Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A new approach to phasing out fossil fuels

In November and December of last year, coal’s share of US electricity generation fell below 40% for the first time since 1978, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). While that sounds like good news, coal's relative decline is not so much about the rise of renewable energy but rather about the boom in shale gas. Advances in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) are making it much easier for drillers to extract gas from deep underground, so that by 2035 almost half of the natural gas we use in the United States will be shale gas.

Natural gas emits less CO2 than coal, but one of its components is methane. Emissions of methane from the extraction and distribution of natural gas are a potent driver of climate change. Why? Because in terms of heat-trapping potential, methane is 21 times more effective than carbon dioxide.

If we are going to tackle climate change, we need a realistic, integrated approach to coal and natural gas. And, as you will have noticed, we do not have much time.

The year 2010 was the warmest year on record, says the World Meteorological Organization. Last year, 2011, was the warmest for a year that experienced a La NiƱa event, which is supposed to cool the atmosphere. In the US, only six states had a near-normal December. Arctic sea ice extent for 2011 was the fifth lowest on record opening up the Northwest Passage for the second consecutive year, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. The pressing, global nature of the problem is why we have a UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

At Cancun, our government pledged to reduce GHG emissions significantly, so that by 2020 they would be 17% below 2005 levels. But in fact our GHG emissions have gone up, and they continue to rise. In 1990 we emitted approximately 6,000 million tons. In 2006, the figure was about 7,075 million tons. This year, we will probably reach 7,700 million tons, i.e. 25% more than in 1990. That should put the good news about coal in context.

Power companies are using less coal and more natural gas because the latter is cheaper than the former. Why is natural gas cheaper? Because of advances in fracking technology. But how can fossil-fuel companies afford to invest in fracking technology when the price is dropping? The EIA explains: "high crude oil prices... significantly improve the economics of natural gas plays that have high concentrations of crude oil, condensates, or natural gas liquids." This interplay of oil, coal, and natural gas prices is an important factor that we need to take into account as we devise policies for reducing fossil-fuel use.

As we fashion those policies, we need to understand the scale and urgency of the problem. Together, coal and natural gas make up 50% of the country’s energy consumption. This year they will account for about 3,000 million tons of CO2 equivalents. Last year, the federal government projected that 23 years from now that figure will have climbed to 3,738 million tons. This year, the projection for 2035 is lower but still predicts that our country's total electricity-related carbon dioxide output will grow by 4.9% from 2012 to 2035. 

We cannot slow down climate change if our CO2 and other GHG emissions increase. Yes, natural gas is supplanting coal in the electricity sector and, arguably, natural gas produces less CO2 than coal. At the point of use (i.e. excluding the carbon cost of extracting it) natural gas is cleaner than coal. Another supposedly redeeming feature of natural-gas power stations is the possibility of re-powering them to run on hydrogen. After all, hydrogen is not a climate change culprit. 

However, the Fusina hydrogen plant in Italy currently relies on fossil fuels from a neighboring petrochemical facility for feedstock.  The petrochemical facility captures the carbon dioxide but, to make the whole process cost-effective, the owners then pump it underground to help extract more oil. A power plant that not only requires fossil fuels to operate but also facilitates the extraction of even more fossil fuels is hardly a model of sustainability.

The current trend from coal to natural gas is not reducing our CO2 emissions in any meaningful way. In the past, subsidies may have encouraged the renewable energy industry to come up with new products, but as Richard Kauffman, Senior Adviser to the Secretary of Energy, points out: "Without financial mechanisms to encourage creation of a domestic market, there’s no domestic demand for developing these products in the United States." This is a market failure that we need to fix, and fix fast.

As a nation we need a coherent, integrated policy that encourages the market for renewables. A starting point could be the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, which requires electricity providers to increase the proportion of renewable energy they use by one per cent every year. Scaling this policy up to the national level -- and upping the annual increase from one per cent to five percent -- would help renewables take the place of fossil fuels over the course of ten years. 

Given the political complexion of Congress, we are not likely to see a national renewable-energy mandate in the next few years. But we cannot wait in the hope that the Republicans lose their majority at the next congressional elections. And a state-by-state approach has not borne fruit so far. Instead I believe that we need to look at regional, multi-state responses. Again, Massachusetts helps point the way.

Massachusetts is a member of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which in 2005 established a market for carbon trading. Despite the fact that it comprises nine different states RGGI is not an interstate compact, which would require congressional approval, but simply an agreement between the signatories. Whatever the merits of RGGI in terms of actually reducing emissions, it provides a precedent for an interstate agreement that bypasses Congress entirely.

Based on the renewable energy portfolio standard and RGGI, I believe that it is both necessary and feasible to set up a multi-state renewable energy agreement. Using their combined market power, a dozen or so states could require all power utilities in their jurisdiction to provide an increasing percentage of electricity from non-fossil, non-nuclear sources so that by, say, 2035, at least 50% of the electricity in the region would come from renewables. 

With the economic and political power of the fossil-fuel industry, a collective approach makes sense. If Vermont, for example, tried to adopt a 50%-by-2035 rule, the big utilities might well be able to push the state into changing its mind (although Vermont's determination to adopt single-payer healthcare despite heavy lobbying by the insurance industry might give them pause). By joining together with the others, each state would be punching above its weight. 

If you agree that it is time for an interstate agreement requiring 50% of our electricity to come from renewables by 2035, please let me know.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Greens battle fossil foolery in Australia

As Greens in the United States wrangle with fracking, we can learn a thing or two from our counterparts in Australia. Greens like Senator Larissa Waters are trying to put the brakes on the rush to extract coal seam gas (CSG), the latest fossil foolery to hit New South Wales and Queensland. CSG is not the same as shale gas exactly, as this article explains, but both are forms of natural gas that exacerbate climate change.

Senator Larissa Waters (Green)
Waters, a Canadian-born environmental lawyer, won her seat in 2010. Since then she has been pressing for a Senate inquiry into the impacts of CSG but so far the state government has refused, despite the fact that two-thirds of Queenslanders agree with putting CSG extraction on hold.

Here's a video of Senator Waters explaining why Greens are standing with farmers in their struggle with the mining companies.

Friday, March 16, 2012

No Fracking says Northern Ireland Assembly

Mixed news from both jurisdictions of Ireland this St. Patrick's Day. First the good news. 
Steven Agnew, the sole Green member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, successfully pushed for a moratorium on fracking.  His motion (which he filed jointly with the Alliance party) won 49 votes in the Assembly last December, with 30 members voting against. 
Steven Agnew (r)
This success shows what even one Green legislator can achieve with a few allies on the inside and strong grassroots support on the outside. 

Now the not-so-good news from Ireland's other jurisdiction. The fossil-fuel extractor Tamboran is pushing ahead with its plans to drill in Ireland's Bundoran shale and the Minister for Communications, Energy & Natural Resources, Pat Rabbitte, has issued the company a licensing option. Rabbitte is a Labor member of the coalition government and his letter to the Irish Times last year suggests that the government is focusing more on short-term revenue concerns than on long-term climate impacts.

Let's hope for better news next St. Patrick's Day.