. Indeed, solar and wind power will be hard-pressed to meet just the annual increase in U.S. electricity demand as things stand today.

The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) has said that it's possible to get to 80% renewable energy by 2050 with currently-available technologies. The remainder - the baseload generation needed to flexibly compliment renewable energy in NREL's 80% scenario - is natural gas. One expert has pegged the cost of this transition at $6 trillion.

Whether 40 years is quick and $6 trillion is affordable is worth thinking about. At the very least, the problem is vastly more complicated than Ingaffea apparently would have you believe.

Implied all too often in the "no gas, just renewables and efficiency" argument is that the impacts of  natgas development also magically go away with a shift to renewables. Take for example, the landscape impacts of natgas development.   As I wrote here
Getting to 80 percent renewables implies the need for construction of 110-190 million miles of new transmission and 47-80,000 miles of new intertie capacity, according to NREL. Again, there will be enormous habitat fragmentation and myriad other impacts as transmission towers and power lines spiderweb across the landscape.
There is no free energy lunch.
And our energy future is not as simple as opponents of shale gas development imply.

I'm not arguing for shale gas, and I'm certainly not arguing against an urgent drive to renewables and efficiency.  Regular readers of this blog will recognize that.  What I am arguing for is a real, fact-based, scientifically-sound discussion and dialogue - not a series of monologues - on this highly complex issue.

One last point on which I completely agree with Professor Ingraffea.  When it comes to addressing the peril of climate disruption and achieving a sustainable, clean-energy future, as he writes: "Political will is the missing ingredient." That political will must be grounded in fact and science, not oversimplifications.