Tuesday, June 3, 2014

What We Know about Coal and Natural Gas: The EPA’s Coal Emissions Targets

Coal is the bad guy. At least it is the antagonist in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 645-page carbon-emissions plan unveiled in early June, 2014. In spite of the fact that the 30% reduction in CO2 emissions from the level in 2005 being set for 2030, critics showed their oligarchic focus on today by pointing to what the current likely costs would be. Electric bills increasing $4 or so a month in West Virginia. Lost jobs—as if the criteria of capital were also those of labor. In short, short-term inconveniences without a hint of the other side of the ledger. I submit that this is precisely the element in human nature that can be likened to the proverbial “seed of its own destruction” in terms of the future of our species. As menacing as such “reductionism to today” is, the assumption such as underlies the EPA’s proposal that coal is the definitive obstacle—and, furthermore—that we are not missing any other huge but invisible danger—is just as problematic from the standpoint of the species’s survival.

I have in mind the EPA’s projections by fuel type going out to 2030 from 2012. From 37% of the electricity generated in 2012, the comparable projected figure is 32% for 2013.[1] While at least the direction is downward in relation to the other fuel types, climatologists would doubtless say more of a drop is necessary to stave off more than a 2 degree C global increase.  As damning as this “ok but not good enough” scenario is pertaining to coal, the more damning feature of the report is that it may be very wrong about something it takes to be an improvement.

For example, the natural gas category is projected to go from 30% in 2012 to 35% in 2030[2]. That’s good, right, because it’s the clean gas. Not so fast. Independent empirical studies of leaks in Utah, L.A., and Washington, D.C. have shown much higher levels of methane escaping into the atmosphere than the 1% touted by the producers and adopted (without independent confirmation) by the EPA. In the observations, the actual percentages of leakage were double-digits. The problem is that the break-even point with coal in impacting global warming is 3 percent. Methane, which natural gas gives off before being burnt, turns out to have ten times the impact as coal.

My point is that even though by now we are used to the contingents that put today’s convenience above the risk to the future of the species, we don’t know what we don’t know, and this can be even more dangerous. In other words, what we assume to be a good thing may in actual fact be doing a lot of damage under our very eyes. We may not have a clue as to how what we are doing today is impacting the planet’s atmosphere. This may be one reason why scientists have repeatedly had to accelerate their projections of when the ice sheets would melt at the poles.

Human nature may be much more problematic from the standpoint of the species’s own survival than we know. Not only have 1.8 million years of natural selection engrained in us a focus on today (e.g., fight or flight) at the expense of tomorrow; we may be very wrong about stuff we assume we got right and yet be totally unaware of it. It is as though our species were a person with long hair who never bothers to use a mirror to make sure that the hair in back is brushed. The laugh is on that person, and yet she (or he) has no idea. The industrialists who are instinctively wetted to the status quo out of a desire for financial gain may just be the tip of the iceberg; we had better look underneath before it has totally melted.

[1] Wendy Koch, “EPA Carbon-Cutting Plan Could See Power Shift,” USA Today, June 3, 2014.
[2] Ibid.