Last month two widely-known scientists - one of them a zillionaire who gets in the news all the time for many reasons - published a study saying in effect that the US Department of Energy is, if not lying to us, is getting something dreadfully wrong. All the talk about natural gas being a "bridge" to a low-carbon economy is near-delusional. It may have other benefits but as for climate: forget it for helping out for at least 100 years.
The paper evaded the tracker's notice when fresh. But thanks to a piece encountered while looking for something else we have for discussion today a fine example of a the gorilla-in-the-room syndrome. It causes reporters and editors to pull blinkers over their eyes as easily as it does politicians. Important matters can be so big nobody wants to talk about them. It's like a boat owner busily re-caulking all the portholes to stop leaks, shoving to the back of his or her mind the brutal fact that the stem and keel are rotten. Or sportswriters who write lustily about the wonderful hard-hitting new linebacker the local gridiron heroes have retained, pushing aside the sure knowledge that this stalwart warrior will leave concussed opponents and perhaps himself with permanent brain damage.
- National Geographic - Mason Inman: Natural Gas a Weak Weapon Against Climate Change, New Study Asserts ; The lede's message: Even if natural gas facilities replaced ALL the coal plants in the world right now, it would do little to slow global warming over the next 100 years.
Me too. I've been thinking that fracking-polluted ground water every once in a while, here and there, is a reasonable price to pay for natural gas liberated from shale that burns pretty clean and sorta low-carbon. It supplants coal. Gives us a head start toward eventual climatic redemption. Just yesterday Energy Sec'y Steve Chu, a hero to me then and now, told a largely-hostile Congressional panel he was and is very enthusiastic about natural gas as a transition fuel to a clean-energy economy. Turns out, it seems from what just crossed the laptop screen, such global warming satisfaction in CH4 is way off base. We (me) knew it all along. Just can't quite stop pretending otherwise.
The authors of the study are Stanford's (and the Carnegie Institution's) Ken Caldeira, and Nathan Myhrvold. The former is know for just such studies as this. The latter is former CTO at Microsoft, celebrity chef-gadget cooking guru, mathematical physicist, boss of his own think-tank invention factory, and all round very-smart guy who is surely much in demand as a dinner guest who can talk about anything and if you're charming yourself may invite you to his place on Lake Washington. The paper was in Environmental Research Letters, published February 16. The closing line in the abstract is:
Conservation, wind, solar, nuclear power, and possibly carbon capture and storage appear to be able to achieve substantial climate benefits in the second half of this century; however, natural gas cannot.
This can be construed many ways, but all of them comprise some usefulness no matter where one sits in the spectrum of climate change persuasion. Any story on it would get bi-partisan attention. If you're green, you'll yelp screw the natural gas, we gotta go all renewable right now! (some greens'll even concede nuclear power is worth a big expansion, assuming up-front costs and proliferation risks drop). If you're red as the Tea Party or work for Peabody, you'll yelp that this shows we might as well keep on burning our home-dug, cheap coal. Drill baby drill might come up too.
These authors have credibility and celebrity zing. The report went hardly anywhere in mass media. Aside from the gorilla-blindness, reasons surely include weariness. The general message won't be fresh. The same sort of ennui stops outlets in the Bay Area or up the coast and down-tsunami from the Cascadia Subduction Zone, from running yet another special on how we're not prepared for the Big One. Or may stop anybody from investigating conditions in nursing homes. Don't expect any good news or surprises from THAT.
Some others, such as bloggers, gave it a ride. Notable examples discovered this morning include:
- Innovative Policy Blog- Matthew Stepp: Natural Gas is a Climate Non-Starter, Still an Energy Innovation Policy Model; which Stepp followed up at The Energy Collective with: Mhrvold: We Need to Invent New Energy Technologies ; He calls the paper "a bleak, but realistic assessment of where we stand."
- Rolling Stone - Jeff Goodell: Why Obama is Wrong About Natural Gas ;
- Climate Central - Mike Lemonick: Natural Gas Our New Savior? Not So Fast....; Good comparison. He likens natural gas to ethanol, the bridge of a decade past.
- GreenLeft - Simon Butler: Gas a climate menace, says new study ; The piece is okay, the hed is hyperbole. That study doesn't call it a menace, just says it is not very useful and a distraction from the heavy work.
- Grist - David Roberts: Myhrvold finds we need clean energy yesterday (and no natural gas) to avoid being cooked ;
- GreenBiz - Robert Kropp: Switching to natural gas won't halt climate change ; Won't even slow it, hardly.
Me, I'd think a story on this methane put-down might be worth running in a major pub just to put it like this to foodie tech wizard Myhrvold: "Okay flambé-man, but I bet you're still cooking with gas. Is your range a ten-burner Wolf, or a Viking, La Cornue, or what?" Could be interesting. For all we know, maybe he installed his own pig barn and deodorizing plant just to fry up breakfast and dinner on certified zero-carbon-sum porcine emissions.
- Charlie Petit
Grist for the Mill: Carnegie Institution Press Release; ERL journal Greenhouse gases, climate change and the transition from coal to low-carbon electricity (full text pdf);