Back off, man. I’m a geologist.
The American Geological Institute has published a new policy paper recommending how the incoming US administration should approach the major environmental challenges of our day: climate, energy, water, waste, natural hazards and science education. The new policy paper, Critical Needs for the Twenty First Century: The Role of the Geosciences, highlights how crucial it is for our nation to understand how our planet works. This AGI paper has some sound suggestions – especially in regards to water, waste, natural hazards and education – but falls short when it comes to energy. That’s a shame, because our energy challenges from now on will not be solved by digging up more carbon to burn. They’ll be solved by using carbon more intelligently while we adjust to a future without it.
Leading the list of AGI recommendations is for the new administration to put more effort into understanding how climate and fossil fuel use are intimately linked. Climate is a complicated gestalt of a lot of processes. Climate is not, however, magical. We can’t hope to slow the progress of human-induced climate change by wishing it away, praying, or denying. Geological organizations have not had a good track record in this regard; for too many years the American Petroleum Institute essentially denied that burning hydrocarbons produces carbon dioxide, and that carbon dioxide molecules absorb infrared radiation. Even today, the best some geoscience advocacy groups can do is beg Washington for earmark pork to study geologic carbon sequestration – a snake oil sideshow that will fund lots of geologists but provide nothing to help our climate and energy problems.
The new AGI paper outlines a number of policy recommendations to deal with the twin terrors of energy and climate, including most notably that the administration stop listening to ideologues and start listening to experts.
Establish a Natural Resource Advisor within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to advise the President on stewardship of natural resources based on scientific understanding and technological advances. The advisor will highlight connections between the different resources; improve integration between research, development, technology and demand of all resources; and advise the government on policy, management and risk reduction – all in a global context.
This is the first recommendation presented in the AGI paper, and it’s a strong one. A new Natural Resource Advisor should be a scientist who understands the language of research and who can assess factually the merits of competing policy proposals. I might even go so far as to suggest that this person be an elite scientist. What we don’t need are any more cheerleaders from the fossil fuel lobby, or nutcases who take their cues from the Book of Revelation.
Recognize that fossil fuels are the bridge to a more diverse and sustainable energy portfolio and as the transition to other energy sources occurs federal support for fossil fuel production and investment in fossil fuel research and development (R&D) must grow substantially to ensure full utilization of these vital resources.
Here the AGI departs from reality. Sharply. Fossil fuel production is not the problem. We are past peak oil. Deal with it. We have plenty of coal in the ground, and coal-burning power plants – not oil – produce most electricity. Clean coal technology should be mandatory for all new coal plants, and the federal government should institute a continuously tightening mandate on allowed emissions from such plants. But Clean Coal is a misnomer if it only applies to stack emissions – what rises out of the smokestacks. Clean Coal tech can help a lot to diminish air pollution from sulfur and nitrogen oxides, ash, and soot, but it does absolutely nothing about carbon dioxide emissions, absolutely nothing about solid and liquid wastes from coal plants, absolutely nothing about land disruption from mining activities.
A typical 500 megawatt coal-fired power plant releases about 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, alongside 125,000 tons of fly ash and about 193,000 tons of sulfurous sludge from its scrubbers. Seventy-five percent of that waste goes to unlined landfills or pits. The rest is mixed with asphalt to make roads. Clean Coal tech can help mitigate the impact of coal, but only at the smokestack. The sludge and ash are still there, and cost money to deal with.
What about carbon sequestration? This is the latest sexy buzz phrase in geology circles. In the US today, earmark money is flung left and right at this fantasy. The idea is to capture the carbon dioxide from burning coal, then inject it into the ground, where it will hopefully remain forever. The former residents of near Lake Nyos, Cameroon, might have some advice about that, but that’s another story. The problem is that even if C-sequestration were to become feasible technologically, it will still cost money. Basically it’s a very expensive plan to bury garbage. We’ll be extraordinarily lucky if this scheme only triples the cost of coal-fired electricity. At which point wind and solar will start to look very good indeed, and a lot of geo-quislings for the coal lobby will be out of work.
Fossil fuels are a one-time gift from the planet. Coal, gas and petroleum are fine as methods of bootstrapping ourselves up from an agrarian culture to a high-tech civilization, but like training wheels on a bike we can’t just keep trying to use them forever and expect no one to make fun of us. The rest of the industrialized world will not sit back and wait for the US to catch up. While our government shoots up on the delusional drug of “Drill, baby, drill!” the EU will just smile, pat us on the head, and keep developing patent after lucrative patent in solar photovoltaics and wind energy.