Nolan Willis: Emissions reduction or self-flagellation

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Photo credit: Rob Bussell

By NOLAN WILLIS

My last column, “A Single Right Step at a Time,” argued that the next right step for Alaska’s energy strategy is to secure the Cook Inlet natural gas supply. I explained that importing gas will increase emissions compared to burning locally supplied gas. In this column, I will show, by referencing numbers, that pushing to substitute oil and gas with renewables without a good plan is misguided. I start from the assumption that climate change is real even though I seriously doubt that the results will be apocalyptic for humanity, even if changes require adaptions.

To me, climate change has become a religion. In this religion, we have sin (greenhouse gas emissions), judgment (a future where Mother Nature exacts revenge), and penance (decarbonization). Unfortunately, this new religion lacks a salvation plan but offers an elusive path toward “greater harmony with nature.” None of this appears scientific or even logical. In fact, it seems pantheistic. Being a committed Christian, I lack headspace for a second religion, but I nonetheless believe in hard facts, numbers, and apprehending reality. My approach toward climate change is pragmatic and occasionally offensive to people who believe we are headed toward replicating the conditions found on Venus (an impossibility) while simultaneously thinking that they are saving the planet through objectively insignificant efforts.

Here is what I mean by this last statement. Man-made (anthropogenic) greenhouse gas emissions account for approximately 40 billion metric tons of CO2-equivalent emissions per year compared to approximately 700 billion tons from natural processes. Natural processes also absorb slightly more than 700 billion tons, thereby absorbing and sequestering around half of the anthropogenic emissions. If anthropogenic emissions were halved, atmospheric concentration of CO2 would stabilize. Today, atmospheric concentration is around 420 ppm, and getting there from preindustrial levels took about two centuries. 

Forty billion metric tons sounds like a lot, but here is some perspective. The emissions of an average gasoline hybrid vehicle divided by the global emissions total results in a number that approximates zero, and the emissions of a large diesel pickup are about triple. Three times zero is still zero. Thus, in practical terms, the “greenie” who resents his neighbor for driving a pickup truck because he is “killing the planet” is either sorely misguided by his ideology or malevolent in spirit. Neither point of view is helpful.

Killing American industries does not help the planet. At present, the USA emits around 5 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent emissions annually–about an eighth of the global total. If we greedy, polluting Americans took ourselves out of the equation, carbon emissions could only decrease by 12.5%, except they would not. Realistically, domestic industries would just move somewhere else where more lax regulations would increase pollution. This would impoverish Americans and allow others to prosper, something America’s enemies desire, but we should not. 

One key difference between industrial energy supplies in the U.S. versus energy supplies in places like China or India is that the U.S. relies mostly on natural gas while other emerging economies rely extensively on coal. Natural gas, despite recent negativity, is far cleaner than coal. When burned, natural gas releases about 40% less CO2 than coal without producing much sulfur, ash, and other pollutants. In terms of methane emissions, natural gas is still cleaner because most natural gas leaks are fixable and have been steadily declining by systematically plugging leaks in piping infrastructure. Globally, coal mines release larger amounts of methane into the atmosphere, and those emissions are mostly uncontrolled even beyond the lifespans of those mines. Moreover, natural gas combustion processes in combined cycle plants can be 50% more efficient than coal combustion processes in boilers, and this results in over 60% reductions in CO2 emissions while reducing other air pollutants.

The solution to carbon emissions, we are told, is extensive build-out and reliance on renewable energy resources. However, Germany experimented and arguably failed with this model, now stuck with some of the highest energy costs in Europe and one of the highest carbon footprints because their non-renewable generation is dominated by coal. Moreover, Germany’s industrial base is in a state of decline. France, by comparison, relies extensively on nuclear power and has some of the cleanest and lowest cost energy in Europe. Similarly, Sweden and Norway rely extensively on hydroelectric power, nuclear power, and waste-to-energy solutions that keep their energy supplies in a state of abundance.

Lest I be misunderstood, I wholeheartedly support renewable resources wherever they make sense. Beyond a point of diminishing returns, they cease to make sense because expensive investment in long-term energy storage is required. Even then, wind and solar may not provide enough to meet everyone’s needs. Alaska’s most practical renewable energy resource is hydroelectric power, but the largest proposed hydroelectric project got axed about a decade ago over environmental concerns and project cost. Other hypothetical hydroelectric projects face similar issues. Another promising renewable resource is geothermal energy, but there are numerous engineering and monetary hurdles to overcome before this is viable.  

The numbers do not lie:  Alaska’s anthropogenic greenhouse gas footprint accounts for around 0.1% of the global total. No matter what Alaska does, the result will not change the global dynamic, but our decisions will have profound effects on our living conditions and our future. If Alaska chooses to go green, what will we accomplish and at what cost? Is our goal to make Alaska a “sacrificial lamb” on an altar of atonement to Mother Earth for no known sin, or do we want to design a strategic approach that will sustain our future? We struggle to commit to a plan. Simply repeating that the U.S. needs to go green, pursue renewables, and eliminate fossil fuels may sound good, but it denies reality and is not a sustainable plan.

Internationally, shall we cede our industrial base to other nations because we harbor guilt over emissions only to wake up to a worse nightmare? If the U.S. stopped producing oil, less regulated nations will increase their efforts to supply the deficit and get rich doing so, which will fuel more bad actions and outcomes.  Not only will emissions increase, but global security will decrease, particularly for Western-aligned nations. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline was built in almost direct response to the OPEC Oil Embargo. We conveniently forget that these are the types of global issues that inform the debate about energy and climate policy; thus, we are prone to repeat the mistakes of the past. We indulge hyperbole and feed fears that promote unrealistic self-destructive imperatives.  It’s almost as if we are trying to nail ourselves to a cross to prove how penitent we are.

Instead of indulging a pseudo-religious fantasy, we need to think critically and see the reality of our situation for what it is. Yes, the climate is changing, and unless the entire world reduces all greenhouse gas emissions in unison, our individual contributions are insignificant. For better or worse, it is what it is. The best we can do is plan with the resources we have to adapt to our situation and secure a future for ourselves and our children. If we choose poorly, we will pay dearly.

Nolan Willis is a lifelong Alaskan, a Bristol Bay Commercial Fisherman, a licensed Professional Electrical Engineer, and the current Chair of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Alaska Section. His work experience spans the worlds of utilities, energy, communications, and naval nuclear propulsion.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Chugach Electric pushes electric vehicles because the present board thinks they (both the board and electric vehicles) will save the planet. Yet, most of the electricity in the CEA service area is generated by natural gas, which the board, and just about everyone else, claims is in short supply. A vehicle that burns ordinary gasoline will not contribute to this supposedly growing shortage. A gasoline vehicle in CEA’s service area will not make any measurable effect on the so-called greenhouse gases. One can only conclude that the Chugach Electric board is made up of idiots.

  2. When they quit having sports, concerts and wars as these events waste fossil fuels.
    Instead of trying to curb cow farts they should do something about these fossil fuel waste as we don’t need entertainment or wars but we do need electricity and food.
    Until the climate crowd does something about waste.

  3. Another great article. So true that green energy has become a religion. Most aren’t against renewables… but they are against freezing or starving to death.

    • …or living in abject poverty in a filthy third-world environment and plagued by preventable diseases where life sucks. I am thinking about writing my next article on how killing fossil fuels is not sustainable because for something to be sustainable, it must be sustained.

      If we follow the no-carbon crowd to their logical end, everyone is going to be miserable to a level that is motivating people in developing countries to rely on much dirtier industrial processes than we have in the West to dig themselves out of poverty. Eight billion people that have been thoroughly indoctrinated may tolerate that level of misery for about a generation at the most before the next eco-apostate generation decides to start using fossil fuels again.

      • Poverty for the masses is the plan for the US, EU, and Canada. The technology for a functioning and sustainable alternate energy system at scale does not exist for an already deindustrialized US inevitably on course for a financial crash. There are no where near sufficient deposits of mineral resources even identified, let alone an industrial capacity to produce the infrastructure of a “green” energy base. Just to sustain the current energy demands for the subsidized living standards of essentially non productive nations of the west. It is unsustainable to maintain a middle class and destroy reliable energy with no industrial productivity. Our large cities, even Anchorage, are starting to look and feel like Port au Prince, Haiti. There will be a 1% of wealthy over Lords and impoverished masses in our near future.

  4. Self-flagellation, without a doubt. When President Biden banned LNG exports from being approved it showed beyond a shadow of a doubt that the emperor has no clothes.

    The climate is changing as it has always changed, we start our measure of when man-made climate change began at the end of the Little Ice Age which just so happened to coincide with the beginning on the Industrial Revolution. The climate changed right before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and it changed a few hundred years before that. The Holocene Epoch that we are currently in and started only about 11,000-12,000 years ago only came about because of climate change due to warming temperatures and the ending of the latest in a long series of glacial and inter-glacial periods. Over the last 500,000 years temperatures have consistently fluctuated with the onset of colder periods developing and slowly getting colder and then sudden warming occurs for brief periods before another round of slowly cooling glacial periods. Going back further in time we are still much colder now than the vast majority of Earth’s history.

  5. Think about who benefits the most (besides Algore) from the Western countries curbing their own industrial outputs in the name of such insanity.

    China has been waging this long-game social war against the west for more than 40 years. And they are using our own as useful idiots to carry their water.

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