Sunday, August 11, 2013

Is Racing to Adopt "Transition Fuels" a Perilous Idea?

The Lesser of Two Evils is Still Evil

It is interesting to read Keith Schneider's rationale for China adopting the same transition to natural gas from coal strategy that has taken place rather organically in the unfettered markets of the United States (well, there are some subsidies back in the US of A, but in the Summers-ian, Geithnerian, Paulsonian, Bernakeian economy there is still less interference than in "Communism with Chinese characteristics"). Mr. Schneider is positively giddy in his reports about the wonderful things that have happened in the Rust Belt and Ohio Valley because of natural gas' precipitous rise in America.

I am very skeptical about anybody dismissing those of us opposed to the Keystone XL project and shale gas, in general, as DNA (Do Nothing Anywhere) Americans. There are lots of reasons to oppose this shift from coal to natural gas. Just today the Old Grey Lady speaks about Kalamazoo and Mayflower as precursors to future disasters. While that may be speculative and/or reactionary (c'mon Fukishima couldn't happen again, right?) there is a bigger reason to be skeptical about not letting China burn its coal:

The coal will be burned anyway. If China does not burn it, they will export it to Africa and the developing world. Warren Buffet is already making moves to ready North America for the exportation of its no longer needed coal resources...and the ports might somebody be convertible to LNG terminals, as well.

Until the economic community gets real about rebound effect (Jevons' Paradox) and removes all corporate gains from efficiency savings from the corporations' and the public's pockets, we will spiral towards a climactic climatic disaster! I am not optimistic about this happening if Obama appoints Summers to the Fed, but that is a convoluted political sidebar issue stemming from my fear of Larry's chronic macroeconomic orthodoxy.)

Blessing a fuel shift to the lesser of two evils would be the moral equivalent of my organization giving its blessing to Haier, GE, and Maytag for the production of combined washer-dryer units, because they are not producing two white goods for families, just one. Either scenario is completely unsustainable. As much endogenous energy as there is in two obsolescing large appliances, the energy just one and certainly both would use over their lifetime(s) is still the bigger concern--just as the water that a nuclear power or other thermal plant withdraws over its 40-year expected life is more significant than the water used to build its concrete reactor vessel and/or cooling towers. I shudder to think of a world where Godrej has delivered just one washer-dryer unit to ever hamlet in India...never mind one to every household therein.

Note: All emission estimates from the Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions
and Sinks: 1990-2011
.
The natural gas and petroleum industry is three times worse than coal in terms of emissions, according to my understanding of the EPA data (US Methane emissions by source). Methane, even if the Massachusetts-tested PG&E lasers can cut down on leaks, is 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 10 year period. Our 100 year-centric carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) accounting system should not forget that the 20 year global warming potential (GWP) of methane is 72, which means that if the same mass of methane and carbon dioxide were introduced into the atmosphere, that methane will trap 72 times more heat than the carbon dioxide over the next 20 years! 

It is very Seventh Generational thinking to be concerned about a 100 year horizon, which is a laudable mode of thinking, but most of us are legitimately worried about a 20 year horizon or maybe 50 years in terms of our own health...and the planet's. Even as I write this, I live in a city (Beijing) where the PM 2.5 is over 300 ("hazardous") at Xizhimen North Street air quality index measuring stationIt is extremely dangerous for me to go outside, but don't be fooled by the media's post-Olympics focus on China's capital--there are many other cities here that have just as bad or worse air. Those of you who have the benefit of living in a better air environment should be careful before condemning the whole developing world to ozone (smog) levels like we are seeing today. Continuing to exploit fossil fuel (coal or natural gas) is penny-wise and pound foolish.

Perhaps, I am jaded and "transition fuels" are a good idea, but I need to be convinced that keeping the developing world from exploiting shale gas and allowing them to use ever diminishing amounts of coal is worse than letting them burn through the shale gas while other parts of this largely undeveloped world exploit the coal. Maybe what I am suggesting is draconian, because it keeps the second-tier developing nations (i.e., African republics, the ones who will use the coal if the BRICS opt for natural gas/methane/CH4) from immediately becoming frenzied consumer cultures like the China that I am witnessing. 

I support Bill McKibben and those opposed to Keystone XL, because not allowing the natural gas industry to develop quickly is the only feasible pathway to a lower carbon future that I see. I hope the Chinese government gets real about policy suggestions for addressing Jevons' paradox; confronts Haier about making washer-dryers; and does not move to a "transition fueled" economy, enabling it to enrich itself by selling coal to second-tier Third World nations. It will be the end of the world as we know it.