Climate, Carbon, and Clarity

September 21, 2014
Christopher Gambino
Ph.D. Candidate Nitrogen Systems: Policy-oriented Integrated Research and Education (NSPIRE) IGERT Fellow, Washington State University

I’m as passionate as anyone about the reality of climate change (no really, it’s real) and the need to adapt now to its threats and alleviate the major drivers. Yet, as our nation and its leaders narrow the debate around one particular cause, vital sign, metric, or goal, we fall short in truly protecting and preserving our world for future generations.

NASA is currently monitoring some of the planet’s vital signs, such as artic ice mass, carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations, sea levels, global mean temperature, and land ice mass. Of these vital signs, CO2 concentrations are by far the biggest policy-oriented target as noted in the President’s Climate Action Plan Full Report or depicted in the President’s Climate Action Plan Infographic. CO2 is a greenhouse gas (GHG) and greenhouse gases are a big reason as to why our climate is changing. But what happens when one metric, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, is what policies are decided around?

Hint: keep reading.

Cleaning up carbon

The EPA’s Clean Power Plan Proposed Rule focuses on reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuel-driven power plants. Inevitably, the regulations fall on coal-fired power plants. Reducing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere is important for protecting both human health and ecosystem health. Yet, there may be more to consider – like these interesting points of view reported previously on The Equation, here and here.

The increasing price of coal and the recent advent of more efficient hydraulic fracturing technology (also known as fracking) caused the natural gas industry to boom. In its Annual Energy Outlook 2014, the Energy Information Administration projected that natural gas will surpass coal as the nation’s largest source of energy for electricity generation by 2035. Marcellus Region wells continue to come online and production of natural gas in Pennsylvania and West Virginia continues to grow—reducing CO2 emissions compared with coal and producing electricity to meet our wants.

Did we solve our clean energy future?

Taking off the blinders

Hydraulic fracturing has the potential to contaminate waterways and compete for scarce water resources. Under the Bush Administration, the EPA lost oversight of hydraulic fracturing chemical inputs, once regulated under the Underground Injection Control Program of the Safe Water Drinking Act, through the enactment of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Under the same guise, some questionable practices occurred during an EPA study on hydraulic fracturing. The water-use-footprint of hydraulic fracturing has been described and disputed.

Regardless of whose perspective the information is coming from, the big picture remains the same: our electricity consumption leads to coal burning and natural gas extraction via fracking (~65.5% of total electricity generated). On one hand we pollute the air, on the other, we pollute the water.  We are still left with decisions to make every day, and it is difficult to know whether we are choosing what is best for our health, our safety, and the environment.

So, can we please have some clarity!?!?!

On the horizon

Phew! This December (fingers crossed) the EPA will finally release their much anticipated report to Congress with findings about the human and environmental health impacts of hydraulic fracturing of shale gas formations. These findings may provide the impetus for policy development. Regardless of the result and of your stance on hydraulic fracturing, we need to be conscious of unintended consequences resulting from a narrow problem focus. If we focus on CO2 and GHG reductions alone we may lose sight of our impact on water quality. Sustainability is actually a comprehensive approach; a holistic perspective. The lesser of two polluters is not a solution.

Whether from coal, hydraulic fracturing, or renewables, your electricity came from somewhere — what choices did you make yesterday? Will you recognize those decisions today? And how will you change your walk tomorrow?