Thursday, June 2. 2011
Michael Lind kicked off an argument on energy and climate policy. Andrew Leonard was taken aback, and Lind tried to regroup. The three pieces:
Lind's basic point is that fracking will save our energy-intensive way of life:
Lind skips over the two basic problems with nonconvential hydrocarbon extraction: the cost, especially as measured in energy, and the side effects, which include pollution and climate-altering carbon dioxide created when those hydrocarbons are burned. Lind doesn't deal with cost factors at all. Lind handwaves evidence that fracking pollutes, attacks Greens for promoting uncompetitive renewables, and dismisses climate change as "low probability" -- if it were probable that would be all the more reason for going nuclear, but since nobody wants nuclear the climate change risks must be negligible.
He goes further to blast conservation:
Leonard doesn't get into costs either, which I suspect is the real limit on how much nonconventional hydrocarbons we actually extract, but he does note the pollution externalities -- a word which attempts to translate oft-ignored intangibles like pollution into costs. And while he concedes that it would be nice to have more cheap energy to fall back on, he sees this as buying time, not carte blanche to act like the world's problems aren't our own.
Lind at least tried to put some distance between himself and the industry propagandists:
At least Lind didn't reiterate the relatively underdeveloped smears against conservation and renewables from the original article. I'm one of the first to admit that windmills have a downside -- the cemetery where many of my ancestors are buried is towered over by the things, creaking eerily in the sky, destroying an atmosphere that should be serene. But even if the upper limits of wind and solar power fall short of current, let alone future, fossil fuel demands, every kilowatt they shift extends the available reserves. Same for local food, for public transit, for tighter cities. It makes no sense to dismiss an alternative because it doesn't solve everything.
As for nuclear, Lind is either attempting to scare us, or he naively believes in utopia. There is a lot of uranium scattered about the crust of the earth, and quite a bit of thorium too. But it's not clear how much can really be mined and refined efficiently enough to produce more power than is consumed along the way -- a way that necessarily includes whatever you wind up having to do to safely dispose of the waste. Plus we don't have an especially good record of understanding the risks and accounting for their costs. Lind may be happy to suffer "an occasional Fukushima or Chernobyl" but most of us are more cautious, especially near our own backyards. I'm not hardcore anti-nuclear, but I don't see how this works.
I'm also not a global warming crank, but I can see a lot of real bad things happening short of turning Earth into Venus. Again, even if the little things that are doable prove inadequate, I don't see the logic of ridiculing them: can't hurt, and maybe they buy you a little time and flexibility to grapple with the big problems. Lind, however, rejects any moderating effort until we snap, at which point all he can offer us are horrors: martial law, conscripted business, an accident-prone nuclear power industry, God knows what else. He immediately rejects the first principle of progressivism, which is, hey, let's stop a minute and think about this, so we can plot out a course that does what we want to do.
But let's go back to the beginning here: fracking. I saw the movie Gasland recently. It's hard to tell from one personal take whether gas fracking is always destructive to the environment, but the movie does make the case that sometimes it is, and that there needs to be more trustworthy oversight so we can understand when things go wrong and what can be done about it. One thing that is clear is that the fracking fluid is deadly poisonous. Another is that industry standard practices of drilling gas wells and hooking up pipelines and infrastructure are not as safe and reliable as they should be. Another is that the profit-seeking gas companies have powerful incentives to hide rather than to face up to problems. It also isn't clear how economical it is to tap into shale gas: the deposits are thin and often poorly sealed; the horizontal drilling and fracturing are expensive and difficult. This raises questions: how densely do you have to drill? how quickly do the fields loose pressure? how much gas is actually recoverable? Unless all of this can be done by spending much less energy than is returned it will prove uneconomical.
The same basic questions apply to any tight oil or gas source. Until fracking was developed gas shale was uneconomical. Now, how far have we move that equation. We've known for a long time that there is a lot of oil shale in Canada, but it's always been real expensive to extract it. For now, all we can do is to strip off the shale closest to the surface, heat the rocks up to extract the oil, and dump almost everything as waste. Every step along the way uses up a significant fraction of the extracted oil, so you don't wind up with much profit. Tar sands are even tougher. When oil was $20/barrel people speculated that tar sands would be profitable at $40/barrel, but we've still never hit a price that works: it just takes too much energy. And everything else in the industry works that way. The biggest conventional oil finds in recent times have been deepwater offshore fields, and the real costs of drilling them just took a sudden leap in 2010.
And now Lind just waves his hand and we'll be able to process massive amounts of gas hydrates. All we have to do there is sink robots to the bottom of the ocean, have them dig off the sediment, then pick up little clumps of ice and methane and shuttle them back to the surface. Good news is that once you got them, the chemistry is pretty simple, but getting them is something else.
I don't doubt that eventually we'll pump every recoverable barrel of oil out of the ground, that we'll suck up all the gas we can afford, and that we'll mine all the coal we can get to. Nor do I doubt that we'll convert almost all of that carbon into carbon dioxide because we'll want to use all of the energy packed into those molecules. And we'll dump most of that carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it will trap solar energy and make the planet hotter and hotter. We've spent the last century doing just that as unthinkingly as possible, and if Lind has his way we'll just keep on doing just that, assuming that any problems that do crop up will miraculously solve themselves.
What bothers me about all this is its unthinking nonchalance. I don't doubt that if we really did think about it we would wind up burning all that fossil fuel. But we would recognize the benefits of slowing down the pace, both of the burning and of everything else that depends on that energy. Slow down the pace and you'll postpone the reckoning. Slow down the pace and you'll reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide and lessen its warming effect. Slow down the pace and you'll have more time to think about what you really want to do. In particular, you might think about how much consumption is enough for human happiness, and narrowing the band between not enough and too much to develop a more equitable society that leans more to cooperation than to competition, and therefore reduces conflict, allowing us to slow down further, and stretch out the time before we face the end of our fossil fuel endowment.
On the other hand, Lind doesn't want to slow down. He wants to keep racing on until we hit a wall, then start a big fight over whatever's left. Reminds you he never was a real progressive. He just got a lot of credit for turning on his fellow neocons and opposing the War on Terror. But here he is, dumb again.
Bonus link: Bill McKibben: Obama Strikes Out on Global Warming: Tom Engelhardt's intro reviews the latest climate news, before McKibben gets to what's bugging him:
Needless to say, this is just a small subset of Obama's handling of energy and environmental issues since taking office. You might recall that he had just unveiled a huge giveaway program to open up deep water oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and up and down the Atlantic coast when BP's well blew up. And he had just announced another round of incentives and subsidies for the nuclear power industry when Fukushima melted down. Time and again he's tried so hard to follow in GW Bush's footsteps, championing the crony capitalism his predecessor(s) worked so hard to advance. And time and again he's tripped himself up. That's not change you can believe in. That's the same old story you voted against.
Display comments as (Linear | Threaded)
The author does not allow comments to this entry