The production of coal energy is coming to an end with the last Ontario plant scheduled for closure in 2014. Now Canadians are looking to other sources of fuel for electricity production to make up the base and demand loads necessary to guarantee an uninterrupted supply to homes and industry. With nuclear energy proving too expensive and potentially dangerous, many countries are turning to natural gas as a viable alternative. Now some environmentalists are questioning claims that natural gas is a clean, green source of energy.
“The large GHG footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over the coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming,” says Professor Robert Howarth, Cornell University. The objection to natural gas is twofold: there are substantial carbon emissions during energy production and the process of fracking (which is used when mining natural gas) contributes just as much to global warming as coal-fired plants do.
Natural gas originally won its green-energy status because its carbon emissions are about half those of coal-fired energy plants. Natural gas is a non-renewable resource that is extracted, cleaned and then burned in turbines and boilers to create steam, power turbines and produce electricity. Plants powered by gas do output reduced nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide emissions when compared to coal-burning plants. However, methane released when gas is not completely burned, as well as during the production of natural gas negate the positive aspect gas plants enjoy.
Fracking is the process of extracting natural gas that is trapped deep beneath shale beds. Long wells are drilled to the gas reserves (usually about 1km or deeper). A mixture of chemicals, water and sand is then pumped into the ground to force the gas up through fissures in the shale where it is collected. We are not entirely sure what impact fracking has on the environment as the cocktail of chemicals used in the process has been deemed a ‘trade secret’. We are, however, able to measure the emissions from plants that produce natural gas. A February 2012 study discovered that the production, transportation and burning of natural gas caused the release of considerable amounts of methane into the atmosphere.
Fracking has also been linked to water pollution, earthquakes and the destruction of pristine environments. New studies show that the chemical cocktail used in fracking will leach into groundwater aquifers sooner than expected. France and Bulgaria have banned fracking in reaction to environmental concerns, but the practice is still enjoying unprecedented growth in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, China and other countries. In the US, shale gas accounts for about a quarter of the nation’s gas production. 70% of gas wells in Canada utilize fracking in the extraction processes.
The EPA sets the average leakage of gas production plants at 3.3% and that number increases to 9.7% where fracking is employed to extract gas. Natural gas consists of 85% methane and is a whopping 105 times worse for global warming than other greenhouse gas emissions. Methane on its own is 25 times better at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. When methane reacts with aerosols in the atmosphere, this global warming effect is compounded.
The idea that natural gas may provide a panacea to our energy needs is being challenged. This has not had a discernible impact on the growth of gas plants according to Sheamus MacLean of Economic Performance Architects. Cheap gas prices have led to the adoption of this form of energy production over renewable energy sources like wind or solar. Reliance on natural gas energy may prove to be a leap from the frying pan into the fire due to the global warming and environmental impacts of gas extraction and energy production.
Fossil fuel companies have got it good. Our reliance on the energy that these industries produce has led to an “ unholy alliance with government based not just on the money that they contribute to political campaigns and spend on lobbying but on their ability to hypnotize us with false prices,” according to Dylan Rattigan’s new expose aptly titled Greedy Bastards. For decades, the fossil fuel industry has enjoyed subsidies, tax breaks, military assistance in volatile areas and help cleaning up environmental disasters while bragging about keeping the cost of fuel down.
The true cost of fossil fuels is not just environmental, but fiscal too. The industry receives an annual bailout of $10 – $40 billion and, according to an Environmental Law Institute study, oil companies alone received $72 billion in handouts between 2002 and 2008. When disasters occur, the fossil fuel industry relies on government to help clean up the mess, utilizing tax payer’s money to do so.
The coal industry is also heavily subsidized. A 2009 report from the National Research Council investigated the massive toll that air pollution, resulting from the burning of fossil fuels, takes on public health. They estimated that over $120 billion is spent annually on diseases resulting from air pollution. A Harvard study on the health costs of coal was even more dire; “Between the land disturbance, the mountaintop removal, the processing … and the combustion, we estimate that this is costing the American public somewhere between a third to half a trillion dollars in health costs and deaths,” said Dr. Paul Epstein, lead researcher of the Harvard study. The study found the true cost of coal was about 26.86 cents more per kWh than we currently pay. The American Economics Review crunched the numbers and discovered that the electricity generated by coal actually cost more than it was worth.
If the true costs of fossil fuel energy were represented in the price, the move to renewables would be expedited. The problem is that no one wants to pay the true price of fossil fuels and they are reticent to make the investment that switching to renewables would entail. The solution? Fee and dividend schemes have been suggested by several leading thinkers in the industry. Under this model, the fossil fuel companies would be charged a small annual fee which would then be distributed to the public. NASA’s Dr. James Hansen is a proponent of the scheme: “The price of fossil fuel energy will rise, but with today’s fossil fuel uses, over 60 percent of the people will get more in their dividend than they pay in increased energy prices. People who have several houses or fly around the world all the time will have costs that increase more than their dividend. People will tend to make consumer and lifestyle choices that minimize their carbon emissions—this will happen naturally via the prices that they see.”
The Obama administration calls for the end to fossil fuel subsidies every year; a call that garners much bi-partisan support. However, election campaign handouts serve to secure the fossil fuel industry subsidies. Some European countries have thrown off the shackles of fossil fuel subsidies. Although gas costs two to three times what we pay for it, the rush to build more fuel efficient homes and vehicles means that soon they will have weaned themselves from their reliance on fossil fuel and will, ultimately, be paying less for their energy. Less money spent on energy, and also on healthcare and military support for the fossil fuel industries overseas will increase their savings exponentially.
Super Bowl Sunday, resplendent with fast food, beer, pyrotechnics and aging rock starts, is one of the sport’s calendars most extravagant events. In recent years, however, the Super Bowl has been making an effort to reduce its carbon footprint and Super Bowl XLVI was the greenest to date. The Super Bowl host committee worked hard to reduce emissions and green the surrounding communities in an effort to reduce its monumental environmental impact.
If this sounds like a tall order for an event that has to light up an enormous stadium with a rollback roof, provide food and drink and sports paraphernalia that fans can wave around before throwing in the bin, then you are right. To offset emissions from the enormous amount of electricity the stadium utilizes, 15 000 megawatt hours of renewable energy certificates were provided by Green Mountain Energy Company, a nearby wind farm and one of the nation’s oldest green energy providers. This is enough energy to power 25 million flat screen TVs for the duration of the game or allow 53.3 million households to microwave themselves a bowl of Queso cheese dip in preparation for the big game. The energy certificates will save 29 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere.
Not only will green energy power everything in the stadium from the lights to the scoreboard, but carbon offset measures will be taken to mitigate the emissions created by flying and driving the teams and support staff out to the event. The Green Mountain Energy Company is doing its bit too by donating a solar array to a local household in the Near East Side Legacy Project which aims to uplift this central city neighbourhood. “Green Mountain Energy Company has helped us reduce the overall environmental impact of Super Bowl activities,” said NFL Environmental Program Director Jack Groh. “Together, we have been able to expand the way we address greenhouse gas emissions and leave a permanent benefit to the host community.”
Ongoing efforts will see the planting of 1, 700 trees in urban areas in and around Indianapolis. This will help to reduce air pollution in the cities. Pepsi Cola is providing specially designed recycling bins at the venue to help recycle as much of the waste generated by the event as possible. Food recovery company, Second Helpings, will work to recover tens of thousands of pounds of leftover food from Super Bowl venues. The food is then re-prepared and distributed to over 60 social service organizations that use it to feed the hungry.
Tom Szaky of Treehugger calls the move to green the Super Bowl a “pleasant surprise”. He goes on to say: “I am an eco-skeptic, but I couldn’t help thinking to myself that this is something the NFL probably isn’t doing to gain new viewers. I suspect they’re doing it out of a larger sense of corporate responsibility.” Szaky also mentions the upcoming elections and the environmental impact these ‘ Super Bowl ‘ events have, making a call for all who have large events to follow the exemplary lead that Super Bowl XVLI has set.
The US military improves its carbon footprint
The military is America’s largest consumer of fuel, spending over $15 billion last year alone. It has an enormous carbon footprint and its reliance on fossil fuels encumbers progress and renders it vulnerable to attack. All that is about to change as the military adopts new energy policies that will save lives, money and the environment too.
Recent congressional directives and presidential orders are forcing the military to clean up their act. In an effort to reduce costs and improve safety, the Pentagon has ordered the military to develop weapons which are more environmentally friendly, utilize renewable energy sources, and encourage more energy-efficient behaviour from their troops.
One of the greatest motivations for the move is the growing cost of fossil fuels. In WW2, each soldier required only 1 gallon of fuel per day to function efficiently. Modern military operations utilize a staggering 22 gallons per soldier per day. The cost of providing this fuel is overwhelming. Supplying fuel for the 300,000 service men and women in Iraq in 2007 required 1,000 trucks a day and 35, 400 troops who often took weeks to drive fuel to distant outposts. The cost of each gallon could spiral to hundreds of dollars (over $400 dollars in some cases) as it had to be trucked or flown to remote areas over rugged terrain. One in eight casualties was sustained in the transport or protection of fuel convoys.
A leaner, greener military will see a reduction in costs and the carbon footprint of operations. If troops in the field are able to rely on renewable energy sources like solar, they will be more mobile and efficient.
Small portable solar arrays, which can be rolled up and easily transported, provide troops in the field with a power source for their electronic equipment. Larger solar panels are used to supply power to bases for air conditioning, lighting and electronic equipment.
The major source of consumption is vehicular and the military have been experimenting for some time with biofuels. The Navy is developing “the great green fleet” which comprises an aircraft carrier and F-18 fighter jets and helicopters that run on bio-fuels. The fleet will be deployed by 2016. By 2020, the military hopes that at least 50% of its energy will come from renewable sources.
Bases also consume massive amounts of energy, especially in areas of inclement weather. Although new buildings are already expected to attain LEED certification, the military hopes that all bases will be net zero by 2020. The military uses a two-prong approach to achieve these lofty energy efficiency targets; a reliance on the strength and insulating powers of ICFs coupled with renewable energy sources such as solar, geothermal and wind energy to power operations.
General Martin E. Dempsey puts it like this: “Saving energy saves lives… Whatever and whenever our forces go into harm’s way, they must have the best tools available. Improving our energy security can help us do that, and we don’t have time to waste”
Withdrawal from Kyoto Protocol not Canada’s finest hour
The immanent end of the Kyoto protocol necessitated the drafting of a new agreement that many hoped would promote more immediate action on climate change. Last year’s UN summit in Cancun had bred hopes of a new era of international collaboration on climate change as world powers agreed that keeping global warming below 2°C was imperative and, with time running out (a reduction by 2020 is necessary to avert a 2°C increase), it finally seemed as though the world was intent on meaningful action. In Cancun, the powers that be architectured a global emissions monitoring system and forged a commitment to help developing countries with climate change. The Durban climate change summit was meant to bolster the terms agreed upon in Cancun and forge a legally binding agreement. In a dramatic conclusion to the Durban meeting, world leaders from 194 countries hammered out an agreement a full 36 hours after the summit was scheduled to end.
Spearheaded by the EU, the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action will see major world powers collaborating in a legally binding agreement that will extend the mandate of the Kyoto protocol. The agreement reinforces their commitment to the prevention of climate change through emissions reduction initiatives. The signatories also agreed to draft a legally binding protocol by 2015 which will be enacted by 2020; a move seen as too little too late by some, and hailed as a breakthrough by others. The platform also committed to raising $100 billion by 2020 to help developing countries with their bids to prevent climate change. The platform extended the current Kyoto protocol to 2017.
Rhian Kelly, CBI director of business, echoed most big business sentiments when she extolled the agreement as a success. “Tangible progress towards a global deal in the form of a roadmap and the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol is a great result and shows that the UN process is not dead in the water,” she said. “However, this isn’t a deal itself and must be used as the base camp for the mountain we’re still to climb. We need to keep the momentum going and ensure this roadmap results in something concrete. Businesses have not slowed their pace in managing their emissions, developing new low-carbon products, and investing in new sources of low-carbon energy – we need the same level of ambition from our politicians.” The perceived success of the summit by big business is mostly due to the fact that business leaders do not expect the platform to result in any concrete change to their operations.
Others cite the platform’s lack of resolve and firm action as proof that it did not go far enough. Many environmental groups declared that the summit fell short of actions that will result in meaningful change. The continued reticence of India and China to commit to legally binding protocols is the major hurdle in the bid to prevent climate change. The US and EU suggested that China and India be removed from the list of developing countries, given their volume of GHG emissions and the size of their economies. These suggestions were resisted with the officials of both countries urging the west to fully implement existing agreements in their own countries before any new legally binding protocols were created.
Many environmental groups and those in the scientific community counter that the glacial pace of reform renders climate change inevitable: “This empty shell of a plan leaves the planet hurtling towards catastrophic climate change. If Durban is to be a historic stepping stone towards success, the world must urgently agree to ambitious targets to slash emissions,” said Andy Atkins, executive director of Friends of the Earth.
The Durban summit was not Canada’s finest hour
The government’s continued support of the lucrative oil sands initiative in Alberta makes the restrictions of the Kyoto protocol too expensive to comply with. As a result, Canada withdrew from the Kyoto protocol in a bid to save $14 billion in penalties for failing to meet emissions targets.