President Obama gave a speech at Georgetown University Tuesday, June 25, in which he outlined his vision for saving the country, world and civilization as we know it from the horrors of global warming.
The most newsworthy item in the speech was the announcement — leaked over the weekend — that the federal government will regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal-fired power plants.
Still don’t like fracking, huh? Well, learn to love it. Obama sure has.
Regulating greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal-fired power plants means that American utilities will either 1) replace those plants with more efficient gas-burning ones or 2) switch them from burning coal to burning natural gas. Burning natural gas in an existing power plant produces only half as much carbon dioxide as burning coal, and if the gas is burned in a new-build combined cycle power plant, it produces only a third of the carbon dioxide as coal burned in an existing plant.
American utilities will not replace coal-burning power plants with wind and solar energy anytime soon. That’s because coal-fired power plants produce base-load electric power, power that’s available 24/7, which wind and solar are still incapable of delivering because of their intermittent nature.
This will eventually change; the technologies to change it — vastly improved batteries and dramatically more efficient solar cells, for example — exist in the laboratory, but will not appear in the real world anytime soon. (For these purposes, the phrase “anytime soon” is defined as sometime long after Boulder’s cadre of earnest, young Earth Guardians has grown too old to be used as props at antifracking events and has learned to think for themselves.) American utilities will still add a lot of solar and (especially) wind power in coming years, if for no other reason than 35 states have adopted renewable energy standards. They just won’t use it as a replacement for baseload coal burning power plants.
By the same token, the two zero-carbon-emitting technologies that could replace coal-fired power plants in their base-load power generating role — nuclear and hydroelectric power — have been politically and economically delegitimized by environmentalists. Obama alluded to increasing the electric output from existing dams and expediting nuclear plant approvals in his speech, but in an “all-of-the-above” way. He’s clearly not counting on a true resurrection of either.
So what we are left with is natural gas. And we are going to need a lot of it. A ton of coal is the energy equivalent of about 30,000 cubic feet of natural gas. Replacing the approximately 824 million tons of coal the U.S. burned in its power plants in 2012 with natural gas would require about 25 trillion cubic feet of the stuff — in addition to the approximately 25 trillion cubic feet of gas we currently consume annually.
Even if natural gas were to replace only half the coal currently used for electric power generation — a more likely outcome in the real world — the country would still need an additional 12.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas a year, a 50 percent increase over current production.
Now where the frack do you suppose all that natural gas is going to come from?
Indeed, the only reason Obama can seriously consider cutting the country’s use of coal is that the oil and gas industry, through the use of horizontal drilling and fracking, unleashed a torrent of natural gas, which in the last five years slashed both U.S. coal consumption and carbon dioxide output from coal burning by 20 percent. Greens talk a pretty good game when it comes to reducing carbon dioxide, but — inconvenient truth alert — when it comes to reducing U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, since 2008 it’s the roughnecks who’ve delivered the goods.
Obama may not want to admit it, but by proposing to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from existing U.S. coal-fired power plants, he is assigning natural gas, and by extension fracking, a central role in reducing U.S. carbon footprint.
Of course, Obama punched all the alternative energy and conservation buttons in his remarks — most of the talk was devoted to punching them — which is fine. Conservation has shown it can curtail the growth of U.S. energy demand, and solar and wind have shown they can deliver substantial amounts of carbon dioxide-free electricity when the sun is up and the wind is blowing.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Obama is about to make producing and using more natural gas through fracking U.S. government environmental policy.
Don’t think so? Consult the president’s Climate Action Plan, which was released in conjunction with the speech. The following quote appears on page 19: “Burning natural gas is about one-half as carbon-intensive as coal, which can make it a critical ‘bridge fuel’ for many countries as the world transitions to even cleaner sources of energy … Going forward, we will promote fuel-switching from coal to gas for electricity production and encourage the development of a global market for gas. Since heavy-duty vehicles are expected to account for 40 percent of increased oil use through 2030, we will encourage the adoption of heavyduty natural gas vehicles as well.”
Fracking. Now it’s as American as hope and change.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.