Gassy Good News on Energy

The energy news is so good and so comprehensive that it is hard to believe. The federal Energy Information Administration reported last week that greenhouse gas emissions fell 7% last year—the largest- percentage and absolute decline ever. The U.S. carbon footprint has shrunk in three of the last four years. The bad news is that the recession caused some of last year’s decline. However, we managed a 1.3% decline in 2006, the only time this happened during a time of robust economic growth. But we can expect more good news. Our energy intensity (i.e. the amount of energy it takes to produce a unit of GDP) has been improving for many years. Last year it improved by 2%. (You probably have not heard about this improvement either, since it didn’t require new legislation to make it happen and much of the media cannot seem to perceive any positive developments that take place w/o government fiat. If the energy bill had passed, you would have heard a lot more, as they would be taking credit for this number.) And carbon intensity will drop even more. Abundant American natural gas supplies are going to help us reduce U.S. CO2 emissions and allow us to give people like Hugo, Mahmoud and Vladimir a good kick in the kiester, just when the international bad guys thought they would be able to set up a gas cartel similar to OPEC.

are subjects I like (so please excuse me if I go back to the same wells) and I am optimistic that we can solve our problems, or more precisely overtake them, since few problems are ever solved and when old problems go away new ones come. The pessimists keep on telling us we are about to hit the wall, but the innovators keep on finding ways around or through the troubles, often despite the experts.

The pessimistic “experts” can create serious problems, however. For example, back in the 1970s experts said we were running out of natural gas, so the Federal government banned new power plants run on gas, in order to save it for home heating etc. (President Reagan repealed the ban in 1987.) Three Mile Island, the disaster that killed nobody, managed almost to kill the nuclear industry. That is why we are behind on gas and nuclear power stations today. Instead of nearly zero carbon emission nuclear power and low carbon emission natural gas, various government agencies and environmental action groups pushed us into using more petroleum and coal. Go figure out the unintended consequences.

But this is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let’s not bicker and argue over who killed whose program. We have more options than we thought we did and let’s use them wisely.

Natural gas is the cleanest burning of the fossil fuels in terms of CO2 and ordinary pollution. You can understand this when you are cooking your food with gas on your unvented stove. What if your stove and oven ran on coal or oil?

Gas is also relatively clean to extract. A natural gas leak does not spread over the oceans and kill animals and plants. Miners don’t descend into dark pits to pull the stuff out, nor do they remove the tops of mountains in West Virginia to get at gas seams. The environmental danger with natural gas is relatively small. The biggest problem is that gas extraction using the latest techniques requires the use of water and there are some concerns that local water resources could be impacted. So far this has not happened on a large scale, but gas production should be properly regulated.

Maybe it was a divine joke to put most of the world’s exportable oil under unstable and sometimes plain nasty regimes. Or maybe it is just true that the concentration of a resource like oil, which requires little input and almost no actual work from the people under whose land it is found, is the problem. Easy and/or unearned concentrated wealth encourages klepocracies. Maybe the best thing about natural gas is that it is widely distributed and a lot of it is right here in America. While gas won’t put petro-tyrants like Ahmadinejad of Hugo Chavez out of business, it will – it already has – diluted their power.

So let’s get cooking with gas while we develop alternatives to fossil fuels. As long as I can remember, solar and wind alternatives have been “around five years” to viability. It has taken longer than we thought, but progress is being made. The largely unanticipated jump in natural gas reserves has bought us some time. We can meet our environmental goals, while kicking the despots, dictators and jihadist in the keister (as I mentioned above) and do all this w/o crippling our economy.

Gas is not a permanent solution. There are no permanent energy solutions. Our technology and innovations have saved us for another generation and we will live to fight the energy battle another day. By then we will be better equipped to win, but only if we continue to innovate now.