Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Natural Gas: Plank to the Future

I usually try to find a source for images I use on my blog, but I keep finding images similar to this on web sites about online piracy -- without attribution! I would love at least to know the name of the artist.
On my way to "whaling" on Sunday morning, I heard two important stories about climate change, the second with direct relevance to my new hobby.


The phrase "Bridge to Nowhere" refers to the proposed Gravina Island Bridge in Alaska that would replace ferry service to the airport currently serving Ketchikan, Alaska. Even as it remains unbuilt, it estimated cost has continued to grow, reaching about $40,000 for each and every resident of the city. That would buy a lot of ferry rides, and the foolishness of the proposal has embarrassed even members of Congress in the proponents' own party. (See an overview and commentary to learn more about the most famous non-bridge in history.)

Politicians of both major parties -- and even some environmentalists -- regularly promote an even more costly boondoggle when they characterize natural gas as a bridge energy source. President Obama's "all of the above energy policy" is simply a refusal to acknowledge that natural gas is a fossil fuel. It burns more cleanly than coal or oil, but its recovery does more climate disruption than either of these. I have written extensively in this space about the pernicious nature of fracking as a recovery method. As civil engineer Tony Ingraffea explains in Climate Risks from Leaky Natural Gas Wells, however, even conventional wells are a huge source of climate disruption, long after the gas has driven our bus or heated our soup.
On a recent drive through Pennsylvania, we did not see these wells, but we saw a few of the thousand of trucks needed to carry water and equipment to them. We also saw plenty of evidence of the giddy economic bubble surrounding thi rush to extraction, from young guys in $50,000 pickups to real estate billboards and strip clubs.
Back to the metaphor that the industry and politicians and even some environmentalists like to use: natural gas is not a bridge. If it were, it would be connecting us in a reasonable amount of time to some other energy future. As currently operating, though, it simply serves as another way of ensuring that virtually all of the carbon stored several hundred million years before the arrival of human is put into the atmosphere in the blink of a geologist's eye. It is not a "bridge" in any meaningful sense, and actually generates profits while delaying real changes in the use of energy.


Otter warrior
 Inbar TrueFlight
After hearing this very discouraging story, I continued my drive to the historic whaling center of New Bedford Harbor, where I was to meet my crew for an hour or so of rowing our replica whaleboat around the harbor, where we would indulge in a close-up view of the historic whaleship Ernestina before heading very briefly out to sea.

So it was fitting that I heard a somewhat more encouraging story with a whaling connection. In Otters as Climate Defenders, environmental studies professor Chris Willmer explains a complicated sequence of event by which whaling in the Pacific a century ago contributes to climate change today, by limiting the ocean's ability to absorb carbon dioxide. Enter the otter, whose restoration in the northern Pacific could be funded by the many millions of dollars of carbon credits that could be offset.


For introductory resources on climate change, please see my Inconvenient Geography page and be sure to click on the link back to this blog. For ongoing information about climate activism worldwide, join Bill McKibben's 350.org. To find out how the vulnerability and responsibility vary at a global scale, please see the Mary Robinson Foundation; for a focus on variable impacts in the United States, please see the NAACP Climate Justice Initiative page.

Finally, the best possible introduction to the topic is Carl Safina's beautiful and terrifying The View from Lazy Point, which is now required reading for all of my introductory Environmental Geography students. I first heard about the book from Safina himself on the program that is the source of both stories above -- Living on Earth.

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