Hynes/My Turn: The push for un-natural gas
All that glitters is not gold. Take, for example, the word “natural.”
Two-thirds of Americans wrongly think the word “natural” on a food label means it contains no artificial ingredients, pesticides or genetically engineered organisms, and no hormones or antibiotics in the case of meat, a 2014 Consumer Reports survey reports. “Natural” is conflated with “safe and clean.” Analogously, we universally refer to gas drilled conventionally or fracked as “natural.” True, gas found in deep rock and soil formations, where it was biologically formed from dead animal and plant matter, is natural. However, once drilled, transported and combusted for heat and electricity, it is un-natural (thanks to Anna Gyorgy for this insight), even anti-natural, for reasons explored here.
For almost a decade, the federal government has turned a blind eye toward regulating the hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” boom in 22 states. Yet, the environmental risks of fracking are legion: groundwater and drinking water contamination; local air pollution; intensive local water use; inadequate hazardous waste treatment, storage and disposal facilities; an increase in earthquakes; and release of methane to the atmosphere.
Potentially, the riskiest aspect of un-natural gas, whether fracked or traditionally drilled, is methane gas releases throughout its the life cycle from drilling and transport to storage and combustion. Studies on methane leaks warn that higher leakages could make gas worse than coal for climate change because methane is a potent greenhouse gas, warming the atmosphere nearly 100 times the rate of carbon dioxide in the first two decades after emitted.
Gas is touted as a bridge in the energy transition to renewables. This benign version of an altruistic industry, which would facilitate the transition to renewables, is belied by the industry’s own actions to slow the exponential growth rate of solar and wind. The gas industry is a powerful member and funding source of the American Legislative Exchange Council (known as ALEC). Dubbed “a corporate bill mill,” ALEC’s corporate members and participating state legislators devise model bills to advance corporate priorities. ALEC has aggressively drafted bills for state legislators that would eliminate state renewable energy targets; limit, if not end, subsidies for renewable energy industries; add a surcharge to utility customers who have installed solar energy; and block new federal environmental regulations for fracking on public lands.
“Enemies of the sun,” economist Paul Krugman rightly dubs them.
Renewable energy costs are dropping exponentially and driving the equally unparalleled growth of renewable energy installations throughout the world. In 2014, solar and wind surpassed all other energy sources for new electricity generated in the United States. Given the pace of renewable energy installations and the looming international meeting of governments on mitigating climate change, the Bank of England recently warned investors that policy changes addressing climate change could threaten investments in fossil fuels — leaving them stranded assets. The global stock market index company MSCI has reported that investors who have been divesting from fossil fuels over the past five years are outperforming those who haven’t.
In tandem with the growth of renewables, scenarios and roadmaps for achieving a renewable energy world by 2050 are also on the rise. The Stanford University Solutions Project, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory 2012 report, and the 2014 Energy (R)evolution study of Greenpeace International and European Institutes are notable examples.
Opponents of renewable technologies, promoters of fossil fuels and nuclear power, and critics of government subsidies to renewable technology industries (see a recent op-ed by David Williams of Taxpayers Protection Alliance) brand federal energy subsidies as an unfair handout to the solar and wind sector. They disparage it as a welfare program, giving advantage to the renewable industry that would collapse if it had to compete with coal, oil, gas and nuclear. However, a historical study of government subsidies to all energy industries by DBL Investors easily demolishes this myth. Annual average subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear are significantly higher than for renewables. Moreover, all energy sources received much higher subsidies than renewables in their startup years. Consider, too, that there is no counterpart in renewable energy subsidies to the $7.3 trillion spent by the Department of Defense from 1976 through 2007 patrolling the Persian Gulf to protect US oil shipments.
∎ Let’s level the playing field: Make the energy polluters pay for their carbon emissions through carbon taxes. Phase out the decades-long subsidies to these octogenarian energy industries.
∎ Encourage our state to raise their renewable energy, conservation and efficiency goals using the 2050 scenarios described above. (The Solutions Project at Stanford University is already working with the California and New York to implement their state-specific renewable energy roadmap.)
∎ Lobby for aggressive conservation and efficiency programs, a rapid gas pipe leak detection and repair program in order to render new gas pipelines unnecessary.
∎ Monitor local media: The fossil fuel and nuclear industries have concocted disinformation for decades about climate change, disinformation that has been reported uncritically by the media. These merchants of falsehoods successfully sowed seeds of doubt and deception in the United States, such that U.S. citizens are the least informed about the science of climate change and most resistant to a renewable economy of any industrial nation.
Climate change is a defining issue of our times for the survival of humans and the planet. It is the real issue of national security and should trump the $1 trillion handout our national government throws at militarized national security. Every major religion deems it a moral issue and an ethical obligation to future generations. So also should our government.