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.
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”
Why being a sceptic is passe
When it comes to climate change, 98% of climate researchers, 97.4% of climatologists and about 90% of earth scientists agree that global warming exists and is causing irreparable changes to the earth’s weather. Then there are the sceptics. Perhaps the fact that they stand out from the majority and that many are trusted scientists in their fields gives them a louder voice. If what they say is true, then global warming is a farce and we can put down the granola and step away from the tree.
Their explanations for the change in the weather are legion, but the most popular are that it’s a natural phenomenon that would occur anyway (after all, the CO₂ emitted by volcanoes and rotting vegetation is certainly voluminous) or that the facts and figures are false and the majority of scientists are alarmists. Often politicians and industrialists cling to these assertions like barnacles, refusing to change their evil, greenhouse gas producing ways until more scientific evidence is brought to bare. Now a leading voice in the sceptics corner is about to jump ship.
The stakes are really high. If what the sceptics claim is true, then our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are fatuous. Instead of developing renewable energy and spending money on making industry greener, we should feel free to spew forth, using the cheapest forms of energy available. We could all go the way of China and India; it would really help our economies and create much needed jobs.
Meet Richard Muller. Some of you may know him as a leading Berkley University physicist and outspoken critic of global warming. So adamant was Muller that global warming was an alarmist stunt, that he formed the Berkley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) study to refute it. His basic tenant was that the scientific methodology used during the measurements of global warming phenomenon was flawed. He blamed errors in measurement for the results that various institutes (including NASA) had obtained. The BEST team decided to sift through 200 years of global temperature data, rigorously checking for accuracy and throwing out measurements that were suspect. This meant that a staggering 1.6 billion figures from 39, 000 stations across the world would need to be checked over a two-year period.
The results were not what Muller expected; instead of refuting global warming theorists, Muller’s study only confirmed that studies conducted by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other groups were, in fact, accurate. The BEST team confirmed that global warming had caused a 1 degree increase in temperature since the 1950’s. The sceptic has been reformed. In a statement on his website he says: “Global warming is real. Perhaps our results will help cool this portion of the climate debate. How much of the warming is due to humans and what will be the likely effects? We made no independent assessment of that.”