Michael Lind's Clueless and Fossilized
Thinking on Coal, Oil and Natural Gas
(A Critique of Michael Lind’s Salon Article, ‘Everything
you've heard about fossil fuels may be wrong’)
By David Schwartzman
It’s the other way around. Nearly everything we hear from Lind in this Salon piece (May 31, 2011) is wrong, except for his argument that huge potential reserves of fossil fuel will likely prove peak oil boosters being big exaggerators. The latter news may not be wrong, but it is hardly comforting.
More importantly, Lind’s uninformed dismissal of solar power as a real alternative is typical misinformation that we can expect from the fossil fuel/nuclear lobbies. And his misplaced optimism regarding the unlikelihood of catastrophic climate change (C3) from rising levels of greenhouse gas is still another unsubstantiated claim. We’re used to hearing this from scientifically illiterate global warming deniers. Why Lind chooses to join them is a puzzle.
Whenever peak fossil fuel usage occurs--either from the exhaustion of reserves or replacement by alternatives--the Age of Fossil Fuels will soon be over. Human civilization and existing biodiversity will simply not sustain ever rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane. We have precious little time, if any at all, to radically reduce carbon emissions and replace fossil fuel energy with solar. This is fundamentally why Lind's born again fossil fuel enthusiasm is so misplaced. If he has the facts and science to claim otherwise, he should produce it. As a scientist involved in this field, I don’t think he can.
Lind’s enthusiasm for shale-derived natural gas via ‘fracking’ (the hydraulic fracturing of underground shale formations with toxic brine) is truly delusional. Ignoring the growing evidence for fracking leading to serious groundwater contamination, he attempts to rebut Howarth’s study recently published in a peer-reviewed journal Climatic Change. Howarth argued that fracking could well be worse than even burning coal, the fossil fuel with the highest carbon emission per energy generated, because this technology results in methane leakage directly to the atmosphere.
Since methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, direct leakage is always an issue in the extraction of natural gas, which is itself the lowest carbon emitter when completely burned. Lind cites the WorldWatch critique which at best demonstrates that methane leakage from coal mining was overlooked in Howarth’s study. So the greenhouse impact of coal use may be worse than anyone thought.
The choice, however, should not be between two fossil fuels with the greatest greenhouse and environmental footprint. Rather it should be to wisely use the minimum necessary fraction of the remaining reserves of conventional petroleum, including non-fracked natural gas, to make a rapid transition to a fully solar power infrastructure while we still have time to avoid C3. This transition is strongly supported by WorldWatch, aside from the controversy around fracking. (Lind’s other potential source of natural gas, extracted from methane hydrates, would likely have the same problem with direct leakage to the atmosphere. I suppose we should at least be grateful for his not mentioning tar sands or oil shale, both with huge negative environmental and greenhouse impacts).
Lind bubbles with delight at the prospect of abundant fossil fuel subverting organic agriculture (really agroecology informed by cutting edge science) and facilitating the spread of human populations outward from cities into forests and grasslands. Biodiversity destruction and poison dispersal gone wild! At least he has made clear that his “green” values refer to the Almighty Dollar, i.e., accumulation of capital by the fossil fuel industrial complex rather than to any semblance of environmental protection.
Lind says “The scenarios with the most catastrophic outcomes of global warming are low probability outcomes...And if the worst-case scenarios for climate change were plausible, then the most effective way to avert catastrophic global warming would be the rapid expansion of nuclear power, not over-complicated schemes worthy of Rube Goldberg or Wile E. Coyote to carpet the world’s deserts and prairies with solar panels and wind farms that would provide only intermittent energy from weak and diffuse sources.”
The worst-case scenarios may not be plausible for Lind, but they are for a growing number of climate scientists, notably Jim Hansen. IPCC predictions keep on being shown to be too conservative. For example, Hansen has recently highlighted the likelihood that disintegration/melting of the ice caps is non-linear, with future sea level increases being underestimated if carbon emission do not cease soon (Hansen and Sato, 2011). Empirical evidence mounts for ocean acidification and extreme weather fluctuations being driven by rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and global warming respectively. And Hansen’s “safe” upper limit of 350 ppm for atmospheric carbon dioxide (Hansen et al., 2008) may well be too high, while the level now is 395 ppm (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/may/31/carbon-levels-peak). Only thermal inertia of the ocean may give us a small window of time to act, perhaps a decade or two. Carbon sequestration using permaculture and solar energy will be required to avoid C3 even if carbon emissions decline rapidly.
Lind’s prescription for nuclear power is another case of delusion. Aside from the negative impacts of the nuclear fuel cycle, unmentioned by Lind, and catastrophic accidents, the quickest way to replace fossil fuel dependence is building wind turbines, installing photovoltaics and concentrated solar power in deserts--all proven technologies far less complicated and safer than the nuclear option. And these solar technologies generate more jobs and are far cheaper than the nuclear option (or even coal) if the huge subsidies to the nuclear/fossil fuel industries are taken into account.
My older son Peter and I recently published a peer-reviewed “A Solar Transition is Possible” study (http://iprd.org.uk and on our own website http://www.solarutopia.org). We modeled the conversion of our present global energy infrastructure to a fully renewable alternative, inputting properties of current state-of-the-art renewable technology, notably its EROI (energy return on energy invested) and lifetime. Energy investments come from the depletable (i.e., non-renewable) energy sources dominated by fossil fuels as well as the growing renewable infrastructure.
We find that we can replace the entire existing energy infrastructure with renewables in 25 years or less, so long as EROI of the mixed renewable power infrastructure is maintained at 20 or higher, by using merely 1% of the present fossil fuel capacity and a reinvestment of 10% of the renewable capacity per year. Furthermore, in this time frame, for an annual contribution equal to 2% of the present energy fossil fuel capacity, the global power capacity can grow relative to the present level so as to provide energy consumption per person levels sufficient for every one on the planet to live at high human development requirements, while radically reducing carbon emissions. Even faster replacement times result from higher dedicated commitments of depletable energy and energy invested from the growing renewable capacity.
Lind’s alleged intermittency problem with solar has been convincingly addressed by Stanford University Professor Mark Jacobson and others. Adequate baseload energy is achieved once the solar infrastructure grows using smart grids and becomes more diverse. Meanwhile energy storage technologies and petroleum can contribute to baseload.
While we did not include energy conservation in our model, making our projections conservative (not politically!), aggressive energy conservation is imperative, especially in the United States and other countries of the global North. We can all live better with a sharp reduction of wasteful consumption, breathe clean air, drink clean water and eat organic food. Nevertheless, we are arguing strongly for a global increase in power capacity, employing clean energy and not fossil fuels or nuclear power, to insure every child born on this planet has the material requirements for the highest quality of life.
The obstacles are obvious. First is the huge waste of resources and funds to the annual $1.5 trillion global military budget, followed by the disinformation spread by the Military Industrial Fossil Fuel Nuclear Complex with authors in its service such as Michael Lind.
Hansen, J., Mki. Sato, P. Kharecha, D. Beerling, R. Berner, V. Masson-Delmotte, M. Pagani, M. Raymo, D.L. Royer, and J.C. Zachos, 2008, Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim? Open Atmos. Sci. J., 2, 217-231, doi:10.2174/1874282300802010217.
Howarth, Robert W., Renee Santoro and Anthony Ingraffea, 2011, Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations. Climatic Change 106:679–690.
Lind, Michael, 2011 (May 31), Everything you've heard about fossil fuels may be wrong,
David Schwartzman is a Professor in the Department of Biology at Howard University in Washington, D.C. His research focus is on biogeochemistry, astrobiology, origin of life, and environmental policy. He is a member of the International Committee, Green Party U.S., DC Metro Science for the People, and Metro DC chapter of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, and an activist in the DC Statehood Green Party . He is the author of Life, Temperature, and the Earth: The Self-Organizing Biosphere. Websites: www.solarutopia.org and www.redandgreen.org