Written prior to the SOTU, guest blogger Barath’s thoughts still ring true as to what the focus should have been …
You may have read that President Obama is going to propose energy as a key piece of his agenda in the State of the Union tonight:
President Barack Obama will encourage the country’s booming natural gas output in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, while defending his administration’s energy record
Obama has repeatedly stressed the importance of domestic natural gas output, pointing to natural gas as a possible area of compromise for Democrats and Republicans….
Obama’s address will also focus on the importance of not sacrificing environmental protections and investments in clean energy during this time of budget constraints and concerns about job creation, said Elgie Holstein, senior director for strategic planning at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Heather Zichal, a White House adviser on energy and climate change, released an editorial last week highlighting rising domestic oil and natural gas production, as well as falling oil imports under Obama.
Is this a good idea? Is this a good approach to our energy problems? The three primary issues motivating an energy shift are:
1. Climate change.
2. Economic concerns.
3. Energy independence / national security.
The three are of course deeply interrelated (climate change has major economic and national security impacts, etc.). But those are the three standard arguments.
Will a modest increase in natural gas production do the trick? Will an increase in domestic oil production? Will small investments in renewables be enough or even meet the need we have?
Joe Romm is right (and it’s rare I say that because I tend to disagree with him on a number of issues):
Building lots of new gas plants doesn’t make much sense since we need to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the next few decades if we’re to have any chance to avoid catastrophic global warming….
The fact that natural gas is a bridge fuel to nowhere was in fact, first demonstrated by the IEA in its big June 2011 report on gas — see IEA’s “Golden Age of Gas Scenario” Leads to More Than 6°F Warming and Out-of-Control Climate Change. That study — which had both coal and oil consumption peaking in 2020 — made abundantly clear that if we want to avoid catastrophic warming, we need to start getting off of all fossil fuels.
Then came a remarkable new study by Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) that concluded:
In summary, our results show that the substitution of gas for coal as an energy source results in increased rather than decreased global warming for many decades.
Read the whole thing: Romm clearly lays out why natural gas has been claimed to be a solution for decades and isn’t really a solution to anything.
(Setting aside the immediate climate issues, natural gas obtained via fracking has many well-known environmental problems.)
Natural gas has multiple problems beyond the environmental. The “boom” in shale gas may by not much more than a speculative bubble—in land. The land with claimed gas reserves is going for huge premiums while natural gas prices are at record lows. That is: there is likely less natural gas than claimed. See here or here for more.
What sort of energy independence do we need? Well let’s look at what we import:
That is, we already produce as much coal and natural gas as we consume domestically. It’s oil that we import a ton of. Jeffrey Brown has more, deconstructing the recent non-story about us exporting refined oil products.
In summary, natural gas isn’t the answer: it is unlikely there’s enough of it to be a real viable base for our energy needs but there is enough of it that it might push our climate over the edge.
What about other options? Solar, wind, etc. will not plug the primary hole we’re facing: a liquid fuels bottleneck. That is, we have plenty of ways of making cheap electricity right now. Demand isn’t rising for electricity. While I’m fully in favor of moving off of oil and fossil fuels, it’s important to highlight the panoply of false solutions out there right now.
Five facts are essential for understanding our energy predicament today:
- Oil is critical to transportation and agriculture in the United States.
- Numerous reports and studies (including the Department of Energy commissioned Hirsch Report, the UK Task Force on Peak Oil, and the German Military) indicate we’re at, near, or past the point of maximum global oil production, often known as peak oil. This indicates that no matter what drilling is attempted, the world will never produce oil at a faster rate, and that after peak production declines.
- The Hirsch Report concluded that it would take a 20 year crash program to mitigate the effects of oil depletion, meaning that the crash program should have started around 1990 to avoid what they called “severe” economic impacts. Also, the mitigation program they proposed relied upon coal, heavy oil, and tar sands, all of which would exacerbate our climate problems.
- The industrial capacity for building alternatives is a tiny fraction of what would be needed to substitute for fossil fuels even within 2 decades, given the massive scale required. (Just to give an idea of the scale involved - per Bill McKibben the sunk cost of today’s fossil fuel infrastructure is $10 trillion, and would require 10-50 years of operation for capital cost recovery.)
- Almost none of the substitutes provides a dense liquid fuel substitute for oil that can be used in transportation or agriculture. The only alternative that does - algae-based biofuel - is extremely far from commercial viability and requires even more land area per unit energy than corn-based ethanol.
By all indications we are currently in the period of peak liquid fuel production, and the prices we’re seeing reflect that. Most recessions in the past few decades have coincided with an oil price spike.
However, since oil production was increasing steadily until the mid 2000s, the economy had head room to grow. That is, after each recession, it took a while for prices to rise because despite increasing demand, production was going up too. Now production is flat and soon to be headed down, so even a partial recovery like the one we’re experiencing now is sufficient to cause a price spike, and drive a new recession. That means that our recoveries never get us out of the hole we were in from the previous recession before the next recession digs us down even deeper.
- Our economy depends upon fossil fuels, particularly oil.
- Oil and fossil fuels are finite.
- In the production of all finite resources, production must reach a peak at some time.
- Discoveries must precede production.
- Discoveries of oil are well past their peak and current geological studies indicate we are near or at the peak of oil production.
- Fossil fuels more generally must be phased out due to their impacts on our climate.
- No alternatives can substitute for oil or fossil fuels in scale, malleability, or cost.
- The decline in oil production and energy availability has a direct, negative impact on industrial economies.
What should an energy policy look like to respond to this set of challenges? Like Jimmy Carter’s. Yes, Carter’s name is almost used as a dirty word in Washington these days, but it’s exactly this set of predicaments that he was trying to avoid with his energy policy. That means we need a massive effort in the following areas:
- Electric transportation: electrification of all rail (both passenger and cargo; local commuter rail, etc.), and of bus systems.
- Promotion of urban policies that enable use of public transit, bicycling, walking, etc.
- National energy conservation based upon California’s multi-decade success story (in keeping energy use from rising)
- Investment in alternative energy sources, primarily solar and wind.
- Ending of all fossil fuel and biofuel subsidies.
- Preparation to transition to a no-growth economy.
There’s a lot that can be written on each of these points, but first we have to get the conversation on the right page.