Joe Nocera’s Real Carbon Problem: Attacking Climate Leaders While Promoting Dangerous Energy

Joe Nocera has, in a few short weeks, written pieces that promote tar sands extraction, promote enhanced oil extraction, promote increased reliance on coal, support harmful actions by fossil fuel companies and attack top supporters for transitioning to clean energy: climate scientist James Hansen and environmentalist Bill McKibben.

Joe’s rhetoric is so similar to those of the top oil company executives, one wonders if he should be on their payroll and not that of the, supposedly liberal, New York Times.

His nonsensical and sometimes contradictory assertions run a gambit of misinformed claims. I will do my best to deconstruct these claims for you and show that Joe’s statements are little more than a poorly veiled rhetorical defense of an industry that is heavily invested to profit from harm to the climate and, by extension, the rest of us.

Claim #1:  The Keystone XL Pipeline will not result in enhanced tar sands extraction

Unfortunately, both Joe and the State Department appear to be on the same page with this one. Both have claimed, obtusely, that somehow the hundreds of miles of pipelines constructed during the past four years disproves the fact that Keystone XL will enhance tar sands extraction.

In accepting this, highly flawed, assertion, one must also entirely ignore the geographical importance of Keystone in cheaply linking tar sands extraction to international ports while turning a blind eye to statements from the tar sands industry itself. In fact, according to industry reports, the Keystone XL would allow for the additional, less expensive transport of over 900,000 barrels per day of dirty tar sands oil. This oil would then be sold on the international market at much higher prices (90-120 dollars per barrel) than it is sold for on the continent (60-80 dollars per barrel). In addition to adding as much as 900,000 barrels per day to current tar sands extraction, the pipeline would make economical highly expensive extraction of marginal oil, further increasing exploitation of the most dirty form of oil on the planet.

It is, perhaps, a coincidence that the Alberta tar sands industry published extensive advertisements in the New York Times during the time of Joe Nocera’s initial op-ed defending their industry. The fact that the same article included an attack on James Hansen, likely the most respected and prescient climate scientist living today, for his statement that exploiting tar sands would be ‘climate change game over,’ also calls into question the intellectual integrity of Joe’s article.

Joe apparently ignores the fact that as much as 1.7 trillion barrels of the dirty tar sands could ultimately be extracted from Alberta. A massive volume of expensive, very polluting oil the industry is desperate to sell. Does Joe purport to know more about the climate impacts of such a massive tar sands extraction than James Hansen? If so, Joe’s climate credentials are somewhat lacking when compared to our NASA climate scientist. Perhaps he should, as he advised Hansen, withdraw his political activism and stick to matters he can speak more responsibly about?

Claim #2: Coal carbon capture and storage is currently an economical and practical way to solve the climate crisis

One would think that Joe would stop at his promotion of exploiting one of the biggest carbon bombs on the planet. Unfortunately, he has just shifted from one to another.

For more than 20 years, the coal industry has promoted an expensive and dirty carbon capture and storage technology in an attempt to make coal seem greener and less harmful to the environment. For more than 15 years, the coal industry has operated pilot plants as examples of innovation in this new form of energy. But considering the fact that carbon capture and storage has yet to reduce costs to levels competitive with gas, wind or solar energy, one wonders if it is little more than an industry show pony. Energy from carbon capture and storage plants costs between 15 and 30 cents per kilowatt hour, as much as three times that of traditional coal. Furthermore, new solar energy in the region of the Summit facility Joe foists as a viable solution costs as little as 5.8 cents per kilowatt hour. That’s three to five times less than carbon capture and storage and without having the additional worry of what to do with all that dangerous stored carbon.

Looking more closely at the economics, the Summit facility Joe holds forward as an example of what can be used throughout China costs 2.5 billion dollars. That facility would produce only 400 megawatts of energy. At the same price, converting all of China’s coal facilities to CCS would cost a staggering 3 trillion dollars. Considering that wind and solar prices continue to fall and looking at price projections through 2020, phasing in wind and solar to replace the same amount of production would cost between 2 and 6 times less.

Even worse, carbon capture would produce a massive volume of carbon dioxide. Considering it would be nearly impossible to sell all that carbon for useful purposes (Joe suggests to use it for fertilizer and enhanced oil extraction), much of it would be pumped into underground storage. Accessing and maintaining this storage is an additional cost not currently included in the operation of a CCS powerplant. Furthermore, underground storage is subject to risk of catastrophic release in the event of an earthquake or any other stress that fractures the rock of storage locations.

One other issue Joe seems to have overlooked in his grandiose vision for converting Chinese coal to CCS is water. Though CCS manages to pull carbon out of its smokestack emissions, it actually increases water pollution by producing more chemical effluent. China already has very severe water pollution issues. Such a massive adoption of CCS would make those problems even worse.

Claim #3: Captured carbon used to enhance oil extraction will help reverse climate change

Sadly, Joe’s suggestion to use CO2 produced by coal to enhance oil extraction betrays a stunning ignorance to the problem posed by human caused climate change. Oil, coal, and gas all result in carbon emissions. So using a technology that reduces coal carbon emissions to increase oil carbon emissions (via enhanced oil extraction) makes no sense as a solution to human caused climate change. Joe seemed to miss the fact that only 1/3 of current fossil fuel reserves can have their carbon placed in the atmosphere before we beg a civilization-wrecking crisis. Enhanced oil extraction would expand those total reserves. So even if most coal plants could be converted to CCS, switching coal carbon with oil carbon would only serve to make the problem worse.

In his blanket promotion of CCS, Joe also seems to blithely ignore the technology’s history. It has not served as a serious solution to the climate problem so much as a distraction the coal industry carts out every time it comes under fire. Historically, it has not represented a path the coal industry has pursued to any substantial degree. Instead, the ‘solution’ only lasts long enough to pull interest away from renewables like wind and solar. Once these solutions have been, again, put in their respective box, the coal industry goes back to its old, carbon polluting ways.

Claim #4: Fossil fuel use isn’t the real problem

In fact, Joe’s arguments turn a completely blind eye to ongoing lobbying efforts by oil, gas, and coal companies to emit as much carbon as they possibly can. The reason for this is that it costs money to capture the dangerous carbon. And the industry is hell-bent to enhance profits. Any industry efforts to actually reduce emissions have been little more than cynical lip-service.

Joe states that “The enemy is not fossil fuels; it is the damage that is done because of the way we use fossil fuels.”

And this statement would be true if one, the fossil fuel industry actually produced viable means to economically capture carbon and, two didn’t work has hard as it could, via lobbying and PR to continue emitting as much carbon as possible.

Like Joe, the fossil fuel industry has instead attacked climate scientists, done their best to deny the science that points toward dangerous impacts from global warming, attempted to suppress any real solutions to climate change via wind, solar and vehicle to grid technology, and, when necessary, carted out nonsolutions, like the current coal CCS technology, as a smokescreen to criticism by those concerned about climate change.

Carbon Joe’s Deafening Silence on Real Solutions

Perhaps even more damaging than Joe’s outright attacks on environmental leaders like Bill McKibben and climate scientists like James Hansen is his deafening silence on real solutions. Joe has mentioned nothing about the ongoing precipitous fall in solar energy prices. He has said little about the current viability of wind power. He has been mute on the issue of a growing electrical vehicle market in the United States. And he has practically ignored the burgeoning potential of next generation biofuels like cellulosic ethanol.

These technologies form a real potential for mitigating climate change, preventing the worst impacts, and transitioning away from fossil fuels that have been so dirty, climatologically dangerous, and which ultimately deplete to uneconomic, expensive uselessness. Instead, his defense of these fuels is from the frame of one specifically supporting their narrow special interest. A special interest currently in the political and economic position to profit from harm to the rest of us.


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