Obama’s Dubious Proposal to Address Climate Change Involves Burning More Trees

Barack Obama (Public Domain)

Barack Obama (Public Domain)

The good news is that the Obama administration is well on its way to addressing the complex issue of climate change. President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan is expected to be released by the EPA in the summer of 2015.

The plan establishes carbon emission goals for the states to meet. Basically, it cuts emissions generated from electricity production by 30% by 2030. Each state is allowed to use “building blocks” as the Union of Concerned Scientists explains:

Renewable energy resources account for one of the building blocks, alongside nuclear power, efficiency improvements at individual fossil fuel plants, shifting generation from coal to natural gas, and greater energy efficiency in buildings and industries.

This initiative is one of the most extensive attempts by the U.S. government to face climate change in years. It is targeting coal burning, one of the most polluting sources of energy. That has caused considerable consternation in coal-producing regions like West Virginia.

However, there is disconcerting news deep in the Clean Power Plan. The options for less conventional sources that can also be used to reduce coal burning includes biomass, and the bioenergy that would develop from using it. Bioenergy can come from a range of sources, including compost to corn.

One of the primary sources is trees. The Obama administration appears willing to adopt the notion that trees can be harvested for fuel as an alternative to coal. Specifically, the plan will allow forest and farm products to be considered carbon free. Anyone who has gone through the first week of a high school chemistry class knows that calling forest and farm products carbon free is a fat and wide lie.

The Clean Power Plan is still in the public comment stage so it may be changed before it becomes final. The idea that forests could be viewed as a clean energy source that won’t hurt the environment is wrong in the carbon it would emit, removal of trees to process the carbon back to oxygen and disruption of natural habitats beginning to face stress from climate change.

Even more disturbing is that Obama’s plan could come close to doubling the annual wood harvest in the United States. Politico reports:

Princeton University researcher Tim Searchinger has calculated that if government electricity forecasts are correct, treating biomass as carbon-neutral would produce a 70 percent increase in the U.S. wood harvest, consuming more than four times as many trees as Americans save through paper recycling programs.

It appears that the forest industry has successfully lobbied the Obama administration to accept their energy as sustainable, even though it would trash paper recycling programs and spew needless carbon into the air. More trees are being planted every year than are being cut. That means our forests are growing in size. The forest industry is arguing that point as why sustainably managed forests are carbon neutral.

It appears that the Obama administration, in a quickening effort to reduce coal, is ready to trade off anything, including common sense.

By not expanding bioenergy production, the Clean Power Plan’s electricity would have to be produced by alternatives to most fossil fuels, such as nuclear or solar. That should be a simple solution where the forests can continue to operate as a sink for carbon emissions and not a contributor. Instead, we are on the edge of missing an opportunity to reduce carbon emissions even further. It makes no sense, and we can only hope this foolish idea is absent from the final plan.

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Unraveling the Keystone Pipeline

Keystone XL pipeline. Those words have become the latest in the ideological battles between Democrats and Republicans. The debate over the Keystone XL pipeline, which is proposed to carry oil from Canada’s tar sands to Texas refineries, has gone on for years. As with most divisive issues, it has split the political debate into the left and right. Liberals are against it, generally for environmental reasons. Conservatives are for it, generally to make the U.S. more energy self-sufficient. However, the Keystone pipeline isn’t easily resolved by ideological posturing. The facts make it a much grayer issue than opponents and proponents would like you to believe.

BACKGROUND: The pipeline is planned to cover 1,179 miles from Alberta, Canada, to Steele City, Nebraska. The U.S. portion is to cover 875 miles. At Steele City, the pipeline is to connect with other pipelines that will take the oil to the Texas Gulf Coast refineries. The pipeline can carry up to 830,000 barrels of oil a day.

The above is straightforward. There is not an argument there. Because the pipeline crosses an international border, it requires approval from the federal government. With Republicans for it, and Democrats against it, the issue remains deadlocked as long as Washington has a divided government.

One point of clarification, the Alberta region where the Keystone pipeline begins has been called both tar sands and oil sands. It is the same thing. Both names were used interchangeably for years. In the last ten years, the petroleum industry has tried to make the product sound better by referring to it as oil sands. Tar sands are a better description, because they are sticky and more tarry than oily. That is what this article will use.

FACT: There is already a Keystone pipeline carrying oil from the tar sands. It is smaller and runs to Patoka, Illinois. There are also thousands of gallons a day coming into the U.S. by rail.

Keystone Pipeline routes (CC Meclee)

Keystone Pipeline route (CC Meclee)

Keystone was not a controversial issue at its beginning. Over time, It has become a centerpiece battle between environmentalists and oil companies. Environmentalists like to think that if Keystone is stopped in its present proposal, then a bottleneck in the transportation system will tie up the tar sands, which might be the richest oil deposit in the world.

Unfortunately, there are multiple avenues for the oil to be transported. One proposal plans a pipeline to the deep water ports in British Columbia. That has run into some opposition. Other pipelines and routes have been suggested, including  going east across Canada. Ultimately, rail may play a big role. The question has risen if rail can develop the capacity to carry what comes out of Alberta. It probably can since coal is already shipped primarily by rail.

FACT: Building the Keystone pipeline over two years will result in 42,000 jobs. After that, a few dozen or a few hundred would remain.

Some have made the argument that thousands upon thousands of jobs will be created by building the pipeline. In fact, the employment will be negligible and temporary, but probably significant for many of the small towns that the pipeline will run near. Creating jobs, however, is not a compelling reason to do this pipeline.

FACT: Transporting oil by pipeline is safer than rail.

Some have made the argument that the Keystone pipeline is unsafe. There are fears that a pipeline could burst and pollute the environment or spoil the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides the Midwest farm states with the bulk of their water.

The answer depends on what safety is being discussed. If it’s about death and property destruction, then trucked oil is the most dangerous of all, followed by rail, pipeline and boat. If the environment is the issue, then oil shipped by boat is the worst, followed by pipeline, truck and rail. So the pipeline is a bigger threat to the environment than rail, but rail is more deadly for people than a pipeline. There isn’t a clear cut choice on this issue.

The fear that the Ogallala Aquifer will be contaminated is an exaggeration. Modern pipelines have a multitude of sensors that can pick up any sizable spill. The existing Keystone pipeline has 16,000 sensors, and its operators boast that they can shut down any leak in 15 minutes. Of course, very small leaks can still get by the sensors. While there are concerns about water pollution from leaks, the world’s “number one expert” on the aquifer, James Goecke, a University of Nebraska hydrogeologist and professor emeritus, doesn’t buy into the gloom and doom. Goecke stated that any leak would be “very localized.”

FACT: The oil from the tar sands contains a petroleum known as bitumen. Bitumen is difficult to work with as it is not a free-flowing liquid like most petroleums. At 52 degrees Fahrenheit, bitumen is as “hard as a hockey puck.” Extracting the oil requires a great deal of injected steam. This requires extra energy and raises one of the environmental issues because the extra energy means extra greenhouse gases. Extracting from tar sands can double the greenhouse gas emissions as compared to conventional drilling. Once its extracted, it’s like any other oil. Overall, the extraction makes the petroleum from the tar sands 17-20% dirtier than most oil drilling.

Alberta tar sands (CC Jungbim)

Alberta tar sands (CC Jungbim)

Those opposed to Keystone like to point to the Alberta tar sands as providing “the dirtiest oil on the planet.” That is incorrect. There are 13 oil fields in California alone that produce more greenhouse emissions than the tar sands. One of those oil fields, Placerita, east of Los Angeles, produces twice the greenhouse gases as the Alberta tar sands extraction. Even the crude from Alaska’s north slope is dirtier than the tar sands. Arguably, Nigeria has the dirtiest oil on the planet, but don’t count out Venezuelan bitumen or Mexican heavy crude. In other words, the tar sands have plenty of company under the title of “dirty oil.”

Climate change is a real problem that needs to be addressed, but as long as the world is using fossil fuels as its main energy source, it is essential to have affordable energy. That means oil. When it comes to greenhouse gases, the tar sands don’t help. They hurt, but we are pumping thousands of barrels of oil a day out of just California that are a lot worse for climate change than what the proposed Keystone pipeline will generate.

FACT: Extracting oil from the tar sands isn’t the only threat to the climate. The refined product known as petroleum coke or pet coke is a very serious concern.

In the process of refining oil, complex molecules of heavy hydrocarbons are broken down into simpler molecules. This results in pet coke, a hard substance similar to coal. Like coal, it is used to fuel power plants. Different oil grades produce different pet cokes. Some are high in sulfur; some are low. Pet coke high in sulfur is worse as a pollutant than the lowest grade coal. Guess which type of pet coke bitumen makes? Yep, Alberta tar sands is the real bad stuff.

Oil Change International, an advocacy group seeking an end to fossil fuels, declared that the tar sands produce 24% more CO2 in pet coke than the equivalent pet coke produced from light oil. They are probably right. However, that is true with bitumen or heavy crude from Mexico, Venezuela or anywhere.

Tar sands oil that has been refined in the upper Midwest has created massive pet coke piles in places like Detroit. The EPA won’t allow it to be burned in this country. Nevertheless, Detroit and other places don’t need to worry about being overrun with the stuff because its ultimate destination are places like Mexico and China where it is burned in power plants.

In the great wisdom of the U.S. government, it won’t allow powerful climate change materials like high-sulfur pet coke to be burned in this country as a fuel. No, it can be produced in this country and then shipped overseas where the CO2 will have just as much impact on the climate as if it was burned here.

CONCLUSION: The Keystone pipeline is not likely to affect the Alberta tar sands oil getting to market, except…

When the State Department issued a report on the Keystone project, it determined that Keystone would not affect whether the oil got to market. The State Department assumed that global demand would push Canada to develop other pipelines, shipping or rail to get it to refineries in case the Keystone XL pipeline was not approved. That is true, if oil climbs above the $70-75 per barrel threshold. The big advantage for the oil companies is that the pipeline would transport tar sands oil to market by at least $8 a barrel less than rail. The threshold price to open more production in the tar sands would be about 10% less with the pipeline than without it.

If the price of oil starts to push $100 a barrel again, tar sands oil is going to hit the market with gusto. Keystone pipeline or no Keystone pipeline – it will not matter. If oil stays cheap like it is now, the tar sands are not going to be profitable in the long run, pipeline or not. What the pipeline does is make Alberta tar sands oil cheaper and more likely to be used. There is not a good reason why we should be filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gas emissions when oil is cheap and plentiful. There is enough dirty oil out there now accomplishing that.

Those who have pointed to the dangers of climate change warn that the true cost of pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is not adequately addressed in a price of a barrel of oil. The Keystone pipeline will only add to camouflaging those hidden costs. If anything, we should be shutting down the heavy crude that is the worst for the climate and bringing forth renewables and nuclear power that don’t create climate change. Keystone may or may not be a tipping point. However, at some time, we must break the addiction to climate changing fossil fuels. This is as a good of a time as any. The Keystone pipeline perpetuates climate changing cheap fossil fuels. It should not go forward.

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As The World Dithers On Climate Change, A Deal Must Be Made With The Energy Devil

Politics on climate change is relatively simple. Roughly two-thirds of Americans believe in climate change. When surveying scientists, the number is far higher. That includes world scientists, not just Americans. The few scientists who deny climate change are usually employed by coal and oil companies. They are often not climatologists and don’t publish their opposition articles in peer-reviewed journals read by climatologists. The deniers have most heavily influenced the Republican Party, especially members of the Tea Party.

Public Domain

Public Domain

Usually, when a substantial majority of 60% or better emerges on a political issue, that majority can institute legislation. With climate change, that has not happened. One of the reasons is because climate change has become a touchstone issue for the right and left. Both sides have dug their heels in and demanded ideological allegiance from elected officials. With the national government divided between Democrats and Republicans, that has resulted in a legislative stalemate. The result is that nothing significant happens as the earth continues to warm.

Part of the problem is that the left, primarily Democrats, want renewable energy sources to replace the carbon-dumping energy sources of coal, oil and other fossil fuels. Solar, wind and other renewables are a great idea, but they are not practical on the scale that immediately needs to be implemented to slow climate change.

Wind turbines can only operate at full efficiency about 25% of the time. Solar panels can only operate at full efficiency 15% of the time. The reasons are simple. The wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine. To achieve a steady source of energy from these sources, a lot of wind turbines and solar panels have to be built. That can create a lot of environmental disruption. Wind turbines have been death traps for birds. The production costs of materials and land use further complicate the notion of clean energy.

Plus, solar remains an expensive option. It can cost two or three times the price of fossil fuels. Many people are happy to downplay that problem as the cost of using renewables. Few of those people live on small fixed incomes or are part of the working poor. Raising energy costs by two or three times for people who are barely getting by is not a reasonable option. Subsidies have helped drop the price of photovoltaic panels, but the price of solar energy remains a widespread option only for the well-to-do.

It is hoped that eventually renewables can become economically and environmentally viable. That may take many years. In the meantime, the earth grows hotter. No one can turn off the lights while we wait for technology to catch up to our energy needs. Nations must continue to function. Coal and oil continue to pump gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere.

At this time, there remains only one viable option to quickly stop the massive release of greenhouse gases. That option is nuclear power.

Raise the issue of nuclear power, and it generates rabid responses. The threat of nuclear war invariably turns up in most casual debates about nuclear power, even though both power and weapons are two totally different processes and issues.

The issue of safety also emerges. Even though only 10,000 people have died directly from exposure to nuclear power since its advent (nearly all those were in two separate incidents in the Soviet Union), people still fear nuclear power. Fukushima is a perfect example. Years after the accident, people on the West Coast of the United States are still rattled by the fear of radiation hitting their shores. Yet, the radiation is a miniscule amount that is far less than what one gets in a single day from natural sources. The total number of deaths to date from Fukushima? Zero. Yet, the fear endures.

From short and long term exposure to nuclear energy production processes, it is estimated that about 90 people die a year. This is only one-third of the number that die from wind power accidents, even though wind power generates just a fraction of the energy that nuclear power does.

For years, a great concern has been the large amounts of radioactive waste that would need to be stored from nuclear energy production. As third and fourth generation reactors become available with more efficient reprocessing of spent fuel, less and less nuclear waste will be created. The problem is not eliminated, but it is significantly reduced.

While nuclear power is not the ultimate answer to addressing climate change, it can be a vital bridge between fossil fuel energy and renewable energy. With little time to spare in the challenge of dealing with climate change, nuclear power could provide the electricity to power homes, businesses and electric cars so that they will have a minimal impact on the climate.

With nuclear power, the resources needed to create energy are small compared to other energy sources. Some of the world’s leading conservation biologists declared:

A golf-ball-sized lump of uranium would supply the lifetime’s energy needs of a typical person, equivalent to 56 tanker trucks of natural gas, 800 elephant-sized bags of coal or a renewable battery as tall as 16 “super” skyscraper buildings placed one on top of the other.

Nuclear power can provide a gateway to affordable, efficient and environmentally safe renewables. However, we can’t simply crawl at a snail’s pace as we retire fossil fuel power plants. The world’s climate will pass the point where we can effectively treat it if we continue to dither. These dirty plants need to be shut down as quickly as possible. The only environmentally safe option remains nuclear power, which needs to be implemented with haste. Research needs to continue with renewables because they remain the long term solution.

At the pace we are heading, arctic ice will disappear, agricultural regions will dry up, cities will be slowly swallowed by the seas, coral reefs will shrink and ecosystems will face stress to the point of collapse. All this can be expected in this century. It is an unacceptable choice.

As the chart below shows, energy production remains dominated by fossil fuels. Renewables have increased since 1990. However, after 25 years, renewables remain but a drop in the energy bucket. Their increase continues in fractions. Reversing renewables for fossil fuel will take decades. We don’t have the luxury of time any longer. Nuclear is the only option.

Energy Production in the USA (Public Domain)

Energy Production in the USA (Public Domain)

One of the reasons that nuclear looks more and more viable is political. Climate change deniers are not going to change until it is far too late. Those who see climate change coming are going to have to work around the deniers for awhile. Conservatives who oppose climate change regulations or disbelieve climate science are not likely to oppose the building of more nuclear power plants. If liberals can be persuaded that the greater threat is climate change and not nuclear power, then the political will can be created to deal with climate change.

It is unfortunate that liberals and environmentalists must surrender the noble points of renewables, but it is the compromise that must be made in order to deal with a looming environmental, social and economic disaster of climate change. Liberals can either choose to swallow hard and accept the option of nuclear power to confront climate change or toy with renewables so that decades from now they can point at the blistering world temperatures and nod that they were right all along.

It is time to set aside who is right and just do something.

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