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This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

President Obama Regrettably Approves Oil Drilling in the Arctic Ocean

The Obama administration granted conditional approval to Shell Oil Company to begin exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean off the North Slope of Alaska on May 11, 2015 .  In addition to generating grave misgivings about possible environmental damage from drilling accidents, this decision represents a major compromise with the President’s own policies directed toward limiting global warming.  Burning any fossil fuel, such as the oil sought in this project, will add still more carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere, worsening the burden of greenhouse gases added to the earth’s air. 

In his second inaugural address of Jan. 21, 2013, the President committed to “respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations”.  Noting the recurrence of severe weather and climate events, he stated “none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms”.   In order to combat these trends, the President summoned the nation not to “resist this transition” to “sustainable energy sources”, but rather to “lead it” by developing the new “technology that will power new jobs and new industries”.

The President, in his State of the Union address the following year (January 28, 2014) pursued the same theme.  He stated a highly profound and basic motivation for attacking the problem of global warming: 

“Climate change is a fact.  And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.” 

Nevertheless, in spite of these lofty goals, President Obama also stated (March 15, 2012 )

“We can’t have an energy strategy for the last century that traps us in the past. We need an energy strategy for the future -– an all-of-the-above strategy for the 21st century that develops every source of American-made energy.”

The “all-of-the-above” energy strategy is intended to promote economic growth and job creation, enhance energy security, and develop a low-carbon energy economy.  To the extent that ensuring energy security relies on exactly those “last century” strategies based on fossil fuels, “all-of-the-above” pits continued exploitation of fossil fuels against much smaller, but rapidly growing, renewable energy industries.

The President, to his credit, has indeed set out policies that will reduce emissions of CO2 from U. S. sources.  Emissions from passenger vehicles will be much lower since the fuel efficiency standard for cars and light trucks is to reach an average level of 54.5 mpg by 2025.  New standards for heavy-duty trucks are to be issued in 2016.  The proposed Clean Power Plan, to be finalized later in 2015, will lower emissions from large electricity generating plants by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.  These policies are significant positive developments along a path to lowering emissions produced by the U. S.

On the other hand the Obama administration has made many decisions that could expand production of fossil fuels beyond their present extent.  Its approval of exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean by Shell is only the latest policy shift away from minimizing further emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.  It is also authorizing extensive new coal mining operations in the Powder River basin in Wyoming and Montana.  And it has announced that leases for oil exploration in the Atlantic Ocean off the U. S. east coast could be issued beginning in 2021.  Its decision whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline that would bring Canadian tar sands oil to the U. S. is still pending.

Expanded development of fossil fuels requires the investment of large amounts of capital.  When considering expansion of our energy economy an important question always is how to deploy new investments.  In order to minimize new emissions of greenhouse gases it is important to direct such investment toward renewable energy, not to the further expansion of fossil fuel resources.  Decisions to extract more fossil fuels have long-lasting consequences, since such projects will take several years to reach fruition, and will lock in new greenhouse gas emissions for decades thereafter.  This directly interferes with achieving our goal of lowering new greenhouse gas emission rates.  Instead, it would be best to allow existing fossil fuel-burning assets to exhaust their useful lifetimes, and to replace them with renewable energy resources.

Coal is the worst among the fossil fuels in terms of greenhouse gas efficiency: burning coal generates a little more than half as much heat as natural gas per ton of CO2 emitted.  Although the administration’s Clean Power Plan would have the effect of phasing out most coal-fired electric plants on the one hand, on the other the administration is opting to expand coal mining.  Since demand for coal will be reduced within the U. S., it is clear that newly mined coal would be destined for export.  The U. S. should not be contributing to expanded use of this inefficient fuel abroad at a time when international efforts are being directed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Cars powered by internal combustion engines are very inefficient in their use of the energy contained in the fuel they burn.  Approximately 80% of that energy is dissipated, mostly as waste heat, rather than used to propel the vehicle along the road.  This is illustrated in the graphic below.
 
Electric vehicles are far more efficient in their use of electrical energy.  Whereas various gasoline-fueled cars can generally get between 20 and 40 miles per gallon (11.8-5.88 L/100 km), electric vehicles are reported to get well over 100 miles per gallon equivalent (less than 2.35 liter equivalents/100 km)  as evaluated by the U. S. Dept. of Energy .  To the extent that this electrical energy is supplied to the vehicle by renewable sources instead of from fossil fuels this represents a vast reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
 
Conclusion
 
President Obama has made a serious environmental mistake by permitting Shell to explore for oil in the Arctic Ocean.  Actions that would lead to further extraction of fossil fuels, such as this project, would worsen the Earth’s burden of the greenhouse gas CO2 in the atmosphere for several more decades, for the field being explored is thought to contain large supplies of oil.  The Shell Arctic project, as well as the Powder River coal development and exploration for new oil production off the eastern U. S. coast, run counter to the President’s pledge that the U. S. would lower its GHG emission rates by 26-28% from the levels emitted in 2005, by 2025.  This pledge was made during the President’s meeting with President Xi Jinping of China on Nov. 12, 2014.
 
The world faces a critical need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades.  Providing energy to support economic growth worldwide is a major component of the world’s economy.  Companies supplying fossil fuels provide a significant fraction of this energy need.  Most of these companies continue to expand production of the resources they control without heed for the welfare of our planet, and use their considerable influence to perpetuate the role that fossil fuels play in the energy economy.
 
Yet when opportunities arise for investments of new capital to supply energy to the economy, the decisions could just as well be made to develop renewable energy sources.  These industries, while presently much smaller than the fossil fuel industry, are expanding rapidly.  They provide jobs for our workers, and generate profits for the companies involved.  Now is the time for the great fossil fuel companies of the world to change their business models, resist the easy decisions to continue their usual ways of doing business, and invest in renewable energy sources instead.  Economic policies should be promoted that discourage continued development of fossil fuels and promote investment in renewable energy.
 
The nations of the world, through the United Nations, are currently involved in negotiating a worldwide climate agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  President Obama, by permitting expansion of fossil fuel extraction under his “all-of-the-above” energy policy, is compromising the leadership role that the U. S. should be playing in bringing this agreement to a successful conclusion. 
 
The President’s actions lead us to doubt whether, when “our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy”, we will “be able to say yes, we did.” 
 
© 2015 Henry Auer