Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Extolling fossil fuels. Really?

 I was born one mornin' when the sun didn't shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said "Well, a-bless my soul"

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store

In an editorial printed in the 30 December Santa Fe New Mexican, Alex Epstein, President of the Center for Industrial Progress, extolls the virtues of fossil fuels, saying, quite correctly, that cheap and abundant fossil energy sources have powered human development during the Industrial Revolution and improved our lives. If you Google Alex Epstein, you will find a wealth of connections to pro-coal and pro-fossil energy essays. In the New Mexican, under a title "There's a moral case for fossil fuels" (original long version here), he says "...Fossil fuels have a profound moral importance. They allow us to improve human well being and make the world a better place..."

I can't help but wonder how Epstein is able to be such a Pollyanna in the 21st Century. It is absolutely true that cheap and abundant energy (traditionally including hydropower, coal, oil, natural gas) has and continues to drive human progress and has improved the human condition for those who have partaken of its benefits. Having said that, one has to look at the totality of the human endeavor and how it changes through time. A human infant is dependent on abundant and easily available mother's milk to grow and prosper. A mature adult consumes an entirely different mix to prosper.

At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, there were about a billion humans on the planet. Industrialization directly impacted only a few, first in England and later in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. There are now over seven billion of us; the rest of the world is rapidly cashing in on industrialization to obtain the goods and services we in the U.S. take for granted. If seven billion of us use fossil fuels, the impacts will be far greater than they were a century or two ago. Thus, one has to look at the complete, forward projected cost-benefit analysis of fossil fuel use rather than just the price at the pump or meter, in order to see what in the long term is a good idea.

We may not remember the bad air present in many American cities a half century ago (or, conversely, our booming industrial economy of a half century ago), but one only has to look at pictures of the air in urban China to see how bad it can get; one is not supposed to be able to see air. The immediate down side of fossil fuel use, especially coal, includes pollution in mining and pollution in combustion, the latter having both health and environmental impacts. Coal burning, for example, releases radionuclides, mercury, and a variety of toxic and acidic combustion gases and aerosols, the last, unless trapped technologically, being responsible for cardiovascular disease and for fresh water acidification such as we have seen in the Eastern U.S. An October, 2014 Consumer Reports article notes a dramatic rise in mercury concentration in long lived, top of the food chain fish in the North Pacific (I blogged on that here). This change in downwind ocean mercury chemistry is directly attributable to the rapid industrialization of the Far East and its reliance on primitive coal plants. We should note that the dirty side of coal burning is convincing the Chinese to invest in cleaner power sources such as nuclear.

In the long term, the reliance on fossil fuels by the world economy promises at least a couple things. One, that the world will constantly be struggling with the Hubbert Curves of supply and demand as we exploit each resource in boom and bust cycles, as we are currently doing with hydraulic fracturing. Secondly, the release of combustion products will have both short and long term impact. Mercury in fish is an immediate concern. Climate change is a long range problem.

CO2 is a "greenhouse" or Tyndell gas (acknowledgements to Dr. Michael Johnson in the New Mexican) and, along with water vapor and other "greenhouse" gases, contributes to making the earth quite inhabitable; without "greenhouse gases" the average temperature on the earth would be far colder, in this link about 32 deg C colder. The carbon-oxygen bonds in CO2 (and chemical bonds in water and other gases) absorb infrared energy that would otherwise escape back to space and re-radiate it within the atmosphere, an effect studied since the early eighteen hundreds by scientists including Joseph Fourier, Svante Arrhenius, and John Tyndall. Adding more CO2 to the atmosphere from sources long sequestered in the earth (stored as coal, oil, natural gas) makes humans agents of climate change by changing the atmosphere's effectiveness in absorbing energy that would otherwise be lost to space. CO2 is good and perhaps we could actually calculate optimal levels and keep them there. Like anything that is good, a lot more of it added without due prudence is not necessarily better. Think of what you would look like if you ate a half gallon of ice cream every night.

Climate, as any earth scientist will tell you, is a fickle beast and it changes with or without our help due to natural processes such as variations in solar output, wobbles in the Earth's orbit (Milankovich cycles), the eruption of supervolcanoes that release climate-impacting aerosols and gases, and variations in geophysical processes such as ocean currents and their relation to the positions of the continents. These changes, both slowly evolving and sometimes rapid and dramatic (i.e., the Little Ice Age) are not without consequence and can sometimes have catastrophic human impact, as the Anasazi in the Southwest and the Vikings in Greenland discovered (and discussed in Jared Diamond's book Collapse).  For example, adding heat to the earth by significantly increasing atmospheric CO2 above pre industrial levels can melt continental glaciers and raise sea level, acidify the oceans, speed up the water cycle and move climate belts. All of these impact human activities built on the implicit assumption, at least in the short term, of relative climate stasis. One can go up and down the coastlines of different nations and see perched shorelines, some of them due to previous high stands of the sea during periods between ice ages. One can study the migration of humans to North America when the Pleistocene glaciation created a land bridge between North America and Asia. Future humans may have to grapple with how to move whole cities and farm belts, irrespective of national boundaries.

So while cheap and abundant energy has very positive impacts on human activities (think of your life without food refrigeration), it is not without both positive and negative consequence. The real cost vs. benefits of the energy we use today is measured not just in the meter reading, but in how we will manage the present and future environmental as well as economic impacts our choices impose on us and the planet. Should we include in the cost of fossil fuel what is needed to manage climate change through geo-engineering or carbon sequestration? Should fossil energy be taxed to pay for the costs of cardiovascular disease directly linked to pollution?  How do we measure and calculate the cost benefit ratio of all of the "externalities" of fossil, nuclear, and renewable energy consumption? We must quantify these effects if we want to know how cheap, or conversely, how expensive, our energy sources really are, and how they compare to their alternatives.

A 600 word version of this has been submitted to the New Mexican as a "My View" contribution. Here 'tis...


Dr. J said...

Well done Khal.

Dr. J said...

Except for the misspellings of course……;-{)