So T. Boone Pickens has a new commercial about his grand plan to save us from foreign oil. Wind power is his leading pitch, which given the source should worry all of us. What he’s not touting too loudly in his commercials is the switch from oil to natural gas. And there are reasons he’s not proudly trumpeting that part of it. He’s one more ultra-rich conservative who is trying to make even more money off the rest of us and is too cowardly to fully explain everything up front publicly. Sure, he keeps pointing folks toward his plan on his website. How many people are going to check it out though? What he’s selling on-air and what his plan actually includes are too close to two different things to sell me on it.
Today, Ed Schultz talked extensively about the commercial and the subject. It sounded to me like Ed is ready to take Pickens’ proposal and run with it. His stance is founded from the thought that weaning ourselves off of foreign oil is worth implementing Pickens’ plan. I can respect Ed for having his opinion, but I’m going to share why I think it’s misguided. Here’s the main thrust: are we overly dependent on foreign oil? Yes. Is that the biggest problem facing us this century? Not by a long shot. Climate change easily dwarfs whatever discomfort we’re currently feeling with the price of gas. We currently have the choice to adjust to higher gas prices. Climate change will leave us with an decreasing list of choices to make. And the longer we wait before we tackle it with everything we’ve got, the more expensive in financial and sociological terms it will be.
The wind energy portion of Pickens’ plan is a good idea. Everybody should be climbing on the bandwagon to increase renewable energy development, in both large and small projects. Of course, the larger the better.
It’s the natural gas portion of his plan that makes absolutely no sense. Why would we shift natural gas from electricity generation to transportation? There are two huge problems with the concept. One, natural gas is burned with 3-4X more efficiency in electricity generation than it would in vehicles. Using natural gas for transportation would just waste most of it (80-85%). Based on this then, natural gas should replace dirtier kinds of electricity generation. Coal is the dirtiest form currently used. A moratorium on new coal plants should be implemented nationally. Any plants that are new or would replace a coal plant should produce fewer dangerous emissions. Natural gas is a positive step in that direction. It’s not the final destination by any means, but it would help lower the rate of CO2 emissions going into the climate system in the short- to medium-term future.
I also want to address some market realities of moving from oil to natural gas. Oil is sold to the customer that can pay the most. It’s part of an equilibrium that is always changing, but the seller always wants to sell at the highest price possible. Despite our domestic needs, the U.S. continues to sell oil to other countries. And the reverse is also true. This situation won’t change if we start using natural gas for transportation needs. The price of natural gas will go up just like oil and the gas we use today as greedy sellers (like T. Boone Pickens, imagine that) export it instead of using it domestically and we import expensive natural gas from other countries. And that’s true if nothing else in the market changes. But as I discuss above, we’re slowly moving toward acting on climate change. With a cap-and-trade, or as I prefer, a carbon tax being applied to markets, natural gas will become more expensive as its carbon cost is calculated and applied.
In contrast, wind power is decreasing in price. It will continue to do so as more and larger wind projects come online and manufacturing scales up and becomes cheaper. The price for wind power won’t decrease forever, obviously, but it’s now starting to be competitive with energy derived from fossil fuels. The difference between them of course is the size of the respective industries. Combine Pickens plan with thermal solar deployment and plug-in vehicles to help maintain electricity availability and then you’re talking about a plan to end not only our foreign energy problem, but the carbon emissions and climate change problem as well.
Let’s get at that larger problem a little bit. Current concentrations of CO2 (and its not the only greenhouse gas, but it’s a place to start) stand at 385ppm. The pre-Industrial Age average for hundreds of thousands of years was about 280ppm. Jim Hansen of NASA has identified 350ppm as a realistic concentration that wouldn’t produce catastrophic climate change. Thus, we’re already 35ppm over the realistic value and we’re increasing that concentration by 3ppm per year. So in five years (possibly less), without any action on our part, we’ll crack 400ppm. Of course, the rate at which that concentration increases will itself increase due to a number of factors. The point is, burning natural gas in addition to coal will not decrease those concentrations. Burning natural gas instead of coal would, but it of course takes time and money to change energy plants over to new technologies. Burning natural gas instead of coal and building large-scale wind (and solar) energy fields would also work to decrease the rate at which concentrations are rising.
The longer concentrations are allowed to remain at their current levels or go higher, the more we force the climate system. Signals that the climate has already changed are all around us. Those signals will grow in number and in intensity. We need to act today to slow the emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases as quickly as possible. We need to act today to decrease the concentrations of GHGs, which will be more challenging than just slowing them down. 15 or 30 years ago, Pickens’ plan would have made more sense to implement in whole. But the U.S. got enamored with St. Ronnie and we’ve spent 30 years trying not to notice the changes occurring all around us.
Pickens’ plan does not address in any meaningful way the risk posed by climate change. It is for that primary reason that I would reject his plan outright. There are other plans that have been proposed in the past five years that take the best of Pickens’ plan and combines it with actions to deal with our emissions problems. The difference between them? Only one was proposed by a multi-billionaire who made his money in the oil industry and who can afford to put millions of dollars worth of ads on our TVs, radios and in our printed media.